The qualities every songwriter should strive for are honesty and specificity — Joanna Sternberg has both. The New York City musician’s songs are vulnerable and tender, a chronicle of one person’s experience that feels eminently relatable. Sternberg sings about heartbreak and loneliness, being overwhelmed and under pressure, feeling invisible and like no one will ever understand you. But then a song comes along, like the ones that Sternberg writes, that reminds you of the universality of the human experience, even in all its individual quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Take “Mountains High,” a loping piano jaunt whose chorus is about continually trying your best despite what feels like insurmountable odds. Its verses are plainspoken but heartwrenching. “I often wonder why these thoughts keep crossing my mind/ They run in circles and always keep me falling behind,” Sternberg sings. “But when I look back, look back on the years/ I see all the time that I wasted on tears.” And even better: “I once loved someone and now they don’t remember my name/ I loved them badly although I know they didn’t feel the same/ It’s not their fault, the fault was all mine/ I’m trying to feel better, sometimes I feel fine.”
Back in 2019, Sternberg released their debut Then I Try Some More, which felt like it came out of nowhere: a folk album dripping with sincerity and songs that had real emotional heft. One of its best is the opening track, “This Is Not Who I Want To Be,” where Sternberg laments the person they are right now, while leaving the door open for change. The next year, Sternberg moved back to their family home shortly before the pandemic and stayed there right on through. They grew up in the federally subsidized artist complex Manhattan Plaza, surrounded by musicians and creatives of all different stripes. Sternberg comes from a family of artists — their recent New Yorker profile lists out the sort of bonafides that speak to a different era of the city: a performer in the Metropolitan Opera, a titan of Yiddish theater. Those sorts of connections place Sternberg’s music in a lineage that extends far beyond themself, and the songs on their sophomore album I’ve Got Me feel informed and humbled by that sense of history.
After flirtations with classical music and jazz, the medium of choice that Sternberg landed on is plucky singer-songwriter fare. Their music has echoes of other New York eccentrics, from the anti-folk era of Regina Spektor and the Moldy Peaches back to the hauntingly soothing emanations of Connie Converse, and even further still: the music that used to occupy the (formerly) smoky clubs and music halls around the city. There’s something unique but also quotidian about the music that Sternberg makes, an indelible timeless quality. I guess because no matter how much the world changes, we largely remain the same. Sternberg’s songs are earnest and sweet, even when they’re singing about how not-so-sweet some people can be.
And their compositions are becoming increasingly fleshed out. Sternberg played all the instruments on the album, though they recruited Matt Sweeney to produce it. “I’ve been secretly saving these songs, hoping for something like this,” Sternberg said in a recent interview. “This is an album in the sense of, ‘I finally get to do this! This is my dream come true, and I’m doing it, this is me!'” I’ve Got Me still feels like a homespun affair — down to the album’s artwork, a self-portrait displaying Sternberg with a clutter of things surrounding them, both comforting and a little chaotic. But it is also ambitious: piano keys crash into snaking guitars and snag around Sternberg’s voice, which they jokingly referred to in that New Yorker profile as sounding a little like a Muppet. But that voice carries these songs. It’s pillowy but also raw and aching, and it contains a kernel of a New Yorker’s characteristic world weariness.
Their experiences with addiction and mental health are threaded throughout I’ve Got Me. “Stockholm Syndrome,” one of the album’s many unassuming stunners, chronicles a relationship whose lines are frustratingly indefinable and blurred: “We’d get drunk every single night/ Heading home arm in arm/ When you turned off the light, there was a roach crawling up my arm.” On “Drifting On A Cloud,” Sternberg turns to medication to try and stabilize their feelings: “My moods were up and down/ I was a crying clown/ Laughing to hide my frown/ Now since I took this pill/ I can’t even sit still/ I’ll feel it right until…” And on “People Are Just Toys To You,” Sternberg has some stern words after being manipulated and allowing themselves to be, laying blame on everyone involved: “You said you stayed ’cause you felt bad for me/ How sweet of you to call me charity/ And maybe part of me did agree/ I deserved all your pity.”
But through all these struggles, a steadfastness emerges. On the title’s track, Sternberg is defiantly joyful: “I’ve got me in the morning! I’ve got me in the evening! I’ll let you be, because I’ve got me!” It’s no coincidence that the titles of Sternberg’s two albums so far are declarations to themself: Then I Try Some More, I’ve Got Me — reminders that the world is not as unforgiving or as lonely as it might sometimes seem.
I’ve Got Me is out 6/30 via Fat Possum.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Lucinda Williams’ Stories From A Rock And Roll Heart
• Cornelius’ Dream In Dream
• Terrace Martin’s Fine Tune
• Lil Uzi Vert’s The Pink Tape
• Angelo De Augustine’s Toil And Trouble
• Loma Prieta’s Last
• Grian Chatten’s Chaos For The Fly
• The Japanese House’s In The End It Always Does
• Brigid Mae Power’s Dream From The Deep Well
• Sweeping Promises’ Good Living Is Coming For You
• Suzie True’s Sentimental Scum
• The Body’s I Shall Die Here / Earth Triumphant
• Hayden Pedigo’s The Happiest Times I Ever Ignored
• bdrmm’s I Don’t Know
• Body Of Light’s Bitter Reflection
• John Carroll Kirby’s Blowout
• Chester Watson’s fish don’t climb trees
• Divide And Dissolve’s Systemic
• Static Abyss’ Aborted From Reality
• Do Nothing’s Snake Sideways
• Mong Tong 夢東’s Tao Fire 道火
• The Baseball Project’s Grand Salami Time!
• Big Girl’s Big Girl Vs. God
• Young Moon’s Triggered By Sunsets
• Spine’s Raíces
• Hataałii’s Singing Into Darkness
• Bandmanrill, MCVERTT, & Sha EK’s Defiant Presents: Jiggy In Jersey (Ft. MCVERTT)
• Ash Walker’s Astronaut
• The Pink Stones’ You Know Who
• Veeze’s Ganger
• The Weeknd’s The Idol Vol. 1 (Music From The HBO Original Series)
• The Durutti Column’s Time Was Gigantic… When We Were Kids (25th Anniversary Deluxe)
• Pierre Kwenders’ José Louis And The Paradox Of Love (Deluxe)
• Charlie Watts’ Anthology
• Frank Zappa’s rarities collection Funky Nothingness
• The Grateful Dead’s Here Comes Sunshine 1973
• Alex G’s Live From Union Transfer
• The Alchemist’s Flying High EP
• Shady Bug’s What’s The Use? EP
• Wallice’s Mr Big Shot EP
• Alex Nicol’s Been A Long Year EP
• The 3 Clubmen’s The 3 Clubmen EP