Intro by Marisa Torrieri Bloom; interview by Rew Starr
I don’t remember the moment I first heard singer-songwriter Patti Rothberg’s breakout hit “Inside” in the mid 90s, but I do remember watching Patti’s videos on MTV.
She was a dead ringer for Beatlejuice-era Winona Ryder with the vibe of Courtney Love in “Doll Parts.” A woman hard to define — not quite a folkie, and definitely not Alanis — but hard to forget. And “Inside” encapsulated everything I was feeling in its first few verses:
I haven't done a thing today … I’m just sittin' around, wastin' time away ... …. Think I'll write a letter home … tellin’ everybody that I'm happy alone …
The tune embedded itself into my brain for decades, although my hands-down favorite on her debut major-label record Between the 1 and the 9 is the gritty ‘Treat me like Dirt.’
In fact, when I was invited to “open” for Patti on my friend Rew Starr’s live Internet show, ‘Rew & Who?’ in 2016, I considered asking Patti to belt it out for me in the kitschy, tiki-themed bathroom of Otto’s Shrunken Head. But I bailed at the last minute, choosing instead to introduce myself and listen to her newer material, which didn’t disappoint.
Five years later, Patti’s still putting out eclectic musical works (with the best and most clever lyrics!) and cool art. And last year, I was lucky enough to catch one of her 2020 Facebook Live shows where, to my delight, she closed with “Treat me Like Dirt.”
Today, the stories Patti tells, and the memories she shares, paint a glorious picture of Manhattan’s anti-folk and indie-art scene in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Rockmommy correspondent Rew Starr recently sat down to catch up with her, and chat about what’s next for this Renaissance woman.
Rew Starr: How’s it going? What have you been doing these days?
Patti Rothberg: My way of life has always echoed one of my better known lyrics from the song “Inside”: I could roll myself on down the line.” I operate on intuition and have barely made plans. It’s more like I’m wondering around an arcade looking at the pretty lights and wasting my quarters trying to figure out the games.
Rew Starr: For those who don’t know, can you give us a bit of your story?
Patti Rothberg: 1994 was one of the wildest times of my life! I lived on 23rd Street next to the Chelsea Hotel. A LOT of changes. It was my last year at Parsons School of design, and my major was Illustration. I had NO plan, just figured one thing would lead to another.
My friends were all street people: A slide player with white hair who claimed to be from Paul Butterfield’s band…”Andy” I think, Shah who would bum cigarettes, perched outside my apt. (I found out he was an ex con who killed someone and was out on parole) but to me he was my friend…I would flit around and hang out with homeless people and street characters all the time… my old guitarist then, Lukasz, lived a few blocks downtown…when he said, “I just hung out with Kid Rock. I need a name what do you think of “Dr. Luke”!!!!?
I was meeting so many people that year and I invented an excuse to paint portraits which I liked to paint best: A book called “Math 4 Artists the Wonder of Genetics.” I went to Sidewalk Cafe (RIP) and waltzed right up to Lach (now famous for starting and running “Antifolk” for years) and showed him my portraits (manic much?) Asked him for a show. He gave it to me. 1994. My commute back and forth from Parsons was between the 1 and 9, F and L tunnel on 14th Street and 7th Ave (which was later shortened to “Between the One and the Nine. I incorporated many concepts…the artwork on the album is like a rubik’s cube with one oil painting in the middle and 8 surrounding making a 1 and 9.
Rew Starr: You got married in 2020. So was your husband a fan of your music?
Patti Rothberg: Another amazing story…… 25 years ago, RIGHT after my record came out, Micah was working as the assistant manager of a RECORD STORE, Sam Goody. He wasn’t even supposed to come in at all that day. A rep for EMI came in with my promo and asked if he would play my record ‘Between 1&9’….We’re pushing this girl.’ He asked ‘what does she sound like?’ and the rep dutifully replied ‘Alanis.’ Miraculously, he put on my CD in the store anyway…
Track after track, he says he was waiting for it to sound like Alanis and it never did. He ended up liking the CD, and even selling 40 or so copies! The rep returned 4 days later to follow up… ‘I listened to Patti Rothberg…Micah said. ‘She’s pretty good!’ And he said, ‘Well she’s playing tonight, we have free tickets! Long story short, he asked his friend, Monique to accompany him to my show, and by his recount, judging from my underlit cover painting, he was expecting a “less than attractive troubadour”!!!!!! HAHAHAH.
Micah was bored facing the other way from where I entered, and someone exclaimed, “There’s Patti.” He turned around, and confused said, ‘Where? Behind the hot chick (meaning ME!!!)? Micah ditched his date for who was to become his queen and bride.
Rew Starr: Did you always believe this would happen?
Patti Rothberg: One of my earliest memories is walking in my plaid pants on my front lawn age 3 singing to myself. I wanted to be Olivia Newton John. I also wanted to be a muse…when you’re a kid, you’re not sure what goes into what you think you want to do or be. You don’t know the behind the scenes at all. So I pretty much decided I was a muse after seeing Xanadu!!! By my own definition (Inspiring myself by inspiring others…) I have actually done it quite a bit!
Rew Starr: What was being on a world tour like?
Patti Rothberg: The day I chose EMI and Brian Koppelman in the bidding war between them and Sony, my manager sent me flowers with a note that said, “You did it, you deserve it, your manager for life…Alicia”. I remember all these conflicting emotions. I knew I wouldn’t be able to take my tall, androgynous metalhead rock boyfriend ‘Morgan’ with me on the tour bus, and we had a pretty good thing going. He was a poet, a gentle soul, and he loved drinking wine. But I had a mission to “Rock the world”. The band members that stuck for the tour I picked after just one or a few songs! Adrian Harpham just HAPPENED to go first.
We jammed, and he knew every nuance of every song I liked to sing. Pretenders, Pat Benetar, classic rock. He was PERFECT. That decision was made in seconds. Same thing with James Elliott (Jamez Jimmy Riot). We auditioned a few bass players and any of them COULD HAVE played the parts I had written and then some (I’m playing all the instruments with a few exceptions on the album with Adrian!). James played ‘Looking For a Girl.’ He just seemed to get my “vibe”. That was enough and we hired him instantly.
Rew Starr: What were the highlights?
Patti Rothberg: It was pretty cool having every INCREDIBLE guitar player literally lined up to audition to play MY guitar parts that I wrote off the cuff on the album! I bought my guitar from one of the guys who auditioned. Let’s just say we had a ‘sleepover.’ He was probably in his early 30s at the time… All I really wanted was to be on the real NYC rock scene. The whole story is told in my video ‘Nightstand.’
Rew Starr: Do you have a favorite band you toured with?
Patti Rothberg: Chris Isaak was the nicest, best tour. What a sweeet talented guy! I mean Garbage!!!!
Rew Starr: ’Inside’ changed your life. Did you ever think that would be the song?
Patti Rothberg: I wanted “This One’s Mine” to be the single. For one thing it showed off my electric guitar. I was Courtney Love or Joan Jett, Dale Bozzio or Pat Benetar, I was terrified to be lumped in with the Alanis clones. Believe it or not I sang to Janis Joplin with the windows rolled up when i was 16. I wanted to be Jim Morrison and/or Exene Cervenka… not Joan Baez. Now I think the closer to myself I can get the better off I am, if that makes sense. Just to be true, and DIP into my heroes. After 4 years of “Being” Joey Ramone in Rockaway Bitch……I know the difference. That was such a great experience. I was like studying for an acting role. My songs reveal me every single time. *blush* WHETHER I LIKE IT OR NOT.
Rew Starr: ’Treat Me like Dirt’ seems to be a real pleaser… are your songs autobiographical? Do you have a favorite?
Patti Rothberg: My favorite song at the moment is inspired by David Gates and Bread. I just like it because it’s really TRUE and pretty and it’s on the ONE “download only” album I have,”Ephemeral.” It’s called “Where Were You?” And it’s just perfect. It says exactly what I was trying to say — the best songs do. They practically write themselves. It’s like you enter another state of consciousness. That particular song is so universal too….It says ‘Hey, what relationship were YOU in!?”….
Rew Starr: I know you also illustrate, write books, dress like a rock star and are totally awesome! Can you elaborate on these other passions and were any of these before the music or were they all together?
Patti Rothberg: My mother was in the media and brought home really cool records for me to roller disco to at a very early age. I also had really cool babysitters who introduced me to things like The Rolling Stones …In 3rd grade we were supposed to put name tags on our desks. I wrote “Olivia Newton John.” I got laughed at A LOT. Some of my friends might remember in 7th grade I spelled my name “Paouxti’ in honor of Siouxsie. No one could pronounce it. Got laughed at. I found the tiny smattering of punk rock/skater types in my school and started dressing as “goth” as I knew how.. .going to places like “Le Chateau” and buying full-length robes/ black eyeliner.
Kids would count to three as I walked down the hall and yell “WEAR WHITE”. We’re talking about Scarsdale High School. Home of the perfect smiles quarterbacks and cheerleaders. I saw the movie “Rock n Roll High School” and immediately gravitated to Joey Ramone. I painted skulls on my nails. I saw Rocky Horror Picture Show at 13, I went in to “the city” any chance I could and went to Manic Panic (today any CVS sells weird hair colors). I’m proud to say I had green and red hair by age 14……The soundtrack to the movie Times Square got me started with good music. I taught at School of Rock from Jimi Hendrix’s birthday to the first day of quarantine at Covid. That was the PERFECT job for me. I have ONE student left now because of having to do it remotely, but she’s really gonna be a star. I loved The Runaways, I loved Ottos, I loved Rew and Who and I’m so proud to have done the show w/ Alan Merrill, Mr. Rock n Roll. R.I.P. I miss u Rew! Also, I hope they bring back old school MTV!
Rew Starr: Your mom played a role encouraging you right? What and how did she?
Patti Rothberg: She’s a poet. Micah is too. They’re clever and FAST with the rhymes!
My mom was on WYNY radio after Dr Ruth Westheimer!
Rew Starr: I love how you twist words, when did this start? Ever think of making a Patti dictionary?
Patti Rothberg: I Already started! It’s more like an encyclopedia…Extra Awesome. There are 2 so far…and counting.
Rew Starr: When people yell out to play a song is there anything you can’t play? I mean I even saw you do ‘Freebird’ when it was yelled at you!
Patti Rothberg: I say give the people what they want (especially if they don’t think I can). Surprise em! I’m a good faker.
Rew Starr: Are you making any new music?
Patti Rothberg: Yes! Dan Dubelman and I have formed “The Jersey Beatles” and done tons of covers and originals during Covid, going back and forth in Logic.
Rew Starr: Tell us something we don’t know about you?
Patti Rothberg: I love nice hotels with a pool, a jacuzzi, a very puffy white comforter. Thank you Rew, I’m sure if I did this again there’d be some differences! c’est la vie!
Rew Starr is a musician, actor, and mother who lives in New York City.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the founder and editor of Rockmommy.