When JoAnna James begins to sing, you tend to hold your breath. She captures the attention of the crowd as she whispers her voice into motion, and soon she has drawn the room into her craft. Her voice carries you along as she powers into the chorus, and when she hits those notes…those notes, you only then notice that you hadn’t been breathing because you have to gasp.
I first heard JoAnna’s voice at the first Leonard Cohen Tribute at Soulful Space. She sang “Ballad of a Runaway Horse” and “Anthem” with masterful skill. That treat was repeated at the second encore performance at The Lyric on April 28. One of the highlights of the evening, JoAnna’s voice shifted easily from the slow, meditative sound of “Ballad” to the gypsy-like rhythm of “Anthem”, singing Cohen’s famous line, “that’s how the light gets in” with the spellbinding effect that certainly would make the late singer-songwriter proud.
Produced by Anita Courtney and Purple Carrots Productions, the Cohen tributes were both sell out performances that brought together a diverse array of local musicians to offer their personal tributes to the master. On April 28th, the doors of the theater were thrown open to ventilate the heat as JoAnna and the others joined in verses of “Hallelujah” that spilled out into the streets. JoAnna took the lead on the final verse and belted out a righteous final farewell to Leonard, bouncing her powerful voice off the walls of that historic theater with a stunning, goosebump-inducing crescendo.
JoAnna came into music as a young girl when her grandpa picked up a violin for $100 from a nun in Mankato, Minneosta, near her hometown of St. Paul. The middle of five kids, her siblings refused the instrument and Joanna was given the violin and lessons with a kind teacher she greatly admired.
Joining orchestra in high school, JoAnna happened upon the guitar, songwriters who played the likes of Lilith Fair, and a book of tablature for Nirvana Unplugged. By 14, she was playing a three-hour gig in a Wisconsin bookstore to a full house. From there, her career has taken her across the country several times over and brought her into songwriting collaboration with a variety of musicians and labels.
JoAnna cowrites and collaborates on songs with many, including Josh Grange, pedal steel player for Sheryl Crow, and Jessy Greene, who has toured with Foo Fighters and Pink, all friends from the “small Minnesota music scene.” She first hears the song, she says, and then finds different processes for integrating the lyrics and music. Inspired by “that” teacher, Mr. Hanlin, who taught her “the connection between music and poetry,” JoAnna is highly adaptive, whether meeting strict deadlines for toplining gigs or musing through a stream-of-consciousness for her own original songs.
Motivated by friendship and a sad but necessary goodbye, Anita and JoAnna are pairing up once more for a show featuring JoAnna before she leaves the bluegrass for the mountains of Colorado. Moving to be closer to family, the show on July 27th at First Presbyterian Church Chapel on North Mill will be JoAnna’s big send-off. She will be joined by several stellar local musicians including Anna Hess and Richard Young, who accompanied her at both Cohen tributes, and Lee Carroll on keys. Maggie Lander will join with backup vocals. The show will be a combination of musicians as well as covers and originals, some solo, some with accompaniment.
“For me, to produce a show, it needs to meet 3 criteria,” says Anita Courtney of Purple Carrots Productions: “feature great musicians in an intimate setting that pays the musicians well. JoAnna’s show checks all the boxes. The chapel is beautiful, has great acoustics and seats 100 people. I call JoAnna the ‘goosebump girl’. She gets inside a song, really tries to understand it, feel it and convey that to the listeners.”
Anita is very excited about the combination of musical talent that will be on stage with JoAnna for the show. “Lee Carroll’s stellar piano, Maggie Lander’s beautiful vocals and the professional and soulful string instrumentalists—Anna Hess on violin and Richard Young on bass—and I think we will all be gobsmacked.”
“Gobsmacked” was the compliment Anita received after the Cohen tributes, and she ensures an all-JoAnna James show will be equally effective. The intimate setting of the chapel, JoAnna’s powerfully subtle voice, and a cast of stellar musicians guarantee that she is right. JoAnna feels strongly the power music induces, and she hopes for that exchange on the 27th.
“My biggest hope is what I always hope for with a show…that some sort of cycle of exchange happens, cause that’s what music is, it’s this experience through time, and to share it with these people who are willing to give you their time and attention. I hope that people can walk away with some kind of good feeling and catharsis. That is my hope.”
Cara’s conversation with JoAnna: