Her Story: Joanna Sterling Chronicles a Trans Woman’s Journey on “Queen of Wands” Album


Mel Clark, Adam Har-Zvi, Joanna Sterling, and Anthony Marchese stand in a grassy meadow with a wetland in the background.

Joanna Sterling, center, shares her experiences as a trans woman on Queen of Wands and features collaborations with Mel Clark, Adam Har-Zvi, and Anthony Marchese. Photo courtesy of Joanna Sterling.

For Joanna SterlingQueen of Wands represents an emotional journey filled with self-discovery, authenticity, and courage.

The Ann Arbor singer-songwriter reveals her inner thoughts, feelings, and experiences as a trans woman on her sophomore release.

“It’s very autobiographical, and I did have to cultivate a lot of courage to even write some of these. If you had asked me five years ago would I ever open an album with my boy name before I transitioned—like no, absolutely not,” said Sterling about her new folk-pop album.

“I wanted to open with that song ‘Joey’ because it took a lot for me to be like, ‘You know what, I want to accept my full self, not just me as a post-transition woman, but also who was I before and how that person is still very much a part of who I am today, and my journey that I had to take to become the woman that I am.’”

Sterling documents that journey through 13 cathartic tracks—which range from confessional ballads to rallying cries to melancholic tales—on Queen of Wands. She connects with listeners through honest lyrics, nature-filled imagery, and folk-inspired instrumentation.

“I feel like a lot of the themes that are explored on this album aren’t just about being transgender. They’re really about the journey we all have to take in order to accept ourselves,” she said.

“I feel like I was able to strike a balance by being really honest about some of the specific things I’ve been through, but also make them accessible and relatable to others potentially.”

We recently spoke to Sterling about her background, the album’s tarot-inspired title, the stories behind several of the album’s tracks, her collaboration with producer Chris DuPont and other local musicians, her album release show, and plans for new material.

Q: How did your musical journey start while growing up in Ann Arbor?
A: I started with the violin when I was five, and I’ve always loved the strings; it’s evident in the music I do. The violin was a tough instrument for me to get into, so it didn’t stick. I quit that by middle school, and I focused on piano. I started taking piano lessons when I was eight, and then the piano was kind of my main instrument.

I started figuring out that I wasn’t into traditional classical music, so instead of reading music, I would just listen to a Tori Amos song or a Sarah McLachlan song and just play it on the piano. And eventually, I started figuring out that I can just make stuff up that sounds cool. I used to love to write poetry, so I tried to combine that with [writing] lyrics.

Q: How did your journey progress from there?
A: It just became a solitary practice throughout high school, and then I joined a rock band camp at The Neutral Zone. That was a super cool experience because I got to work with Misty Lyn, and she coached me a bit and then we got to record a song. We got to play it, and I was so nervous and that performance did not go well. I messed up a lot, but it was a good experience to practice and [realize], “Oh, I can now do this in front of people.”

It sparked that curiosity about what it would be like to play more publicly and share this with people more. I started playing at coffeehouses in college and here and there. In my mid-20s I started playing live more and tried to make that a little side project.  

Q: You mentioned Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan were some of your key influences growing up. What other artists inspired you along the way?
A: Ani DiFranco was a big one, and so were Fiona Apple and Joni Mitchell. I’ve always been drawn to female singer-songwriters, especially from the ‘90s, like Shawn Colvin and Björk. I just loved how fierce that era was … it was just a lot of women coming out and being strong and independent in their music and their persona. I was like, “I wanna be like that someday,” and that’s what I’m working on now.

Q: By 2014, you started collaborating with friends, and that led to forming The Jaywalkers and later writing, recording, and releasing your debut album, The Open Sea Before Me, in 2018. How did that experience help shape you as an artist and songwriter?
A: I collaborated with a couple of friends of mine—one was a guitarist and bass player and another was a drummer. We created Joanna and The Jaywalkers and decided, “Let’s try to make this a thing,” and we got to play Ferndale Pride and played at The Blind Pig at one point.

