AOTY 2023: “I woke up and the whole song was in my head, so I recorded it into my phone in the bathroom” – Joanna Sternberg

New York songwriter Joanna Sternberg made one of the rawest and most direct albums of the year, inspired by her Broadway neighbourhood and her love for Randy Newman. I've Got Me even features the first songs they every wrote... in their sleep

Joanna Sternberg grew up in the part of New York where you think no one would possibly live – Midtown Manhattan: home of Times Square, Broadway, and every visiting tourist. It’s like meeting a Londoner who was raised in Piccadilly Circus. But growing up in the artist-subsidised building their father has lived in since 1977, the streets around Sternberg’s family home have left an indelible mark on their deeply personal music, along with their education at LaGuardia High School, the inspiration behind the movie Fame.

I’ve Got Me is Sternberg’s second album of stripped down, tell-all songs, which often sound like they could close out the first half of a theatre show playing in their neighbourhood – 12 wistful solo numbers sung into a spotlight from the stage’s apron before the curtain drop.

Like Cat Stevens and Carol King before them, Sternberg’s songs sound not only timeless but effortlessly composed, which is perhaps how the first song they ever wrote (whilst asleep) has ended up as a highlight of a record where Sternberg pairs the struggles of their life with an unexpected insistence of writing everything in a major key. Anyone can make a sad song sound sad; Sternberg makes them light and breezy with a skill that is uniquely theirs.


Congratulations on the success of ‘I’ve Got Me’. How has your year been since its release in June? 

My year has been kind of intense since June, because I’ve been processing everything and it’s been a lot to process. It’s all been really positive but it’s still a change that I’m adjusting to – getting more recognition for my music. I’m really proud of myself, but I’m also realising how much I’m needing to improve on self-care tasks and taking care of myself. I’m realising it’s really catching up to me how bad I am at certain aspects of life – maybe I can draw and write songs, but it seems that everything else is difficult for me. So I tried to rest a lot since June, but I’m ready to rock again, I think. 

Growing up in Midtown, has the theatre been an influence on your music? I can especially here it on a track like ‘Drifting On A Cloud’.

Yes, it’s been a huge influence in my music. Ever since I was little my parents took me to musicals, and I grew up in Manhattan Plaza, on Broadway, literally. So I always loved musicals and I always will. My aunt was even in musicals, my grandma was in Yiddish theatre, my grandpa was in the opera. And my mum acted. There’s lots of theatre in my blood.

I also hear Randy Newman in your music.

I’m a huge fan of Randy Newman – I love him so much. I actually arranged a big tribute show of Randy Newman songs a couple of years ago. I had as many people as I could sing Randy Newman songs as we could fit in. I was in the house band, and I think I almost played on every one. It was so fun, and I got to do some songs at the end solo. I went to see him live once and cried the whole time.

You studied jazz and have played in classical ensembles, yet your music is so beautifully pared down. Was that a conscious decision after your studies, to move in an opposite direction? 

I guess I tried my best to apply jazz and classical to my music without it sounding like a copy of anything. I will be very influenced by a jazz solo or a jazz arrangement, but it comes out how it comes out, and just because it doesn’t sound like it, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been fully informed by it. So it wasn’t that I consciously said that I wasn’t going to do jazz or classical, it just happens how it happens. And I think it sounds pared down because on the record I play all of the instruments and I always play solo, because I don’t have a band. And I don’t have a band because basically, it started out that I was stressed out having a band, because I have certain difficulties socially. No matter how amazing the musicians are, just something about playing the really sad songs that I write with a band, the element of socialising would stress me out. I tried it many times, but it became much easier to play solo. But I like it that way, because it’s a good test to see if I think the song can stand on its own.

The album includes the first song you ever wrote, over 10 years ago. What do you remember of completing ‘She Dreams’ all those years ago?

I woke up and the whole song was finished. I just remember having a sleepover with my friend who I wrote the song about, and I woke up and the whole song was in my head, so I recorded it into my phone in the bathroom. I remember it exactly.

Did you know you were onto something straight away, as most first ever songs are not in the same league as ‘She Dreams’, which might even be my favourite on the whole album?

Oh, thank you so much. That’s so nice of you. I guess I knew I was onto something because it was a whole song. If it had been just the beginning I probably wouldn’t have cared so much, but it was a whole song, and that gave me the confidence to explore that, because I’d always wished that I could write songs, but I never had the confidence
to try.

I’ve heard you describe your music as “all embarrassing”, presumably because it’s so personal. Can you put your finger on what compels you to record it for others to hear?

Yeah. I started making music because I always dreamed of doing it, but I started doing it for people because I was surprised that people didn’t hate it. I was like, “Oh, I’m not annoying anymore, that’s great news.” The better news became that I was helping people with it, so that adds to it as well. It’s worth embarrassing myself if it’s going to
help people.

Do you have any hopes for next year as 2023 winds down?

Yes. For next year I really hope to take better care of my health. I’ve been procrastinating it my whole life really, and it’s caught up with me, so I have to fix that.