Photo by Echo Harris
Boston-based Flight or Visibility released the video for their track, “My Name (is Joanna). The track is an anthem of self expression, self identification, and a declaration of visibility. It encourages self-advocation, and in a way, self-care. The song says I’m here on this planet, I’m a human with a story, and now with this name you can see me. I feel that we all need a song like this especially when we transition to post-pandemic life and everything is tangible again. The fighting won’t come from behind computer screens. “My Name (is Joanna)” teaches us not to be scared but to assert oneself, express who you are freely. It’s an incredible message to everyone during these uncertain times.
What were/are your influences (growing up as well as currently) that led you to become who you are musically/artistically especially since your sound is so distinct?
I always struggle with this question because I feel like the musicians in the forefront of my mind change periodically and I feel guilty about leaving people out. Musically, I grew up playing classical and klezmer and then as I got older, I started playing jazz, funk, and 60’s/70’s era R+B. I have also sung quite a bit of folk choral music. I think the music I listen to regularly or have listened to frequently in the past helps create a basic sound world, but my primary emotional influences are the people I hang out with and the people I play music with. When I spend a long time in a band with another songwriter, I notice my songwriting style drifting towards my collaborator’s. If I attend regular shows featuring the same friend, I also start to notice similarities. Before the pandemic, I always had the friends I was making music with or who’s shows I was attending in the forefront of my mind when asked this question. These folks include Anaís Azul, Surefire Cure, Genie Santiago, Itai and the Ophanim, Ava Sophia and so many more.
You work extensively with Boston youth to bring music into kids’ lives, and even despite the pandemic you’ve been fighting for and helping kids. I’m positive that all your teaching time and the experiences you’ve had are profound. Care to discuss some of your experiences, how the kids have affected your work/life/identity?
When we were still thinking of pandemic life as temporary, my former position with Boston Children’s Chorus went remote after a couple consecutive weeks of canceled rehearsals. I just remember that first remote rehearsal, I was in such a state of depression and witnessing a zoom group chat from a group of 8-11-year-olds just lifted my spirits in such an amazing way! Their energy was just so full of unbridled ridiculousness, and they really inspired me to keep up a positive spirit despite the surrounding existential dread. Since that time, I’ve had some amazing opportunities to continue working with youth in childcare settings as well as teaching songwriting and singing classes for students at Boston Public Schools. The songwriting is really hard over zoom, but I’ve just been blown away by their joy when we sing together. Students have surprised me by learning piano chords on their own for songs I teach in class, diving headfirst into super-complicated recording projects, and just generally being shockingly patient as all the teachers experiment with tech. It’s been an incredibly hard year for our youth and they really are fantastic role models for how to make the best of uncomfortable situations.
I noticed on the site that you’ve studied oboe, and you teach oboe as well as violin. The oboe is a bit unconventional, I don’t encounter that one often. What attracted you to that instrument/more classical instruments versus the more standard or “expected” instruments? How did you develop your more classical yet distinctive punk sound?
My relationship with my instruments is really a chain of serendipitous events. My parents started me on violin when I was just 4 years old because I showed a lot of musical desire and ability from an extremely young age and violin was one of the few instruments that comes in a 1/16th size. At age 8, I added the oboe after a school speech therapist recommended I play a woodwind instrument. At the time I had no volume control over my voice and a tendency to breathe between every word, so the speech therapist believed that I could work on this by using a medium I already loved (music) to train myself in breath control. (While this ultimately worked, it would also bring me to tears years later in conservatory lessons when I was made to feel like I was unable to create musical phrases, the very reason I had picked up the oboe in the first place). At the end of high school, I was told that in order to continue my musical studies, I would need to pick just one instrument. I was getting objectively-better youth orchestra and chamber music placements on oboe so I took a 4-year break from violin in order to pursue an oboe performance degree. 2 years into my degree, I realized that I definitely did not want to play in an orchestra full time, and that I also was happier in non-classical music settings, so I did an Improvisation masters program where I was allowed to restart violin lessons in addition to continuing to develop my oboe skills. This time, I studied with violinists who are known for singing and playing violin at the same time and learned some basic techniques for doing this effectively. When I started writing my own music, it was just more natural to use violin as an accompanying instrument than piano or guitar. My piano technique is limited to hacking and hesitating and I’ve tried to play a guitar occasionally but the way fingers spread on the frets just feels unnatural. I felt that the classical violin techniques that I had honed from age 4-18 gave me a level of virtuosity that was much closer to what I desired, so I became a singer-songwriter with violin as a primary instrument. I adopted the genre term “classical punk” because my music has a streak of anger and a streak of subversion but I also thrive on classical techniques and dynamic contrasts.
