There's no way to define Patti Rothberg neatly.
Which is part of her charm, both as a songwriter and a woman.
She's a really edgy rock and roller, who often plays an acoustic guitar. She's soft-spoken and outspoken. She loves Led Zeppelin, but also ‘70’s-era disco, Elvis Costello, and Judas Priest. Born in Scarsdale, she now lives in Harlem.
Tired of musicians who you can peg within a minute of seeing or hearing them? Go see Rothberg at the Watercolor Cafe on Wednesday. And let these surprising, wonderfully confusing contradictions wash over and refresh you.
"I love my new neighborhood," said Rothberg recently. Appropriately, she talks in a soft, sexy rasp, that—despite the spelling—reminds you of Charlie Brown's crush, Peppermint Patty. "I live on Malcolm X Avenue. It's really cool, because there are men walking down the street in dashikis and other sorts of dapper dress. Men tip their hats to you, here. I think it's going to inspire a lot of songs."
Not that she needs any help. Girl is already pretty prolific.
Her childhood in Scarsdale sounds really rosy. A perfect blend of Cheever-esque suburban detail, mixed with just the right bit of bohemianism.
"My musical influences," she ponders when asked about who sent her on her path, musically, as a kid. "I'd have to say it was all the cool babysitters I had. There was always somebody taking care of me for the night who'd say, 'You have to check out Mick Jagger.' I would and somebody new would blow my mind."
Then there's that disco-era music. Stuff that the average kid decided, unfortunately, wasn't cool. Rothberg embraced the genre with an open mind.
"I had a roller disco in my basement when I was 8 years old," Rothberg said with subversive glee. "I used to listen to [R&B station] WKTU and get into the remixes and stuff. I've always loved so many different types of music. And I can't understand why people are so insular about this and that."
As an artsy teen, she first studied painting at Boston University, then shunted over to Parson's School of Design, in the hopes that she could learn an artistic trade that would help her make a living. Then, the guitar playing that she had studied kind of kicked in. She began busking in the New York City subway, playing her catchy—often angry—folk-rock.
Something set her apart from all the other girls down there, the ones trying to be heard in those subterranean depths, above the metallic racket of the trains and yelling, through the steam; all the stuff that makes it seem so Dante-esque down there. She got signed in the mid-‘90s, put out an album (Between the 1 and the 9), did Letterman, Oprah and sold a nice number of albums. Not to mention placing tunes in movies like the Chris Farley laughfest Beverly Hills Ninja.
She's indie now. And happy to be so.
"I hear rock stars making ridiculous statements or getting caught doing crazy things and then they have to defend themselves. I don't ever want to be so huge that that ever happens to me."
Currently, on her "tree-lined street" in Harlem, she's working on a bunch of new songs, her most recent CD being Overnight Sensation. When she plays with a band, the configuration has moved from a quartet to a new trio. Not cautious or afraid of immodest claims, she says, "You know, like Nirvana!"
Still, she laughs, knowing it sounds a little stilted.
So far, Rothberg claims, living in a New York City apartment hasn't had a negative impact on her being able to compose or listen back to her melodic yet, distinctly unquiet compositions.
"Yeah, I was worried about that. I was even forewarned by the super: 'No loud music!' I thought it might inhibit me. But so far, I've been able to play what I want and there haven't been any complaints."
She also laughs when she thinks about the new groups of fans she keeps picking up in the strangest ways.
"I meet kids at gigs who tell me they really like my stuff," said Rothberg. "It's always nice and flattering. But then they say, 'Yeah, my parents turned me onto you.' It's a little shocking to realize you've been doing this long enough for your fans to have married and procreated."
Rothberg has a number of "song sketches" recorded, skeletal works she plans to put skin on soon. She'll be out doing a growing number of dates with her band. But she seems to have a perspective on this rock and roll madness that few in her field do.
"I don't know that I need to be super-successful," she said. "Mostly, I'm just trying to get the songs I hear in my head down and recorded. There's no big game plan. Other than to try and enjoy this work that I do. And, oh yeah, to be happy."
Patti Rothberg will be at the Watercolor Cafe on Wednesday, May 11 at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $10. For more information, call 914-834-2213. To buy Patti's records or merchandise, visit her website here.