Artist Spotlight: Joanna Newsom

Artist Spotlight courtesy of Tyrone

Judy Budnitz: Trying to describe Joanna Newsom to people is difficult. It’s a bit like the parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. You could start by saying she’s a harpist and singer. But when most people hear the word “harp” they immediately imagine classical music, or tinkling music-box stuff, and their eyebrows go up. You say: No, no, it’s sort of folk music, but sort of not, has a touch of Appalachia but really it’s a style all its own. That just makes people more skeptical. You tell people she’s got an incredibly unique voice, singular in the way Björk’s voice or Cat Power’s voice is, and people get even more confused. You try to describe the lyrics, the intricate constructions and marvelously obscure words. Catenaries and dirigibles! you cry. By now your listeners have given up and are backing away, nodding politely. Finally, in desperation, you shut up. You make them listen to Newsom’s music, which is what you should have done in the first place. Because now the confusion drops away. Because whatever it is, however you describe it, it’s really, really, really good—haunting, sad, lovely, a bit scary, and wonderfully peculiar.

Joanna Newsom is my favorite artist. Her words and songs have shaped my experiences so much so that I can no longer call them my own. I wanted to try and describe her work, to pin down what makes her as impactful on my life as she has been. The closest I can come up with is that her music is a journal, which isn’t too far-fetched considering she got her start writing songs for friends and family. Each album often covers the same themes: Time and how it shapes our actions, friendship, love, childbirth and it’s relation with death. But each time she comes at it from a new angle as she ages. The innocence of The Milk-Eyed Mender. The operatic and existential pain of Ys. The resignation and growth of Have One On Me. The theater of Divers. Her thoughts shift with her life and experiences and that aging without forcing new topics is what makes her work so engaging. So instead of using my own words, I’ll be using hers with links to songs and themes that go in chronological order.

2004- The Milk-Eyed Mender

Joanna Newsom: …in an American music class, I was introduced to some older Appalachian folk music, and I felt a real affinity with some of the singers that I heard, particularly a singer named Texas Gladden, who was a grandmother who Alan Lomax recorded. I was really affected and touched by the sound of her voice, which differed from any conventional idea of a beautiful voice. Hearing some of that stuff prompted me to consider my own voice to be an instrument at my disposal, just like the harp.

Joanna Newsom: Although that song is deeply connected to all the Appalachian tradition, and to the body of work of all the other recorded Appalachian artists, for me it wasn’t just that she was from where she was, and that she sang in the tradition that she sang within, it was that she was her. Her voice, in and of itself, is magical.

Dusted: So the way that you sing isn’t something that was deliberate, it’s just a very natural development.

Joanna Newsom: Right, definitely. I thought it came just in the last two years. The very first Walnut Whales recording was recorded just a few weeks after I had started singing, out of the blue, started singing. And the voice, you can hear how uncomfortable I am with it, and how terrified I am with it. And at this point, it’s still the same voice, it’s just kind of dropped. I’m breaking into it, and becoming familiar with where it sits in my throat, but it could be totally different in a year.

Joanna Newsom: The truth is that it was with such shock and delight that I discovered that there were people in the world who would willingly listen to the noise I was making, that it overshadowed the fact that I was terrified.

2006 – Ys

Joanna Newsom: I don’t really even consider it a concept album, even if it does have some unifying aesthetic choices that make it really different from the first record. It’s the product of a series of very small decisions, as opposed to sitting down like, “I want to do this record with long songs and huge orchestral presences.” Basically I wanted to undertake the task of writing songs about a particular year of my life. Not the task of telling that story in a linear way, or in any way that would make the story explicitly knowable to a listener, but rather, to tell the story to myself. I was starting to see a lot of connections, and I wanted to make them more substantial to myself, or at least explore them. Writing these songs was a way to organize my brain and organize these events and how they had affected me. There were four very big things that happened in my life in this particular year, and so four of the songs are about these things. The fifth song, “Only Skin”, was an effort to talk about the connections between the events.