How did you select the name Joanna? I’m incredibly keen to know the story/inspiration behind your name choice.
The name Joanna came in a moment of spontaneous necessity. I was ordering food and getting repeatedly misgendered and needed a quick way to shut down the misgendering. It was just the first name that popped into my head. In my daily life, I use it now in spaces where I think I’m going to get misgendered or moments when I just feel extra femme, but my friends call me Raf.
How do you stay so prolific despite pandemic? How has the pandemic affected your life/work?
Awww I’m honored that you think of me as prolific! I think for me, pacing is super important. I try to have just one big upcoming project at a time and I need at least 2 months if not longer between them. I’m also learning not to promote every single performance or livestream I’m doing. Social media is exhausting and I’m finding my followers take my work more seriously if I actually announce fewer projects, so finding that balance has both helped me stay grounded and allowed me to be more present for my art and my friendships. Pandemic has definitely helped me slow down. My capacity is lower; I’m learning to just embrace that, and it’s been amazing! I kinda alternate between weeks of nothing but netflix and weeks of extreme productivity, and giving myself that permission to rest has really helped me focus on projects when I need to. I also need to name that I am very lucky to have a financial safety net, and am therefore able to take that rest time and stay-home time that everyone deserves and many of my peers are not able to get.
You collaborate with many artists across so many mediums (which is awesome.) How did you decide on animation as an element for the “My Name (is Joanna)” music video and how did you select the artists you worked with to create the video? Feel free to elaborate on the creation of the video as well.
I chose to work with Guadalupe Campos on the video because I had been in multiple videos that they made for Anaís Azul and I just really love their work! The animation idea actually came after the pandemic started. The video had been put on hold indefinitely and then Red Shaydez released an incredible animated video and I realized I could do that too! I had seen short animated clips on Lupe’s instagram and knew that they would be incredibly capable, so I asked if they would be interested. They brought in their friend Riley Halliday (who also filmed my 2020 Tiny Desk Contest video) to design backgrounds and the two of them created something truly incredible!
Do you think we’re progressing as a country/society/planet towards visibility/acceptance for queer & trans people? What can we do to aid in this progression from your experience?
Honestly, a whole bunch of people are showing new willingness to listen to the issues. I think we need to make sure they do more than listen. Historically, the rights of trans people have been used as a bargaining chip to further advance the rights of cis-gay people. This mirrors the ways that many suffragettes advanced women’s rights for white women while ignoring Black women and other women of color entirely, and people in all these groups with disabilities are often not even included in the conversation. If we want liberation, we have to listen closely to the words of the most intersectional people we know, but also move beyond the intersectionality we recognize in individual people and start looking at intersectionality as a tool to measure the ways our struggles are linked to each other.
I noticed that you teach online cooking classes. What are your favorite dishes to cook?
The cast iron skillet is my best friend! I love to create meals using a grain, some vegetables and a plant-based protein (beans, nuts, tofu etc.). With these 3 bases and a variety of spices, the combinations are just endless! If you’re going to cook tofu, you gotta recognize that it is a flavor sponge. I like to cut it into thin squares and crisp it up in a skillet with soy sauce and chili paste or red curry paste. Marinating it is also great. A lot of meat eaters will try to sear it, and this is a mistake because it actually blocks flavor from going into the tofu. I also need to name that I come from a hippy Jewish Ashkenazi family, and our tofu traditions are in no way representative of the variety of ways it is prepared in East Asia (even if I use some of the same ingredients). As a cooking teacher, I teach my students to build their palettes first, smelling and tasting unfamiliar spices, asking them to describe what they taste. My goal is for my students to be confident and self-sufficient. I don’t hang up until they have a meal on the table. I’m usually a savory person but I recently made some pretty incredible vegan cherry-kumquat-habanero hamentaschen (triangular cookies filled with fruit, traditional for the Jewish holiday Purim).