Artist Spotlight: Joanna Sternberg

    Joanna Sternberg grew up in Manhattan Plaza, an artist-subsidized building established in the 1970s mostly populated by performers, musicians, and creatives of all stripes. They cite relatives as some of their biggest inspirations: their grandmother, pioneering Yiddish singer Fraydele Oysher, opera singer grandpa Harold Sternberg, aunt comedian Marilyn Michaels, and most of all their father, Michael Sternberg, also a musician and visual artist. After taking piano lessons and teaching themself how to play guitar and bass, they got a full scholarship to Mannes College of Music for classical and finished at the New School on a scholarship for jazz. They spent much of their early 20s gigging in Brooklyn bars as a professional stand-up bassist but soon started writing and performing their own songs. Their 2019 debut Then I Try Some More was at once emotionally raw, tender, and whimsical, leading to a two-week tour opening for Conor Oberst.

    Now signed to Fat Possum, Sternberg has today released their sophomore album, whose title sounds like another knotty yet defiant self-affirmation: I’ve Got Me. They wrote and played every instrument on its 12 tracks, including guitar, double bass, cello, violin, piano, and more, and enlisted producer Matt Sweeney and engineer Daniel Schlett to record the album at Brooklyn’s Strange Weather Studios. Though it varies in mood and style, the music remains idiosyncratic, stripped-down, and piercingly self-reflective, even when the dynamics they describe are blurry and difficult to pin down. Its delicate tone feels like a careful balancing act: the lyrics are striking in ways that feel both timeless and specific, relatable and profound, while their voice, carrying so much of the weight, can sound weary, comforting, heartbroken, or resolute. The space it occupies might be uncompromisingly intimate, but Sternberg makes sure to reserve a place for everyone.

    We caught up with Joanna Sternberg for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about their earliest musical memories, solitude, the process behind I’ve Got Me, and more.

    Do you mind sharing some of your earliest musical memories that have stayed with you?

    I think the first one that for some reason people remember was me humming when I was a toddler. My parents heard me and came rushing into the room, and that was how they knew to send me to piano lessons, because I was humming a very complicated melody. I’m quite proud of that one, because if a kid is really early talking or humming, it could also be a sign of autism, so it signifies a lot of things for me. I was humming a melody from Mickey’s Christmas Carol, it was a really crazy melody to be humming for a little baby. Later I got diagnosed with autism, so it kind of represents everything. Another memory is I would sit on my grandpa’s lap, and he was the opera singer in the Metropolitan opera. He taught me how to play something on the piano and be able to play and sing it, or and it was really really amazing. He died when I was like 10, but I got to be a little kid singing with him, so that was really important.

    When did your affinity for music become less of a skill that others saw in your as opposed to something you recognized deeply within yourself?

    I always will need it for me. I can’t be happy without it, but it’s also been the only thing I ever was able to socialize with or get friends with. It’s a little bit of a pressure, in a way, because it’s everything. It’s been both, really.

    Was there a time when you felt the need to distance yourself from it?

    I got too overwhelmed by it, because I got into too much of a fragile emotional place to listen to music. It made me upset to listen to music. I lost a lot of people I loved, and it was terrifying. I was not in the right place, so I kind of replaced music with reality TV. [laughs] Which was a very bold move that I didn’t realize I was exactly doing it until after I did it. I’m like, “Wait a minute, I haven’t listened to music in a year. I’ve just been watching reality TV.” Luckily now I’m fixed up and back into music again. But I was not really able to handle it, because it made me cry, no matter what. I had to cut it out completely because it was too much. I always did music – I went to college for music, I went to a music high school, and in middle school my main passion was music.

    In terms of your musical journey, was there a separation between your growing appreciation for music as a listener and getting into songwriting?

    Definitely, that’s a great point. I always wrote melodies and stuff, and we would write musicals when I was little. I wouldn’t write any serious songs about me, but then, when I was 21 and I heard Elliott Smith, that’s when I was more inspired than scared. The first song I wrote, it came to me in a dream, so the whole song wrote itself already. So I was like, “This is easy, I wanna do this!” But of course, that never happened again. That would be great if that happened again, just saying. [laughs] That was the first song, and that song [‘She Dreams’] is on the record.

