Joanna Newsom: Interview
Of Narwhales, Zeugmas, and Will Oldham
For anyone who's been paying at least a flicker of attention, 2004 has very much
so been the year of indie-folk's resurgence. Artists like Devendra Banhart,
Sufjan Stevens, Iron And Wine, and Six Organs Of Admittance have released
seminal works that hearken back to an age of greater innocence and whimsy, where
in a cul-de-sac devoid of the tremulous offerings of politics and economy, a
return to the barest beauty of sparse musical form is budding brightly with the
means of self-sustenance. San Francisco singer/harpist Joanna Newsom has found
herself at the forefront of this revival and word as to her unique brilliance
has spread like wildfire. Her songs are stories that evoke fairy-tale melancholy
and become the warmest part of your being upon first listen; they are a woven
tapestry of child-like candor and sagely wisdom. Using the harp strings to
seemingly endless depth and fullness, her voice coos and croons with an
unabashed child-like timber as endearing as the first butterfly of the spring.
Her music is that which makes us call forth a part of ourselves, that we have
long neglected, and for this it sounds familiar as a sister's gentle sigh, but
it is also a vehicle to render us breathless at the beauty inherent in musical
honesty. We had a chance to speak with Joanna a few days before embarking on a
short European stint in support of her sublime debut LP, The Milk-Eyed Mender.
TMT: You had recorded and released two EPs on your own (2002's
Walnut Whales and 2003's Yarn And Glue) before being signed to Drag City, how
did you come to the label's attention?
JN: Will Oldham contacted me after hearing those earlier EPs (I'm not
sure how he got those, because it was back before I'd ever played any shows or
sold any CDs). He told me he liked the music, and he asked me on tour; and I
imagine it was him who passed my music along to the Drag City folks. After I
finished touring with Will, I contacted DC and they said they'd like to put out
TMT: A number of songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender appeared on those first
two records, is there any reason you chose certain songs in particular to
rerecord for your first label release?
JN: Yes; those were the ones that still felt honest. The ones I
didn't re-record (with one or two exceptions) were songs that I can't perform
anymore without feeling a little disingenuous, because the circumstances
surrounding the songs have changed so dramatically. All my songs tend to be
autobiographical, to a sometimes-awkward degree...
TMT: How does the songwriting process work with you? Your rhymes and
stories seem to flow very seamlessly with an extensive vocabulary that is too
often lacking in music as of late. Do you do a lot of editing, or does the
writing come out of you as flowing as it seems to the listener?
JN: I think it's some of both. The actual content of the songs (their
themes, their subjects, their fixations) is very intuitive and kind of
stream-of-consciousness. I don't feel that I have much of a choice regarding
what a particular song is going to be "about." But I also feel that every idea
can be expressed a multitude of ways, which is where my obsessiveness over
syntax comes in. So yes, I do tend to edit quite a bit—like stringing words
together so their syllabic emphases intersect or syncopate with the harp's
downbeat in interesting ways; or playing with assonance, alliteration, interior
rhymes, chiasmi, zeugmas, double meanings, etc.
TMT: You manage to get a wide range in tone and a great fullness to
your sound with just the harp, it seems uniquely conducive to your solo
performances and your record contains sparse, if any accompaniment, is there a
reason you chose to keep the songs relatively pared down?
JN: Yeah. This album was my love-song to the harp, among other
things. I was so happy with the way that Noah Georgeson, the producer, was able
to capture the prismatic, lush, spectral sonic presence of the instrument. I
wanted the instrumentation to be all about verisimilitude, truth, the breath and
blood of the harp. When I play, you know, it's pressed to my chest and I can
feel the vibrations all through my ribcage and collarbones; I wanted that sense
of closeness and life to reverberate through the recording, too. The harp is so
unique in its timbre...when you pluck a single note, for example, it sets off a
chain reaction so that every single string vibrates at once, with varying
intensities and volumes and for varying durations of time. When I play harp, I
tend to play sort of rapid, busy figures, which means there's a constant,
percussively articulated, variegated field of notes rising into prominence and
receding into the background, each of them setting-off their own second and
third and fourth harmonics, too—everything thrumming and shaking and shimmering
and modulating constantly. I thought extra instruments would detract from my
primary goal in committing these songs to tape, which was to capture them framed
in their true harmonic space, encircled by endless concentric bands of shifting
If you listen close to the "silence" at the end of The Book of Right-On—I
mean, really turn up the volume for a few moments after the last note has been
played—you can hear a bit of that sea of sounds, decaying bit by bit into the
ether. It's quite lovely, I think.
