Standing in his church-turned-recording studio, all Will Russell knew about the 12-year-old girl with bangs and a mouth full of braces was that she had a nice voice. He didn’t know it would leave him speechless.
It was May of 2014, and Jo Strogatz was at Russell’s Electric Wilburland studio in Newfield to record her debut EP of jazz covers. Her vocal teacher, local singer and musician Anna Coogan, had organized the session and handpicked a backing band of local musicians.
To warm up, Strogatz began running through the tunes. Immediately, Russell stopped setting up and turned around. To him, she sounded like a timeless vocalist from the ‘50s. He was even more surprised when he realized Strogatz wasn’t trying to put on a persona. It was effortless, like breathing.
“She was barely singing,” Russell says. “That's just the sound that comes out of her. And it's extraordinary.”
Six years later, Strogatz, a 2020 Ithaca High School graduate and freshman at Tufts University, has developed a following with her voice. Under the stage name Canen, she’s released two EPs of jazz covers, has more than 38,000 subscribers on YouTube, and her version of Hozier’s "Work Song" was added to the British Library's sound archives. Now, she’s releasing her first original music.
The last thing Strogatz’s family expected, though, was that she would become a singer. They weren’t aware of music, let alone jazz — a “musical sleep,” as her mother, Carole Schiffman, puts it. Strogatz always had a quiet voice, too. But the jazz she heard in movies early on drew her in, and she sang around the house, making up songs and riffing along to her homework. Even without an ear for music, Schiffman noticed something about her tone and arranged for vocal lessons.
"It was a very unusual sound,” says Schiffman. “She sounded like a 30-year-old bar singer.”
Like most people, Coogan was blown away when she first heard Strogatz sing.
"She sounded like a 45-year-old smoker, but in a good way,” she said. “That's the kind of quality that people really covet in a voice.”
After just months of lessons, Coogan encouraged her to record an EP of jazz covers. Strogatz picked six songs, and after two days of recording at Electric Wilburland, Strogatz had her first album, “Think Twice,” in 2014.
Strogatz remembers how nervous she was during those sessions. But that’s not what stuck with Russell. She schooled her backing band, “a badass A-team of local players,” on how she wanted the songs to sound. And when it was time to record, Strogatz would lean into the microphone, close her eyes and quietly sing a song to perfection, never needing more than two takes and leaving Russell in wonder.
“She hasn't been alive long enough for that voice to be coming out of that person,” he says. “And if you hear her, especially at that age, it's kind of hard not to be thinking the same sort of thing."
With the same setup and musicians, Strogatz released a second EP of covers, “A Matter of Time,” the following year. Meanwhile, she was also building up an audience on YouTube. With her own camera and microphone at home, she began posting cover videos, often accompanying herself on guitar, ukulele or piano. Today, her 2015 rendition of Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” has over 8.9 million views.
Around upstate New York, Strogatz began performing gigs and jazz festivals. And under the guidance of jazz vocalist and pianist Cookie Coogan, whom she began working with in 2016, Strogatz continued to improve. In 2016, after seeing her YouTube channel, NBC’s “The Voice” offered to fly Strogatz out to Los Angeles for an audition. But her parents wanted something that was legitimate, beneficial for a young singer and which would not interfere with her academics. “The Voice” was none of those things to them. The answer was no.
Once at Ithaca High School, she excelled in choir. Kristin Zaryski, IHS’s choral and vocal music director, was struck by Strogatz's humility, enthusiasm and leadership. Strogatz was selected to national, regional and state honor choirs.
"She's one of the hardest-working singers I've taught,” says Zaryski. “She knows what excellence is, and she's going to work hard to attain that every time.”
After years of struggling through songwriting, it finally clicked for Strogatz during her senior year of high school. Suddenly, by using songs as a way to express her feelings, she began churning them out, sometimes multiple a day. Having waited five years to record because she wanted her next project to be original material, Strogatz finally reached out to Russell in April 2020. Last summer, after she graduated, they began recording, with Russell as the producer and Strogatz joined by a backing band he selected.
“Drowning,” Strogatz’s debut original single, was released Sept. 30 with a music video filmed by Cayuga Lake. “So Damn Alone,” a second, came on Oct. 28. Strogatz plans to release two more singles in the upcoming months and an original EP in the near future.
Once the pandemic is over, Strogatz, who studies music, sound and culture at Tufts, plans to take full advantage of Boston’s music scene. But from her experience in the music industry so far, Strogatz has noticed an unhealthy level of competition and commercialism, and she doesn’t want to change herself as an artist just to be successful.
And that’s only if Strogatz decides to pursue a career in music. But Russell certainly sees it.
“It's why she's here on this planet, is to sing,” he says. “At least, that's my working theory."