If our current political times have taught us anything, it’s that voices of the marginalized are finally being heard. Forged in fire and brimstone, tempered with compassionate hearts, Americana duo Joanie & Matt adapt inherently misogynistic ancient texts from the Hebrew Bible for a soulful and inspired new record. Sterling is seven tracks deep of provocative tales encompassing the #MeToo movement, the LGBTQ+ community and substance abuse; each chapter unfurling gritty honesty through a modern feminist lens.
On the back of a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, the two acclaimed singer- songwriters — who share honors including an Emmy nomination, first place trophy in the USA Songwriting Competition and a finalist distinction in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest — reconfigure such stories as Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, Jonah and the Big Fish, and Tamar’s harrowing journey through rape and recovery. “You’ve taken this body / Becoming a scoundrel / I could start a war,” mourns Joanie, underscoring the sheer brutality Tamar endures at the hands of close family.
A figure described in 2 Samuel, Tamar is sexually assaulted by her half-brother Amnon, eldest son of King David. In the aftermath, not only must she process what happened to her, but she soon realizes that not even her father will seek justice. Such wickedness is flipped on its head through Joanie & Matt’s delicate performance, which gives Tamar the voice she never had. “I’m not sterling anymore” rings out as a gutting prayer, cutting between time to be as relevant as ever.
With the blissful, violin-knitted “The Mighty Have Fallen,” the duo explore the possible romantic entanglement of Jonathan and David from both books of Samuel. “A lot of people have interpreted their friendship as something more. The lines are so flowery, and if they were just friends, I’d be so surprised,” says Joanie of the gorgeously plush love song, which also operates as a tribute to a fallen soldier. “I never thought I would be so perfectly in love / But you and I are bound / And we’re so perfect,” Matt sweeps the listener off their feet, tracing back through history to illustrate the endurance of love within the LGBTQ+ community.
Mixed by Jesse Lauter (Tedeschi Trucks Band, Ingrid Michaelson), Sterling remains historically grounded while allowing Joanie & Matt to update antiquated traditions and perspectives with a more hopeful eye and a willingness to confront our tragic reality. “We’d sit with the Hebrew Bible and go line-by-line,” reflects Matt.
A Philadelphia native, Matt grew up on classic rock ‘n roll and jam bands, from early ‘90s Pearl Jam and Nirvana to The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. It wasn’t until his late teens that he heard bluegrass music for the first time, and to say it was life-changing is an understatement. He was transfixed by the gallop of flat picking guitar licks and banjo, vocal harmony work and the stories that seemed to dig deep into the various states of the human condition.
In his childhood, Matt attended a Hebrew school and went to a Jewish summer camp, experiences that would later serve him quite well in many of his musical projects. Struck with a love of bluegrass, leading him to set aside his guitar for a number of years, he picked up the banjo and played in numerous bands through college and his graduate studies in New York City. By his late 20s, he acted as a Hebrew School Principal by day and played music by night.
He first met Joanie in the mid-2000s when both were tasked with leading “Tot Shabbat” services for kids at one of the biggest synagogues in midtown Manhattan. Joanie whipped out her acoustic guitar for a service, and a hesitant Matt began to realize they shared a remarkable chemistry. “I hated tot Shabbat so much and was scared of kids at 27 years old. It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do,” Matt recalls with a chuckle. “But Joanie was so good at it and seemed to love it.” This experience ultimately led them to record their first album together — what they call “the first-ever Jew-grass album in history” — a collection of Hebrew-bound stories with hearty bluegrass and country arrangements.
After their initial release, the two musicians stayed within each other’s paths but drifted into different creative endeavors. Matt went on to craft several albums, including the liturgy of the Friday night service ‘Kabbalat Shabbat’ with a full bluegrass band. He was also the original banjo player in Gangstagrass, and his playing is featured on the Emmy-nominated theme song of FX’s wildly successful Justified series. Matt later spent time writing a yet-unpublished book detailing his late-20s journey as a banjo-playing Jew in the city, featuring stories on songwriting and his many romantic escapades.
Via Miami roots and an equal interest in classic rock, a young, wide-eyed Joanie navigated an environment of bullying through leaning into the Jewish faith. At the urging of a close friend, she joined a local youth group to not only find new ways of self expression but to escape her tormentors. “Kids can be very cruel,” she says. “You’ve got a couple choices: you can join a club at school with the same jerks or you can seek some friendships elsewhere.” She soon found camaraderie and a musical avenue that opened up the entire world. During annual conventions sweeping the southern states, each district assigned the role of song leaders to lead services and guide the musical performances. She auditioned, got the part, and thus launched the beginning of a legacy career. “If I hadn’t done that, I don’t know where I’d be,” she says.
In the years that followed, her professional resume became marked with stints in real estate, clothing manufacturing, Miramax Films, record label work and countless other side hustles, all the while honing her music with evening performances around the city. One thing led to the next (including another solo album), and she soon found herself in the middle of children’s music, performing as a birthday party entertainer on the weekends. She later started her own business and band Joanie Leeds & The Nightlights and went on to record eight albums, performing in such venues as The Smithsonian, The Kennedy Center, and The Lincoln Center, among many others.
A decade after the duo first recorded, the stars fell in line once again for a creative rebirth. “My now ex-girlfriend and I went to India to do some traveling. I quit my job to do this. Joanie had written me an email saying when I got back to link up and write some new music,” Matt remembers. During his trip, the romance quickly fell apart, and upon his return, he was left holding his heart in his hands and an unquenchable desire to write again. “In the back of my mind, I thought it was a shame Joanie and I hadn’t gotten around to doing more music together.”
Meanwhile, Joanie’s marriage had crumbled, and she had relocated to the same neck of the Manhattan woods. Meeting up to write seemed like a no-brainer. “Joanie claims this album never would have happened if she hadn’t moved to the neighborhood, and I hadn’t been unemployed. That’s probably true,” chuckles Matt.
Sterling is jolted with an intense, earth-splitting electricity. From “Absalom,” a toe-tapper exploring another one of King David’s sons, to the sobriety tale “The One Above” (drawing upon Nazarite law) and the humorously-cut “It Ain’t Paradise” (an Adam & Eve call-and-response ditty), the music provokes questions on morality and truth while offering profound conversations on female empowerment and the nature of existence. Voices intertwined, regaling tales from the human race’s earliest recorded roots, these seven songs don’t only feel special but undeniably vital to the current state of the world. It’s the kind of record that imparts humanity’s struggle in a way that’ll make you listen, one way or another.
“Timely…provocative.” – Billboard
“One to keep an eye out for…easy-going, rootsy sway between bluegrass, country, and rock backgrounds.” – PopMatters
“Provocative tales…recrafting their Jewish heritage…unfurling gritty honesty through a modern feminist lens.” – AmericanaUK
“Brings a sense of energy and celebration to standing up for what you believe in. Count on a mid-summer extravaganza with Sterling.” – Americana Highways
“There has been a lot written over the last few years about the Progressive Christian movement…there has been less written about Progressive Judaism. But now the movement has a musical standard bearer in self-described Jewgrass duo Joanie and Matt.” – Chris Griffy, ConcertHopper