It felt like momentum was building, but I was also getting my master’s degree. It was a lot to balance and put all that effort into music, so I had to pull back a little bit to focus on school. In my last year at EMU, I decided, “You know what, I really want to make this album,” so after I graduated is when we finally got into the studio and worked at Solid Sound. It was a very acoustic album; all of it was just live takes in the studio. It was very raw, but also special because it was what we were doing in the room. We ended up releasing that in 2018.

Q: Queen of Wands takes its reference from the tarot card of the same name. How did becoming a tarot reader inspire the album’s title?
A: Over the pandemic I got really into tarot. I started learning how to read, and I took an online class. It was a fun thing to delve into while we had so much time indoors not seeing people. That sort of became a spiritual practice that was cool to learn about, and I also learned a lot about astrology. That inspired a lot of my music, and all the songs on the album have an astrological coordination as well as the tarot theme. It’s nice to have a practice that takes you to that spiritual realm, especially when things are uncertain and rough.

When I was taking the course, we talked about finding the cards that resonate with who you are or whether there are cards that you see yourself in. All of the queens of the tarot represent internal identity with different elements. The wands element is the fire element, so it’s all about power, creativity, courage, and authenticity. I felt like the Queen of Wands was this internal badass woman that I was trying to grow into and cultivate to share all of these vulnerable, soft, and scared emotions. The Queen of Wands is the center of it all being like, “I’ve got you. We’re gonna be in this together.” It’s almost like I’m thinking of myself as like I’ve got an inner child, an inner teenager, and a 20-year-old, and the Queen of Wands is the evolved higher self. It’s like, “I’m gonna take you all through this journey and heal you.”

It's really about embodying your most honest, true authentic self. That Queen of Wands theme would not have been there without the pandemic and having to go so internal and do a lot of work on me. I’m grateful for having that pause and delay to reshape and reformulate what this album was going to be.

Q: You open Queen of Wands with the somber instrumental “Firelight.” How does that track help set the tone for the album?
A: That was a serendipitous moment because when we played “Joey” live and when I had all my string players—Lauren [Pulcipher], Adam [Har-Zvi], and Anthony [Marchese]—at one point I was like, “What would it be like if we just had an all-strings intro to that song to set the stage?” You know when you see a concert a lot of times the musicians in the band will start playing something and then the artist will come out? I kinda wanted to create that feeling of “OK, the band is up here doing this beautiful string intro,” and then the song starts as opposed to just going right into the song.

Q: “Joey” addresses the struggles of speaking your truth, sharing your voice, and feeling accepted. How was writing this track cathartic for you?
A: It was really healing to write it because I realized for a long time I was putting Joey into a box and saying, “I just want to be fully a girl now, so I can’t acknowledge that.” Trans stuff wasn’t quite as visible as it is now. When I first started transitioning as a teenager and from stuff I was reading, it was like, “Oh, you just gotta transition and leave it all behind, so you can live a normal life.” I thought that was what I had to do and just kind of erase my past. It shows up on other songs, too, and in trying to erase Joey, I was just trying to step into another closet.

I was trying to fit into what society told me a woman was supposed to be, but then I realized there was a part of myself that I wasn’t honoring. I finally decided I’m just going to be open about everything and include my past and Joey’s story. It was a really healing experience … and I had this fear that if I did that, I would be all alone and rejected, but the opposite happened. I made better connections, I have friends who support me, I have a family that supports me, and I have a wonderful boyfriend who’s the best and has known about me from day one.

It's also demonstrating what it can be like when you do have a supportive community and a supportive family … you can live an amazing life and be trans. The narrative is like, “Oh, it’s so hard to be trans,” but it’s also a magnificent and interesting life to have. It can be a cool thing to experience; it’s not just all pain and heartache.

Q:Girl By Choice” explores the journey of a trans woman and the importance of being yourself, living an authentic life, and accepting others for who they are. How has your journey inspired this track?
A: That one was written in the later era of the writing process … in 2022. It was inspired after one of my partner’s close family members told us that we were no longer welcome to be in their lives and near their children because they didn’t want their children to be around someone like me. That was so heartbreaking to have to go through that and for him to have to go through that because he had never experienced that sort of discrimination.

