The album, So Free, is available here:
THE penultimate review of the year…
takes a looks at JoAnna Lee and her fantastic music. I will speak about her soon but, right now, there are a few subjects that come to mind. She is based in Austin, Texas – so there is that eagerness in me to explore the state. I wanted to look at singers who combine Country and the Singer-Songwriter sounds; the songs that warm the heart and provide comfort in the winter; the right mixture of artists when growing up; the way songwriters like JoAnna Lee can evolve and make an impact; why the U.S. is providing more range and fascination – a bit about taking a chance and going for it. It has been a while since I’ve looked at a Texan artist. JoAnna Lee has been in the state for a while but it is the perfect place for her. I have reviewed a lot of L.A. artists but it has been a long time since diving into Texas. Most of my reviews – when looking at Texas – concentrate on Austin. It seems like a place many gravitate towards and provides the right mixture of passion, opportunity and intrigue. Local sources like Austin Monthly have named their artists, they feel will make a dent in the coming months. Earlier in the year, the publication listed Bee Caves, Jackie Venson; Otis the Destroyer and Tele Novella as artists to keep an eye out for. You can do your own research but each of those artists has an eclectic and varied sound that sticks in the mind. One of the common threads is originality and power. You do not get anything predictable and safe when it comes to Austin-made music. ‘Older’ bands from the city, like Spoon and The Octopus Project, have inspired the people and showed what Austin is made of. Many of us, when thinking of cities outside L.A. and New York often head to Nashville. It is a Mecca for Country stars so one might assume JoAnna Lee would head there to hone and expand her sounds.
I am interested in her music and feel she is in a better place. There is more variation around her and a broader scene compared with Nashville. Not only does she get those great local musicians around her; there are incredible venues and scenes to compel the mind and provoke the pen. One listens to the voice and hears the music flow and knows the people, surroundings and music of Austin seep into her bloodstream. I have been waiting to discover an artist that differs from anything out there; gets into the mind and motivates the senses. Austin is a wonderful city to expand your horizons and hone your skills. From Red River District’s The Mowhawk through to Parish in Congress Ave District; Strange Brew in South Manchaca; the wonders and reputation of Antone’s – so many different spots to cut your teeth and get people talking. I am not sure whether JoAnna Lee has played these spots but possible venues she could visit in 2018. Unlike areas like Nashville; there is not a dependence on one genre and flavour: you get every genre imaginable sparring and interweaving. That means musicians are more confident when it comes to writing and their music is deeper and more nuanced. JoAnna Lee has moved from smalltown U.S.A. and developed into a strident and ambitious artist. I hope she remains in Austin - and does not feel the need to go somewhere like L.A. or New York. One of the best things about Austin is the fact you have California located on the West Coast not too far away; New Orleans and Nashville are fairly nearby – not walking-distance but an easy flight. Texas does not need to rely on close-by states because, aside from Austin, there are cities like Houston and Dallas – big areas that have their own music scene and characteristics. Austin artists have that freedom because they can tour conveniently in big parts of the U.S.; they are situated in a warm and multicultural region; there is the rich history and reputation many take to heart.
I am not usually a big fan of Country and Singer-Songwriter unification but, if done right, it can result in some terrific music. JoAnna Lee is someone who has a broad palette – more on that later – but her new single has that ache and soothe – one is put in mind of contemporary Acoustic/Country artists and some of the legends of music. I am not sure how much of one’s upbringing enforces their own music but there are distinctions between JoAnna Lee’s childhood fascinations and what she is making now. I have been listening to a lot of her older material and can see how the music has shaped and grown. There is more confidence and colour in the present tense; the ability to switch between genres and assimilate more passion. Drinking by Myself is a track of loneliness and reflection; it has plenty of charm and emotion but it never wallows and sinks into a pit – energy and kick are at the heart of the track. Modern artists who combine sounds like Country and Singer-Songwriter are still sourcing from the older icons but are ensuring the forms are pushed forward and kept relevant. It is always hard breaking barriers and trying to compel those whose tastes are quite rigid. Rather than compromise ethics and sell out your instincts; artists like JoAnna Lee are blending in modern production and big choruses with gorgeous vocals and lyrics that can be understood by all. That might sound quite vague but they are components that mean that people like me, who do not usually go for such sounds, are drawn in and hooked. I feel one of the big problems with certain genres/sounds is we get this stereotyped impression and do not really venture too much into things. That would be a mistake with regards JoAnna Lee – she is someone who has a very modern and broad sound; she never loses focus and mixes her own D.N.A. with that of Austin.
