New York City songwriter, Joanie Leeds, remembers sitting at the 60th annual Grammy Awards in 2018 and hearing only one woman’s name called to receive an award (Alessia Cara for Best New Artist). Leeds remembers the rage bubbling up in her as she watched man after man accept trophies. So, Leeds began to write. First it was little notes in her phone: make a new album, hire women for the band, hire women to produce and engineer, hire women for the photo shoot. Leeds, at the time, was also going through a messy divorce. But the fight for her independence only strengthened her resolve when it came to making a new record by women for women. That work paid off and Leeds’ latest album, All The Ladies, recently earned its own 2020 Grammy nomination, proving that the songwriter’s instincts were correct and her hard work worth the efforts.
“I didn’t know who could do it, I didn’t personally know any female drummers,” Leeds says. “But I just knew they were out there.”
Leeds, who’s album is nominated in the children’s category, wrote All The Ladies with the help of friends and talented artists. While it’s nominated in the children’s category, the record is also applicable for adults and young women. It’s meant to inspire the next generation of female-identifying musicians but it’s also meant to shed light on the lack of representation of women from all backgrounds, both on-stage and behind the scenes in the industry. To help remedy this, Leeds began talking with her friend and fellow children’s songwriter, Lucy Kalantari, whose 2018 record, All The Sounds, won the children’s Grammy. Together, they devised a plan.
“I was just talking with her as our kids were playing,” says Leeds. “I said that I had this idea for an album and I was looking for a female producer. She said it sounded amazing and that she’d wanted to produce somebody. So, I started writing these songs. At the time, I was in the middle of a custody trial over my then-two-year-old daughter. I was fighting during the day and going to Lucy’s house after court to record. That’s how this album happened.”
Much of the work on All The Ladies is inspirational. Songs are meant to empower the young listeners to love themselves as complete people and not just pretty objects. Other songs highlight collaboration and the idea of helping one another in a world often setup to divide. The track, “RBG,” discusses one of Leeds’ personal heroes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Supreme Court Justice who fought countless battles for equality. The album, which features Grammy-winner, Lisa Loeb, is an achievement, capped off by its prestigious nomination, which Leeds found out about live while watching the stream with her daughter on Grammy.com.
“My daughter and I were holding hands,” Leeds says. “We watched the whole thing live. I screamed when they said our name. It was really, really exciting.”
That the album received recognition is especially notable because it came out right as the COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe. Leeds had planned a live release show with many of the participants in New York City in March but then the entire state completely shut down. She was “devastated” but, with the advice of a friend, Leeds decided to put on a virtual event with the different artists who appeared on the album. In the end, the Zoom concert, which included Loeb and was one of the world’s first, was a smash and earned 17,000 views from fans. One thing is for sure, Leeds knows how to turn tragedy into triumph.
“I was like, ‘Screw it, who has a Zoom account,’” Leeds says. “It was so well-attended. The Times wrote a huge piece on it. It just goes to show that when you think things are horrible, there could be a small step toward something incredible ahead.”
Leeds, who grew up in Miami, Florida, later relocated to Upstate New York to study drama and performance at Syracuse University. It was there that her love of music took hold. She struggled with the program at first but began writing regularly, holing up in a tiny writing room to figure out songs on piano. Leeds, who began to study piano at two-years-old, fell in love with Broadway show tunes as a kid and somehow always knew she’d live in New York City. When she moved to the Big Apple after college, she began to play gigs in clubs like CBGB and working numerous jobs, from bartender to relator to publicist assistant.
“At that point I already had two albums of adult music,” Leeds says. “I was playing all of these clubs and while I was doing that, I had so many different day jobs.”
One day, though, after she was let go from a job, Leeds looked around and wondered what she was doing with her life. Depressed and examining the state of things, she decided it was music that she loved most. Music was the source of her biggest creative and professional joys and it was what she thought she could do best. So, Leeds began to look for music jobs. The first stop was a Gymboree, where she played company-selected music for kids. But there she noticed something. While the world of pop music was over-saturated and too competitive, Leeds saw that she could write kids songs and do it much better than what was already out there.
“As I started working with kids, it became more and more inspiring,” Leeds says. “Sometimes kids in my class would say something funny like we need another rocket ship song. It was just kind of easy!”
Leeds began to grow her own business. She would perform at children’s birthday parties, sometimes for wealthy parents who would shuttle her around the city in town cars. Leeds started recording her own children’s albums and she hasn’t stopped since. She’s recorded nine so far. For Leeds, much of the joy is in putting together the puzzle of the song. She likes language and combing through thesauruses or rhyming dictionaries. And as a single mother of a daughter who now loves Broadway show tunes, too, it seems like the years of focus, trial-and-error and sticking to her instincts has been the right move all along.
“I like to piece together something people will listen to and sing in their homes,” Leeds says. “Something that means something to them.”