I’m a little bit more desensitized to it in a way, but for a partner of a trans person they now have to deal with transphobia. I was just in a place where I wanted to write an angry “f-you” song to that person, but then what ended up coming out was more of a song like, “Some don’t understand it, but that doesn’t mean I can’t embrace who I am, and that says nothing about the authenticity of what I’m living.” If someone doesn’t get it, that’s OK.

Q: How has “Girl By Choice” resonated with your listeners? How does this track serve as a love letter to trans women?
A: When I released it as a single, I got a message from a random 72-year-old trans woman living in Washington, and she had just come out and just accepted herself after 70 years. She sent me this heartfelt email that the song had just brought tears to her eyes and that she could relate to all of the feelings on that song.

She ended up having a ceremony with vows she gave to herself to embrace her new self and she put lyrics from my song in her vows. To have those moments where you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know, should I really share my music? Is anyone gonna be that interested? Or is anyone really gonna care?” But to get that message, I was like, “That’s enough for me. If nobody ever listens to any other music I put out, it’s worth it now that I’ve gotten that moment from that individual that it meant something to them like that.”

I’ve had friends and friends of my partner send me private messages to say how they can relate to it and how it spoke to something inside of them. As much as I like to write songs that are broadly relatable, this one felt important to dedicate to trans women in particular because trans women in the media now … we’re talked about like we’re predators.

Just to have a song that’s really a love letter to trans women was important to me and to have people really relate to that and say that it meant something to them. I’ve had people come up after my shows and tell me stories about their lives and how the song meant something to them. I’m like, “This is so much bigger than me now; this is helping just a few people, and that’s just the best feeling.”

Q:So Afraid” reveals the pain and fear people experience when they can’t be their authentic selves. In your experience, how have you seen these emotions drive people away from loving, supportive relationships? Why did you decide to include producer Chris DuPont on this track?
A: It’s got many layers to it because … you’re asking people, “Why are you afraid of me? Why are you afraid of my love when I’m just trying to give my love and affection to you, and you’re pushing away because I’m different?” That’s definitely there, but also for me, I had to go into depth with recognizing my own fear and how my own fear was holding me back from living my life and loving myself. When I sing “So Afraid,” I feel like in a way I’m singing it to myself to say, “What are you so afraid of?” It’s also a pep talk to myself that’s like, “You’re gonna be OK; don’t let fear run the show.”

Chris is one of my favorite musicians in the local community, and he has been inspiring to me. I remember the first time I saw him and he had this string ensemble. He’s a Scorpio, and I love Scorpios because they’re so emotional and so deep. His music just really speaks to something deep inside all of us; it’s so spiritual and powerful. I have so much respect for him as an artist, so I said to him, “I would love to have you featured on a track,” … and I just decided, “That track would be a cool one, and I’d like to hear how he sounds on that.” And I was like, “Can you just sing a verse?” And then he sent it back to me … with the electric guitar and his verse, and I was like, “That’s better than the song ever could have been in my mind.” I was just so happy with it.

Q: The tracks “Huntress,” “Whitehorse,” and “Fool’s Gold” weave a wilderness theme throughout the album. How did spending time in Alaska and Western Canada inspire those three tracks? How has being in nature been cathartic for you?
A: I’ve always loved nature. When I was a shy, awkward kid, I would go and talk to trees, and I’d make little flower bracelets and be like, “Don’t talk to me, I’m in nature.” Nature ended up being a place I was able to do some real introspection and learn a lot about myself, so that was definitely that summer.

In the trilogy of songs, “Huntress” came first, and it was about the first period of being there. I decided I wanted to discard my past and just be myself. I started calling myself “Anna” because I didn’t want “Jo” to be a part of it. I introduced myself with a whole new name and changed everything about me. I started hiking, jumping off cliffs into water, doing all these adventures, and doing all these things I would have been too timid to try before. “Huntress” … was about that excitement of recreating myself and delving into a whole new part of who I am.

