Rose Polenzani
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Rose Polenzani

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The best kept secret in music


"At Iota, Rose Polenzani's Dark Melodies"

Polenzani has a great big beautiful voice, but most of the time she sings quietly in a way that soaks up attention. Joined by keyboardist Daniel Brindley, of the local group the Brindley Brothers, she worked through songs from her first three albums and, since she hasn't released a CD since 2001, plenty of new material.

There's a lovely, placid quality to her singing and she uses it to disguise songs that are often dark and dire and wholly disconcerting. Her cover of Paul Williams's "When the River Meets the Sea" was haunting and magnificent. On her own troubling, Chauceresque love song "Ramon," she pined, "On June the fourth we were to wed; I've slain your bastard boy instead."

That's not the kind of material that makes it to the top of any pop chart. To her credit, that doesn't seem to interest Polenzani at all. Part of a new generation of talented female singer-songwriters that includes Erin McKeown, Jess Klein and Beth Amsel, with whom she recorded the excellent CD "Voices on the Verge," Polenzani is staking a claim to intriguing material well beyond standard pop fare.

It wasn't all gloom and doom. Polenzani can also be quite funny and silly. On a song about not wanting to lose a lover because of her snoring, she moaned, "If I snore, if I snore; baby, there's bound to be a cure."

Cures are hard to come by for the slew of pea-brained pop divas dominating the scene today, but Polenzani and her kind provide a welcome antidote.

- The Washington Post-January 7, 2004

"Cellars by Starlight: Were you there?"

5. Rose Polenzani (Daemon). This is one courageous songwriter who’s already gone deep into sex, religion, and other obsessions and learned to work her lovely voice for maximum haunting effect. She made waves this year as part of the folk supergroup Voices on the Verge, but her third solo disc (the first since moving to Boston) is where she really blossomed. It starts out austere and acoustic and turns into full-throttle rock.

- Boston Phoenix

"Killing Them Softly With Her Songs"

Rose Polenzani might never have written a song if it weren't for a collegiate crush. As a freshman at Knox College in downstate Galesburg in 1994, she'd only just picked up the guitar—salvaging an old acoustic her mother no longer used—and knew only a handful of chords. But word got around the tiny campus that she played, and to her delight, her crush invited her to join his band—and to bring some of her own material to practice. Embarrassed at having none, she wrote her first song. Her affections were never requited, and the band fell apart by the end of the school year, but by then she knew music was what she wanted to do.

Most of Polenzani's career so far has been characterized by a similar serendipity—the 24-year-old's professional choices might better be termed happy accidents. "I feel like my whole career has been following other people's leads," she says. Fortunately they've been good leads: She's landed a string of high-profile gigs over the last few years, including the local stop of Lilith Fair, the Newport Folk Festival, and opening for the Indigo Girls, whose Amy Ray released Polenzani's album Anybody last year on her Daemon label. A four-member singer-songwriter project Polenzani's part of, Voices on the Verge, is making an album for Rykodisc, and she's currently writing songs for her next solo record.

In her sophomore year at Knox, Polenzani participated in an off-campus program called Semester in the Arts, which brought her to Chicago to investigate the music business. She recorded and produced her own album, Vast Chest, on a four-track cassette recorder, releasing it in an edition of ten. She also got an internship at the Chicago folk label Waterbug, where proprietor Andrew Calhoun soon expressed an interest in her music. After the program ended, he kept her on as a part-time employee, and over the summer she decided she wasn't going back to Galesburg.

Polenzani began going to open mikes at No Exit, the legendary Rogers Park cafe. She happily played there for a year before it occurred to her to try other venues; at the owner's suggestion she traveled to open-mike nights at Gallery Cabaret, the Morseland, and the Abbey Pub. In 1997 Calhoun took her to Toronto for the annual convention of the North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance as a Waterbug employee, but he also suggested that she perform as part of the label showcase, where she was approached by Gabriel Unger. Unger, just finishing school himself at that point, was looking for a job in the music industry, and about a month later he called Polenzani to offer his services as manager.

Unger proved himself by helping her set up some shows on the northeastern folk circuit and sending out copies of her demo tape mostly to other artists, including David Byrne, Billy Bragg, and of course Amy Ray. "She cold called me at my apartment in Evanston in April of '98," says Polenzani. "I was in shock and made an ass of myself on the phone." Ray said she loved the songs and offered to help Polenzani any way she could; at the Newport festival later that year, the Indigo Girls invited her onstage during their set. In August Polenzani put out her own debut CD, Dragersville, and a year later Daemon released Anybody, which includes songs culled from Dragersville as well as even earlier recordings. Most of the tracks are just Polenzani and her acoustic guitar, but Andrew Bird plays eerie violin on two, and the Indigo Girls add unobtrusive harmonies to another. The record and Polenzani's live performances have earned rave reviews—mostly in the folk world, but that could change.

