Earlier this month, 28-year-old musician Joanna Sternberg released their second album, Then I Try Some More. Sternberg trained in jazz and classical schools, but the album is truly a style of their own. They’ve been surrounded by a variety of musical influences from a young age — their parents first thought they might have musical inclinations when they heard 2-year-old Joanna humming “Oh What A Merry Christmas Day” from Mickey’s Christmas Carol at their Passover Seder, and Joanna’s grandmother is Fraydele Oysher, one of the pioneering female Yiddish theater singers and the inspiration for Barbra Streisand’s Yentl.
The album turns all the influences Joanna loves into something new, which is at times a deeply emotional listen that untangles addiction, insecurity, and fear. And, you know, there’s also a song about a fictional baby penguin. In the notes for “Then I Try Some More,” it says, “Joanna does not like using genres to describe music or art. They also do not like using the word music to describe music, or the word art to describe art.” It makes sense when you listen to the album that Sternberg is not limiting themselves based on preconceived notions, resulting in an unforgettable sophomore release.
Uproxx had the opportunity to talk with Joanna by phone before they head out on tour with Conor Oberst to discuss their musical origins, “emotional poops,” and why art is so hard to define.
Congrats on the release of the album! I’d like to start by just talking a little bit about your background, how did you get interested in music in the first place?
When I was little my parents noticed me humming a lot, so they thought, “Oh, that’s a good thing!” And my family has a lot of musicians and visual artists and actors in it, so I grew up with it and they noticed that was the thing I could do from an early age. I wasn’t really able to do anything else except for that and drawing. So they sent me to piano lessons when I was five and I was really lucky that they did that. And then in middle school, I started teaching myself how to play guitar and bass. Then in high school I learned double bass and then I went to college for it. I went to classical school and then jazz school.
All the songs on the album are really special, but is there one in particular that stands out to you?
Maybe “Don’t You Ever” because that’s the last song on it, and because I originally wrote it as a completely different song. It had a different A section melody and it had a different whole theme to it. I really love ragtime music, like Scott Joplin, so I originally wrote the song as a rag and then I decided to reappropriate it as something I can sing to with a guitar. But I decided to rewrite the whole song because at first it was about a breakup and I’ve just written so many songs about that. So I decided to make it about something a little broader, ’cause I feel like not everybody needs to be in a romantic relationship and there’s so many other things to sing about.
I feel like that’s definitely something we’re seeing more of now, love songs that aren’t about romantic relationships and songs about more topics in general.
It kind of perpetuates loneliness if you’re not in a romantic relationship and all the songs are love songs. There’s so many other things to write about!
I also think it’s cool that the song started out as a rag, because I don’t feel like that’s a genre influence that comes up in much music made in 2019. In the notes for your album you talk about your own sort of qualms with putting music into genres, which I also have been thinking about a lot lately.
I play a lot of different types of music — I’ve played a lot of gospel music on bass and then I’ll play classical and then I’ll play jazz, then I’ll do my singer-songwriter stuff, then I’ll do Klezmer music and country music and it’s all the same notes. So I don’t see it like [genres]. I just feel like it’s a way for people to go into groups where they’re only with people who do their thing…. and in the world when people are divided into groups, it’s usually how wars start.
Before I started songwriting I was a freelance musician and people would see me doing different music and they’d be a little suspicious of me. I felt like people didn’t trust my authenticity of loving the music I was playing with them because they saw I was doing other stuff. And that really went topsy turvy when I started doing the songwriting, ’cause they’d be like, “Oh don’t you only play country music now?” Especially in New York, there’s so many people so people stereotype each other just to remember who they are. Like, “Oh that’s Joanna, Joanna does the weird songs!”
But at the same time, I love doing everything so much and I think it informs my jazz playing to play classical music. That’s why I don’t like the whole genre thing, because it divides people up and it creates stereotypes and unnecessary divides. Why can’t it just be music? Because then there’s people who will say they hate this whole genre of music. And it’s like, how can you say that if you haven’t heard every single artist who fits into it? There’s not enough hours in the day to listen to every artist. It just makes it easier for people to write something off.
I was listening to the song “Pimba” on the record, which is a fictional story about a penguin, and that’s outside the realm of what we think a confessional singer-songwriter should be. What’s the story behind that song?
I wrote it to annoy someone [laughs]. Honestly, I just wrote it to annoy my friend! We were hanging out in my room and the song kind of came out of me in a minute. Most of these songs take like a minute to write ’cause I kind of consider some learning to be like pooping. I know it’s kind of gross but it’s like it just comes out of me and then I feel better! It’s like an emotional poop. So I just wrote that song kind of being silly.
