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Joanna Newsom

Persistence of Vision

Apr 04, 2010 Issue #31 - Spring 2010 - Joanna Newsom Photography by Crackerfarm Bookmark and Share

When Joanna Newsom was in her early teens, the young harpist thought that she might want to become a solo classical performer. However, by the time the Northern California native was 17 years old, she began to understand that she would prefer to study composition rather than performance. Still, her mother took her on a trip to several conservatories across the country during her senior year in high school to audition for admittance, an experience that Newsom remembers as terrifying. Most intimidating was her audition for renowned classical harpist Yolanda Kondonassis, the head of the harp department at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.

“I remember getting my envelope from Oberlin Conservatory, and I burned it because I just didn’t want to know,” Newsom says. “I didn’t want the blow to my confidence. I didn’t want to have to carry it around, thinking, ‘Oh, I was rejected by Oberlin Conservatory.’ And if I got in, I would feel completely compelled to go because it was so hard to get in. So I just burned it.”

Newsom’s inclinations to make audacious decisions has helped her to become one of today’s most respected and uniquely ambitious songwriters and album-makers. Her 2006 sophomore album Ys, which she insisted on recording completely analog, consisted of five epic songs distinguished by her dense, hyper-literary lyrics and waves of orchestral strings arranged by Van Dyke Parks. The songs ranged in length from 7 to 17 minutes, and, as lengthy new songs such as “Esme” and “In California” began to emerge during Newsom’s live performances, fans began to question whether she would ever again write in the more concise style of her 2004 debut The Milk-Eyed Mender. On her sprawling third album, Have One on Me, Newsom proves that while her propensity for epic songwriting remains, she’s still capable of writing with brevity. Have One on Me is her most diverse work yet, an album where the succinct harp-and-voice ballad “‘81” follows the 11-minute title track, an instrumentally eclectic, winding narrative inspired by Lola Montez, the 19th century cabaret dancer portrayed in Max Ophüls’ 1955 film Lola Montès.

The album, arranged by Newsom’s bandmate Ryan Francesconi, has an earthy feel, thanks to both the influence of early ‘70s California recordings and the percussion parts written by her drummer, Neal Morgan. It’s a somber work as a whole, evinced by the heart-rending nine-minute lament “Baby Birch,” yet there’s also the jaunty piano bounce of “Good Intentions Paving Company,” the closest Newsom has come to releasing a rock track. Piano accompaniment and vocal harmonies are more prominent than before, with jazz tones, electric guitar, and brass also surfacing. Still, while many of the individual songs on Have One on Me are less imposing than the lavishly poetic allegories on Ys, Newsom nevertheless upped the ante with another dramatically decisive move, releasing Have One on Me as a triple album. Although the 18 songs that compose the three-disc collection could have fit on two CDs, Newsom’s attention to sequencing and thematic cohesion rendered the triple album her only option.

“Creatively, I felt very good about my decision, but any time I looked at it from a practical standpoint, I got terrified, like, ‘This is not good. This is going to be the ruin of me,’” Newsom says, breaking into laughter. “But I kinda had to do it. I either had to do it or I had to discard all the songs and start over again.”

Ys was hailed as a colossal achievement for the young artist—Newsom was 24 when it was released—but it was a deeply personal album stirred by events in her personal life, and the weight of expectations for a follow-up of comparable excellence was something she tried to prevent from invading her mindset. “Certainly, that thought crossed my mind, but it was very immobilizing and nonproductive,” she says. “Ys was long songs, so then the next record needs to be very short songs; you know, that was the mentality. Ys had an orchestra, so the next one needs to be very sparse. Although—in terms of keeping things interesting—that’s a worthwhile way of thinking about it, to me it clouds the actual reasons why I would ever want to make a record. In a way, I think that that kind of thinking is oriented to the way I’m perceived, as opposed to being oriented to what my actual instincts are, and I think that any thinking that’s oriented to the way you’re perceived is not going to produce your best work.”

Since the release of The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom has been aware of how she and her work are scrutinized. The heaps of critical praise that her debut received coincided with the mounting influence of music blogs, and while much of the attention on Newsom was incited by genuine admiration, discussion about her singing and look often overshadowed appreciation for her musicianship. Because of her distinctive voice, her fondness for vintage dresses, and the fanciful imagery of songs with titles such as “Bridges and Balloons” and “Peach, Plum, Pear,” she was tagged with terms like “elfin princess” and “wood nymph.” However, Newsom was more concerned about how her music was being perceived.

