Joanna Sternberg is a life saver. It was a quality they discerned in Elliot Smith when hearing him for the first time, a moment that inspired the then freelance musician to make the step centre-stage, writing and performing their own songs. A self-drawn portrait of their bedroom adorns the front cover and that’s indicative of what to come, an invitation to burrow in Sternberg’s personal spaces unearthing hard truth after hard truth.
Sternberg has led anything but an easy life, their childhood was blackened by other kids ridiculing their looks, they’ve experienced trauma at the hands of abusers and just recently come out of a ten year addiction battle with alcohol and heroin. “I wish I was scared of poison, pills and pain / I wish I was scared of damage to my brain” they sing on opener ‘This Is Not Who I Want To Be.’ These painstaking experiences are remembered in every flinching detail here, not in a ‘woe is me’ like manner but more in the spirit of ‘here are some practical tools to help you work through your current situation.’
Usually centred around a piano or acoustic guitar, the songs, armed with whistles, hums and theatrical endings, have an inimitable, panto-like quality to them. There’s no gloss here, instead it’s incredibly raw, at a stretch you can hear their hands moving up and down the fretboard or the sliding scales of the piano.
It’s the words they sing and the integrity inbuilt within them that really steal the show here though. The damaged self-esteem left behind by their childhood bullies announces itself on ‘Step Away’, “Anyone who’s watching knows / you’re too beautiful for me”. While on ‘Trying to Say No’ they subject themselves to victim-blaming, “I figured I’m a beggar not a chooser”.
It’s on ‘Pimba’ though where they sing their greatest line, “I am small but that don’t mean a thing.” It’s a show of strength, the affirmation that ‘no matter what I’ve been through, I can impact others positivity.’ As aforementioned Sternberg first discovered the life-saving qualities of song through Elliott Smith. Yet they couldn’t expect years later to be hearing stories of how their songs were instrumental in people’s recoveries from mental health battles, addiction, whatever it might be, yet that’s often how they spend the aftermath of their shows.
Fittingly the album closes with the line, “Don’t you dare feel that you’re alone.” Their idol Randy Newman sang “you got a friend in me” – ‘Then I Try Some More’ is as loyal and as helpful a friend as you’ll ever need.