JoAnna Lee has been a constant presence on the Bend music scene over the past several years, but on Monday, she’s loading up her car and moving to Austin, Texas to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter.
No surprise, though: She’s gigging until the very last minute. Lee will perform at 7 tonight at Parrilla Grill (635 N.W. 14th St., Bend) and again at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday at Bend WinterFest (in the Old Mill District), just hours before she points her wheels toward the Lone Star State.
“I’m packing up my old 1988 Honda that I’ve had forever with whatever I can fit in it,” she said Thursday, “and that’s pretty much my shoes and my guitars.”
Her decision to relocate is a classic story of chasing the dream. She has never been to Austin, but heard great things about its vaunted music scene, did a little online research, and decided that’s where she is supposed to be.
She’s heading south with no place to live and no job lined up, plus some money saved up from her various jobs in Central Oregon.
“I’m going on a feeling,” she said. “Something in my heart said, ‘This is where you need to be.’”
Lee, 25, said she’s been thinking about moving away from Bend for a while. She moved here with her family early in high school, and began playing out not long after that. Over the past five years, her sturdy alto and sultry mix of soul, R&B and acoustic pop has made her one of the more radio-friendly artists in town, as well as an in-demand live performer and a regular vocal presence on songs by the local hip-hop group Cloaked Characters. (Check out the shimmery video for her song “Sunshine” by clicking here.)
Her musical ability stretches back further. Lee learned to play guitar at age 11 when her mom showed her the chords to a few Beatles songs. Her family “has a lot of soul,” she said, and is full of music fans; Stevie Wonder’s music was a constant presence during Lee’s childhood, and his style is an influence on her sound. More recently, she’s found inspiration in neo-soul artists like Alicia Keys, Adele and Joss Stone.
And so, JoAnna Lee has had a comfortable spot in the local music scene for a while. And a comfortable spot is ideal if you’re happy being comfortable.
It’s not so ideal for someone who wants to stretch and grow and strive for something better.
“I feel like a lot of things have grown around me, and yet I’m still in the same place,” she said about her life in Bend. “My friends are having kids and getting married and settling down, and … I just noticed I’m still playing these gigs, which is great. I love Bend and I love that I can walk anywhere and see someone I know, but … I need experiences. and when I’m frozen in this spot where I feel like nothing’s really happening around me, I feel like I have nothing to write about.
“So part of taking this leap of faith is to grow in my music and my songwriting, and to take it somewhere,” she continued. “I really want my music to go as far as I can possibly push it.”
Lee calls music her “true love” and she feels like all the signs in her life — her faith, her relationships, her creative muse — are pointing toward Texas. And she’s not about to turn away from the opportunity.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve known that my heart and my passion is with my music. That’s truly what gets my heart moving,” she said. “When you know that you’re supposed to do great things, but yet great things aren’t happening, you know that you need to make a change to make them happen.
“I’m ready to make this happen for me and challenge myself. I want the challenge,” she continued. “I have to do this. This is something that I’m going to be able to look back on and say, ‘Gosh, JoAnna, if you hadn’t done that, you wouldn’t be where you’re at today.’”
Lee’s plan upon arriving in Austin is pretty loose: Get a job that will give her the time and brain-space to focus on music. Visit some venues, press kit in hand. Play open mics. Meet people. Make connections. Eventually, she hopes to find some folks and form a band, and she wants to get back to work on her long-in-the-works album.
If it sounds daunting, well, it is. But Lee doesn’t show it.
“My biggest thing I’m nervous about is my car making it,” she said with a laugh. “And even if my car breaks down, you know what’s gonna happen? I’m gonna hop on the next bus and then get there.“