"I never considered myself a folksinger but it did amount to something when the folk audience started listening to what I did," says Polenzani, who still performs most frequently with only an acoustic guitar. "I've just been following who listens to what I do and the folk audience has been the most receptive." Her own tastes run more to the sensitive end of the rock spectrum—she cites the Cocteau Twins, Tori Amos, and Leonard Cohen as influences. "The rock audience is hard to please and it's intimidating to me," she says. "But I've always wanted to make rock music." She hopes to move in that direction on her next album by plugging in and using a drummer and bassist, and she recently started a rock band, Lydelle, with fellow singer-songwriter Lorna Hunt. In the fall, powerhouse booking agent Frank Riley (who works with Wilco, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams) added Polenzani to his roster.

Part of her appeal for the folk crowd is obviously her lyrics: the stories Polenzani spins on Anybody are complex meditations on sexual identity, unmet desires, and moral ambiguity. "I was told I was a wise man / By a woman I deceived / And her lover thought me handsome / He was not to be believed," she sings in "Shake Through to Ugly," one of the tracks that hooked Ray; and in "Angel" guilt battles pleasure: "Keep quiet / The cow has almost made it / And you and I are naked / And heaven, my darling / Forbids it." Some of the lyrics to "Molly's Lily" are lifted from transcripts of the Salem witch trials; "Parhelion" was inspired by the New Yorker story about Teena Brandon (now the fictionalized heroine of Boys Don't Cry). But most of her melodies only vaguely resemble traditional folk—they're at once arresting and elusive, flowing more from intuition than musical logic. And though she's been prone to occasional spells of Sarah McLachlan-esque breathiness, a performance I caught toward the end of last year suggests she's learning the power of restraint.

Ironically, Polenzani says, it's become harder to avoid conventional song structure as she's become a better technical player: "When I first started and I knew very little about the guitar I think I was a very inventive writer," she says. "Now I'm trying to unlearn the technique." She's also been facing new challenges lyrically: in August she moved to Santa Barbara with her boyfriend of two years, who teaches ceramics at UCSB, and being in a long-term relationship has meant less grist for the mill. "I'm definitely writing less than when I first started," she says. "So far the only time I feel inspired to write has been when I have something really difficult to say and it ends up sounding like my heart's being ripped out.

"But hopefully I can write something that people will find uplifting at some point," she adds. "I read a quote from Beck where he said that people who write depressing songs are inevitably children of wealthy families who have the luxury of being depressed, and I was like, shit, I went to New Trier High School, I'm just a cliche." Polenzani says her most recent work is "more impressionistic" and "has more to do with playing with language or with images." She performs next Friday, February 25, at the Morseland and next Sunday, February 27, at Schubas. Advance tickets for the Schubas show are now available at; Polenzani's record-release show there in September sold out.

- Chicago Reader

"Rose Polenzani anybody (Daemon Records)"

Singer/songwriters have been graced with more varied and lucrative opportunities in the wake of breakthroughs like Elliott Smith and Jewel. It’s hard to imagine Rose Polenzani cynically exploiting the stripped-down woman-and-an-acoustic-guitar approach as a cost-effective avenue to bigger and better things, however. Polenzani is more a poetic storyteller than a songwriter, using guitar to provide rhythmic support to a voice that resembles a more forceful young Suzanne Vega. Her intensely personal character sketches demand rapt attention, and would likely be lessened by much further instrumental embellishment. Anybody’s eleven warm yet unadorned recordings were largely captured in Polenzani’s apartment, with expressive violin added to two tracks by Andrew Bird and harmonies to another by the Indigo Girls (whose Amy Ray is the founder of Daemon Records). This Chicagoan convincingly adopts an Appalachian twang on some tracks, in keeping with their religious allusions and tales of romantic obsession. The fiery rough-hewn “Angel” spew an intensity not far removed from P.J. Harvey’s 4-Track Demos, while more pensive tracks like “Omen” achieve an otherworldly quality that transcends musical categories, much like Rickie Lee Jones’s early work. anybody has me searching for Polenzani-s self-released 1998 debut, Dragersville. - CMJ

"Intriguing, Intimate, Hallucinogenic..."

A visitor to Rose Polenzani's website is greeted by a short vignette -- descriptive of a few seconds hanging out with a "busker" friend at the Davis Square T Stop in Boston. "Today a sweet lady with a shin-length puffy purple coat and a pink scarf and hat was coming down ... her steps, slightly akimbo like she had a sensitive hip. She took her hand off the rail in order to wave to Pamela (who wasn't looking), and it was one of those waves that closes and opens instead of waggles."

The woman disappears onto the train, unnoticed. Polenzani is reminded of an encounter a few days earlier: "I was walking down Garden Street in Cambridge and a man with a golden tie gave me such a resounding hello that I replied without thinking -- "Hi...." -- such a wispy, lofty, sigh-ish reply, that I spent the next block trying to recreate it. I was a salutation balloon, hissing all the way down the street..."

When placed under Polenzani's magnifying glass, these seemingly insignificant moments coalesce into intriguing, intimate, and mildly hallucinogenic anecdotes -- much like Polenzani's songs. Her most recent, self-titled record features her trenchant eye for detail and a voice that is both supple and haunting.

