Roses & Cigarettes frontwoman Jenny Pagliaro, 35, used the time she had to leave her mark
By Bliss Bowen
The Garage on Motor Avenue was closed to the public on March 31. Inside, a table hugging the wall by the front door offered finger food to guests clustered at tables, banquettes and the bar; it was difficult to navigate between them, the room was so full. In a rear corner, a ginger-and-white spaniel serenely offered his head and ears for petting as people squeezed between tables to speak with the longhaired woman in whose lap he snuggled.
Screens around the venue projected images of a lean girl growing into womanhood — on the beach in Cape Cod and in Santa Monica, striking ballet and yoga poses, hugging dogs, playing guitar, laughing with friends and family, singing in the studio and onstage with her band.
Her name: Jenny Pagliaro — Massachusetts native, Santa Monica yoga instructor, lead singer of Roses & Cigarettes — and the Garage was packed with relatives, bandmates and community members who had just attended her funeral service at St. Monica Catholic Church.
Snatches of R&C’s new album “Echoes and Silence” could be heard overhead.
“I’ve gotta date with the reaper/ The devil wants my heart in his hands… / My knees get weak, my heart skips a beat/ This shit is getting way out of hand/ I’m gonna give him a few more reasons/ Start living just as fast as I can”
It was an unavoidably poignant scene, and not only because the Santa Monica resident had succumbed to metastatic breast cancer at 35. We hear so much about people getting lost in L.A., especially newcomers — and not enough about those who find themselves here, or the impact they make within their overlapping communities. Pagliaro had made her presence felt since moving here 15 years ago; her music was finally receiving serious attention, and her wisecracking vitality had remained infectious even as she pugnaciously battled her 2015 diagnosis with varied treatments shared on Instagram and her candid Breast Cancer Chronicles blog.
Guitarist Angela Petrilli recalls auditioning for a cover band Pagliaro fronted and finding a musical soulmate: “It was like I knew her my whole life. The musical chemistry was there. I knew she was really, really special, and I felt it so deeply.” They soon formed Roses & Cigarettes, bonding like sisters over shared musical inspirations (Ray LaMontagne, Patty Griffin, Miranda Lambert, Fleetwood Mac) and performing those songs as an acoustic duo at local venues like the Basement and Sonny McLean’s, where Pagliaro waited tables for about 10 years.
“She’d always be the first person I’d hear from every day. Every. Single. Day. Always checking in, sending each other funny pictures, song ideas, shared plans back and forth on how we were gonna become rock stars, ha ha,” Petrilli says tearfully. “I’m thankful for it.”
Bassist/producer Mike Lyons met Pagliaro at Sonny McLean’s and played guitar at her audition for “The Voice” about 10 years ago. Pagliaro was devastated to not be selected, he recalls, but it also marked a crucial turning point where she became serious about artistic expression and started writing songs.
“To me that’s her legacy: to go from being some starry-eyed kid who came out here thinking she’ll be signed in two seconds and she’ll do anything like Johnny Bravo would have done, to becoming her own person,” Lyons says.
Close friend Mary Frances Bonvini, a Santa Monica resident, says Pagliaro blossomed the more she immersed herself in the creative community.
“She found her light. She found her tribe,” Bonvini says. “Music just kept feeding her soul.”
Pagliaro beat back cancer in 2015, after R&C released their self-titled debut album, but in 2016 she was diagnosed as a Stage IV metavivor. When Pagliaro returned to performing, yoga student John Wells was surprised to find his teacher rocking onstage with Petrilli at Hotel Café when he was running sound.
“She was obviously very much an inspiration to a lot of people,” says Wells. “Seeing what she was going through, the great highs and great lows — it makes you look at your own life and puts things in perspective.”
R&C released the “Acoustic Sessions” EP last year, and a sense of urgency surrounded sessions already underway for “Echoes and Silence.” Lyons says Pagliaro, who sometimes had to lay on the couch, wanted to “sing prettier” but he kept grittier, chemo-deepened vocal takes that gave the tracks more character. “I’d go, ‘Jenny, you’re telling a story and you’re setting a tone.’”
By July, Pagliaro was joking about “geriatric chic” and walking with a cane — and always with Teddy, the devoted emotional support dog she adopted after her spaniel Marley died of cancer in 2016. (Pagliaro’s sister Sarah has adopted Teddy into her El Segundo home.) Per Wells, Teddy would greet each student in Pagliaro’s yoga class, and knew when class was ending: “As soon as Jenny would finish her last ‘ohm’ and say ‘Namaste,’ he would get up immediately and go around to all the people again.”
In January, Pagliaro had to stop teaching, and pretty much everything else, as she struggled with fatigue and prayed a last-ditch Y90 treatment would be “a light in a very dark tunnel.” “Echoes and Silence” was released in February and videos streamed on a variety of websites, including the Bluegrass Situation, Cowboys & Indians, and Billboard, which accompanied the “Fast As I Can” video with Pagliaro’s comment that the song was “about not letting the biggest challenge you’ve ever faced stop you from living your dreams.” Her response to Rolling Stone posting the song the day before she died was classic Jenny.
“Mary Frances told her, ‘Hey, you’re in Rolling Stone,’” Petrilli recalls. “She opened up her eyes wide and was like, ‘No way … Pretty cool, man.’”
Those wishing to express respect for Pagliaro’s life are encouraged to make donations via metavivor.org or roversretreat.org and listen to “Echoes and Silence” on Spotify or Bandcamp.