“I think there was a misconception about the songs,” she recalls. “I got a lot of, ‘oh, these are like fairy tales, nursery rhymes,’ like a lot of comments that were really coded as ‘babyish’ or ‘youthful’ or ‘innocent.’ And that was so not me. I don’t even know how to describe what I was, but I so didn’t identify with any of that, and I didn’t feel my music was that. I guess, in retrospect, now, when I listen to it, I can kind of hear it more. But, at the time, I remember being initially really shocked. I knew I was doing something kind of weird, or rather that it would be perceived as kind of weird, but I didn’t really identify with a lot of the words people were using to describe it.”

Newsom admits to being “vulnerable to the call of the Internet” and knew that fans were ascribing titles to the unrecorded songs that would appear on Have One on Me. “When I was playing new songs, people would refer to them by these titles that I hadn’t referred to them by, and they would do it real authoritatively, like super know-it-all,” she says. “It really annoyed me.” But in September 2009, Newsom called it quits and stopped reading about herself, recognizing it as destructive and dangerous. “I’m a girl, and I’m human, and so probably the things that get to me the most are just when someone’s like, ‘that girl’s ugly,’ or ‘stupid,’ or really playground shit,” she confesses. “Everything kind of affects me somehow if I read it, but that’s the stuff that drains your energy the most. Anything that engages the work is something that you somehow can step away from. I’ve read horrible, scathing reviews, and some of them are kind of good, kind of well-written, and occasionally they’re even funny. I remember with Ys, there were a few things I read that made me laugh a lot, that were tearing it apart but making really good points. And somehow that doesn’t hurt my feelings as much. But there’s a class of insult that you can’t engage with at all, and you can’t defend yourself against in any way, and it just resonates with a very primal part of you. No one wants anyone to think they’re ugly and stupid, so somehow that’s the stuff that gets me.”

People close to Newsom, upon hearing her acknowledge such comments, encouraged her to stop reading about herself. “I might just be talking about it and someone would point out, ‘What the hell are you doing spending one second of your time caring about what some dumbo in some far-off state has to anonymously say about you on a blog that five people read?’” Newsom explains. “It’s just a waste of energy. Regardless of what it was that made me realize once and for all that I needed to not read that stuff, it was one little episode that was representative of a whole larger truth, which is that no matter what I read on the Internet, whether it’s ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ it still makes me feel weird. It’s counterproductive. Even something that is a glowing review still leaves a weird taste in my mouth.”

By the summer of 2008, Newsom was performing a handful of new songs in concert, and excitement swelled among fans who hoped that a new album was near. But fan expectations are no match for the standards that Newsom places on her work. When she had amassed 15 new songs, she felt that she still wasn’t ready for the studio. A creative breakthrough came in January 2009, when Francesconi made a cordial visit to her house and convinced her that it was time for pre-production on a new album to commence.

“I felt like a kid whose mom was gonna comb lice out of his hair or something,” Newsom says. “I was having a fit. Didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to have the conversation.” Francesconi began conducting a series of interviews with Newsom to determine how well she knew what she wanted from each song. “He would start with these very general questions, like ‘What is this song about and how do you want this song to feel? How does this song feel for you and also how do you want it to feel for someone listening to it?’ These very sort of broad, far-reaching questions, and then he would, on a smaller and smaller scale, go deeper into the songs. ‘What do you want the instrumentation to be, what sort of colors do you want? Like brass or strings or woodwinds?’ We talked about, ‘We want this moment to be kind of bluegrassy, and we want this moment to be kind of Bulgarian, and this moment to be kind of Andean, and this one to have references to Bartók or Liszt.’”

One of the foremost distinctions of the new album is Newsom’s lyric writing, which she prefers to describe as “more direct” rather than accessible. Candid proclamations of love recur, while puns leap out upon first listen. “It’s a lot more clear, it’s a lot more evident immediately, at least on the surface, what I’m talking about in the songs,” she says. “I was tired of being in a space in my mind of approaching lyrics the way I approached them on Ys, which, for that record, had felt very important to me and very true to the spirit of that album, but was very exhausting. There was this hyperawareness of all of these almost mathematical values in the lyrical line. I was hyperaware of the distribution of syllabic weight, and I was hyperaware of the interior and exterior rhyme patterns. There were all these structural obligations that I was imposing on the syntax of the lyrical line.”

