The Year of This Woman?
Rose Polenzani is hunched over the edge of the ample stage at Morseland. The club is already starting to fill up as she instructs the soundman to bring up more echo to her guitar. She looks hollow-eyed and says she is "feverish" this night, but her voice doesn’t betray a hint of winter cold weakness. Doug Brush, a percussionist with a good selection of bongos and finger drums is along for the ride this night, and his beat adds an exotic rhythmic drive to Polenzani’s folky tales of, as she puts it, "basic things like sex, death, religion."
After the soundcheck she gathers up her backpack and attendant interviewer, and heads upstairs for a quiet chat about her fortunes of the past 12 months.
As it turns out, 1998 was a pretty good year for Rose Polenzani.
It’s not often that an unsigned singer-songwriter gets to play Lilith Fair, the Newport Folk Festival and a series of "Suffragette" sessions with the Indigo Girls, Jane Siberry, Lisa Germano and members of The Breeders, Luscious Jackson and others. And it all started last January with a little review right here in Illinois Entertainer’s "Around Hear" column which called Polenzani’s demo cassette "quietly dangerous."
"That was the first press I ever got! It was very cool and I was very psyched about it!" she enthuses, noting that she is just now celebrating her first anniversary of seriously promoting and touring her material.
Things took off quickly after that little "quietly dangerous" review for Polenzani. She sent in a tape for the Lilith Fair "local artist" competition (one local artist in each Lilith market got to play the local staging of the fair). Out of 200 people, she was called in with 19 others to audition and made the cut for Chicago’s show. Around the same time, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls happened onto a tape of Polenzani’s through Austin’s South By Southwest music festival, and liked it so much that she looked Polenzani up.
"Amy Ray called me the weekend after the Lilith Fair competition and said she had heard my tape and really loved it. We were both scheduled to play the Newport Folk Festival and so she brought me up on stage during their set. Right there in front of 10,000 people I sang "Olga’s Birthday." That was a really big deal for me — I cried for two hours before the show because I was so nervous. I was inconsolable. But she totally prepped the crowd, so it was incredible. They screamed and screamed as if I was Bono!"
Amy Ray’s interest in Polenzani may have landed the local artist her first real "record deal" — on Ray’s own indie, Daemon Records. While Polenzani has released a couple demo tapes and currently is promoting a self-produced CD called Dragersville, (available through her web site, www.rosepolenzani.com) she hasn’t been courted by any major labels, yet. Ray, however, is currently in talks with Polenzani to release Anybody, a compilation of songs from Polenzani’s self-produced projects early in 1999And in addition to playing with the Indigo Girls at the Newport Folk Festival, Polenzani has turned up at some other recent Indigo Girls shows and was invited to participate in six of the "Suffragette" sessions. The sessions were, essentially, a two-week fall tour by Jane Siberry, The Indigo Girls, Gail Ann Dorsey, and others that featured group arrangements of each others’ material
"They put together this show where they backed each other up and created arrangements for two of everyone’s songs," Polenzani explains. "The first two shows I played one of my songs alone, then later I worked out an arrangement of "Or" where Lisa Germano played ma ndolin and Amy Ray and Emily Salier sang harmony vocals. We did that one in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and New York."
If you attended the Lilith Fair last summer at Tinley Park’s World Music Theatre, you probably saw Polenzani. Even if you didn’t go to see her set at the second stage, she appeared at the end of the show to sing with the entire group of Lilith performers.
"That was a little weird dream/movie experience," she laughs, noting that she hadn’t intended to submit a tape to the concert promoters.
"Everybody wants to be on Lilith who’s on the local level so I was like, ‘give me a break, I won’t get in.’ But people kept asking me about it, so I sent in a tape with "The Necklace" and "Olga’s Birthday" (songs from her Dragersville CD). Twenty local artists came in and played one song a piece in front of the judges one night. I played "In the Middle" (also from Dragersville).Being in the competition was like being in a beauty pageant — it was excruciating, because everyone was going up right after another and being judged."
While the Lilith experience didn’t lead to an immediate big money record contract, it did get her on MTV — though she hasn’t actually seen the clip.
"A long lost friend called me the day it was on and told me ‘I haven’t seen you in years but I just saw you on MTV — the camera stopped right on you and half of Liz Phair’s face.’"
So if, at this point, you’re thinking: why haven’t I ever seen this Polenzani chick around at Chicago’s clubs if she’s got so much going on? Well, the answer is, she doesn’t play them much. Mostly, she goes out to Boston and the east coast, where her manager is based, to play. And is doing well there.
"I have a better draw out there," she says, admitting that this is partly because she’s done more promoting there since meeting her Boston-based manager at a Toronto music conference. "I grew up around here and I suffer from the "geek" thing. I feel like I’m too much of a geek to play the local clubs around here so I don’t even approach them. I’ve just played the places that accepted me right away like Morseland and No Exit."
If you haven’t caught one of her sets and you have a penchant for the "Lilith set" you should make an effort. Her songs are musically spare and a bit folkish in their reliance on voice and simple acoustic guitar. But her voice ranges from Sarah McLachlan falsettoes to Tanya Donelly quavers and her subjects mix sexuality with religious imagery with love and anger...One of Dragersville’s best tracks finds her singing about a woman named Olga who longs to lie with another woman but can’t.
"I woke up with this name, Olga, in my head and I just picked up the guitar and wrote the song in like 10 minutes," she admits. "It’s basically about how hard it is to show your sexuality that you long to show, especially to your close friends and family and how the church is used against people when they’re trying to be who they are, trying to shine. The church just wants to snuff your candle out sometimes, or at least it’s been used that way."
Another of Dragersville’s striking tracks is "Ramon," a kind of American backwoods folk song about a woman who’s lost her mind and killed her child while waiting for her man to return.
"A close friend told me that Ramon was about the ignorance of men and how they’re blind to their emotional actions sometimes. I was at an abortion rights rally and someone wanted me to sing Ramon cuz they thoguht it was about abortion and I was like, but, the narrator is ‘psycho’! She killed her son who she had with this man who left her. Some thought she killed the son in an abortion, though when I wrote it I thought it was that she killed him after he was born. At the time in my life when I wrote that song, anyone who was willing to lay themselves on the line for love and emotion and devotion was psycho in my opinion. That just seems so extreme, so co-dependent. You shouldn’t count on someone that much.. So it was the natural conclusion for me that if you love someone that much they’ll leave you and you’ll just have to deal with it."
While Dragersville could easily pigeonhole Polenzani as a "folkie," she intends to branch out on her next recording efforts. She’s currently begun working with a percussionist and the two are now searching for a bassist and wind instrument to fill out their performing group.
"The reason I stuck with voice and guitar on this one was A) budget and B) control. Now that I’ve put this out, I’ve done it and I really want to do something else. At the time I recorded DragersvilleI was listening to a lot of voice and guitar albums from Jane Siberry and Bob Dylan and Richard Buckner. And this cost me $400 to record all in my house. But from now on I really want to try new things. Underneath it all I feel like I’m an alternative rock person — that’s what I was raised on."
If 1999 is anything like 1998 for Polenzani, she may end up on the main stage of next year’s Lilith Fair. Or heck, maybe leading a revamped Lollapalooza?
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