We’ve barely placed our order at a hot chicken restaurant in East Nashville and Sarah Potenza has already made an impression on the woman behind the register.
“You just look so confident,” the cashier says, glancing at Potenza’s current outfit which includes, but is not limited to, giant orange lighting bolt earrings, highlighter-yellow leg warmers, jeweled white glasses and a cropped Whiney Houston top that used to be a shirtdress before she sliced off the arms and most of the bottom. “It’s just so…inspiring,” the woman adds, nearly forgetting to ask us how spicy we’d like our chicken (for the record, today is a mild kind of day, extra Ranch dressing).
Potenza thanks her and does a little hip shimmy. “You gotta know how to dress for your body,” she says in her Rhode Island accent, before grabbing a soda and a seat in the back. Here in East Nashville, outfits comprising primarily florescent colors aren’t exactly commonplace: this is the land of plaid and denim, with a southwestern accessory or bandana occasionally around the neck for good measure. Potenza, in reflective shades you’ll usually only see worn by the local running group, stands out. But that’s the point. Potenza was extra before extra was a thing.
“Extra everything,” she says. “I’ve always been the kind of person who was too much. Too much for everyone. I was too loud, I had too much fun, I laughed too much, I was living too hard. And there was all this shame associated with that.”
Replacing shame with power is at the core of Potenza’s newest album, Road to Rome, out this Friday. It’s music that sounds like she dresses: hard to ignore, even harder to pin down and as kinetic as a neon orange lightning bolt. It’s also meant to have the same kind of lingering impression, where self-expression and self-love is contiguous. “Shame is a drug, I was a user,” she sings on the title track. “But I’m free now and I can hear my song.”
“Whether people are skinny or fat, or whatever ethnicity or sexuality, there is something about them that they were ashamed of, and this is giving them permission to be themselves,” she says of anyone who might happen upon her album. “Just like this girl at the counter.”
That kind of confidence hasn’t always come so easy to Potenza, who grew up in Rhode Island in a household with a mother who was always on Weight Watchers, worried about whether or not her daughter would be able to shop at “normal” stores. Most boys she wanted to date met her with the same reaction: “Hey, is your more submissive, quieter friend single?'” she says. “I had to choose between being me, or trying to disguise that and making myself smaller in every way. Physically, emotionally, spiritually.”
Potenza remembers one time working at a local Bath & Body Works, when a coworker came up to her while having a snack. “I was eating cookies in the back room, and she literally shoved a bunch of cookies in my face, being like ‘You want to eat these? Is this what you really want?’ As like, some kind of joke,” Potenza says. “People have always done shit like that to me.”
During a brief stint in college, things weren’t much better. Potenza enrolled in singing and music classes, but got little encouragement from her professors (“One said trying to be a singer with a voice like mine was like trying to run a marathon with a broken leg”). Uninspired, she dropped out and moved to Chicago, where she grew a steady fan base with her band, Sarah Potenza and the Tall Boys. But the naysayers didn’t stop. “People told me I was too big,” she says. “That I would never get a record deal because of my size. And yeah, I’ve never had a record deal, but it doesn’t matter, because my fans support me.” Potenza conjured that fight for the album opener, “I Work for Me”: “They said that I was too big/damn straight now I’m a giant,” she belts in spitfire, funky soul.
In 2015, when she turned all four chairs in her blind audition on The Voice, the new national platform brought out its own breed of shamers: those who took her to task for “taking a shortcut” or “sport singing,” many of them within the Americana community — a community that, when Potenza first moved to town, she thought she might fit into (“I love Americana music, but it’s not the music I make,” she says now. “They want kumbaya and I’m giving them booty booty booty”).
“[The Voice] is looked down upon, but, dude, it was a really hard competition,” she says. “And what’s the difference between that, and someone in a bluegrass band that is just a fucking regurgitation of Gillian Welch? You’re just imitating. What’s the difference between a kid singing a love song about something he doesn’t really know, and someone from Wisconsin singing about rounders and ramblers on the Frisco bay? I am proud to have been on The Voice. I am proud to be wearing neon colors instead of a straw hat. We can all coexist. “
Road to Rome is incredibly hard to pigeonhole — full of delicious raspy soul, there are elements of funk, blues and even “this Lizzo aspect of fun, free fatness.” And that’s not necessarily an easy place to be. Bookers and playlist curators aren’t always sure where to put her, and when there’s no handy barometer against which to measure the music, how can it possibly be authentic? “But just because you sound authentic, doesn’t make you authentic,” she says. “What makes you authentic is telling the truth.”
For many, Potenza’s music (and her body-positive Instagram feed) have been a savior. It’s also made plenty of folks uncomfortable. “I make music that some people hate, and some people love,” she says. “It touches a nerve with them. It irks them. It makes them feel something.” For most, though, it’s inspiring: one bride wrote Potenza to tell her that she motivated her to wear a sleeveless dress on her wedding day, and that she was no longer ashamed to show her arms.
Potenza — who purposefully is releasing Road to Rome on International Women’s Day — is quick to note that women are particularly predisposed to exist in a constant state of shame, where the media continually offers visions of the “perfect” body and they’re called “bitchy” when they demand their worth.
“We are raised to feel so ashamed about so many things as women,” she says. “Dudes, if there isn’t a huge audience for their shows, they are all freaked out. They think, ‘I deserve this.’ Women play, and there is the same size audience, and they say, ‘I’m so grateful you came!’ Even when I was hiring musicians for the album and asking their day rate, it was such an eye-opener. The women’s rate was always less than men. I’m going to be 39, and I am just now realizing how many times I have been underpaid and undervalued myself.”
So for Road to Rome, the follow-up to 2016’s Monster, Potenza sought out a female producer in Jordan Brooke Hamlin (Indigo Girls, Lucy Wainwright Roche), a move that ended up being “a life-changing experience.” Together, they were able to make some bucket-list moments happen, like a cameo from Ben Folds, whom she shouts out in “Happiness.” Back when she and her husband, musician and co-writer Ian Crossman, were living in Rhode Island, they used to catch Folds play shows at local club Lupo’s and dream about being onstage too.
Potenza went back to her home state for her high school reunion not too long ago, to be face to face with some of those people who never thought she would amount to anything, the ones who thought she was just too, too much.
“When I walked in, everyone applauded,” she says. “I had some drinks, ate a bunch of nachos and left them for dead after an hour.” She’s not bitter, but she’s free now — and she can hear her song.