"I've always been sort of obsessed by the alchemy of
closeness, of cramming things together, compacting myth denser and denser."
TMT: The artwork for The Milk-Eyed Mender
has such a personal, human touch to it. What was the concept behind the cover
JN: My friend Emily Prince designed and embroidered it for me. I
wanted an album cover that depicted real, touchable, substantial materials &
handiwork (partly because of the album title, with its references to mending,
and its excerption from the album's central song—"Sadie"—which is full of
sewing-related lyrics). It was actually a sort of distressing thing, initially,
because I wanted to include everything significant and beautiful to me,
and I didn't know how that could be done. Emily and I started by itemizing some
objects which have accrued symbolic, nostalgic strength for us over the years
(like narwhales, owls, hot air balloons, skeletons). We decided that she'd
embroider these, and have them inhabit little fields of calico and burlap, the
edges of which could touch and intersect, to give a sense of dense, almost
airless amalgamation...because I think those symbols are at their most powerful
when they brush up against each other. I've always been sort of obsessed by the
alchemy of closeness, of cramming things together, compacting myth denser and
Then we started collecting real objects... teeth, feathers, buttons, bones,
acorns, a dead butterfly, leaves, coins, that sort of thing. And Emily attached
them all to her tapestry. The photo went right in the center, with a macaroni
frame, so it looked sort of like something a third-grader would make as a
Mother's Day gift, and sort of like a shrine for a dead person.
TMT: You come from a family of musicians, were you steeped in music at
a young age? What are your earliest musical memories?
JN: Yeah, music was always a part of my life from an early age. My
earliest musical memories are of my mom practicing piano, and my little sister
and me dancing around her for hours, making up little pantomimes to Chopin and
TMT: Was the harp something that you always had a desire to learn?
JN: Yes, ever since I was about three.
TMT: The first time I heard your voice, it struck me as somewhat akin
to Bjork and Edith Piaf in certain intonations but certainly uniquely your own,
do you think hearing certain singers has perhaps influenced the way you use your
voice, or does it all just flow naturally out of you that way?
JN: My voice it basically out of my control, in the sense that I've
been unable to groom or refine it much beyond its own naked and untrained color.
Also, when I'm singing, there's not much room in my mind for technicalities—the
voice does sort of just come straight from my gut, my muscles, blood and bones.
At the same time, there are some singers to whom I've listened obsessively
enough that some of their stylistic choices may have seeped into my own singing
style...folks like Texas Gladden or Karen Dalton spring immediately to mind. One
major way that they might have influenced me is that, when I first heard their
recordings, I felt an affinity with their ragged, strange, unconventional
timbre...and my intense reaction to those recordings sort of validated my desire
to sing alongside my own harp songs. It served as a sort of proof that such
unusual, exuberant, voices as theirs—neither of which really conform to the
traditional idea of "beauty"—could be immensely moving, and have great musical
worth. My own voice is different from those women's (as theirs are different
from each other), but there are commonalities, and I felt heartened by
them—encouraged to consider my own strange, unruly voice to be an instrument at
TMT: During the time you recorded your first solo records, you played
keyboards for the San Francisco band, The Pleased, was this your first
experience playing live for others? Also, how did you become involved with the
band and do you plan to do any work with them in the future?
JN: This was one of my earliest experiences playing music in front of
a "rock" audience, although I've played in plenty of classical contexts (i.e.
orchestral work) for years. My involvement with the band sprung from my
involvement with the singer, Noah, who has been my boyfriend for four years. We
met when we were both studying composition at Mills College. He also produced my
record. But the band was never really a central musical project for me, or
something that I felt very creatively involved in; I didn't write any of the
songs, for example, and played pretty minimal parts. It was more about getting
to travel around with my boyfriends and contribute to his project, as he later
contributed (to a much greater extent) to my recording process. I don't have
plans to work with the band in the future, although I suppose anything is
possible—we're still all friends, and I think they're amazing people and
TMT: To me, your songs seem like a beautiful, hidden little secret.
