A Vessel for the Music: A Conversation with Joanna Teters

“That’s what I’m always trying to do, is be a vessel for the words and the music that are trying to come through me,” New York-based soul songstress Joanna Teters explains. “And when that happens, I think it’s a really special thing, and every time that I sing that song, I get excited.”

Teters encapsulates an ingenuity seldom discoverable in today’s musical landscape, despite circumstances that would suggest otherwise – a Berklee grad, an established band leader – and has successfully honed in on a unique and fulfilling brand in which she can wholly thrive. A talented lyricist with an indisputable bite in her lush vocal tones, Teters has swiftly navigated a densely populated industry with unparalleled magic. Her debut solo EP, Warmer When it Rains, offers a diverse and captivating selection of songs that tug your heartstrings and make you want to dance all at once. Teters’ songs are palatable to the casual listener, aided by warm instrumentation and her enchanting lilt. She is poignantly inimitable, showcasing an impressive range of talent with only a little bit of material. Even still, she herself never really knows herself how things may pan out, and the music grows into a life of its own.

“There’s so many parts, and each song is its own experience […] it never delivers the same feeling, it never comes one way or another, there’s never a process to it,”Teters says. “So, the unexpectedness of each song is something that I really enjoy, and I never really know where it’s going to go, or what it’s going to end up saying, or who it’s going to end up speaking to.”

Listen: “Memories Remain” – Joanna Teters

A Conversation with Joanna Teters

Atwood Magazine: Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing with music; growing up, what kind of role did music play?

Joanna Teters: Well, I grew up in a pretty musical family. My dad’s a musician, he’s a drummer; my older brother is a drummer; my younger brother is a musician. Music was always around in my house, you know, family gatherings and holidays always ended with a nice, boisterous family sing-a-long. It was always around, and when I was in middle school I had an opportunity to start exploring playing in a band setting. It was like an after-school program, and it was all soul and R&B music, which was really fun. That was when I was like 13, 14 years old, and my first times performing, I just remember feeling like, “Oh yeah, this is totally it. This is exactly what I want to be doing.” I loved the adrenaline and the jitters, but then, you know, was somehow always able to overcome it and enjoy the experience. I don’t know, music has always just been a really, really big part of my identity. Going into high school, I started writing music, and started working with different classmates who played instruments, writing songs here and there. It wasn’t until my last year of high school and going into college that I really started to develop who I was an artist, I guess, and at that point was when I really started to dial in on the music that I really loved to listen to, and started to emulate that with the music that I was writing.

Nice! And I know you went to Berklee, so you have that traditional schooling background.

Joanna: Yeah, definitely have the music school thing. I am personally not classically trained at all; I studied a little bit of jazz in high school, but as far as classical training, that wasn’t me.

Do you think that it affected the way that you approached song making after you got out? Did it at all change your writing process, or anything like that?

Joanna: From going to Berklee and then moving on, did I notice changes?

Yeah, did you ever have some sort of shift in the type of music that you wanted to make, or was it always that you love doing the R&B and soul, reggae type stuff?

Joanna: That’s a good question. The R&B and soul stuff has always been the music, since the time I was in high school, always spoke to me the deepest. And even before then, I was raised listening to Aretha Franklin, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Bonnie Raitt, stuff like that, so that’s the music that’s kind of like my second language. So when I started to write music, that was the first thing that came out, and felt natural to me, and it fit my voice well. I’d say my experience at Berklee informed my songwriting mostly just because of the people that I was writing with. It wasn’t classes or teachers, particularly, that shifted my attention one way or another, but it was the people I was surrounded with. I mean, Berklee is an awesome network of musicians from all over the world, and everybody speaks the same musical language, and it’s a beautiful thing. So there were different people that I started to create musical relationships with in college that shifted me more towards writing more jazz stuff, more hip hop; then I got involved with the reggae band that I would play with every week, and that made me fall in love with reggae even more. I was like, “I want to write some of this, what can I do?” So yeah, my college experience definitely allowed me to dip my toe into a lot of different types of genres, and create my own genre – that I still think fits overarchingly into the R&B and soul category, but it also has kind of allowed  me to diversify my portfolio, my albums, my live performances, so on and so forth.

