When a performer opens their set with the lyric “Glad to meet you, now I see / just how very much I hate me,” it’s almost like the gloves are off. We’re not tiptoeing around what these songs are about, we’re getting right into it. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Joanna Sternberg did exactly this with their NON-COMM set, but with a hitch — their music wasn’t melancholy in the slightest. “People Are Toys To You,” the song in question, was built on catchy acoustic strums; other songs took a fingerstyle approach, one was beautifully delivered on piano. Sternberg’s music is tender, but serene and often full of joy, even as it probes dark corners of the soul.
Sternberg’s debut record Then I Try Some More was released on Fat Possum in 2019; the Kimya Dawson-esque fast pace and free association of “This Is Not Who I Want To Be” repped that record in today’s setlist, along with “Don’t You Ever,” a pensive contemplation of gender dysphoria: “Never felt like a lady, never felt I was a man / no one really knows you no one really will.” It was heavy, but not hopeless, as Sternberg concluded that song with the sentiment “don’t you dare feel you are alone.”
The majority of the songs they played today are as-yet unreleased, though, and called to mind artists from Daniel Johnston — the plucked and whimsical pep talk “I’ve Got Me” — and Elliott Smith — the crowd was pindrop silent after “The Mountain,” a welcome change from the overly chatty rooms at NON-COMM’s nighttime shows.
Sternberg was humorous about the content of their music, reacting to the loud cheers following the opener by saying “Little do you know the rest of the songs are even more depressing, haha. Here’s another one about puppies, here we go.” Later, when cell phones kept sounding in the room (who doesn’t have their phone on silent in 2022?), Sternberg worked with it: “I like the cell phone, it relates to the song. You notice how cell phones make us more lonely?”
It’s music of and about pain, but it’s also music that brings joy — which is often the best kind. Listen to Joanna Sternberg’s NON-COMM set below, and explore their music and art at their website.