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Joanna Sternberg wrote the songs for I’ve Got Me on the 40th floor of a tower in Manhattan Plaza on 42nd Street in New York City.
It’s a point of view Joanna’s had since birth. After starting a full scholarship to Mannes college of music for classical and finishing at the New School on a scholarship for jazz and spending their early 20’s gigging non-stop in NYC as a professional stand up bassist, Sternberg returned to their family’s apartment 40 stories in the sky for what was meant to be a short stay. Joanna had recently started singing and writing songs on piano and guitar and “This Is Not Who I Want To Be”, a stunning combination of a timeless melody and harrowing lyrical insight from their first album was making waves on the internet. Sternberg did a successful two week tour opening for Conor Oberst supporting Joanna’s first collection of songs. They’d finally broken out of the years-long grind of schlepping a double bass on late nights subway rides from Brooklyn jazz gigs to uptown orchestra pits.
But Joanna’s retreat home for a respite from touring and hard jazz living coincided with the pandemic and the end of the known world. Society went sideways so Joanna stayed up writing in the towers. In 2021 Sternberg wrote songs for the musical Corsicana with playwright Will Arbery. And the stunning I’ve Got Me album came out of that time up there.
Some of Joanna’s predecessors who’ve lived in the towers of Manhattan Plaza, a middle-income artists only residence established in the 1970’s: Charles Mingus, Tennessee Williams, Angela Lansbury, Dexter Gordon, Larry David, James Earl Jones, Alicia Keys. Samuel Jackson worked there as a security guard. In the 80’s The Manhattan Plaza AIDS Project was created for its residents, it was among the first support systems created to handle the epidemic. It is a massive full-on 46 story universe of living NYC history, artist families and legendary elders. There’s no place as quite as vibed out.
The only other entity more representative of real deal New York City artists might be Joanna Sternberg’s family. When asked for influences Sternberg lists their relatives exclusively, all NYC performers and visual artists: “Yiddish Theater Gods” grandmother Fraydele Oysher and great uncle Moishe Oysher, opera singer grandpa Harold Sternberg, their aunt comedian Marilyn Michaels, and most of all their father, painter guitarist and songwriter Michael Sternberg. Joanna’s visual artwork goes hand in hand with their music.
The songs on “I’ve Got Me” are a Bat Signal from their NYC spire. Sternberg turned pain into beauty during their pandemic exile, but the alchemy isn’t fussy: their voice just lands and illuminates. And its realness hits. From the horror of a NYC chemical romance in “Stockholm Syndrome” to the cathartic piano peaks of “Mountains High” to the struggle for loving self acceptance in the title track these songs carry an emotional wallop that is earned, but it feels like a gift.
“I love people, I love to make people laugh, I love to make them feel better.” Joanna says, “Anytime someone reaches out and tells me my music helped them, my dream comes true.”
After some false starts, Joanna went to Strange Weather studios in Brooklyn to work with NYC-based producer Matt Sweeney. Of the sessions, Sweeney says “I pretty much stayed out of Joanna’s way, let them know they sounded great and allowed the music to happen - Strange Weather’s engineer Daniel Schlett always captured each unique performance with depth and clarity. I just kept the energy up and bathed in the tunes.” The hunch was correct and the album was recorded and mixed in six days of intensely productive short sessions during Summer of 2022.
Joanna plays all instruments on the record: it’s their recorded debut as a string arranger, drummer and electric guitarist.
When asked for points of musical reference outside of their family, Sternberg says “I was raised in a religiously Beatles obsessed household listening to Little Richard, Chuck Berry, James Brown. Later became obsessed with Motown- specifically James Jameson- and Bob Dylan, Elliott Smith and Randy Newman.” Tough old New York music like Ramones, Lou Reed, and 20th Century Broadway musicals inform Joanna’s approach to songs. They name other direct inspirations: Scott Joplin, Mingus, Brahms, Mahalia Jackson, Mahler, Louis Armstrong, Mozart, James Jamerson, Judee Sill, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, Neil Young and Rev Gary Davis. These anachronistic references somehow only draw attention to Joanna Sternberg’s singular and universal voice. Sweeney says “For me, this album is a dead-on example of how the more brave and clear an artist is in expressing their own world, the stronger it resonates with strangers.”
Thelonious Monk said “a genius is the one most like himself”- in 2023 we’re lucky Joanna Sternberg knows the most vulnerable parts of themself well enough to make music that shows how strong each one of us can be. Sternberg’s got all this and more.