Growing up, I was always told I was a rebel. People would say things like, “You’re defiant,” and “Why are you dressed that way?” But I continued to do what I wanted and wear what I wanted—because, clearly I haven’t changed. For a long time, though, there was a shame that I carried with me. I’m an Italian Catholic—I grew up with a lot of guilt. But what I’ve started to realize is that my rebelliousness, if you want to call it that, is something that was passed along to me by a long line of tough people—and tough women—in my family.
My mother and my grandmothers are without a doubt the most powerful female forces in my life. My mother grew up in West Virginia, in an Italian family. Her father was an extremely hardworking man; he worked in insurance. My grandmother’s parents died when she was young, so she had to raise her sister. She really held down the fort. My father’s father’s family came over from Italy through Ellis Island. They lived in New Jersey. My grandfather was a shoemaker, and my father’s mother worked with him when she wasn’t home with their kids. They had two children. They lost one of them—my father’s sister, Joanne, who I’m named after.
Joanne died when she was 19. I called my album Joanne because Joanne’s presence was always important to me. The best way to describe my relationship with her is that it’s like the relationship someone might have with an angel or a spirit guide or whatever you think of as a higher power. Joanne died of lupus, which is an autoimmune disease, and from what I know of the history of my family, one of the reasons her disease may have worsened was that she was assaulted when she was in college. She was sexually assaulted and groped. Joanne passed away in 1974, 12 years before I was born, so I learned about her mostly through stories and pictures. But I also learned about her through the rage of my father and watching him pour a drink every night and through seeing my grandparents cry at the Christmas dinner table when it was clear that there was an empty seat they wanted to fill.
To me, Joanne was my hope and my faith. I always felt that I had somebody looking out for me, and I looked to her to protect me. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also really looked to her to help understand myself. I thought about Joanne as I was watching the news during the election about the scandal surrounding the Access Hollywood tape. Here we were, in 2016, and the fact that the sort of language that was being used to talk about women was everywhere—on TV, in politics—was eye-opening. I felt depressed and hurt by it because that’s what that kind of language does. Then I watched our incredible first lady, Michelle Obama, talk in New Hampshire about how hurt she felt seeing it too. She talked about how women are often afraid to say anything because we’re worried that we will appear weak—that we’ll be told we’re being over-the-top, dramatic, emotional. But we’re not. We’re fighting for our lives.
Being a lady today means being a fighter. It means being a survivor. It means letting yourself be vulnerable and acknowledging your shame or that you’re sad or you’re angry. It takes great strength to do that. Before I made Joanne, I took some time off. I made music with Tony Bennett. I did “Til It Happens to You” with Diane Warren. But I was able to get off the train of endless work I’d been on, which was quite abusive to my body and my mind, and have some silence and some space around me. I wanted to experience music again the way I did when I was younger, when I just had to make it, instead of worrying what everybody thinks or being obsessed with things that aren’t important.
Fame is the best drug that’s ever existed. But once you realize who you are and what you care about, that need for more, more, more just goes away. What matters is that I have a great family, I work hard, I take care of those around me, I provide jobs for people I love very much, and I make music that I hope sends a good message into the world. I turned 30 this year, and I’m a fully formed woman. I have a clear perspective on what I want. That, for me, is success. I want to be somebody who is fighting for what’s true—not for more attention, more fame, more accolades.
I look at my mother and the way she has loved my father through his pain, and I look at my grandmothers and what they’ve been through—the three of them are like a trifecta of strength. Health, happiness, love—these are the things that are at the heart of a great lady, I think. That’s the kind of lady I want to be. You know, I never thought I’d say this, but isn’t it time to take off the corsets? As someone who loves them, I think it’s time to take them off.
This article originally appeared in the December/January issue of Harper’s BAZAAR, available on newsstands November 22.
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