Interview with Sarah Pontenza Crossman of Sarah & the Tall Boys
Did you grow up in RI?
Yes, I grew up in Smithfield. My husband Ian, the bass player, also grew up there. We meet when we were 14.
When do you first recall falling in love with music?
Never recall not loving it. I was always obsessed with music. When I was a kid my mom would force me to go to bed on a school night. I would put this little clock radio I had under my pillow so she couldn’t hear it, and I would stay up all night listening to all kinds of stuff. All stations I would just turn the dial till I liked the sound. My parents also had some great albums. I remember listening to Joni Mitchell's Blue, the Allman Brothers & Bonnie Raitt. But my favorite thing I ever heard was Joe Cocker. I loved to listen to him sing. I would make my dad move these two big speakers they had across from each other and I would get a pillow and lie between them and listen.
Growing up who were you listening to and how did they influence your music today?
My folks had a few albums I remember loving: Joni Mitchell – blue, Joe Cocker - with a little help, Bonnie Raitt - sweet forgiveness, Allman Brothers Band - brothers & sisters, James Taylor and a few others.
When I was a kid I loved that stuff. As I got older I discovered country music & blues. Then one day I bought a Lucinda Williams DVD. It was 1998 I think and I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of her mouth. She sang like there was a piece of candy in her mouth, but I loved it. She has been a huge influence on my writing. I get the signing from the old soul guys. Like OV Wright and Otis Redding, I love the way they just sing and dance like no one is there to judge them.
What were your first few bands and what were you playing?
Sarah & the Tall Boys is the only band I ever had! Been together since 2008. The pedal steel guy, Gabriel, joined in 2010 and we recently changed drummers, but Dan & Ian & I have been playing together since 2008.
I assume you grew up in the North as opposed to below the Mason Dixon Line, so where are your roots music coming from?
I just love the stories that I heard in the country music. But I love the feel of the blues and the vocals of the soul stuff. So I mix’em all together. It can get me in trouble with the clubs. They want to label you and market you as this one thing. I think in some ways it has held me back financially. I think it would have been an easier road to just do one thing and do it well. But I get bored and I love to mix it up. People tell me all the time I sound like Janis. To tell you the truth, I don’t like her singing very much. I just say thank you when they say it.
When you played Cady's you played Delbert McClinton Two More Bottles of Wine was that from hearing Bonnie Raitt version or have you listened to Delbert & Glen?
From listening to Delbert !! He is the man !
With your combination of blues and country rock sound the band seems like it can go in different directions at any time. Are you pulled between playing more blues or country and trying to walk a fine line or do you just play what the hell you feel like?
LOL, you know, when I am in Chicago, they say I am a country band. In Austin they say I am blues. I play the same show everywhere I go. If they don’t like it, let them go see Johnny Lang or Hank III. I don’t care anymore. I used to try to please the crowd and hope that they would validate me. I have learned that after a 7 hour drive, you got to play for yourself. I am certainly not in it for the money! LOL and anytime I have ever let money effect my decision it has lead me to unhappiness.
Give us some bio history about the members including you!
Well Ian and I grew up in Smithfield RI, graduated Smithfield high in 1998. Attend RIC, dropped out. We broke up and I Moved to Chicago to find something. Not sure quite what. Then I was home in RI for Xmas and meet up with Ian. 6 years had passed and he asked me to marry him that week!
Been married since then. I had a duo thing going with Dan, our guitar player, and Ian joined as the bass player. We got a drummer and put out Shiny & new. It’s a collection of songs that I wrote as a singer songwriter. I started getting into country in 2009 and it influenced my writing on A Lifetime Worth of Sin. I hired Gabriel Stutz to play pedal steel on the album and he just stuck around. We got a new drummer this year, Jason Smart. He is amazing.
Who are you listening to right now?
Lots of stuff by the Band and Springsteen
How often do you write songs and do you have a lot of songs finished?
Um... I used to have more time to write, I thought once I quit my day job I would have more time, but now I am on the road all the time. I am hoping to get a manager and booking agent soon so I have more time. I write about a dozen songs a year.
Do you write with other band members or do you do most of the writing?
Well, sort of. I like writing alone and then letting them hash out the details. I write with Ian more than anyone else. Gabriel & Dan have very different Ideas about music and often don’t make a good team. I like writing with each of them separately and bringing it together. Jason is also very good at arrangements & feels. He has a great way of keeping me patient and calm during the process.
As a songwriter myself I find the best songs just pop out. Usually done in five minutes. I have heard a few songwriters say that. How does your songwriting process work?
Well, I think that can be true in some cases. I think everyone has these brief moments of insight. But I don't think that is the best way for me. If I rely only on that, I would never "work" on anything and it really is work. You have to dedicate time and focus to each song. And you have to be patent enough to wait for the best possible way to say what you are trying to say. If you just take the easy answer it is never as good as the one you let simmer. I have moments where things just click, but it is almost always a result of week’s worth of contemplating and fooling around with an idea.
We know you are a fine singer but do you have other artistic interest?
I love to throw pots. I wish I had money to have a studio for that. When I lived in RI, I was a member of the South County Art Association. They have an amazing spot on 138 near URI. It’s an expensive hobby. But it’s fun and very calming.
I am a long time record collector myself. Do you have music collection?
I do, but it’s all on my computer. I move around a lot, and records are heavy! In fact, I am moving to Nashville in December.
What are some of your favorite albums/cds in your collection?
I grew up listening to everything from soul, country, blues, rock & roll, progressive rock, psychedelic rock, jazz, bluegrass and most anything I had not heard and I love the obscure bands more than many of the popular artist of the times. Delbert & Glen, Cowboy, Eric Quincy Tate, Pot Liquor and many others…
Lucinda Williams - Car Wheels on a Gravel Road
Bruce Springsteen - Nebraska
JJ Cale - anyway the wind blows
Dave Rawlings- a friend of a friend. (In fact, Dave is from RI, north Smithfield)
Who do you feel are some of your biggest influences as an artist and in life in general?
My husband Ian. He is a very good person. He always pushes me to be better, think about things more, to value myself. I had two teachers in high school that really made me believe I could be somebody. I also had a wild and crazy up bringing that let me be free to be myself. I am very influenced by narrative song writers, John Prine, Lucinda, Willie, no big surprises here. But that kind of work is what I relate to. I need the song to say something about something for me to really feel it.
The band seems to be picking up steam; do you find that to be the case?
Yeah, it seems so gradual for me. Been at it for a while, but sometimes, if I take the time to stop and pay attention, yeah, it's heading in the right direction for sure.
I have seen plenty of live bands and as a rule I don't go see cover bands. I know the night I saw you, the band was playing a lot more covers than I expected. However the band seemed to make each and everyone their own. Is that a knack or do you work out with the band subtle changes to capture your own feel for the music?
You know, you have to play covers if you are a working band. You get booked to play 3 hours of music, and you cannot fill that with all your own stuff. I mean, i could, but it would be a lot of slow songs. We started doing covers as a way to fill out the time, and when we do them, we do make um ours. A lot of the time, I will pick stuff that has different instrumentation then we do, and we have to make up our own version of it. I would like to start playing more venues and fewer bars, and more originals. But that will happen as time goes by and we move up.