Joanna Sternberg Is Living the New York Dream

The songwriter/illustrator talks growing up in an artist housing complex in Hell’s Kitchen.

I don’t know if my music sounds like it comes from New York. I feel like being labeled a “New York artist” describes my personality, my sense of humor, my family history, more than my music itself. 

It’s kind of like I’m from Hey Arnold!. I grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, in a government subsidized artist residence called Manhattan Plaza. My dad is a musician and my mom was an actress in plays, and they were some of the first people to move in back when nobody wanted to live there, because it was a really dangerous neighborhood. 

The complex is two buildings: One of them is six floors and the other is 45 floors. It’s all housing that’s set aside for artists, and it’s based on income. When you apply for the building, you have to show the kinds of jobs you do and are making money from; you prove all of your income, and that determines the rent you pay. Every floor has three families with kids — there was a preschool I went to in the building, and there were always kids my age, which was good because I didn’t really have friends from school, so it kind of ensured that I had friends. There was a summer camp in the building, which I also went to. But the preschool and the camp weren’t specifically arts-oriented really, they were just normal! 

I’ve always loved living here. Maybe since I watched so many Disney Channel shows, I was like, “I wanna live in the suburbs like Lizzie McGuire!” But I don’t think I ever really wanted to that badly. I definitely appreciate it more now that I realize how amazing it is. Sometimes it’s a little bit high energy in the morning in the elevator, but everything else is fine. A lot of my friends live in Brooklyn, and all the stuff I go to is in Brooklyn, so that’s the only issue I have with the place. 

I’ve lived in Brooklyn, and I’ve lived in Harlem, Washington Heights. But I’ve lived in Hell’s Kitchen the longest, so it’s home. I moved back in during the pandemic, and since then I’ve just been really consumed with making the record [I’ve Got Me, which came out in June via Fat Possum]. I’m kind of like a hermit who draws all day long, so it’s been fine. Moving back in gave me more alone time to create. 

The band mmeadows also lives here. It’s funny, because I’ve never actually run into them here — the building is so big — but it’s always nice to know that if you want to say hi to your friend who plays guitar, you can just text them. It’s nice to be close to other artists. 

As told to Annie Fell.

Joanna Sternberg is an artist born and raised in New York City. Their latest record, I’ve Got Me, is out now on Fat Possum.