    Where would you trace the beginnings of I’ve Got Me as a collection? When did the songs start to feel like they were speaking to each other?

    These songs, I’ve been kind of saving a lot of them for if I ever got to a record of my dreams. They all fit together because they all are songs that get a similar response, and they flow together. I like them because they’re all different feelings and different moods and different musical styles, and I think that’s really nice for a record because different people can feel maybe they the thing they like the most is in there, whether that’s sad songs or more rock songs. I just wanted to make a record with a lot of things represented about music, and I guess me. So I’ve been saving a lot of these songs because they just get the best response from people, and they all mean a lot to me in the same way.

    At what point did you start sharing them? Is it just a close circle of people you’ll show them to?

    Yeah, there’s a close circle of people that I’ll text it to, and now I’ve met more people that I can include in that. And then I’ll ask for their honest opinions, and usually it’s nothing I would expect. Because usually, songs that I’m proud of everybody that doesn’t really respond to, and the ones that I don’t like everyone loves. That’s pretty funny.

    What do you think prevents you from seeing what they see in it?

    I feel embarrassed. [laughs]

    How do you learn to embrace that?

    It’s definitely a process, certain embarrassing things are easier than other ones. But it always takes me having to really practice it before I can play it for people. ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ took a really long time to write because I didn’t like it, but then my friends really liked it, so I had to keep trying to make it better and finish it.

    I feel like the role of friendship is undermined when we talk about songwriters who are doing it themselves, but it sounds like that element of trust and interaction is an important part of the whole process for you.

    Yeah. I mean, there have definitely been times that I’m more socially isolated and not showing things to anyone, so I guess it’s 50/50. But I couldn’t have the whole thing without doing it, so I guess I’d have to say yes. I just have no concept of myself in any way, like as a person or in music. I wouldn’t go out in public unless people assured me that I’m not offending or annoying as many people as I think I am, so I’m lucky to have people to be like, “No, you didn’t do that horrible stuff you thought you did.”

    I’m interested in the way you approach aloneness as a theme in your songwriting, because it never feels like a static thing. You closed Then I Try Some More with the words “Don’t you dare feel that you are alone,” which leads into the opener and title track of your new record, where there’s this hope that being alone won’t always feel like a struggle.

    It definitely was something I had to just radically accept, because I just didn’t have lots of easy experiences making friends my whole life. I’m an only child, so I always had to just solve everything myself, in a way, and I didn’t like it. But then I just decided to accept it because it’s way easier than fighting it.

    You sing, “Between self-hatred and self-awareness is a very small, thin line.” Do you feel they sort of balance each other out as you navigate it through song?

    That’s totally it. That’s kind of the theme of my whole life, so I think I’m always going to be figuring that out.

    You’ve said that the song mirrors the sentiment of Charles Bukowski’s ‘oh yes’, which you have tattooed on your arm. Can you talk about why it’s important to you?

    I was always wanting friends really badly. All I wanted was friends. And then I was able to make peace with the fact that I wasn’t – I think it’s hard for me to ask for help because I don’t want to inconvenience people. Some people, it’s really easy for them to ask for help, and then they have all these friends, but sometimes they’re just using them to help them. And it’s just a really weird combination, like, it’s really hard to figure out what’s fair to the other person in a friendship, what is manipulation, and it just makes me really kind of just want to be alone as to not harm anyone or get harmed. So I decided to find a way to be happy with that. And now I’m really great at it. [laughs] I’m actually kind of always been better than I thought. I think I wanted friends because I wanted to fit in, but then when I turned 19 or 20, I kind of turned to that thing more.

    Do you make a distinction between feeling alone and being alone?

    I realize there’s no distinction. There’s been times where I’ve had a lot of friends all the time where I felt more alone than when I didn’t have any friends. I guess it has to do with how people around you are treating you. If they’re treating you like you don’t matter, your life doesn’t matter, it’s just the worst thing ever. And the scary thing is to be alone and just miss having people around that were treating you badly just because there was people around. A really scary thing is when one person thinks another person has no problems at all or something like that, and then they just take advantage of them because they think they’re like a resource to help them. That’s what I’ve witnessed get really, really scary between people.

