Joanna Newsom

Easy Listening

Mar 23, 2016 Issue # 56 - Best of 2015 - Father John Misty and Wolf Alice Photography by Annabel Mehran Bookmark and Share


Though she has been as universally praised as any singer/songwriter from the past 10 years, Joanna Newsom has always received her accolades with a bit of frustration. When writers haven't been describing her as some sort of Renaissance Faire pixie, they've been fixating on the novelty of her harp-playing or feeding the tendency to hold her music up as an object to study and analyze as much as listen to and enjoy. With Divers, her fourth full-length release, that narrative seems to have shifted. This time, Newsom is being praised for making an "accessible" album, a designation that confuses her as much as the previous ones.

"In the past, people who liked [my music] would say, 'It's really good, but you have to get over the fact there's a 17-minute long song.' Or, 'It's good, but you have to get over the fact that it's a triple record.' Or, 'It's good, but you have to get over the sound of her voice,'" she says, laughing. "With this one, there's not a distinct thing that people are latching onto as the thing that you have to get past before liking the record. Therefore, they consider it to be more accessible."

When Divers' first single, "Sapokanikan," was released, Newsom's more devoted listeners seemed to view her work as both accessible and as an object of study, and there was a mad rush to decipher the maze of references in the song. In multiple online forums, her fans dissected the connections between King Tamanend, John Purroy Mitchel, Percy Shelley's Ozymandias, and the history and symbolism of Manhattan. Many songwriters dream that their songs will someday merit such close examination; for Newsom, the response was a little troubling.

"I don't write anything in hopes of presenting a challenge or struggle," she says. "The main issue that I have with the mentality of deciphering or digging is that I don't want people to feel like they have to do that in order to get the songs. The songs are supposed to have an immediate meaning that is there whether you look anything up on the Internet or notthat 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."

Writing in such a multi-layered manner takes time, and Newsom is quick to point out that she started working on Divers as soon as touring for 2010 triple-album Have One on Me was finished. Though Divers is a comparably tidy 11-song set, Newsom has created an album that is no less ambitious in scale. First, she had a very specific story she wanted to tellone about love, time, and historywith characters and themes delicately woven through the album's many textures and melodic ideas. Second, she collaborated with an extensive cast of arrangers and instrumentalists, with a new ensemble chosen to contribute to each track. Before the album was finished, she had spent five months mixing it and had mastered the album 11 times, ending up with a meticulous and, yes, accessible release. Though she tries to avoid analysis of her work, she seems to be coming to terms with that latter feature.

"Sometimes [interpretations] are shockingly close to what I intended, where I'm like, 'Do I know you?'" she says. "And other times they are delightfully and completely different but making such a convincing case for this alternate meaning that I'm almost believing it myself."

[Note: This article first appeared in Under the Radar's Best of 2015 print issue, which is still on newsstands now. This is its debut online.]

www.dragcity.com/artists/joanna-newsom 



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