by Eric Clow
When we held our first virtual open mic in April 2020, we didn’t know if anyone would show up. We had always been an in-person event, and our lovely space—the independent, community-oriented Malvern Books—had always felt integral to its success. While we hoped our Zoom “experiment” would wrangle a handful of regulars (and ourselves) out of quarantine for an evening of stories, poetry, and maybe some music, we certainly didn’t expect our turnout to increase! But as the months wore on, our humble Lion and Pirate expanded to become a home for artists not only in Austin, but state- and nation-wide as well. One such talent was Joanne Stato, 70-year-old singer-songwriter from the aptly-named Safety Harbor, Florida and our August 2022 Artist of the Month.
As Joanne tells it, “I was invited … by my friend [Art Spark artist] David Romero. I had initial misgivings because I did not have a disability and was concerned that I would be taking up a space from some other person who had more right to be there. But that is not what happened at all. I learned that the word ‘inclusive’ really means ‘everyone is welcome’ including me.” Perhaps, she fell in with us so well precisely because of her keen awareness to share the spotlight. True to form, she practiced the art of stepping up and stepping back, allowing space for fellow performers to shine. But her support extended beyond mere courtesy. She genuinely engaged with her peers; offering insight, positive comments, and even at times writing a tune in response.
Then, there were her songs: a soulful blend of wit, sincerity, and humor that mirrored her warm disposition, all set to a minimal piano accompaniment, but nary a thing seemed absent. Great lyrics, catchy melodies, a tender voice open in its vulnerability—these were the hallmarks of Joanne’s music. Well before I began writing this article and studied her work more closely, I would find myself humming tunes she had performed only once at the open mic. Needless to say, our community embraced her, and she quickly became a cherished regular. In fact, over the past two years, she missed just one event, and that was during the maelstrom of the 2020 presidential election—a week when she certainly wasn’t the only one who opted “to curl up and go to sleep.”
Her intimate, exploratory brand of songwriting brought to mind the renowned singer-songwriters of the 1970s. I heard Joan Baez in her falsetto and vibrato. I heard Joni Mitchell in her surprising chord changes and melodic choices. But I had no idea how far back her love of music spanned nor did I fathom the diversity of influences at play, so it was wonderful to correspond with her and learn more about her process:
Can you share a bit of your background?
I grew up in suburban New Jersey in the orbit of New York City. My parents were children of Italian working-class immigrants but my generation grew up middle class. I had a secure, happy childhood and went to Catholic school throughout high school.
When and how did you start playing music?
From the age of 5 I always used to pick out Broadway tunes on the piano by ear. I took accordion lessons at the age of 8. When the Beatles happened, I was in the 7th grade. I immediately begged my parents for a guitar and learned some chords in a group class at the music store. I used to listen to the radio and try to play along.
During high school I sang in a garage band: we played for school dances. We played songs by Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the Beatles, Moby Grape, Traffic, Jimi Hendrix and various Motown hits. I was the only girl in the band and did not play any instruments or have much say in choosing the music, but I could not believe my good luck to be performing in a band.
When I got to college, I started writing songs; first on guitar, then on piano. I always performed at local church coffee houses and then later at college. Playing for an audience was always very energizing for me.
After college I moved to Colorado and played solo in various coffee houses and open mics. First, I joined a traveling band that performed various hits from the jukebox—this was in the mid-70s so often they were disco hits (I acquired an attitude about disco which I did not update for quite a few decades…) Later I formed a band that had 3 songwriters (including me) and was more creatively fulfilling. I still felt that being in a band was the absolute best way to spend my time.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
My first song was an embarrassing expression of unrequited love for a fellow college student. I wrote it on the guitar. My best friend Catherine had a radio show on the college station and she invited me to perform live. The subject of my song heard it over the radio and told me later that he thought it was beautiful. (It did not further the relationship, but still…)
Catherine was also a songwriter and we used to play our compositions for each other. That relationship and/or experience was equally as energizing as being in a band. It meant so much to me to share this endeavor with someone who understood and appreciated the process.
What inspires you to create?
I would say that emotion and connection with people is usually what prompts a song. There might be a compelling idea, but it is usually more effective when a fellow human being is part of the equation.
Who are your biggest influences? (I sense some Joni Mitchell in there…)
Definitely Joni Mitchell. And equally, Laura Nyro and Randy Newman.
I have read so many analyses of what made Joni Mitchell’s music so good and popular, but as far as I was concerned, I just connected with her and needed to hear every song she put out.
Laura Nyro was a sublime composer. It was impossible to follow her process—it was so inspired and elegant. The quality of her voice; the dynamics of her piano accompaniments—they transported me.
Randy Newman—people know him now for writing the score to Pixar’s TOY STORY movies, but in the ’70s, he was writing wry, satirical, and occasionally heartfelt gems that hit the nail on the head. He had irony, attitude, and wit, with a solid and dissonant New Orleans-style piano accompaniment.
In that same vein I have always loved the songwriting of Donald Fagin and Walter Becker from Steely Dan. They express gut feelings couched in a self-deprecatory humorous veneer.
How did you adapt to keep making and performing music during the pandemic?
I hate to say it, but the pandemic was the best thing that ever happened to my music. I had migrated to Florida from Baltimore in 2016 and still had not built a music community here. Covid did not help. Then I contacted my two closest music friends from Baltimore, Russ Moss and Adam Book, and we decided to start a Zoom group that would meet every 3 weeks. For two solid years, each of us presented a new song every 3 weeks. I have never been that prolific in my entire life. And especially in the previous 5 years, I had not written practically anything. So the ongoing comradeship really helped my songwriting come back to life.
Ditto for the Lion & Pirate open mic… The pandemic really gave me the space to connect with people in a way I had not been doing in person.
Which of your project(s) and/or song(s) are you most excited about now?
I wrote 20 new songs during the 2-year pandemic period. However, I still am not performing live in public. I feel like these songs need to be performed often in public before I can consider them really having come to life. I am not quite sure how to go about this; concerns about COVID as well as a lack of budget to go out to clubs are the excuses I have given myself, but I really do feel that I should be trying a bit harder. If that can be called a project, that is my new project.
Throughout our correspondence, Joanne retained the same sweet humility she exuded in her first Lion and Pirate appearance. She bemoaned that her songwriting career wasn’t in a more active or performative phase, but between a fabulous album she released in 2002, a well-wrought lyrical craft, and years spent filling coffee shops with beautiful, heartfelt music—not to mention the impact she’s had on our own modest open mic—she should be very proud. And, the future isn’t written yet. As Joanne told me, “Five years ago, I did not think I would ever write anything again, and now, 20 songs later, I suppose that was untrue! So there is always hope.”
We are thrilled to host two fun events with Joanne this month! First, she will perform a featured set at the start of our Lion and Pirate Open Mic on Saturday, August 6 at 7 PM Central. Then she will join us again on Wednesday, August 10 at 7 PM Central for a Community Conversation to discuss her writing process and facilitate a songwriting activity.