Fighting cancer with music, Roses & Cigarettes celebrate life one gig at a time

By Bliss Bowen

Camaraderie among musicians, especially bandmates, is often referred to as a brotherhood.

In the case of classic rock- and country-loving duo Roses & Cigarettes, it’s a sisterhood comprised of New England-raised vocalist Jenny Pagliaro and Hawthorne-based guitarist Angela Petrilli, and it extends beyond the stage: relatives, Petrilli affirms, “have adopted each of us into their families.”

That affectionate kinship animates their conversation, and the music they’re recording for their second album. In contrast to the Fleetwood Mac-meets-Pistol Annies feel of Roses & Cigarettes’ self-titled 2015 debut, this acoustic project reflects their live shows as a duo; Pagliaro’s husky burr is grittier, and there’s more space around Petrilli’s unassumingly solid fretwork.

The track list includes a bittersweet reading of what Petrilli calls “Jenny’s favorite song,” the Ray Henderson-Mort Dixon standard “Bye Bye Blackbird.” The uptempo “Back to You” teases bad relationships that feel good, while “Echoes and Silence” builds from a somewhat droney, open-tuned riff Petrilli had been messing around with. Pagliaro added poignant lyrics:

“Oh, things are changing now
Once was a light, turned dark somewhere …
Oh, I got lost somehow, can’t find my way out
God, show me how
Oh, can’t you hear me now
There’s echoes and silence all around”

Roses & Cigarettes guitarist Angela Petrilli and vocalist Jenny Pagliaro share
an affectionate kinship that drives the band’s musical evolution
Photo by James Conners

“I think her sense of melody from the first album rose into such a beautiful departure, and I just love watching her grow as a songwriter,” Petrilli says proudly. “With these new songs, you’ll really see that.”

“Before, I was writing from a place of heartbreak, and now — I’ve lived more,” Pagliaro says. “I wrote most of that first album between the ages of 27 and 30, and I’m 33 now and have been fighting cancer for almost two years. That’s gonna change perspective.”

Pagliaro’s cancer diagnosis was a huge hit for a young band to absorb; it “changes our timeline, it changes everything,” she acknowledges. She’s living with metastatic cancer that’s spread to several organs — and the key word is “living.” An avid dancer and gymnast as a girl, she continues to teach at Santa Monica Yoga, to perform, and to be feisty and funny.

“It makes me be OK with being frivolous when I want to be frivolous, and being serious when I want to be serious, and being more balanced,” she says of how diagnosis and treatment reorder her days. “I don’t have to write super-serious lyrics; I’m still a woman living a life, y’know? I can be silly. I can be fun. But I want it all to have value. … I think it has made us stay truer to what music has inspired in us all along.”

Fond of dancing onstage, Pagliaro now sometimes adopts a chanteuse’s pose atop a stool and invests her energy in just singing as Petrilli curls over her guitar in supportive concentration; the dynamic created is intimately engaging, and fans have responded warmly.

Loose three-hour gigs have been replaced by shorter, less draining shows opening for artists like Luther Dickinson, Jim Lauderdale, the Record Company and Billy Bob Thornton. (Dickinson, in particular, made permanent fans of them both when he grabbed Pagliaro’s then-shaved head, placed his forehead against hers and told her she was a hero. Petrilli describes it as “one of the sweetest things I’ve ever seen.”)

Laughing, the two women talk over each other while describing how they take care to respect each other’s boundaries.

“I’m the type of person that likes to push myself,” Pagliaro says, “but … Angela checks me if I try to push myself too hard. Or I’ll check her if she tries to push us too hard [laughs]. It’s about kindness to yourself and saying, ‘Will this give energy to me or take energy from me?’”

“It’s important to take care of ourselves and remind ourselves why we are doing this,” Petrilli observes. “We are here to play music to enrich our [spirits], to be creative people. That’s important to both of us.”

They’d make “terrible rock stars,” they joke, because they prefer early mornings to late nights.

“We take what we do very seriously,” Petrilli says. “It can be assumed that you go and play shows and it’s not a physical thing, but it’s very demanding physically.”

“Yeah, and afterward a girl needs to shove her face with food more than a cocktail,” Pagliaro wisecracks. “Well, I need that too.”

She gratefully recalls a fan who gave her a breast cancer bracelet inscribed with the name of his late wife, and recently singing the national anthem at Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure at Dodger Stadium.

“They’re doing more work with metavivors, which is the terminology for anybody living with metastatic cancer,” she explains. “Working with people like that, connecting to an audience like that, it gives deeper meaning to the music — to anything I write, to every show. If I can inspire other women, younger women who have breast cancer, like, ‘Hey, breast cancer diagnosis isn’t a death sentence; I’m out here trying to live my dreams’ — that’s enough.”

Last month the duo achieved their goal of playing the South by Southwest festival in Austin, where they booked a flurry of gigs via the band’s Facebook page and Petrilli’s popular Instagram account and, Pagliaro says, “felt very respected as musicians.”

They’re looking forward to reuniting with longtime bassist Mike Lyon and drummer Ted Kelliher for a 90-minute show Friday at Harvelle’s, and then working their way through the rest of the Roses & Cigarettes to-do list: finishing their acoustic album, and playing in Nashville.

“And playing as many shows as my health permits,” Pagliaro adds. “That’s driving me forward.”

Roses & Cigarettes return to Harvelle’s (1432 4th St., Santa Monica) at 9 p.m. Friday, April 21. $10. Call (310) 395-1676 or visit harvelles.com for tickets and venue info.

The band opens for Jackie Lee at The Mint (6010 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles) at 8 p.m. Thursday, April 27. Tickets are $12 to $15 at the themintla.com.

Find the band online at rosesandcigarettes.com

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