Were you hesitant about first performing your very personal songs in front of
JN: No. I felt mainly gratitude, and wonder, at the idea that I was
detailing these ideas and memories and dreams in front of a room full of people,
and they were listening. It's insane, beautiful; a precious thing to
TMT: You've toured with the likes of Cat Power, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy,
and more recently Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens, what have those
experiences been like? And have you noticed more people in the audience being
familiar with your work?
JN: Yeah, it has been strange to feel that barely-imperceptible
momentum of an audience's increasing awareness of my existence. Especially on
this last US tour with Devendra and Vetiver, it really felt like a little wave
of notice and press and buzz was moving through the country just ahead of us;
each show seemed progressively better-attended, charged with a gradually
intensifying silence...it was bizarre. We poured out from our vans, all dirty
and tired and silly, into these halls full of mysterious people who were coming
in droves (what seemed to me to be droves, since I'm pretty small-time)
to hear our songs. It wasn't such a shock with Devendra, because his music has
been popular for a while, but I was shocked to hear people singing along with me
and yelling out requests!
TMT: Speaking of Devendra Banhart, you both have very unique voices
and your lyrical styles both are similar in their whimsical imagery. I think
that a collaboration between you two would be incredibly interesting to hear,
have you two ever spoken about working together on something in the future?
JN: Yes, we have. There's at least one duet on the horizon. Maybe
more. He is a dear friend and an incredible musician and a source of great magic
and beauty in the universe, and I would love to always tour with him, play with
him, and collaborate with him, until the cows came home. So nobody should fret
TMT: Is there anyone
in particular who you would like to collaborate with if given the opportunity?
JN: Well, I have a dream of getting to work in some capacity with
Will Oldham someday, because to me he is magic, through and through; true
kindness and authenticity, and musicality, and joy and dirt. I would also love
to play with Kevin Barker; he's an insanely good finger-picking guitarist and
banjoist (from Currituck Co.), and a beautiful singer & person. Paz Lechantin is
a badass fiddler and a miraculous human and I'm itching to play alongside her,
too. And it would be lovely to play with the kids in White Magic, or Espers...
both of those bands are steeped in the Spirit, as well as being technically
amazing. And of course, Devendra. Actually, there are so many musicians
whom I admire, or love, or am inspired by, or all of those things—it's
overwhelming to think about the possibilities. Lordy.
"I wanted the
instrumentation to be all about verisimilitude, truth, the breath and blood of
TMT: The song, "Inflammatory Writ," to me recalls, in song and lyric,
the days of the political anthems by such people as Woody Guthrie. Do you
consider yourself politically active at all, especially with our current climate
in this country? and what is your opinion of musicians who have recently begun
to bring more political banter to their audience?
JN: I think it would be unconscionable to conceal my political
leanings right now, because I think the world is in a state where such
preferences transcend "politics," and begin to more closely resemble the true
determinants of life and death, decisions upon which the psychic and emotional
health of our country and world are hinged. This vote we're preparing for will
either bring us leadership that will cast a dark shadow over all of our hearts
and the future of the world, or leadership that could move us in a direction of
reparation, connectedness, accountability, humanitarianism.... Not to
romanticize the ever-increasingly-moderate democratic party, but the alternative
is so ugly, so poisonous, so corrupt, fueled by a hatred and greed and
heartlessness and fear that seep outward into every American's experience of
life, attempting to justify the damage our administration is doing to the rest
of the world—and concealing the reality of how deeply hated we are. This is the
stuff of insomnia, hysteria, for me. Of course, bringing politics up at most of
my shows can be sort of preaching to the choir; they're not really hotbeds of
conservatism. But we have talks sometimes, the audience and me.
TMT: One of my favorite and one of the most heart rending songs on
your new record is "Sadie," is there a story behind it?
JN: There are actually three stories; as with almost all of my songs,
there's this recurring triumvirate structure that imposes itself without my even
realizing it at first. The three subjects are always connected, but often in
merely intuitive or symbolic ways. In this particular song, the most
straightforward subject is my then-dog, Sadie, who passed on recently. She was a
lovely white Labrador who liked nothing more in the whole world than to play
fetch. And I've always been impatient about that; I'd look at the soggy pinecone
dropped at my feet while I was trying to get into my car, and I'd say, "I'll
play with you later."