Maybe it is a bit narrow referring to JoAnna Lee’s music as Country. She has Folk strands and puts together some Pop undertones to create something fulsome and evocative. What strikes me is the way one is transported into a safe world and drinks in all the tones/layers. I have heard too many predictable and safe sounds this year: the fact JoAnna Lee broadens our horizons and has a unique flair means one is more invested and sustained. I am eager to see where she heads next year and whether her music will continue to build. I will talk about her album in the conclusion but I have been digging into Drinking by Myself and what could have compelled the song. There is a desire to find sanctuary and companionship but a certain sense of clarity. The words and themes of the song are familiar to anyone who is a fan of Country but there is a wider remit. It is about a woman going through some tough times but dealing with them in her own way. If one listens to other songs in her cannon; there is a lot of personal revelation and exposure. The young songwriter is unafraid to reveal her pain and let the listener into her heart. That is a commendable attitude and reason many of us should turn her way. This year has been important and successful. She has accrued a local base and getting attention from other parts of the U.S. That is in no small part because of the way she reminds one of some music greats but fuses that with something unexpected and fresh. The electricity, physicality and drive one hears in JoAnna Lee’s music is enough to get the body moving and the brain working – the songs stay rooted in the head and you are fascinated to hear the next song. I will speculate where Lee will head next year but, right now, it seems she is near her peak.
That sense of quality has not arrived overnight: her upbringing and incredible music past means she has changed her style and incorporated new elements over the years. One of the things that stands out regarding Drinking by Myself is the way it infuses the heart. The song has some hint of isolation and desire but there is a sound and flavour that gets one warmed and smiling. The track never lets up its yearning and searching; it smiles and dances but there are harder, darker tones working underneath. All of this is a potent brew from a talented young songwriter. She never drags the listener into a shadowy, tough place but, at the same time, gets them thinking and looking at myself. The most memorable aspect of JoAnna Lee’s music is the voice. It is a sumptuous bouquet that has love and tenderness but has that sharpness and independence. Lee is a musician that cannot be pegged and defined easily. I am curious about her beginnings and will explore that in a minute. What drew me to her current track is the way it hits you the first time you witness it. The song is a big and anthemic number but one that reveals more stories/possibilities later down the line. The year has been challenging for many of us and the weather is turning. In the remaining days of 2017; we will look to keep warm and safe; make sure we are happy and insulted. Music is a great way to ensure that and, if you are looking for an artist who can inspire all of that, JoAnna Lee is your girl. Reviews and media opinions share my sentiments and have backed her for big things. What, then, is the reason behind such a rich and variegated sense of songcraft? We can talk about the modern scene but we rarely look at where artists came from in terms of their musical tastes.
Stevie Wonder is a name that has been associated with JoAnna Lee. She was raised on his music and, whilst her classmates were listening to Pop and the chart sounds on the radio; the aspiring songwriter was digging into crates and listening to older records. She grew up in a household with the legends of music. Wonder is an artist that made an impression and spoke to a deeper part of her. That blend of Soul, Gospel and R&B can be heard in the work of JoAnna Lee. She has elements of Stevie Wonder and projects a similar sense of confidence and bravery. Although Stevie Wonder’s lyrics look at different areas of life, I can hear the way he has inspired Lee and made her music stronger and hungrier. If she was to follow the same path as her peers; one would hear something more mainstream and generic. The music would be quite flat and try too hard to get into the charts. That would leave me a little cold but I would still give the music time. Instead, the music one hears from JoAnna Lee is full of life and rich imagination. You get a glimpse of Wonder’s music but that is a stepping-stone to explore other avenues of music. JoAnna Lee crafts her own path and explores ground few other songwriters tread. I wonder whether upbringing and the exposure to good music when young is, at all, partly/entirely responsible for the route songwriters take. You could argue a musician changes their sound and style over time but there is every evidence to suggest what you listen to as a child dictates the way your music will come out. I wonder, too, which other artists were present in the varied household of JoAnna Lee. With Stevie Wonder as a base; one imagines other Soul artists and contemporaries were played alongside him. For a youngster growing up in a fairly isolated part of the U.S. – not close to major cities in terms of music – a lot of her education and exposure to life would have come through music.
