Singer-songwriter Joanna Sternberg is an immediately disarming presence on stage and off. During opener Faustina Masigat’s set, Sternberg reacted to each song with infectious glee and wonder. And when between songs during their own set, Sternberg was charming, goofy, and forthright. No matter the subject—their love for the Beatles and Red Bull or their hoarding tendencies and ADD—the tone of their patter stayed light and playful.
No surprise then that Sternberg’s music holds the same kind of energy. Their work carries a great deal of emotion, as they unpack poisonous relationships in songs like “Stockholm Syndrome” and “People Are Toys to You,” or struggles with anxiety in the bouncy “Mountain High.” But akin to the work of their closest artistic parallels, Daniel Johnston and Kimya Dawson, Sternberg brings a sugary rush to each tune via their exuberant melodies and sweetly warbling vocals.
The secret that pushes Sternberg beyond their peers is their skill as a player. Though raised in a Beatles-worshipping household, they studied classical music and jazz and spent years playing standup bass in clubs and orchestra pits. Those skills translated well to the folk-pop world Sternberg now inhabits. Their fluid, finger-picked guitar work underscored the emotional profundity that lay just below the surface of their seemingly simple lyrics.
The depth of Sternberg’s work isn’t difficult for the layperson to tap into, but it is clearly striking a nerve with their fellow artists if their Portland audience is any indication. Nearly everyone around me at Show Bar was a musician, and later I saw an Instagram post by singer-songwriter Kassi Valazza that revealed that she was hanging in the back of the room. They already get what the rest of the world is sure to understand: Joanna Sternberg is a rare talent well on the way to greater acclaim and bigger venues.