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.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.