PLAYLIST: Joanna Sternberg’s Songs That Will Help Me and Help Me and Will Always Help Me

The NYC-based songwriter goes long on the songs and artists that inspired their debut for Conor Oberst’s Team Love Records.

When I was a kid, my parents subjected me to the oddest, most niche music imaginable, including and mostly limited to my dad’s extensive record collection of ’70s prog-rock (Focus, anyone?), a fair amount of CDs of their favorite ’80s records (plenty of Phil Collins and late Talking Heads) due to it being the period when they started having kids and stopped listening to new music, and an inexplicable array of then-contemporary ’90s Christian rock staples (Jars of Clay, Newsboys, those WOW comps). I can’t tell you exactly how that informed my upbringing, but I imagine this musical syllabus had something significant to do with my current taste.

Most of us can relate to this, and based on the mish-mash of genres toted by your typical headlining act today, it’s had an influence on our music, too. For Joanna Sternberg, this coming-of-age-within-earshot-of-your-parents’-music-library experience was especially pertinent; coming up in a household several generations deep in various musical circles, Sternberg was raised in and out of a handful of different music institutions, studying everything from jazz to classical double bass. This whirlwind of exposure to different sounds weaves in and out of their debut LP Then I Try Some More, out today, consisting mostly of intimate acoustic guitar or piano ballads. 

Offering some context for the album’s nine songs, which vaguely recall the plethora of influences deeply ingrained in their wheelhouse (there’s something a little Newsom-y about this Joanna’s vocals, for example, but their inflections seems strictly Sternbergian), they’ve gifted us with a long list of artists who helped them along the way. While there’s a pretty sizable jump from, say, Aretha to Elliott Smith, the twenty-eight tracks Sternberg chose to include clearly have one thing in common: the songwriter’s unwavering love for them.

Then I Try Some More is out today on Team Love Records. You can order it here

Mahalia Jackson, “He Calmed the Ocean”

Mahalia Jackson is one of my favorite singers. Whenever I listen to her, it is impossible for me not to get goosebumps. I was very happy to hear it in Spike Lee’s movie Jungle Fever during a very intense and disturbing scene. It was very moving in combination with the song. I love how she phrases the melody, and I love her vibrato on the high notes.

Reverend Gary Davis, “Oh Glory How Happy I Am”

This is one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and guitarists. This song always makes me happy. It is like medicine for me. It levitates my soul, and makes me believe in the power of music. There is a great video of Reverend Gary Davis performing this on “Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest” with Donovan, Pete Seeger, and Shawn Philips in the background. He says that this song came to him by the Holy Spirit.  

Judee Sill, “The Kiss”

I cry every time I hear this song. Judee Sill is a hero of mine. I found out she was also a cartoonist, and I really would love to see her art. I wonder if anyone has one, but so far nothing is online. I hope a documentary will be made in her honor soon—I feel the world should know about her because her songs can save lives. This song is magical to say the least.

Ray Charles, “Lonely Avenue”

Ray Charles is another hero of mine—I have been obsessed with his music since I heard it when I was a toddler. This song was actually one of John Lennon’s favorite songs. It helped get me through some especially lonely times in high school. I also love to sing this song while I walk down the street, or during concerts where I cover it. I will never stop singing this song.

Sam Cooke, “Having a Party”

This song really tugs at my heartstrings. I think Sam Cooke is the only person who could write such a moving song using these lyrics. It always makes me very emotional. He had the voice of an angel and he is one of my heroes. 

Cat Stevens, “Trouble”

I love Cat Stevens/Yusef Islam. I picked this song because I can really hear Sam Cooke singing it. (And obviously Cat Stevens covered a number of Sam Cooke songs in his career, so the influence is obvious!) I also love this song in the movie Harold and Maude. He wrote this song when he was recovering from a collapsed lung and tuberculosis. The vocal run on the word “free” is exactly one of Sam Cooke’s famous vocal runs, note for note. I think it is a beautiful song, it really perfectly describes pain to me.

David “Fathead” Newman, “Hard Times”

This is one of my favorite tunes, and anyone who has ever called me knows it is my cell phone ring back tone, and ringtone! (And it has been for many years!) I love playing this song too, and soloing on the gospel jazz changes. It is so beautiful, bluesy, catchy, and soulful. And guess who is playing piano on the track? Ray Charles of course!

Sam & Dave, “Soothe Me”

This is another song that got me through high school. I couldn’t wait ’til school got out and I could play it on repeat on my CD player as I headed home. I love everything by Sam & Dave, and their amazing backing band Booker T and the M.G.’s. I have combed through all the videos online, and their performances were mind boggling. Their dancing and the singing was so intense, and I heard that a lot of people they opened for would be too scared to perform after them because they were afraid they couldn’t match such a performance! The singing on this track brings me tears of joy.

Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington, “Azalea”

Louis Armstrong is another one of my favorite singers and musicians.  If I was forced to pick a favorite, it would have to be him. This is a gorgeous song written by Billy Strayhorn. Duke Ellington is playing the piano. I have listened to it thousands of times. I have no idea what to write because I can’t possibly use words to describe how it makes me feel…I am not a good enough writer! I am so thankful for this music. Wow.

Randy Newman, “Let Me Go”

I have listened to this song countless times. I remember I would play it on repeat on my way to and from work every single day for a year. Randy Newman is one of my favorite songwriters, and I have listened to all of his songs obsessively. I saw him play this song live once, and I cried like a baby the entire time. He sounds just as amazing live as he does on the records.

The Four Tops, “Reach Out, I’ll Be There”

This recording is the reason I became a musician. My dad showed it to me in middle school when I told him I wanted to play electric bass. He told me, “this is the greatest electric bassist of all time, James Jamerson.” He was right. I remember I got goosebumps. The baselines burst out of our little speakers. I knew in that moment that music was what I wanted to do with my life. Thank you so much, dad! After that, I studied all of James Jamerson’s lines. These Motown recordings are very special to me, and also helped get me through the loneliest times of my childhood. I love this song, and I love The Four Tops. The band sounds so amazing and powerful. One of my favorite movies is Standing in the Shadows of Motown. It is about The Funk Brothers, which were the backing band to all of the Motown recordings from 1959 to 1972. If you have not seen it already, please do! Or watch it again!

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, “Who’s Lovin’ You”

I love Smokey Robinson and his singing on this song. I heard a cute interview with him where he said when he was younger and just starting out, he had a crush on Aretha Franklin, but she had a crush on Sam Cooke! His vocal performance on this song is soul crushing. Wow. He is another one of my heroes.

Aretha Franklin, “Don’t Play That Song”

I first heard this song in the footage of her playing and singing it on piano when she was very young. The intensity of her voice and her piano playing was terrifying in the best way possible. She is also playing the piano on this recording. I remember I felt the power of the song in my heart, and it was almost like drinking ten cups of coffee instantly! I was amazed, and watched the video hundreds of times until I could sort of copy the piano part. Her singing brings me to life. Rest in peace, beautiful goddess.

Elliott Smith, “Waltz #2 (XO)”

I am picking this song, because it is the first Elliott Smith song I ever heard. It is a memory I wish I could experience again, but I try my best every time I hear the song. Elliott Smith’s songs are what got me to start writing songs. I always wanted to, but never had the courage or the urge to until I heard his songs. They made me feel like I wasn’t alone in a way that no other music had before. I wanted to try and make music that could possibly have that effect on people too. I heard the lyric “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow” and then the piano instrumental, and I almost fainted. That was it for me.

Stevie Wonder, “With a Song in My Heart”

This is one of my favorite standards, sung by one of my heroes, Stevie Wonder. He was very young when he recorded this in 1963 for his Motown album called With a Song in My Heart. To me it represents the early Motown records, a lovely mixture of so many musical “genres” (although I don’t like using genres to describe music.). All of The Funk Brothers were skilled Jazz Musicians, and they applied that impeccable artistry to their playing on all of the Motown hits. Stevie Wonder sings this song with the eloquence of any legendary Jazz singer, although he was only thirteen years old! Wow. This recording always makes me cry.

Fraydele Oysher, “Ov-Horachamim”

I apologize for bragging, but this is my beloved grandmother Fraydele Oysher singing. Her voice is so warm and shiny, like honey. She was from Romania, and became a Yiddish theater star in New York City, and a pioneer for women in the Yiddish theater. She may have been the first, (or one of the first) woman to sing cantorial music in the Yiddish theater in New York City. My grandfather Harold Sternberg (singer in the Metropolitan Opera for thirty years) heard her sing, and immediately asked him to marry her. They passed on their amazing singing to my father, and his sister, Marilyn Michaels. (And my cousin Mark Wilk!). I am honored to be related to them. Her beloved brother was the one and only Moishe Oyster.

Moishe Oysher with The Barry Sisters, “Halevai”

Moishe Oysher was my grandmother’s brother, and my great uncle. He was a legendary cantor, composer, singer, and Yiddish theater actor (in musicals and movies). Both he and my grandmother had voices that were from another planet. His singing on this song is amazing, but so are all of his recordings. His voice was a beautiful force of nature. He was also a phenomenal actor. I have been lucky enough to play a lot of his compositions and songs he made famous on double bass with different ensembles and bands. My father and I have also performed some of the Yiddish songs that were sung in our family as a duet. There is a beautiful CD of my family’s music called The Oysher Heritage.

