Joanna Sternberg on community, honesty, and new album 'I've Got Me'

Interview New York’s Joanna Sternberg opens up about their artistic inspirations and using songwriting as therapy

We spoke to the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist about the release of their latest album, ‘I’ve Got Me’.

Joanna Sternberg is a singular artist: first, they wrote every song for their latest album, ‘I’ve Got Me’, confined in an apartment on the 40th floor of a tower block whilst the pandemic raged outside. Then, they wrote the parts for and played every instrument on all 12 tracks. The result? A record of emotional heft and unflinching honesty - a testament to Joanna’s relationships with their inspirations, their fans, and themself.

It follows on from Joanna’s debut album, ‘Then I Try Some More’, which won them plaudits from the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Conor Oberst, and Phoebe Bridgers, who simply said: “everything they touch turns to gold […] it’s a perfect record”. We caught up with Joanna to find out more about their musical background and the process behind creating ‘I’ve Got Me’.

Growing up in Manhattan, you’ve spoken about feeling out of step in terms of your tastes from your peers - what were you listening to and was that something you had to learn to be proud of?

In elementary school I was always listening to whatever was on the radio. I really liked rap, and of course I liked Backstreet Boys and stuff. But then the music my parents played at home - The Beatles, and blues, and rock’n’roll, I loved. In middle school I started listening to any rock band I could find, and I actually still love all those bands: Modest Mouse, Mouldy Peaches, then lots of rhythm and blues and funk.

I was always getting obsessed with things and making mixtapes for all my friends, but it was never the pop hits on the radio. Sometimes I would not love some [pop] songs and maybe I would make that opinion a little too known… Maroon 5 was a big one that annoyed me. I almost got beat up at a birthday party because I didn’t like [them] and the whole party couldn’t believe it.

There’s a strong Daniel Johnston feel to your music (especially with the illustration alongside) - is he someone you’re influenced by or feel a connection to?

I love Daniel Johnston. I didn't discover him until maybe six or seven years ago, and then I had a few months of listening to him 24/7. So I had written songs for maybe four years before I found his music, and it was just perfect to me. It spoke to me and he was saying everything I was trying to say, so he's always been a muse of mine.

Who are the other artists that you’re inspired by and why?

I'm inspired by so many so it’s hard to list them off the top of my head, but… Louis Armstrong is my favourite singer. I can listen to him for maybe 10 seconds before I go on stage and that always gets me ready to sing no matter what, no matter how down on myself I am. For me, that’s what inspiration does - it makes me forget the whole self-conscious aspect of performing because I'm too overtaken by being inspired.

Elliott Smith is who inspired me to write songs. I always wanted to write songs, but I was always too shy and scared, and didn't think I had anything to contribute or say that was worthwhile. So I would just write joke songs until I heard Elliott Smith, and then I just had to try to communicate my feelings like him, because his music helped me so much and it made me want to try to help people too. That's really just the biggest incentive I have.

I guess another one I'll say is Roz Chast - she's my favourite cartoonist. She really is such a genius: an artistic genius, comedian, philosopher… she's created her own universe with her drawings and work, so yeah, I’m in awe of her.

And the last artist I'll say is my dad, because he's the person that I always looked up to the most: if he was drawing, I was copying his drawings; if he was listening to music, I was copying that; if he was playing a guitar part, I would study it and try to copy him. So that’s more than being inspired!

Joanna Sternberg on community, honesty, and new album 'I've Got Me'

On your debut ‘Then I Try Some More’, there are some incredibly raw and self-lacerating moments when you’re very brutally honest about your relationships with yourself and other people - what role does songwriting play for you in trying to process all those thoughts?

The thing about songwriting that really helps me is that it gives me a way to process those thoughts. It's kind of amazing that I can't say things out loud, but then I can do it in a song or a drawing, and that's been a repeating pattern that I've noticed ever since I started writing songs. That’s something that makes people kind of confused by me, just because my songs are so different from how I am as a person. So, yeah, I literally need to write the songs in order to communicate, process those things, and connect with other people.

Have you found a community of like-minded people from putting those songs out in the world?

It's pretty great, the community is anyone who's nice about my songs, so I'm lucky that I've had so many people be nice. There’s definitely a fellowship,

You’ve had some really amazing musicians - Phoebe Bridgers, Self Esteem, Angel Olsen - professing their fandom. How does it feel knowing those talents are connecting to what you do?

It's so validating - I'm surprised whenever anyone says that they like my work. People compliment me and then they say ‘I'm sorry, I know you're sick of it’, and I think ‘I’m not sick of it!’. Not to sound like a diva, but I get so much imposter syndrome, so it's always the most amazing thing when anyone connects with my music.

Your new album ‘I’ve Got Me’’s title track is a reflection of a Bukowski poem - what is it about his work that resonates with you?

I don't know if I wrote that song before or after reading the poem, but it doesn't really matter because I feel like his poems are in me anyway; when I read one, I think ‘wow, I've been feeling that my whole life and he articulated it’. His work resonates with me so much. I just think he's great at saying what he means in a very tangible way, in a way that's easy to connect to, in a way that uses the best possible combination of words. He just makes me feel not alone in a way that I had never felt until I read his work, especially that poem.

How do you think playing everything yourself on this new album helped to push the end product of what you want to make into its most fully realised form, and how would you describe that form?

I always had a dream of wanting to play everything on my album, I was always fascinated by how it would sound; it was either going to be amazing, or horrible. I was so lucky that the initial reaction in the studio was positive - it really made me feel affirmed in my musical instincts.

Again, on this record, there are some really sucker-punch lines! Is there a lyric that you think best sums up your mindset whilst writing it?

“I always wonder why these thoughts keep crossing my mind / They run in circles and always keep me falling behind / When I look back on the years I see all the time that I wasted on tears”. This is about ruminating on thoughts and OCD and how I can't control it; I'm aware of it, but I still can't control it. That’s what I would say is my biggest battle - it's definitely ever-present in my brain, and in my life. I guess that’s always my mindset, so it has to also have been my mindset when writing it. The lucky thing is that when I write songs, I do get a little bit of escape from that… but maybe I don't, because I'm still having repeating melodies in my head! So there's always something I can't control going on in there.

You were locked down on the 40th floor while writing the album - how did that experience of looking down over the city seep into what you were writing?

I call it my nest, but it's actually a very cluttered room - the show hoarders would definitely do an episode in here! The world was terrifying then and everything was so bizarre… writing songs there was one thing that felt safe, it really saved me.

If there’s one thing you hope people take away from this record, what would it be?

I guess what I want people to take away from the record is that we all feel lonely, but that means we’re not alone, because it's all of us feeling it. And if you think you know what's going on in someone else's life, you don't, especially if you think you do because of what they post on the internet or because of how they present themselves. But I think the most important thing that I really want to communicate is that everybody feels pain, and no one's pain is more important than anyone else's. Some people are in greater need of help in the moment, but everybody's pain is valid. We’re all alone, so therefore we’re not alone - it’s all about being interested in each other, I think.

Joanna Sternberg's latest album, 'I've Got Me', is out now via Fat Possum.

Tags: Features, Interviews

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