NEW YORK — While watching the 2018 Grammy Awards, musician Joanie Leeds noted a terrible paucity of female performers and awardees. By the end of that year’s ceremony, she had brainstormed the blueprints for “All the Ladies,” her female empowerment album that recently won the 2020 Grammy for Best Children’s Album.
With Lisa Loeb performing on the title track, “All the Ladies” includes the breakaway hit “RBG,” a tribute to late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. There are also anthems about “Glass Ceilings” and “If Girls Ruled the World,” as well as the poignant, “Half of the World,” about girls and boys having an “equal hand.”
Committed to bringing about change following the 2018 Grammys, Leeds hired an all-female production team and musicians for the album. The process, she said, demonstrated how firmly some doors are still closed to women, whether as drummers or sound engineers.
Born Joan Leibowitz in Miami, Florida, the 42-year-old songwriter was musically-inclined from an early age. Leeds recorded her first album — “My Job Application Knows More About Me Than You Do” — while a senior at Syracuse University, and went on to perform solo and with several bands.
In 2006, Leeds began performing at a New York City location of Gymboree Play & Music. Although she had to sing from the company playlist, Leeds was inspired to start writing her own songs for young audiences. Her first children’s album, “City Kid,” won a Parents’ Choice Award.
After leaving Gymboree, Leeds toured the country for shows and media appearances. She wrote the album “Challah, Challah” (Jewish bluegrass) with banjo player Matthew Check and also recorded “Meshugana,” an album of Jewish children’s songs.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Leeds spoke about the path to winning a Grammy and her life-long connection to Judaism, Jewish music, and Israel.
Mazel Tov on winning your first Grammy, Joanie. What has the experience been like?
When I set out to become a full-time musician, my end-goal was never to win a Grammy. Yes, I was ecstatic to have won this top honor as it’s an award from my musical peers; however, the glow lasted a week and now I’m back, thinking about my goals for the year ahead. My end-goal is to be a happy musician in charge of my own schedule and able to live comfortably in New York City providing for my daughter.
What is the best advice you received, professionally, along your path?
The best advice I received when I was just starting out was to accomplish three things for your business each day: two easy things, and one hard thing. It keeps pushing you forward even when things are difficult. It’s not a mystery that the decks are stacked against girls and women both financially and patriarchally (and even more so for women in the BIPOC community.)
Regardless of the hurdles, locked doors, and tiny tables, girls and women especially need to believe in themselves and find a group of positive people to surround themselves with, along with helping other women achieve success. The more we support each other, the more seats there will be.
Who are the women who inspire you, including in your own family?
Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the most inspiring women who has lived, in my opinion. Against all odds, coming up in a time when it wasn’t kosher for women to attend law school or much less work for a living, she broke barriers and succeeded not only in her own vocational journey but also fighting for equality for women in the USA. She was soft-spoken, intentional and brilliant, standing up to the patriarchal systems within our courts and government. This is why I wrote a song about her for the album called RBG. Not only do people of all genders look up to her for all she did for women, fighting for equality, but also because of her persistence and showing the world that one can disagree without being disagreeable.
In my family, my 5-year old daughter inspires me every day. She is such a joy, living her best life, making up songs on the ukulele and riding her two-wheeler bike. She has such an open, empathetic, sensitive heart and I learn from her each and every day.
Speaking of your daughter, what are your fondest Jewish memories as a child, whether holidays or food or relatives, etc.?
How did you know that most of my fondest memories revolve around food? Jewish food and spending the holidays with family always hold my best memories. Growing up, both sets of grandparents lived an hour away, so we were all together for most weekends and for all of the holidays. I remember sitting around the table eating my Great Aunt Rose’s chopped liver and my Nana’s brisket. The table was tight but full of love!
How do your Jewish roots connect to your musical roots? Do you consider yourself a cross-over artist?
I have dipped toes into both worlds consistently since childhood. Since I started taking singing seriously, I joined the High Holiday Choir and Beth Americans Choir at my home temple (Temple Beth Am in Miami) and in high school I learned guitar in order to become a song-leader for my youth group. Oftentimes for young kids, places of worship are the best ways to shine musically and where one is given the most opportunity to do so. At the same time, I was trying out for school musicals and singing in my secular high school’s choir. I’ve always done both.
When I started writing children’s music, I started writing secular music but added in Jewish music as I was working at Jewish nursery schools and it was clear there was a need for some updated, good quality kids’ tunes. In reality, I’ve only written two Jewish albums out of my nine children’s albums, but I have been an early childhood Jewish music educator here in NYC for over 15 years and (in normal times) tour the country playing at Jewish Community Centers, synagogues, temples, and events along with performing at Performing Arts Centers and big festivals like Lollapalooza.
What were some of your take-aways from mastering the children’s birthday party business?
In the early days, when I first started working with kids, I worked as the Gymboree Play and Music manager, Upper West Side location. I led classes and performed at their birthday parties. As it was corporate, there wasn’t much room for creativity so I decided to branch out and start my own birthday business. Once moms caught wind that I played guitar and wrote music for kids I was in demand and word-of-mouth made me a very busy 20-something year old.
I do appreciate all I learned at Gymboree because it was my first glimpse into understanding the mind, coordination and abilities of children 0-5. Pretty soon, through word of mouth and some basic advertising in local papers, I was doing between four to six private parties in a weekend. Some people were ordering town cars for me to play at their kids’ parties in the Hamptons. It was so much fun being able to celebrate these big moments with families.
Leading birthday parties is a much different experience than teaching early childhood music in the classroom and later on, when I started performing at large-scale concerts, that is vastly different as well. Each event requires a different skill-set and approach and I am lucky to have the versatility to work with kids in each setting. Through meeting so many children over the years, I have been inspired to write many new songs, understand different personalities and limitations. Some kids do not like to be the center of attention and others want all eyes on them. I don’t do so many birthday parties when I am touring but every once in a while a super fan will be in touch and I’ll make it work!
Have you visited Israel and what did you think of the Jewish state?
I have visited Israel three times! It’s been a while and I’d love to return for a music festival one day. I went for a month with JLI [Jewish Leadership Institute], the March of the Living, and also on a Temple Beth Am trip for my brother’s bar mitzvah.
I love learning about the rich history and architecture. My favorite memories were visiting the tunnels behind the Western Wall, walking through the shuk, floating in the Dead Sea, climbing Masada and going parasailing in Eilat. Some of the best food I have ever consumed has come from Jerusalem!
Is there any other Jewish music you would want to write or record?
I would like to partner with an organization or receive grant-funding to create an entirely new early-childhood music curriculum with about three-to-six beautifully recorded songs per holiday. As a music specialist and musical theater graduate, when I teach my own music classes, I interpret the holidays in a very dramatic way, but many of the songs I use are not my own.
They are fabulous songs but I have written a bunch of new tunes and would like to record them! I know what the album title will be and I have started writing some of the songs, but it would require funding to move forward as it will have a ton of music, close to 50 songs. My goal would be not to sell this album but make it free for all educators, parents and children.
What are some things coming up for you, and do you have any final words of advice for young people?
I just released brand-new RBG coloring book pages and coming soon is the All the Ladies Educational Workshop for schools and performing arts centers. I am also working on pitches to turn my music into children’s books. I have always wanted to write children’s books so this is my next big goal — you’ve heard it here first!
Yet another thing I’d offer as advice for young people of all genders: treating everyone with respect is incredibly important. Word travels fast and bringing positive vibes and a good attitude is sometimes the difference between making or breaking your career.
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