Little Richard, “I Don’t Know What You Got, But It’s Got Me”

This is one of my favorite Little Richard songs. When I was three I used to dance around my house to Little Richard records. His appearances on Sesame Street helped make more beautiful childhood memories for me. I will always listen to his music and feel as happy and carefree as I did as a little one. This song, however, I discovered when I was a teenager, and it was especially helpful when I had the blues. I love You, Little Richard!

Jimi Hendrix, “Little Wing”

I used to listen to Jimi Hendrix in my headphones while I would practice shooting hoops in middle school. That may be the closest thing I will ever experience to having wings and flying. I recently played this song on double bass, accompanying one of my friends (the amazing singer/songwriter/guitarist/blues musician Michael Hill) and his rendition was so soulful and beautiful that I cried. I love this song so much. I haven’t had the courage to cover it yet, but I hope to someday.

Daniel Johnston, “Like a Monkey in a Zoo”

Daniel Johnston is another one of my heroes, and I admire how he has been such a prolific songwriter and a visual artist (which is what I am trying to do). He is one of my heroes, as a visual artist, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. This song really describes how I feel sometimes as a person who tends to laugh and make fun of themselves when deep down they are very sad. I would rather entertain others than take care of myself, and it is the classic “crying clown syndrome.” This often makes me feel like a monkey in a zoo, but sadly it is a zoo I made myself…the problem is, after acting like such a monkey for so long, it is hard to stop acting like a monkey because people may not accept the real you. I love this song.

John Lennon, “God”

This song. Wow. I remember I discovered it in high school and it knocked me off my feet. I am an atheist, have always been one, but hearing this song must have helped me confirm that fact. I heard my dad playing the piano part at our apartment and I copied him and taught it to myself.  I used to play this song before school on the piano every single day. (I was lucky enough to go to an arts high school that had pianos in the basement! Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art. I went for Double Bass and graduated in 2009! My father also went there for singing, and my aunt went for visual art.)

Geeshie Wiley, “Last Kind Words Blues”

This may be the most haunting piece of music I have ever heard. It is so beautiful and dark and mysterious. A lot of research has been done about Geeshie Wiley, but there is still no documented photograph of her… This song is also in my favorite movie, Crumb by Terry Zwigoff (about Robert Crumb!).

Charley Patton, “Some of These Days I’ll Be Gone”

This is one of the saddest songs I have ever heard. It is very hypnotic to listen to, as all of Charley Patton’s music is for me. Sometimes it is hard to understand what he is saying, but that doesn’t stop me from listening to his songs over and over and over and over again.

Blind Willie McTell, “You Got To Die”

Blind Willie McTell has been one of my major influences, and I use this song as a sort of mantra to (try to) not take things so seriously all of the time. His singing and guitar playing has captivated me since I first heard his music ten years ago when I was eighteen. His music got me through some of the hardest times of my life.

The Beatles, “Free as a Bird”

I was raised listening to The Beatles as if it were a religion. (I am a Hebrew School drop out.) I read every Beatle book, saw every Beatle documentary, and listened to every Beatle album many, many, many times. I actually taught myself how to draw by drawing photographs of The Beatles. This song is from The Beatles Anthology and was never released on an album. It always gets me really emotional because it was put out in 1995 after John Lennon had died, but he wrote and recorded it alone in his apartment in 1977. Ringo, Paul, and George all added their parts to it after John had been murdered. It makes me really sad and emotional, but it is also so beautiful and positive as a song. I love The Beatles. 

Scott Joplin, “Bethena”

I did not know which Scott Joplin rag to pick for this playlist, since I am obsessed with all of them (as well as his opera and other music…) but Bethena is a classic. I base a lot of my music off his rags, and his melodies make me sentimental for a time that I wasn’t even alive during. I think if I had to be alone on a deserted island with a piano and a book of sheet music, it would have to be his complete rags. I have been studying them for many years. Although I can’t play them up to tempo, I learn endlessly by sitting there and trying to plunk them out for hours on end. They are also fun to play on double bass as piano accompaniment.

William Bolcom, “The Graceful Ghost Rag”

My dad showed me this rag in high school. It is one of my favorite pieces of music ever written.  I wish I could make another playlist full of my favorite rags, classical pieces, jazz recordings, and country music recordings…there is so much music that I love. This piece is what got me to want to start writing music. I am so thankful my dad showed it to me! There is also a recording of it being played on violin with piano accompaniment.

Elizabeth Cotten, “When I’m Gone”

This is my favorite cover of this Carter family classic. I love how Elizabeth Cotten phrases the melody and plays such rocking guitar lines to complement her singing and phrasing. Elizabeth Cotten is one of my all time heroes and muses.

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