As Francesconi was conducting his interviews with Newsom, Morgan joined in on the conversations. Both musicians wrote down copious notes about each song and took home demos that Newsom had recorded. Francesconi worked intensely for two months arranging the songs, while Morgan arranged his drum parts. “This is the understatement of the century, but the album would not be what it is without them,” Newsom says. “They’re a huge part of the record for me.”

For a period, Newsom considered releasing the recordings as a double album, but she felt that the sequencing didn’t work. “Somehow, when I began to think of it in a three-part form, it worked for me,” she says. “Obviously, it’s so much information, and the thing that I liked about the triple album shape is that it started to feel like three chapters or three acts in a play.” Newsom also sequenced Have One on Me so that each of the vinyl LP’s six sides would comprise three songs. “There’s a little mini-arc on the LP,” she explains. “It was very important to me to sequence the record as an LP. So it’s got three main arcs, and then each one is broken into sides. If you look at each side, the sets of three are all arranged differently. There is no set of three, side by side, that have the same instrumentation on them.”

It’s nearly 4 p.m. when Newsom sits down for an interview in an outdoor lounge of New York’s Bowery Hotel. Before taking a sip of coffee, she declares: “It’s still morning for me.” Newsom explains that she’s not an insomniac because she’s capable of sleeping for 12 hours straight. Rather, she’s a night owl who has trouble getting there. “My mom has told me we used to have fights about it when I was in preschool, like trying to get me up at 10 a.m., and that was still too early for me,” she says. “And I remember sneaking out of bed, in the middle of the night, to play in the closet with a tiny little night light.” Newsom’s difficulty with rising for school continued through her senior year of high school. “I had a sleeping bag in my van,” she says, laughing at the memory of driving a van. “I would sneak away if I could to get away from class and just sleep for an hour and go back to school.”

Newsom was born in 1982 in Grass Valley, a neighboring city to Nevada City, the Northern California gold mining town where she was raised. She was named Joanna after Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna.” “My mom made a last-minute, estrogen-fueled decision in the hospital to drop the ‘h’ because she was worried people would have trouble spelling my name,” Newsom says. “So right until the last second I was going to be Johanna, but then I became Joanna.” Though Newsom’s parents, both doctors, prohibited her from watching TV, they shared an affection for music. Her dad played guitar for fun, “but I don’t think he would have described himself as a musician,” she says. “My mom came from a long history of being a musician and had formally studied piano for years and played over the course of my childhood. She had an African drum group that would meet in our upstairs garage every week for years and years, and she played hammered dulcimer and autoharp.” Newsom’s mother assembled a kids’ band that included Joanna and her younger sister Emily. Along with friends and other local youngsters, they would play craft and street fairs around Christmastime. “We would play Christmas songs and basically just folk music,” Newsom says. “I was too young to think it was dorky.”

By then, Newsom was playing folk harp, an instrument that she had been begging to learn since she was 4 years old. Newsom’s eventual harp teacher, Lisa Stine, said that she was too young for the instrument and advised her to study piano first. “And then they took me back again at about age 8,” Newsom recalls, “and that was when I started actually studying under my harp teacher.” While Newsom was taking piano lessons, her music teacher, Anna Gold, notated instrumentals that Newsom wrote on piano or recorder. Newsom also would invent stories to accompany the songs, which Gold transcribed. Recently, Gold mailed these songs to Newsom’s parents, and Newsom rediscovered them on a visit back home. “It’s really funny, because it’s in a 5-year-old’s writing voice, but it’s her very neat cursive handwriting, and then there’s the little tune written next to it,” Newsom explains. “There’s one about a camel that’s an actual song, where she wrote down the notes, but then she wrote the words under it, and it has a melody, and it’s a song, and she says, ‘You wrote this when you were 5, and I’ve been teaching it to my little preschool students ever since.’ And it was like, ‘The camel walks, clippity clop,’ and this whole, you know, doesn’t really rhyme, this weird, weird song about a camel. But I’m pretty sure that was baby’s first song.”

