Then I Try Some More is Joanna Sternberg's debut album. It's a remarkable record in many senses - rather than its lowest of lo-fi recording methods hampering the songs and their message, it simply makes them feel even starker, more affecting as they weave their way through many of the darker aspects of the human condition and emotions across just nine songs and twenty-six minutes. It's an album that could change and save lives, the message more important than the songs individually.
Our first encounter with Joanna was via a tweet - "I don’t know if a song has ever, first listen, brought me to my knees like this one just did. This song uppercut my gut then kicked me in the face then sprinkled my teeth over my bloody body" We're a sucker for something so powerful in its description that we had to listen. And lyrically that punch is right there from the start, disarming in its honesty, but something that many people will be able to relate to even if they don't admit it to themselves - "Rain pouring down my head pounds from the sound, I'm stuck to the bed with brain zaps in my head, I can't fall asleep I cannot stay awake, I cry till I weep I shiver and I shake" - evocatively describing the torment of being lost in your own head with seemingly no way of escape.
The entry into the chorus is a bleak but revelatory moment, where everything is laid out stark and bare as the first step to trying to come to terms and find a solution - "But finally I see I should be scared of me. How'd I come to be my own worst enemy? This is not who I want to be, this is not who I want to be. I am slowly killing me." It's unsettling in its clarity of expression yet cathartic at the same time, raw right down to the bone in a way that many try but few achieve. It's set to a piano, that sounds like it's about to go horribly out of tune, but that makes for even more impact, increasing the sense that things could spiral out of control.
Step Away explores different territory, but still the mood is bleak and harsh on oneself. Musically the slightly wonky piano reminds us of Regina Spektor's earliest work, the sense that this is being presented completely unfiltered, warts and all, for the world's consumption as some form of exorcism. The chorus "Step away from me dear, it's so easy to see, cause anyone who's watching knows you're too beautiful for me" is painful written down, but with the aching tone in Joanna's voice, the recorded version is right on the edge of unlistenable, such is the piercing rawness of the emotions being expressed and a seeming inability to appreciate the beauty inside themself.
My Angel takes a more reflective view on life, a look back at better times with a longing for a refrain, and it's important to note here again that it's not just the words that impact the listener across this record but how they are delivered. You can feel the sense of loss and regret as Joanna sings "You're my angel. Come back to my open arms. How I loved you, always loved you, I still love you. Come back to my open arms" yet with what's gone before, there's also a sense of light that the barriers can be broken down, as they have been once before, and redemption and happiness might not be a pipe dream.
For You again delves into the feelings of low self-esteem and not valuing yourself as highly as others value themselves. It starts with a hum, as if Joanna is whistling the song to themselves in the street rather than on their debut album. The lyrics though are clear in the sense that someone who would be traditionally described as beautiful and is full of self-confidence is treated differently to those that don't view themselves or aren't viewed in such a way as Joanna opens the song with the line "With a smile like yours you could get away with murder so I will not trust you" and then seeks to explore the manner with which such people are aloof and don't allow themselves to connect to those they view as less physically or emotionally unattractive. The final line though suggests that Joanna believes such vacuous characteristics never result in true happiness - "Now what will that get you? It will get nothing I bet. That's what it will get you"
Pimba sees Joanna cast the tiniest penguin, the smallest of the litter, as the key character in the song, using the analogy to compare to the person described in the songs so far, but with a fighting spirit in the line - "I am small but that don't mean a thing" - although the final line - "And I know what I know what I know and I know that it is time for me to go" - does feel a little too chilling and close to the bone.
There's enough sadness in the title of Nothing Makes My Heart sing alone, but the line "How I long to sing and laugh and love like many years ago" is as bleak and it is a simple statement. The piano, sharp at first then quickly turning mournful deepens the sense of despair, the changes of pace making it all feel very volatile and on the very edge. It's a stark catharsis that's uncomfortable listening, but as it feels like it's helping the artist to come to terms with their situation, it gives the listener food for thought about their own.
Trying To Say No picks over the inability to not make the same mistakes over and over again despite experience and learned judgment - "Everything that happens starts and ends the same
I should know by now that I'm the one to blame." Joanna's distinctive voice, a million miles from the shiny polished pop voices that pollute the radio, is heartbreaking in its own right, each subtle intonation squeezing the very last bit of desperate emotion out of the words. It's powerful, sparse and tear-jerking and we recall that very first tweet we read about Joanna and exactly why we were drawn in.
You Have Something Special feels like a redemption, that Joanna has discovered someone to connect with, whose experiences and songs sit in the same desolate head space and finding that kindred spirit brings a real warmth and positivity to the fore, both in the music and the delivery of the vocals. The lines "You have something special please don't throw it away, they will try to hurt you with the words they say" coupled with the response to those words "You've been singing sad songs every single day, I've been singing sad songs too, I've been hurting just like you." It's here when you realise, if you haven't already, that this record will not just serve as an expulsion of demons for the artist, but that there will be listeners across the world who will connect these songs to their own experiences and feel a little less alone in their situation. And to us, that is when music is at its absolute most powerful.
The album concludes with Don't You Ever, a song that somehow manages to describe confusion in the clearest possible words. It deals with Joanna's struggle with their very being - "Never felt that I was a lady, never felt like a man, you're not the first to think I'm crazy. How could you understand?" It's reaching out to those in a similar place in their lives - the final line "don't you dare feel that you are alone" is possibly the most important message you can ever give another human being.
Then I Try Some More is an intensely personal record, built on one person's life experiences and head spinning thoughts and feelings, but one that offers solace, solidarity and, most importantly, hope. It's reaching out to others who don't believe that they belong in a world and feel totally alone and tells them that they are not alone, that the darkest of feelings are natural and shouldn't be locked away until they explode spectacularly. It's a record that will make you cry, but far more importantly than that it might just pull people back from an abyss - and in that moment it transcends music.
Joanna Sternberg's website can be found here and she is on Facebook and Twitter.
The album is out now and can be ordered via her Bandcamp.