Singer-songwriter Betsy Scarinzi has the rare and preternatural ability to use melody to wring poetry from common language and weighty emotions. This is well displayed in her Americana-tinged rock-band Silverbell, which have just released their debut album.
Scarinzi says she does not have a secret formula for making up songs. "There's no thought process or breaking it down like that. If I have something on my mind, I guess I start singing about it."
She and Silverbell will celebrate the release of Whitewashed Heart with a CD-release party this Friday, Jan. 27, at Club Congress.
Scarinzi, who was raised in the Phoenix area, grew up under the influence of musical theater and show tunes shared with her by her mother. She lived for much of the 1990s in Tempe, and became enamored of the indie-rock scene surrounding a legendary music club there.
"I stumbled into Long Wong's on Mill Avenue, and I didn't know anybody. But I found a great scene, with live music and some of the best bands I have been exposed to—Satellite, The Refreshments, Dead Hot Workshop, The Pistoleros and The Dialectrics. It was very inspirational. I would just watch and think, 'I really want to do that.'"
She began writing and singing after receiving a guitar as birthday gift in 1999. "When I first got the guitar, stories started coming out," she says, nonchalantly.
A registered nurse for most of her adult life, Scarinzi moved in 2000 to take a job in New Jersey, where she regularly played as a solo act. She moved to Tucson about five years ago and set her guitar down for a while, but eventually returned to writing and playing.
Armed with several finished songs, Scarinzi began playing a couple of years ago with Gene Ruley, a highly respected guitarist and veteran of Tucson bands such as River Roses, The Drakes and the Zsa Zsas. Ruley was immediately impressed.
"She's a really fast, natural songwriter; it all kind of comes out fully formed," Ruley says of Scarinzi. "I think she's a really good singer, too, and she brings lots of energy and emotion to it once she has written a song. But as a songwriter, she's really unique—she just comes up with stuff that comes straight from her heart and out of her mouth. It's like automatic writing for her."
Scarinzi and Ruley played a few times as a duo, but it soon became apparent they needed to expand the project and become a full band. Silverbell's first bassist was Jason Steed, and Alan Anderson played drums. Steed and Anderson played on Whitewashed Heart. Steed also sings backup vocals on many tracks and does a duet with Scarinzi on "The Station."
Personnel have changed during the last year, and Silverbell has a new rhythm section. Jim Cox plays bass, bringing to the band experience with local acts such as Creosote, 35 Summers and the Deadbolts, as well as the project he leads, the 12-year-old Fourkiller Flats. On drums is Spyder Rhodes, who has played with The Host and the Zsa Zsas, and over the years has established himself as a popular club DJ.
"It's really awesome to be in this band," Cox says, "because I have known Gene and Spyder for so long, and it's so surprising I have never played in a band with either one."
Cox says he's enjoying playing bass for the first time in years and singing harmonies with Scarinzi.
"She has such a fresh perspective on songwriting and being in a band; she's perhaps not as jaded as some of us might be."
Rhodes admits he was a fan of Silverbell, particularly Scarinzi's songs, well before he joined.
"Her songs come from a place where she has had so much life experience. I honestly believe she is an old soul, perhaps even channeling someone else from the past," Rhodes says. "Betsy has this emotional wisdom, and her experience comes out in painful ways in her songs, but also the sense that she is overcoming (the pain). Her songs are haunting and stick with you. And what a voice! She has some pipes, for sure, and an amazing stage presence."
The diminutive Scarinzi has a full, powerful voice. She attributes this to listening to Broadway shows in her childhood—her mother played her recordings of such shows as The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees. "It started even before high school, and then I ended up going to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City for a year. That was strictly theater, though, no music."
Scarinzi says she has always been shy, but had a desire to perform anyway. She says music has afforded her the opportunity to come out of her shell. "It still took time, though. I think there was a time at Long Wong's (when) I got so nervous and scared and ended up walking off stage in the middle of a song."
Now, she doesn't feel shy onstage anymore, and, in fact, feels she can emote fully. "It's this place where I just kind of get lost, and I think it's just a process of getting out a lot of things that I have been holding in for a long time, and feeling comfortable enough to finally be heard."
Many of the songs on Whitewashed Heart are emotionally wrenching, because they describe personal events and changes in Scarinzi's life. After it was completed, she noticed that the album works as a song cycle tracing the ebb and flow of a romantic relationship, even though it was written over several years and involves different periods of her life.
She acknowledges that performing her music is cathartic, even though some of her songs are fictional narratives.
"Absolutely, it feels so good. And, personally, I like to listen to music that has some emotional impact," she says. "At the same time, if I am singing about that sort of stuff, I sing it with a smile on my face, because I don't want it to be too heavy."