I can hear shades of Etta James in JoAnna Lee’s sounds and feel she was quite an important guide. Motown, Soul and R&B all swam in her head; she used this foundation and has put all of these aspects into her music. After those big artists got into the soul; she performed in wine bars and coffee shops around Oregon. It might be unfair to class JoAnna Lee’s music as purely Country and Singer-Songwriter. There are Rock elements and Pop suggestions; a bit of Folk and some nods to Motown. Nurture and the earliest memories of music are vital and can make a huge difference to a songwriter. I was brought up with so many different decades and genres; that has made me a more curious and open-minded writer – the reason I explore various parts of the musical world. If JoAnna Lee had a narrow and strict musical education then that would reflect on her own music. Regardless of the influence of Austin; the sounds would be less interesting and fail to stand out from the crowd. Instead; there is that fusion of new and old; all these sounds working around one another; an artist who has learnt so much from music – willing to give her all to the world. She graced the stage at the age of three and was raised in a family who played instruments and had that love of music. Her grandmother played piano and grandfather played the harmonica. Generations of the family took to music and that motivated JoAnna Lee to investigate and follow in their footsteps. It is clear there is a certain sense of inevitability when it comes to the passion that flows through the Austin-based songwriter’s soul. Having all sorts of instruments and artists in her mind as a child; there is no way she would follow another career and not be affected. That important and glorious exposure has made her a much stronger writer and more inventive performer.
It is because of all this past education and modern desire that means JoAnna Lee will be a big fixture of 2018. I feel she will continue to aspire and build what she does. I have mentioned a few artists that have got into her mind and helped forge who she is. We have a mainstream scene that has little of the magic and potency one hears in JoAnna Lee’s music. I think we should proffer and celebrate artists like her. Here in the U.K., we are talking about Pop and how the tastemakers are backing the newcomers to do sterling work. Grime and Hip-Hop were big last year and it seems like tastes are shifting. I am not sure what the predictions are regarding U.S. music but I feel the mainstream will change and incorporate new ideals. What I hope is the best new artists (like Lee) are given more oxygen and chance. She has carved out a name for herself in Austin but there is a big country out there to explore. The only way she is going to get into the consciousness is for the big publications and stations to do their part and realise potential when they hear it. Few would argue there is anything more the young songwriter can do. Her current L.P. has so many different sides and pleasures that every listener will find something they like. She has been playing local gigs and pushing her work out there; making sure every song has a different sensation and vibe. In terms of promotion and work; one cannot ask any more from her, for sure. I feel that determination and dedication is why JoAnna Lee will do wonderful things in 2018. It is hard predicting what sounds will rule in a year and which artists will stand aside. We can only take the word of journalists as a guide – it is not an absolute and sure-fire thing. I have been listening to U.S. music and the new artists coming out. JoAnna Lee is in a wonderful city and part of the U.S. that can foster her needs and hopes.
PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Hopes
The first notes of Drinking by Myself as the vocals from JoAnna Lee. There is soulful strength and intensity but the sound is very much that of JoAnna Lee. If anything, I caught a glimpse of singers like Dolly Parton. That might be me leaping to conclusions but the initial seconds are a curious blend of Country, Soul and Motown sounds. It seems the heroine has been drinking alone and getting drunk. “If I only knew what men were thinking” she tells us. It seems too many have let her down and, through her life, offered little promise and faithfulness. The vocal instantly goes from that strident introduction to something soulful, soothing and classic. One hears that influence of Etta James as the heroine lets the lights down and asks these searing questions. I was invested straight away and compelled to see where the song goes. The heroine does not let the tears roll: instead, we get a mature and resolved woman looking around and asking where things go from here. If the man was honest from the start – and he was taking the relationship seriously – then JoAnna Lee would not be sitting by herself. It seems he was playing games out the trap and one of those guys who feels the need to lie his way through a relationship. That has created the cracks and distance; sees the lovers estranged and disconnected. It is a sad and emotional revelation but one that can lead to revelation and clarity. Although the heroine is drinking alone; one feels it is not a destructive measure: she is looking for company and would be drinking with her guy if he were straight and open with her. He is cowardly but she is not going to let that gets into her flesh. She is standing strong and determined not to let it fell her. The boy has been ostracised but she still has respect for him.