When Newsom finally began harp lessons, she continued to write her own songs. Stine encouraged her to improvise while playing, and when Newsom was in 6th grade, she would accompany Stine on her harp presentations to elementary schools. Newsom still has a pile of thank-you cards from young students who appreciated her performance of “Red Sun,” a song she had composed. Before long, though, Newsom would grow self-conscious about her voice. “I used to do musicals,” she recalls. “I used to do a lot of theater, and I would always get cast as the wicked witch or the little kid. It was always a character role because I had this really intensely charactered voice. I didn’t have a smooth, classically beautiful voice, and I just got self-conscious about it and thought I couldn’t sing, and so I stopped singing.”

Newsom is quick to admit that she is a shy person. “I think I’m a weird compensator for shyness, because in certain circumstances I don’t think I’m perceived as shy, but in others, it’s very, very clear,” she explains. “I think my best friends would definitely describe me as morbidly shy.” She says that, as a child, she was somewhat of a loner and socially weird. She recalls making a decided effort to join her preschool mates in a game of horses, which involved little more than running back and forth. She didn’t grasp the appeal and returned to doing something by herself. “In preschool, I had some girlfriend, she and I spent a whole week convincing this guy in our preschool class that the dolls were alive and they were watching him, just terrifying this kid,” Newsom recounts. “You know, picking on this poor guy, convincing him that the dolls were relaying us all these weird messages about him. That wasn’t very nice of us, but I don’t know, I was socially strange. I always was pretty shy. My whole life I’ve always had the few people that I’m really close with.”

Through the 5th grade, Newsom had been educated at a Waldorf school, a type of school founded on educational principles that encourage creativity and independence. Newsom more bluntly describes it as “an arty, outdoorsy, hippie school.” For 6th grade, the nearest Waldorf school to Newsom’s home was an hour away, so she and her parents decided that she should attend public school. “I remember starting in 6th grade and kinda being ahead of the class in a lot of different things and, over the course of one year, falling behind completely,” she recalls. “I think I started out the year in weird, flowy, costume-y nerd clothes, and by the end, I was wearing skater girl clothes. We were in far Northern California, so that was always the style, kind of the snowboarder, skater thing, and I remember trying to do that for a few years there, and for 8th grade I was flipping out. I was not doing very well in public school, not acclimating, and I think I finally was like, ‘All right, I can’t really do this,’ and so my parents sent me for 8th grade to a Waldorf school again. And then that only went for a year, and then I went back to a public high school. But somehow, I made some decision at that point that I just wasn’t going to worry about it anymore. And by the time I got to high school, I was just happy kind of being a weirdo.”

As Newsom had grown more self-conscious about her singing, her harp skills were becoming more advanced. As a child, she attended Lark Camp, a celebration of folk music and dance in the Mendocino Woodlands. There, she befriended Francesconi, who led the Bulgarian music classes. “That was where I started getting really into West African harp and all these other different techniques that became my little obsessions for years after that,” she says. When Newsom reached her early teens, Stine encouraged her to move on and seek another teacher who could further develop her playing. “She felt I needed to move on to a pedal harp, which offers a lot more harmonic range than a folk harp, because in order to change key with a folk harp, you have to flip a lever with your left hand, and it just affects one string, whereas with a pedal harp you can globally change key in an instant with your feet, so you don’t have to stop playing and it will sharp or flat every octave of the note that you pedal. So it suddenly opens up this entire world of speed and flexibility and what’s available to you as far as repertoire goes.”

The summer after Newsom graduated from high school, having abandoned the idea of becoming a classical harp performer, she began to write songs again but remained timid about singing. “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,” she remembers. “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.”

Instead of attending a conservatory, Newsom enrolled at Mills College in Oakland to study composition. Although she had talked about becoming a composer for years, it wasn’t until she attended Mills that she began to understand what that entailed. She became disenchanted with the curriculum and her limited access to the composition teachers who initially drew her there, and her interest in melody was not in favor, so she dropped out.

“The first time I dropped out of college, for about a year I went home to Nevada City and I lived in a little apartment there and worked at the coffee shop,” she recounts. “I was working also very secretly on songs with words and singing then, and my housemate, my roommate, this guy Adam [Kline], he’s still a really good friend of mine, and he has this great band called Golden Shoulders, and he would hear me singing. He was definitely my earliest supporter in that regard, because he would just come in and say he loved the songs, and I was like, ‘Yeah, right. They’re so bad.’ And I even sang with him a little. That was my earliest performing. I sang with him at some shows, but I was still really, really shy about my music.”

Newsom returned to Mills to study creative writing, her other love while growing up. “For a few years there, like in high school, I would write poetry, and then I got really into the idea of stories,” she explains. “I sort of wanted to be a novelist, I think, for some time. And even in college when I switched out of the composition program, I went into the creative writing program. I wanted to be a writer. So, there was this moment of complete joy and amazement in my life when I started to see that I could do both of those things together. Like, that was the most thrilling concept that had ever occurred to me, and it was amazing to me that it had taken like 20-something years to occur to me. But, ultimately it was just because I didn’t think of myself as a singer. That was the missing thing. And when I decided, ‘I’m just going to sing,’ then I got to do all the things I wanted to do.”

A pivotal moment in Newsom’s decision to sing again was hearing Appalachian folk singer Texas Gladden’s rendition of “Three Little Babes” in an American Music class at Mills. Newsom was struck by its beauty and recognized how Gladden’s unorthodox voice only made the recording more exquisite. Newsom would go on to cover “Three Little Babes” on The Milk-Eyed Mender.

Not long after beginning work on what Newsom now calls “proper songs,” ones that would appear on The Milk-Eyed Mender, she recorded an initial batch and put them on a CD. “In retrospect, it was a demo, although I didn’t think of it at the time as that,” she says. “I just thought it was like a document. It was just so I knew I had written these songs, and it was a little collection of them, and I burned one copy for Adam, my old roommate, because he asked for it. You know, he’s like, ‘You’ve been working, I want to hear it.’ So I gave him my one copy, the only burned copy there was, and he gave that to Will Oldham when he came through town on a tour. And then Will Oldham asked me to tour with him. It was like, the craziest thing.”

Newsom was signed to Oldham’s label Drag City within months, and she raised her visibility by opening shows for Devendra Banhart, Cat Power, and Neil Young. While Internet hype helped her to cultivate a passionate following, it was without any interactivity from her. She’s never had a website, a MySpace page, or a public social networking account. “I didn’t see any evidence that you have to do it,” she says. “Anything that anyone thinks is me is not.”

During this interview, Newsom appears comfortable and relaxed, frequently flashing a smile or breaking into laughter as she recalls detailed memories of her childhood and family upbringing. Yet she is guarded about certain information. If a question gets too personal, she gracefully dances around it, offering a generous answer that doesn’t satisfy the question directly but is enlightening nonetheless. Some specifics she politely declines to disclose, even though they are documented and likely known by her diehard fans. When she’s asked how she spent “me time” between touring Ys and working on Have One on Me, she’s short of answers, explaining that she engaged in projects around the house. Traveling is no joy for her, and when she arrives at the Bowery Hotel, she says she doesn’t know the city well. Perhaps this is why the music blogs go abuzz when she’s photographed at Fashion Week events, performing private after-parties, or starring in MGMT’s video for “Kids.”

“I had decided that my New Year’s resolution was to start being less of a hater,” Newsom says, recalling the period in late 2008 when director Ray Tintori asked her via email to appear in the video. “I spend a lot of my time not doing those sorts of things, not wanting to go outside of my comfort zone. I got that email at a time where I was deciding I wanted to go outside of my comfort zone and do weird things that I wouldn’t normally do.”

Newsom sporadically receives offers of that nature. Last year, she was asked to audition for a big-budget Hollywood movie, but she declined, feeling that it seemed too weird. Although one of her ambitions is to resume taking dance classes in the near future, she no longer has the acting bug that she had as a teen.

“I used to be super into it in high school,” she says. “And there was a period of time where I thought that that was something that I might want to do. But it’s been so long since I’ve seen a movie and thought, ‘Oh, I would want to do that part.’ It just seems embarrassing to me now. When I saw the Lord of the Rings movies, I was like, ‘I would do that. I would ride a horse around in New Zealand.’ Of course, that comment’s going to get me in trouble. It’s playing right into the perception of me as like elfin, mystical whatever. But that’s why I wanted to do it. It was like, nerdy, awesome fun.”


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