The Chicago native with a flair for storytelling has toured with The Indigo Girls, played at the prestigious Lillith Fair and Newport Folk festivals, and joined the popular Voices On The Verge (which included rising talents Erin McKeown, Beth Amsel, and Jess Klein).

Serving her musical apprenticeship around so many accomplished recording artists educated and encouraged Polenzani. "From Jane Siberry, I learned to sit in your artistry when you're on stage. I think Vic Chesnutt inspired me to pay attention to all my songs, and not play favorites too much. Catie Curtis really cares about her audience, and wants the best for them. And the Indigo Girls have taught many things, but possibly the most important are to remember how in debt you are to your audience, and to treat them with respect, and also to remember that the world of music is not a competition." Polenzani added, "That's a very hard lesson to learn for me, but I can enjoy other people's music freely for the first time in years because of this lesson."

And, like her busker friend Pamela, Polenzani still performs on the streets and subway stations of Beantown. "You would think that busking might be on the low end of the spectrum, but it's actually a joyful activity," she said. "It's a healthy, intensely social form of employment. Sometimes I feel like a slacker because I pause to talk to people -- strangers and friends alike. But I'm my own boss..."

Polenzani, who will be appearing at Oona's [Restaurant in Bellows Falls Vermont] tonight, has been compared to the likes of Tori Amos, P J Harvey, Leonard Cohen, and Rickie Lee Jones. She was the standout in a highly competitve field at The Iron Horse's Songwriter Slam a year ago [in Northampton Massachusetts].

When asked to choose a career turning point, Polenzani picked one she called "bittersweet" -- a rainy, windswept opening slot for the Indigo Girls at Red Rocks amphitheater in Colorado. "I remember having to keep my eye on the microphone, because the wind was blowing it off position. I was so concerned about riding the weather and finishing the songs that I never stopped to think about my performance -- or try to make any "magic" happen in the music. At one point the guitar shorted and my accompanist had to take it off stage and I sang a song a cappella. I could barely hear myself for the weather."

The storm subsided and the Indigo Girls took over. "Something about their voices, bolstered by their huge fan-choir that knows all the words, and the glory of that venue, with the barometric intensity -- I started to cry," said Polenzani. "I don't often feel what you might call 'real ambition.' But that night -- I wanted my music to take me farther than I'd ever dared hope before. What those people were sharing was so beautiful, I didn't care how many miles I had to drive and car payments I had to miss, I wanted to live inside of it."

- New England Music Scrapbook


Rose Polenzani's self-titled album (on Daemon, the label run by Indigo Girl Amy Ray) is a mighty fine collection of evocative stories that one wants curl up with, like a cherished book. Fans of the aforementioned Indigo or even PJ Harvey (her quieter moments, at least), may want to perk up their ears. - Time Out New York June 4, 2004


1998-Dragersville (self-released)
1999-Anybody (Deamon)
2001- Rose Polenzani (Daemon)
2001-Voices on the Verge (Rykodisc)
2003-Hot Hands: A Tribute to Throwing Muses and Kristin Hersch (Kuma-Chan Records)


Feeling a bit camera shy


Rose Polenzani is a singer/songwriter living in Somerville, MA but hailing from the Chicago area. Her voice is intimate, powerful and original, described by the Chicago Tribune as "tremulous and lovely" and by the Washington Post as "haunting and magnificent". She writes on the guitar and recently has returned to her childhood love, the piano, for an innovative new series of songs dealing with popular topics DEATH, LOVE, SEX and FAITH, with a rare willingness to truly be vulnerable in her writing and performing. Rose has been royally upsetting fans for three years now, because she hasn't released a record in that long. However, she stubbornly continues to write songs, and now most of the requests that are thrown at her are for unreleased material - it's a rare quality in a live show.

In 1998 Rose was discovered by Indigo Girl Amy Ray, who called her songs "holy" and "botanical." Amy Ray brought her onstage to sing an original song during the Indigo Girls set at Newport Folk Festival that year. Rose sold 100 copies of her self-released, debut cd in the next 30 minutes. After that, she would go on to release two dark and beautiful recordings on Amy Ray's indie record label, Daemon Records (Decatur, GA). While promoting her releases, she shared the stage with performers ranging from Kristin Hersh to Alejandro Escovedo to Joan Baez. Rose has also played numerous shows supporting the Indigo Girls over the years. In 2001, Rose toured the country for three months as a member of "Voices on the Verge", whose 2001 Rykodisk release sold over 30,000 copies in its first year on the racks. Other members of the group were critically acclaimed singer/songwriters Erin McKeown, Jess Klein and Beth Amsel.

For the last three years, Rose has been writing and recording in her Somerville apartment, releasing her songs one at a time as free monthly downloads on her content-rich, personally maintained website. She is self-producing a record slated for private release this fall (2004). She is also concurrently recording a fuller band project for label release in the spring. The new songs are inspired lyrically by formal poetic structure and by writers such as Reinaldo Arenas (fiction) and Muriel Rukeyser (poetry), . Despite the intensity of her efforts, a new quality of emotional immediacy and playfulness has crept into her writing. You'll see.