It is sad to imagine the heroine get drunk alone and envisage the man cheating and playing around with other girls. She is kicking herself for not seeing the truth right away. Those foolish moments of trust disguised the lines he fed her. I get a lot of Etta James in terms of the melody, vocal delivery and composition. This might be JoAnna Lee’s version of I’d Rather Go Blind. That song looked at the heroine declaring her love and saying she’d rather go blind than see the man walk off with another girl. Here, there is less trust and dedication but the same intensity and emotion. This was no ordinary, shallow love: the two were stronger and deeper into things; it seemed like things would run longer and remain. I was following the story and – even though I watched the video – imagined the way she paced the floor and looked around. JoAnna Lee is in the room drinking wine; she is questioning her decisions and wondering whether other girls are being hurt by her former suitor. The strings wind and twang; there is something Folk-like and soulful about them – they entwine and delicately move around one another. The heroine is getting drunk and thinking about the men who have done her wrong. The need to find direction and discover why things have turned out the way they have is urgent. The melody and chorus is gorgeous and sublime. One cannot help think of classic Soul artist and modern Country. It is a fantastic combination that gets right into the heart. The gravelled, whiskey-soaked vocals unite with tender, soft tones and give the song two sides. You have the pontificating, passionate woman who wants to make changes and stop trusting those who cheat on her. On the other hand; there is the sense of loss and heartbreak that sees her medicating that pain with drink. By the end; you are on the side of the heroine and hope things work out for the best – the song is a sobering experience and one that will enforce the way she goes forward regarding men and trust.
So Free is an album as liberated and unshackled as its title suggests. One gets the feel of a young woman unburdened by the strains of doubt and love. Maybe there have been relationships that have dragged her down and caused too much sadness. I know she has gone through trials and chores but has emerged a stronger and more rounded human. It is worth listening to the record to get an idea of where she grew up and the sort of people she encountered. Based in Austin; the people there have inspired her to keep working and aiming high. The album looks at love and life in new ways and, in terms of sounds, draws from the childhood appreciation of Etta James and Stevie Wonder with all the sparks and sides of Austin. It is a compelling brew that one cannot ignore or argue with. I might not have done the album full justice but that is because it needs to be heard and properly investigated. Take some time out – on a cold and damp day – to get into the record and see what it is all about. Even if JoAnna Lee has experienced heartache and hardship: the music aims to warm the senses and get the listener into a safer space. That is what all great music should do I guess. We are all fallible, finite beasts and not immune to the unpredictable aspects of life. Because of that; we look for nourishment and stability wherever we can find it. I am not saying JoAnna Lee can cure all problems and fears with her music alone! She makes things a little easier to cope with. Drinking by Myself is a song that, on the surface, sounds quite exposing and lonesome but never damages the mood. You hear a song that looks at a transitional time and the strength that comes from realisation. It has been interesting reviewing it and how it all came together.
I would like to see the U.S. media take more time promoting JoAnna Lee’s music and taking it to new audiences. I am not sure what her touring plans are but she has the chance to get to various part of the country. I hope she gets to L.A. and Nashville; explores wider afield and ensures the country falls for her sounds. Maybe she will come to the U.K. next year? That would be great and I know she will get plenty of attention here. Perhaps money and a lack of time mean she will stay in America but I feel she could find new fans over this way. We do not have artists like her here – who do the same thing – so we could benefit from her presence. That will be down to her but 2018 is a vital year and one where she will get big focus. So Free is an album that proves what a stunning talent JoAnna Lee is. I have every faith she will transition from a celebrate Austin artist to one of the brightest musicians in new U.S. music. Ensure you support her music and dedicate some time to see what she is all about. Few artists like her exist in modern music so we need to preserve and promulgate them as much as possible. It has been a busy and exciting year for the young artist: the next year will see, I assume, more music and that drive to get to as many people as possible. A passionate and modest talent who wants people to involve themselves with her music; a striking voice and unique star in the music sky…
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