Joanie & Matt Draw on the Hebrew Bible for #MeToo-Timely 'Sterling': Video Premiere
Turning Old Testament tales into contemporary parables is no easy feat, and the duo Joanie & Matt -- releasing its sophomore album, Sterling, on July 19 -- take the concept in a particularly provocative direction with the title track, whose video premieres exclusively below.
"Sterling" was inspired by the story of Tamar, who was raped by her half-brother Amnon in 2 Samuel. Joanie & Matt's song, sung from Tamar's viewpoint rather than the Bible's third-person, is #MeToo timely, sung from the perspective of both a woman and a victim -- a voice that's not at all found in the Bible and other ancient religious texts.
"I really wanted to bring out the wickedness of men at the time and relate it to how the situation has not evolved so much," Joanie Leeds tells Billboard. "There's still so much abuse, and now that people are speaking out about it, that's something that, as a female, is exciting. I don't know anybody who doesn't have a #MeToo story, honestly. We came up with the line 'and I hope in 1,000 years' time no woman has a life like mine,' and every time I sing that line my heart just breaks, almost to tears. And I can see a lot of people in the audience tearing up because every female has their story."
Matt Check adds that "Sterling," like the other six tracks on the album "try to figure out the psychological perspective of people who are silent in the text. ('Sterling') really opened up and became this story song, which is really awesome."
The Sterling album's concept is fitting for Joanie & Matt, who were brought together via interest in Judaism. Check worked as a Hebrew school principal for a while. The two met more than a decade ago while leading a children's Sabbath service for a synagogue in Manhattan. They recorded a "Jew-grass" album, also sourced from Biblical stories, before going their separate ways, reuniting a decade later. "Sterling" was the first song they wrote after resuming their work together. During the interim Leeds worked for Miramax Films, recorded solo albums and fronted Joanie Leeds & the Nightlights, while Check also made his own album and was the original banjo player in Gangstagrass, picking on the group's Emmy Award-nominated theme for the FX series Justified.
Leeds instigated the reunion with a call to Check, who told her wanted "to do something about the Bible, for adults, not necessarily religious so to speak. I was fascinated with some of the more controversial stories from the Hebrew Bible from my graduate school years. It's kind of like Game of Thrones -- a lot of betrayal, violence. I thought it was interesting, a lot of morals there. So I wanted to write some songs around some of those stories, and that's what Sterling is."
Joanie & Matt will perform July 5 at World Cafe Live in Check's native Philadelphia and will celebrate Sterling's release on July 18 at the Rockwood Music Hall Stage 2 in New York. "Then we just plan on booking more shows, and we're gonna write some more songs," Check says. The duo has also recorded three songs for the Jewish Havdalah service, which they hope to release as an EP. And although Sterling has a very specific orientation, Leeds is confident that the duo's music "has mass appeal. We feel like we can just as easily play at Rockwood or places like that or go into a temple or synagogue. It gives us some versatility. We want to push the bar here."