It was also about that self-discovery journey, but then sort of trying to stay in the closet. At some point, someone did find out that I was trans and that’s where “Fool’s Gold” came into play. It’s like, “I’ve failed. I didn’t get to play the part that I wanted to play, and therefore, I’m not a real woman. I’m fool’s gold.” But looking back on it, fool’s gold is actually pyrite, which is a super cool crystal. I have a few pieces of pyrite in my house now, and I’m like, “I don’t need to be gold; I’m pyrite.”

“Whitehorse” started with a heartbreak situation and recognizing that I couldn’t hide my past. It was this idea of “I’m just gonna be alone. That’s OK. I’m just gonna come to terms with that.” “Whitehorse” is my favorite song on the album even though it’s the saddest one. For some reason, even though I felt very alone in that song, to hear it now with my friends playing on it and with that emotional build with the strings, it was like, “I haven’t been alone; I was never alone.” Even though the lyrics are hopeless and sad, there’s such a cathartic thing about hearing that and now seeing the contrast of like, “I was so wrong.”

Q: The title track features mystical themes about healing and finding a spiritual force as part of that process. How did that track come about for you? How did Kylee Phillips and Chris DuPont help elevate it?
A: It was written in the middle of the recording process, sort of near the end of tracking. I had writer’s block; I was just so focused on getting this album done that I couldn’t make room for writing new stuff. I just started playing guitar one night, and I had that little riff and was like, “Oh, I kinda like this.” And then I started developing it as this short little interlude song and was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s the album—it’s Queen of Wands; that’s the theme.”

I was like, “Chris, I wrote another song. I’m so sorry, we gotta add another one.” And then we got downstairs … and I was like “Kylee, can you come sing on this track?” And she was like, “Hell, yeah,” and she came in and did these beautiful background vocals. Chris added some synth and mandolin, and we just made [the track] in one night. It was just like, “That’s the center of the album right there.”

Q:Deep End” explores finding the inner strength and courage to face your fears and take risks in life. How has spending time in life’s “deep end” helped you tackle negative thoughts and emotions?
A: It reframed the concept of what it means to win over your bad thoughts ... it's not to erase them, but to no longer feel like you automatically believe them. “Deep End” is about a lot of my experience as a therapist and experiencing this career where it’s my job to go into the deep end with people and hold space for their trauma, their pain, and the darkest times of their life. I’m like, “What a cool thing to be trusted with.” It’s something I don’t take lightly that people allow me to walk through that with them.

By really trying to access the wise healer part of myself more for my clients, I’ve learned to access that for myself, too, and be like, “You can have days, weeks, months of feeling depressed, feeling anxious, feeling overwhelmed, and you can still bring yourself out of that at any time. You know the tools that help you, you know the people that support you, so don’t listen to that voice when it says nobody cares about you or you’re all alone or it’s never gonna get better.”

Q: Some of the tracks on Queen of Wands—“Huntress,” “Whitehorse,” and “Fool’s Gold”—were written in 2014. What was it like to revisit those tracks and include them on the album?
A: It was cool to go back to them … and channel who I was when I wrote those songs, but then also bring my energy into them now. It was like having a conversation with myself from 10 years ago .. and with my past in a way.

For this particular album, I had to sort between 35 songs. During the pandemic, I wrote some stuff … and I had one album of nine songs, but some songs didn’t make it onto that album. I was like, “I gotta bring those into another album someday.” I had these 35 songs, and I was like, “Holy shit, what am I gonna do?” These [13] songs were like, “I have to be here, and I have to be on this album.” I’m proud of the ones that we did and the musicians that were a part of it … they just took it to a whole nother level.

Q: What was the recording process like for Queen of Wands at Ann Arbor’s Solid Sound Recording Co. and Chris DuPont’s Share House studio?
A: We did tracking at Solid Sound from May to August 2022. At Chris’ house, we did some more tracking all through the fall, and the mixing process was winter and spring. We got it mastered as we went through because the first track, “Deep End,” came out in February.

Q: What was it like to work with producer Chris DuPont on Queen of Wands? How did he help shape the album’s overall sound?
A: I’m so glad that he was willing to be a part of this project, and he truly put a lot of love into all of these songs. He didn’t just produce it; he went in and did surgery on these songs. He’s not just my producer; he’s become a great friend. We go over to his house and have dinner and game nights now.