And when you were in the process of writing the record that came out in January, when did that initially begin? Did you have an idea of how you wanted it to kind of form, or was it more so in the moment?

Joanna: This record is kind of like an amalgamation of the last five years; you know, some of the songs I started writing when I was in Boston, and when I was still performing with my band called Mad Satta, which was like an eight-piece band. We wrote a lot of songs together, and released two projects under that name; so some of these songs were even written with the guys in Mad Satta. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a spontaneous project; I mean, thinking about the songs, some of them definitely came about more spontaneously, but some developed and unfolded in a matter of years. What’s kind of funny is, “Warmer When It Rains,” which is like an interlude on the album, is something we’ve been playing for like 5-6 years, and it’s ironically the shortest song on the record. But songs like “Through the Night” or “Midnight” kind of came together much more quickly over the last year, when I started to put this album together in my head. It was like, “I need to release something that’s going to set my name apart from who I was in Mad Satta, and create my own identity as my own artist.” So, some of those songs… “So Easy to Love” kind of shaped what this album was going to be. I knew it was going to be a melting pot of stuff; there’s a lot of different flavors in the album, and I think that’s reflective of my last six years or so.

Listen: “Through The Night” – Joanna Teters

You just mentioned having the band previously, is there anything that you learned going from a full, eight-piece band to now doing solo stuff and do everything separately?

Joanna: Yeah, I’ve learned a lot. I mean, I was playing – I’ve been running a band since my first year of college. It’s been a learning curve over the last eight years, which is crazy to think about. And I will say that my bass player, Ben Carr, is the person that’s been along with me for the ride since 2010; we started as a bass and vocal duo in 2010. So, even though right now I’m playing under my own name, I wouldn’t necessarily group it in the same solo vibe, just because I’m still working with Ben, I’m still working with Zane, who’s the drummer, just bringing people in and out, which is fun. But yeah, I’ve definitely learned a lot, and when I was in college it was a lot easier to handle eight pieces – I mean, I wasn’t paying college loans, I was a little more fresh-faced. I also just kind of realized that I was kind of cutting myself off from some opportunities to get our music out there, because we were known as an eight-piece band and it was kind of impossible to dial down into a smaller group without making it messy or feeling like I was doing something wrong, or doing people a disservice. So, yeah, I’ve learned a lot, especially with the release of this album, it kind of woke me up to just how much work it is to be an independent artist and have it all fall on your name; but, that being said, I’m super lucky to have an amazing team of people, my musicians, that have been with me through this whole process. Without them, I wouldn’t have many songs. They’re all awesome, and Ben in particular has always been kind of like my mastermind, and he’s been my co-manager. We make things happen together; we’re actually gearing up to release a new EP together, which is going to be cool.

Just the two of you?

Joanna: More or less, yeah; beats that he’s made over the last couple years, and what I’ve written – that’s always kind of been the way we’ve written our songs. Ben and I have been writing partners for so many years, and he brings so many things to the table. He kind of creates the beats with my voice in mind. So, this is a little bit of Ben Carr – he goes by Carrtoons – and me, and we’ll hopefully be releasing that [soon].

That’s what I’m always trying to do, is be a vessel for the words and the music that are trying to come through me…

Very cool. And talking a little bit about the writing process, is there a particular lyric that you have, either that has some sort of significant meaning to you, or you wrote it down and you felt like, ‘that’s it, that’s the one?’

Joanna: That’s a good question.

Or, do you have a song in general that you have a particular attachment to, if not a lyric?

Joanna: Yeah, I mean I have kind of an attachment to a lot of songs, obviously, but the first one that pops in my mind is “So Easy to Love,” which is a song that I wrote with my group, and with my guitar player, that was just one of those songs that came together really quick. It’s a love song, and I was feeling all lovey-dovey at the time; I had just met my boyfriend, and, you know, that song still holds a lot of truth to me. I hope that people who know what love feels like can relate to that song in a way that I still can, because it can be easy. And while it’s also hard at times, I think that a lot of the lyrics of the song still hold true for when the moments do feel so easy, and you’re like, “Yeah, I can relax into this. This is really nice.