“Pimba” actually is about [a friend’s nephew]. I have a friend from Israel who would send me videos of her nephew, this 3-year-old cute little kid who has a lot of personality. There’s a video of him fighting with another three-year-old… he was whining like, “Why don’t you give me the toy?” They’re talking in Hebrew, and the other kid says, “I’m not giving it to you cause you took my ‘Pimba.'” And I just thought that was so cute because they meant to say “Bimba,” which is a toy car. So it just became this made-up word that I use to describe someone acting like a bratty little kid. I say they’re being a “Pimba,” and I usually use it to describe myself actually but it just became this song about a little penguin. It’s also a joke song. When I do it live I beg people to laugh. I’m just like, please laugh, it’ll be awkward if you don’t laugh. I thought it would be a good way to kind of make [the album] less dramatic and intense emotionally.
The single off the album is “This Is Not Who I Want To Be” is very different from “Pimba.” What’s that one about?
That song is about when I was going through heroin withdrawal and I should’ve been in a hospital, but I did it in my room and I literally just wrote that song as it was happening to me. Like, it just kept playing in my head, kind of like an OCD, like it was stuck in my head, but I didn’t realize it hadn’t been written already. It was just about exactly what was happening. [All the songs] are pretty much a hundred percent nonfiction. Nonfiction except for “Pimba.”
You did the album cover art as well, which is really cool. There’s so much stuff on the table in the drawing, I was wondering if all the objects have significance or connections to the songs?
Thanks! I’m kind of a hoarder, and this year I took a year off of stuff to get sober. Now I’ve been sober over 250 days. But it was like 10 years of using, and I got sick a lot because my body was just rebelling against itself. So it was kind of all the stuff I had to buy all the time like nose drops and Benadryl, and the hospital bills piling up. It was just basically what’s in my room.
We’re talking about the cover art but you’ve also said you don’t like using the word art to describe art or the word music to describe music, is that similar to the reasons you don’t like classifying music by genre we were talking about?
Yeah, I mean it’s not like if someone else says it, I’ll be judging them. The thing with art and music is there’s certain art that exists that other people don’t think is art and it can be kind of a snooty thing. Like, what is art? I don’t even know what it is! I don’t even know what music is! I don’t know what it is, so I just don’t think I can use the word. Like performance art – someone will say that’s not art! Or a three-year-old scribbling on a paper, is that not art? Then it also enables people to think they’re bad at it.
Everyone learned an instrument when they were little or was in art class and someone told them they were bad at it and then they grew up thinking they can’t do it. Everybody sings when they’re little and everyone draws and then they stop usually. And that just makes me sad, ’cause I think like a lot of people can do it, but they’re convinced they can’t. And it’s such a hard thing to convince someone they could do, no matter how much I can try to convince my friends who I know can do it, it doesn’t matter what I think because they believe in their heart that they’re bad at art or they’re bad at music.
And then when I meet people and they go, “What do you do?” “Oh, I play music.” And I’ll go, “What do you do?” They’ll go, “I’m boring. I’m a doctor.” Like, how’s that boring? That’s awesome! In America there’s this thing with artists, they’re considered cool, but they’re not treated financially respectably. They’re not treated well in terms of paying them, but socially it’s very cool to be an artist. So it’s this weird thing, it creates another divide in culture. Like you’re either an artist, you’re creative or you’re not, but I think everyone’s creative, so it just makes more of a divide.
I totally agree. Earlier I was telling you about how I’m trying to learn bass now after I had tried when I was little and thought I couldn’t do it or wasn’t good at it. So hearing those messages really does impact us.
That’s a great point, because when I learned piano when I was little I wasn’t that good at it. I wasn’t the kid who was, like, excelling. Even now I draw, I’m a professional freelance artist, but growing up, I was never the kid in elementary school who [people thought] “that kid’s going to be an artist.” I never was that kid and I wasn’t that on piano. I only became more of that once I learned double bass. Because I really clicked with that instrument. So, I think everyone has an instrument that they click with, and it’s not necessarily piano or the first thing that you’re given. Also with songwriting, all little kids write songs. But everyone stops doing everything once it becomes a thing to get an award for. I think art is an opinion. It’s an opinion if something is art or not. And unless it could be proven to me that it’s a fact, the word feels weird.
Then I Try Some More is out now on Team Love Records. Get it here.