Erik Davis: …the questions—and the misunderstandings—have already arrived, such as the notion that Ys is a “breakup record.”

Joanna Newsom: There are three specific stories on Ys, and maybe five specific characters. There were two major losses and the knell, the ringing knell of another loss which is continuing, an illness basically. So mortality is huge on this record. And there’s more than one type of death, of course, and that’s where the turmoil of the relationship figures in, but not quite as largely as you might suppose.

Erik Davis: The hammer blow that began this series of hard knocks was the sudden death of Newsom’s best friend… Newsom got the call while she was driving between gigs, during the year when her career was first blowing up.

Erik Davis: The sense of loss that overshadows “Emily” is the kind that comes to all strong families despite, or perhaps because of, their intimacy. The song is addressed to Newsom’s kid sister, who is often gallivanting about the world but came home long enough to sing on the track.

Joanna Newsom: In some ways this song is a tribute to her, and in other ways it was like a plea, a letter to her about some stuff that’s happening close to home, and a reference to the fact that a lot of the little structures and kingdoms and plans we built when we were younger are just falling to fucking pieces.

Joanna Newsom: I always get shit for using these big words. And that’s valid—they can be distracting and take away from pure simple meanings. But other times they truly seem to be the only word that says the exact thing I need them to say.

Joanna Newsom: I’m not a huge proponent of the long song in general; I think they are often justified, but in general I believe economy is a tenet that’s worth upholding in songwriting. It’s important to say what you need to say as accurately and truly as possible, but with as few words as possible as well. In the case of this record, I did think I was doing that, but it didn’t seem possible to tell the story in any fewer words than the amount I ended up with, or in any other form than the one I ended up with.

Joanna Newsom: Among the responsibilities of any writer is that, no matter what else, they know what they mean. So, even if no one else knows what you’re talking about, you do. The listener can sense that, even if they don’t get the literal meaning. The faith that they place in the clues and the connections and the secrets of the lyrics is of the utmost importance.

Joanna Newsom: I think I’m creatively restless and I think I’m content in every other regard. I’m a lazy pig most of the time, and unambitious, and not a big traveller – if I wasn’t a big traveller, I’d probably never leave my town. There’s so little that I want to do in this life – I want a little family, I’m really domestic. It’s actually hilarious to me that I’m able to do music as my career because I never really made any effort in the beginning for that to be the case, other than just writing my music. Writing, writing, writing obsessively, because that’s all I like to do, outside very mundane things that aren’t worth mentioning.

2010 – Have One On Me

Joanna Newsom: This record deals a lot with the idea of home and hometown. People have described me as being so informed by the nature and the magic of this place. I think on this album I’m exploring that — I’m working through that idea. There’s a lot of mythologizing of Nevada City as this utopian magical hippie land.

New York Times: Newsom explained that there is a vague thematic logic to the album’s three-disc structure, tracing the morning, day and night of a single 24 hours.

Joanna Newsom: The environment of making, and of writing, the Ys songs and then recording them and mixing them and doing everything surrounding that record… every step of the process was very formalised, and that was kind of a ballast to a lot of the brutal or unhinged emotional material that I was working with. A lot of those songs had a really intense sadness, and given the story I was trying to tell with that record, it was very natural to me to default to a very formal approach, almost like [I was] hyperconscious of every decision.

So I came out of that experience and musically I think I wanted to let some air into the room. I had been in this vacuum of just very charged, very arid, intense running-in-circles sorts of thinking and I just wanted to go outside and do something pitched differently.

New York Times: Newsom is a collector. She is a lifelong insomniac — she says that she goes to bed “somewhere in the 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. window” — and often spends the wee hours looking for antiques online. For the cover photo of “Have One on Me,” Newsom dragged many of her belongings into her living room — a stuffed peacock, a leopard-print ottoman, tchotchkes and clothes and rugs and partitions — and arranged them on and around her couch, which sits in front of a wall-hung 18th-century tapestry. It’s a cabinet of curiosities, with Newsom mounted in the middle: stretched out on the sofa wearing a strapless dress and a flapper headband, peering back at the viewer, sphinxlike, with mascara-ringed eyes.