I met him through doing guitar lessons on Zoom during the pandemic. He had posted, “Hey, I’m taking new guitar students,” and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I’m such a big fan of his music; let me learn from him for a bit.” He started talking and said, “I love those ‘90s singer-songwriters,” and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, me too. I want to make a record that has more of that feel.” And he’s like, “I’m a producer,” and I’m like, “We gotta collaborate.” Finally, we ended up doing that for this album. I’m so pleased; he did such a good job.

Q: For Queen of Wands, you also collaborated with Anthony Marchese (cello), Lauren Pulcipher (violin), Adam Har-Zvi (double bass), Mel Clark (vocals), and Stormy Chromer’s Amin Lanseur. How did they contribute to the album’s tracks? 
A: Most noteworthy is Anthony because he’s the only one who has been on both albums. He’s my longest-term collaborator, and he’s not only like a musician to me, but he’s also become one of my best friends. I can tell that he relates to a lot of these songs and has put himself into them and changed the songs.

He’s getting his [doctorate] in cello performance right now at Bowling Green State University, and he drives up an hour to come and play shows with me. I’m very grateful for him and he’s one of my favorite people that I’ve ever played with. He made a cello-loop version of “Girl By Choice” and submitted it for a project. He’s really into the songs and cares about them as much as I do.

My friend Mel is the same way, and Mel joined the band later on in 2019. I always love doing vocal harmonies; I think that’s super fun, especially with live shows. Mel’s been fun to sing with, and they figure out how we can use two voices or three voices. We also have similar timbres to our voices at times … we’ll switch high and low parts, and we’re like, “I don’t even know who’s singing.”

Lauren and Adam are so talented; they’re both super busy with so many things. She’s an amazing violin player, and Adam is a classmate of Anthony’s from Bowling Green. Anthony showed him some of the music, and he was like, “I really dig this.” I’m really lucky to have so many talented people who can just listen to a song and be like, “How does this sound?” And I’m like, “Perfect.”

Amin is such a great drummer that anytime I get to play with him I’m just so excited. It means a lot to me that he likes my music … Stormy Chromer is a different world. I’m like, “You wanna play sad folk music? Really?” And he’s like, “Yeah, I like this, too.”

Q: What do you have planned for your August 17 album release show at The Ark? Who will be joining you on stage for your set? Why did you select Freight Street to open the show?
A: As much as I love switching things up and making a different setlist, I want to take people through the experience of the album as I’m presenting it. I feel like it does tell a story, and I was super intentional about the tracklist. I want this show to be honoring that journey, but we’ve got a couple of surprises in store, too. It’s going to be Chris [DuPont], Daniel [McDonald], Anthony [Marchese], Adam [Har-Zvi], and Mel [Clark].

As for Freight Street, we were on the same bill for a Blind Pig show last year. They’re from Bowling Green, Ohio and half of my band is from Bowling Green, so we chatted with them and we hit it off. Then they played, and we were like, “Wow, these guys are really good. We should have more folks from Ann Arbor hear these guys because they’re just super talented.” I’m really glad they agreed to play, so we’re stoked to have them.

Q: What’s up next for you in terms of additional live shows and new material?
A: We’re playing a benefit on October 6 for the Washtenaw Area Council for Children; it’s their annual fundraiser. I’ve talked to people about some shows already in 2024. We booked The Hawk, which is in Farmington Hills. It’s like a black box theater and that’s in March of 2024.

I’m hoping to go out of the area to play shows here and there, but I’m shifting more to quality over quantity. Before I was like, “Let me play as many shows as I can,” and now I’m trying to space things out a little bit more and not play so many concentrated shows in one area.

I plan to write; I’m excited to see what comes next. I feel like I have to close the chapter on Queen of Wands before I can open up a new chapter. I want to explore some different genres, too. I’d love to make a rock album, but something a little bit punchier and more energetic.

Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.

Joanna Sterling performs August 17 at The Ark, 316 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor, with Freight House. For show information and tickets, visit The Ark's website.