    Were there any other non-musical inspirations that were important to you around the making of the album?

    Definitely comic books, cartoon TV shows, like the Peanuts cartoons, Roz Chast cartoons. They’re just things that I cling on to that I love, something that makes me feel safe but I kind of get obsessed with it, so I will maybe listen to it so many times in a row or watch it over and over again. It’s like a safe thing for me. It’s usually a TV show, a poem, a song, a cartoon, or a movie – I wish you could say a book, I have to start reading more books. I think the reason that it’s cartoon TV shows is because I draw while I listen to TV shows, so that’s my go-to thing, I could do that for days. That’s also just an excuse to watch TV, but it’s still valid, because I did do all the album art while listening to TV. [laughs]

    You cling to them differently – I imagine that with songs it’s completely different because your attention is tuned into them differently, whereas with TV shows, it’s that safe space and visual inspiration that they provide.

    Well, it depends on the show. There’s certain early episodes of The Simpsons that to me feel like a song. The first 10 seasons are classic Shakespearean beauty. There are TV shows that can hit that emotional space of music, but it’s mostly TV shows are comfort and funny, and then music is therapy, medicine. But it all kind of combines into my subconscious mind.

    I read that you drew about 100 versions of the cover artwork before Matt Sweeney persuaded you to go with the first one. What was the challenge of representing that private space visually? Or was your thinking less conscious than that?

    It was definitely less conscious. It was me trying to like, “Oh my gosh, it’s my big album, it’s my big chance, I have to make it so great.” I just got convinced that I couldn’t draw or I could do better. I wanted it to be so perfect and amazing. I was being ridiculous, basically. I just get really hard on myself with anything I do, obviously, so I’m like, “It’s not good, I messed up, I could do better.” But if I keep going with that, I’ll never submit anything, because I will never be happy with anything. And that’s why I really need other people to step in.

    Matt, who produced the record, said he wanted to give you the freedom to just let the songs be. How did you experience that dynamic during the recording process?

    He was so present the whole time, I knew he was there listening. I think what he means by that – I never didn’t feel like he was actively making decisions and listening. But I just felt very safe to be myself because I knew he was listening so closely. So I was being myself with his support, and that’s why I was able to be safe to be myself. I’m pretty good at – maybe not in a performance, because I get too distracted and too in my emotions – but if I’m recording, I maybe do know when I make mistakes, and I could tally them up in my head, and I could tell when someone else is catching them. And he would catch them all, but then he would see the bigger picture. Everything he said I agreed with, which was really surprising, because usually I either think someone is BSing me or being too mean to me, but it was perfectly aligned with what I felt. I was very comforted by that.

    The decision to end the record with ‘The Song’ feels significant, not least because it’s the longest song you’ve released. Did it immediately have that weight for you?

    That’s always been a song that everyone responds to with, “Oh my gosh, I love that one.” So I was like, that’s a good thing – everyone’s saying they like it, but it’s also really depressing, so I think I have to put it at the end so it doesn’t interfere with the mood of the record.

    Did it take time to settle into the version that’s on the record?

    I don’t think so, that one was pretty instant. I just wrote it and it happened how it happened. Same with ‘I’ve Got Me’. A lot of the songs really wrote themselves, then other ones took forever and were really stressful and annoying.

    I’m interested in how catharsis shows up when it comes to making music, because we have this idea that it’s a single moment when usually it draws itself out over time. Has that been your experience with this album so far?

    Catharsis – that’s the whole thing. No matter how many times I sing these songs, there might be another time I sing it where I have a new catharsis. I think that’s always happening with the music, and I think that’s really why I play music. I need to play music so I can release my emotions and so I could communicate to other people my emotion. That’s why I go to write at all, but once I write the song, more emotions may come. Like last night [during a show at Ben Lee’s house], every time I perform, every time I listen to music, every time I write music – it’s just always happening.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Joanna Sternberg’s I’ve Got Me is out now via Fat Possum.

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