ROSE POLENZANI with MELISSA McCLELLAND at the Rivoli (334 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, September 19). $8. 416-596-1908. Rating: NNNNN
rose polenzani's shows have earned the Boston-based singer/songwriter a reputation for seething Tori Amos-like passion. Her records drip with gothic romance and brutally honest observations about the darker, cobwebbed corners of human nature. Her vocals have the hushed, gut-wrenching intimacy of a searing Cat Power confession.
Indigo Girl Amy Ray was so taken with Polenzani's whole approach, which she describes as "holy as a mystic, profane as your perverted fantasies," that Ray signed Polenzani to her own label, Daemon Records.
So when I ask Rose Polenzani what inspires her onstage assault, I'm suitably apprehensive -- visions of Tori's gossamer-clad faerie princesses and the tortured-artist instability of Cat Power's Chan Marshall dance in my head. I steel myself for either tears or long-winded New Age flaky-babble.
"You know those times when you're, like, "This total prick cut me off on the highway?'" Polenzani laughs, much to my relief. "When I get up onstage, everything that's happened that day that I haven't had a chance to tell anyone gets channelled into my songs. And I've had some really wicked awful days on tour.
"One of the shows cost $400 extra to get to because of car trouble, and only seven people showed up. But I just knew, no matter how much it cost, if I didn't get to that show and have my outlet and get to sing, I was gonna have a meltdown."
So no faeries, then?
"I feel like I've learned a lot from Tori," she confesses. "But the main difference between us is that the passion she portrays onstage is soooo sexual. When I get sexual in my songs, I'm often laughing.
"I have a song that's just hilarious -- I'll throw a verse of George Michael into it! But most of the passion in my songs is coming from a guilt-regret-religious-fervour-type feeling. The passion's a lot less erotic."
Phew. Polenzani's so pleasantly prosaic, it's almost unbelievable. Could be the Illinois-bred baby's midwestern upbringing, which reeks of a saccharine 80s-style John Hughes flick.
During her years as an arts nerd at an upper-class collegiate, New Trier High School, Polenzani coerced a music teacher into helping her play Tori Amos songs by ear on the piano.
She eventually ditched her plans to major in English for music, yet her obsession with words still shows -- she snagged the 1999 ASCAP Sammy Cahn Lyricist Award. Since then, she's been building a solid cult following through open-mike gigs and high-profile spots at Lilith Fair and the Newport Folk Fest.
Then came her real break as part of Voices on the Verge, a quartet of four indie chick artists who hooked up a couple years ago for what was supposed to be a one-off show.
But the collective -- which also includes Jess Klein, Beth Amsel and baby blues phenom Erin McKeown, who opened for the Be Good Tanyas last time they were in town -- clicked and kept playing together, despite their corny handle.
"I think it's the stupidest name ever!" Polenzani groans. "But there's a similar group of guys called the Folk Monty, and they thought their name was dumb, too, so they changed it, but then they lost all their name recognition. We have to stick with it 'cause people recognize the name at this point."
Ah, the trials of fame. The ladies dropped their well-reviewed Live In Philadephia first disc last year and spent three solid months on the road plugging it. Sounds like a perfect road trip movie -- four 20-something girl musicians riding the open highway.
But Polenzani says they had to keep things purely professional.
"We'd tried to be friends in the past. But when you're together that much, if a problem comes up, there's so much more ego and emotion involved in it, and it really affected us onstage.
"Being in the bus was like travelling around with an improv group. You were constantly staying on your creative toes, trying to figure out how to help them develop their ideas.
"We all had people to talk to on the phone if we needed to decompress, but we didn't use each other to talk about issues we were having with each other. For three months, I felt I was in some kind of workshop."email@example.com