Joanna Newsom: I had a big crush on this boy, and the first song I ever wrote was this angsty song when I was in Europe with my best friend. I had this notebook and I started scribbling song lyrics in it and wrote my first few songs. That was actually before college, but I never sang them for anyone besides myself.

I’m going to interject here because I’m not finding great quotes for this time period. However, the songs speak for themselves. They’re easily her most accessible, both in content and sound. My favorite from this era is the striking Baby Birch. It’s a beautiful slow build about the loss of a child:

2015 – Divers

Joanna Newsom: I don’t write anything in hopes of presenting a challenge or struggle. The songs are supposed to have an immediate meaning that is there whether you look anything up on the Internet or not—that you can feel the meanings. And then there are these other layers of meaning that are available for people who want to dig a little bit deeper, and those layers are there because that’s just how I write, I guess.

Joanna Newsom: It’s very reassuring in a way to know that the elements I spent a long time embroidering into – or, in some cases, burying in – the lines will pretty much always get found by someone. It’s a nice relationship, I would say. I don’t know how to put it without sounding corny, but I do feel there’s some sort of exchange that happens there.

Joanna Newsom: I don’t know I’d describe what I’m doing leading up to that song as “research”. For me, it’s more having a hunch and following through on the hunch. Having an almost religious faith in the fact that certain things are connected and I have to lasso them all into the same place. Research: that word feels so cold to me in a way. Because it’s all very compulsive and very emotion-driven.

The Guardian: There is one response to Sapokanikan which, when I read it back to Newsom, gives her more pleasure than any of the others. The most popular comment on YouTube that morning is: “I didn’t understand a word, but I fucking loved it.”

Joanna Newsom: Yeah! I’m overjoyed to hear that. It’s wonderful. They are songs, so the priority for me is that the melody is good and the instrumentation is exciting and interesting and new and that it resonates with people on that level. If they said they love it, then they are getting what they show up for. They show up for something and, whatever they show up for, they got that thing. I would never presume to think they need more from that song.

Joanna Newsom: By many standards, what I have is not success. I’m perfectly happy with it, but if it was a company going public, I’d be doing very poorly. When people start to do things arbitrarily to grow that audience, and those choices are compromises, there’s a stink that their audience can smell, and it’s really hard to get off.

Joanna Newsom: The whole record is personal, but a lot of what is most personal is conveyed through pure fiction or, sometimes, even science fiction—literally sci-fi. With “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” I’m contrasting this British Isles sea shanty with a narrative in which I’m talking about colonizing alternate iterations of the terrestrial position in the multiverse. Colonizing time sideways, front and back, traveling in four directions through time. The subject matter is some of the heaviest and occasionally saddest I’ve ever explored. It’s linked to mortality and the idea of getting older. Time runs through every single song.

Joanna Newsom: It’s a very dangerous word, but I think it’s maybe the closest I’ve come to a concept record, God help us.

Rookie: This is the first album cover that didn’t have a portrait of you on it, and I’m interested in what motivated that.

Joanna Newsom: I’ve always claimed, in the past, that my album covers are portraits of the narrator of the record. The narrator of the record is me, usually, but a me with certain aspects really concentrated or exaggerated. Other aspects [are] removed because they’re not relevant to the record. It’s a stylized version of me every time, and then usually that narrator is also housed within some framework that hints or points toward the vibe, the mood, and the feel of the record. This album cover is no different.

Joanna Newsom: And of course, when I say narrator I’m not making any claims toward complete fiction or anything like that. But I definitely have nostalgia for who I was and what my life was when I made all those records. They are definitely, both in their fictions and their autobiography, very accurate depictions of what was going on in my mind at that time—who I was and what I was interested in, what made me sad and what made me happy, and what was exciting and what I was admiring.

Joanna Newsom: I feel like whether or not people are catching it overtly, they’re breathing the air and feeling the ground under their feet. And as they’re listening to the song, they’re believing in the realness of the world that song occupies.