Listen: “So Easy to Love” – Joanna Teters

I love that! I think that’s awesome.

Joanna: Yeah, you know, I think that love is a beautiful thing. And sometimes, the best songs are written the quickest. I think a lot of songwriters would say that; you know it’s right when it comes out so quickly, and the song practically writes itself. That’s what I’m always trying to do, is be a vessel for the words and the music that are trying to come through me, and when that happens, I think it’s a really special thing, and every time that I sing that song, I get excited. There’s a couple songs that come to mind that I could just sing a million times and never get sick of it. “So Easy to Love” is one of them, in addition to another song, which actually isn’t my song, “Makings of You” by Curtis Mayfield – which we actually released on the first Mad Satta record. I could sing it over and over again, and it would never lose its magic.

I think there’s definitely something to be said about the timelessness of lyrical content and feeling and emotion, and that’s something that I’m constantly trying to connect to. 

That’s great! What is, then, your favorite part of the whole music-making process, talking about being the ‘vessel’ of all your inspirations? What is, in your opinion, the best part about that?

Joanna: There’s so many parts, and each song is its own experience. I think every time that I’ve written a song, it never delivers the same feeling, it never comes one way or another, there’s never a process to it. So, the unexpectedness of each song is something that I really enjoy, and I never really know where it’s going to go, or what it’s going to end up saying, or who it’s going to end up speaking to. So knowing the life that I’m trying to breathe into it is exciting; but, I think also, writing aside, one of the most special moments for me is performing. I mean, I love performing. I could record all day and love that too, but performing live in front of an audience is the thing that I really live for. So I think the moment I’ve written a song – even if it’s not totally done, because some songs, for me, might take a year to finish, or two years to finish, I don’t even know. It’s a living, breathing thing, you know? But then the second I play it on stage, and I’m with my band, it clicks. That’s a really, really great moment, because you just kind of know that you’re on the right path, or maybe the product is finished, and you’re like, “Alright, we’re doing something right here,” because everybody can feel it. Everybody can feel that the energy is there, and we’re moving in the right direction.

So do you find it more difficult being in New York and making music, or is it easier because there’s so much going on?

Joanna: It’s kind of funny – there’s a lot of ways to answer that question. The city is such a crazy place, and if I’m going into the city and writing lyrics, I’ll stop and look at what I’m writing and I’m like, “Oh my god, this is so depressing, who wants to listen to this?” Actually, I had an experience when I went upstate with a couple of my bandmates to start tracking some demos and start working on some music; it was this winter, so it was kind of snowy and quiet, and all of a sudden, the songs just became so much different. I was like, “Oh, wow.” It’s nice to write songs from a different place, and I’m just tired of being in New York. It’s good to get an escape once in a while, and it’s good to breathe new life into the music. But, that being said, I don’t think I would chose anywhere else to live; I just feel like I’m constantly surrounded by people who are working really hard and not giving up, and that kind of push is something that’s really nice to have. Whether it’s friends of mine, or random people on the train who are clearly just working hard and going from place to place and grinding, grinding, grinding, I find a lot of inspiration in that. There’s just so much beauty in the city – people, spaces, culture, music, whatever it is, I try to find inspiration from all of it. It can grind you down a bit, but I think that’s just city life in general.

Do you have anything that you want people to know about you, and your music? What is something that you would love to be remembered for?

Joanna: That’s a really good question. I think I’d say timelessness, honestly. What would be really nice is – the music that I’m writing now, and the content, still transfers a hundred years from now. We’re currently still listening to music that was written a hundred years ago, and I still can connect to it, so I’d say definitely timelessness is what I’d like to be remembered for. The essence of the music, and really just the soul of a voice, and the music, and the intention it’s being played with; I try not to write music for a specific time and place. Nina Simone said “an artist’s job is to reflect what’s going on in the world around them,” and that’s entirely true, however I think there’s definitely something to be said about the timelessness of lyrical content and feeling and emotion, and that’s something that I’m constantly trying to connect to. You know, this life experience that I’m having now might connect to somebody in a completely different life 50 years from now.

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