The second subject of the song is a friend, my age, who was diagnosed with
cancer. I remember marveling at the reaction of people around me, the way they
sprung to action, finally articulated to her their love and appreciation,
finally made those lunch dates they'd always talked about...and I sheepishly
include myself in this phenomenon. It wasn't disingenuous; it was just that our
collective illusion, that we have forever to let someone know how loved she is,
had been shattered.
The third subject is one of my most beloved friends, whom I've grown apart from.
We had this sort of running argument, or a running series of disagreements
founded on the same fundamental points of divergence, and if we had been close
at that point, talking every day or whatnot, then those disagreements would have
seemed like nothing. But because our correspondence had fallen behind, and we'd
developed insecurities and bitterness, these disagreements became all-consuming;
we fixated on them, let resentments build around them, let a silence build
between us. And I remember just having my breath taken from me in one sickening
moment when I paused one day to imagine what I'd do if this friend fell ill with
cancer, like my other friend. I knew that I would fly to be with her, stay by
her side forever if I had to, and revel in her extraordinary rarity,
intelligence, kindness, forget all the shitty stupid petty small points of
contention between us, because they were so insignificant in light of our own
So. Those are the basic subjects of the song. It's about all sorts of things,
but I guess the main story is about death, love, putting things off...
TMT: What influences you both musically and otherwise?
JN: West African harp (kora) figures; the composer Ruth Crawford
Seeger; Bulgarian Polyphony; Venezuelan harp; Shakespearean and Petrarchan
sonnets; Vladimir Nabokov; Ogden Nash; my parents; my brother (an amazing
drummer); a good beat for dancing; the mountains outside my window in Nevada
City; longing for things; the seaside; dirt; bones clinking together; sleeping
all the time; the harp and its endless feast of potential noises and moods; geez,
everything good and bad. How do you figure out what influences you? I like a lot
TMT: On "This Side of the Blue" you sing the line, "See him fashion a
cap from a page of Camus." What are some of your favorite writers and books?
JN: My favorite author of all time is Nabokov. I'm really obsessed
with him, actually... all my Nabokov novels are, like, ravaged by notes crammed
into the margins of every page, from readings and re-readings. I especially like
the annotated Lolita, edited by Alfred Appel Jr., because I can just
luxuriate in his neurotic, exquisite feast of footnotes and endnotes... like a
book within a book... amazing.
My other favorite book is The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle.
Incredible. One of the greatest literary meditations on beauty, sickness,
mortality, loneliness, perfection, defection, bravery/heroism, regret, pity,
purity, magic, and power, of all time. So there. The movie is my
favorite, too, though for slightly different reasons. I actually just discovered
that Mr. Beagle lives in Oakland, which is right near me, so I'm sort of
hoping that somehow, someday, I might get to meet him...that would be so
TMT: What music have you been listening to and enjoying as of late?
JN: Well, I honestly don't listen to a great deal of music. I love
a great [deal] of music, both by folks working nowadays and those from a
ways back.... but I find myself tending toward silence most of the time,
especially if I'm trying to write my own music. I feel too permeable otherwise,
too afraid of being influenced, or of diluting my ideas, or of forgetting them.
But, when I do listen, I love plenty new folks (Devendra; my amazing friend
Kevin Barker—a.k.a. Currituck County—Will Oldham; Smog; this INCREDIBLE girl
from my hometown named Marie Sabanya; a beautiful band called Vetiver; Little
Wings; White Magic; and the aforementioned Noah Georgeson's solo stuff...tons of
other stuff, too), and old ones (Fleetwood Mac, Karen Dalton, Neil Young—who I
get to play with next week!—Donovan, Fred Neil, Love, Texas Gladden, Vashti
Bunyan, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Billie Holliday, C.O.B., the Incredible
String Band, Willie Nelson, Linda Perhacs, and any recorded performances of
pieces by the Early American composer, Ruth Crawford Seeger).
TMT: This upcoming tour will be your first over in Europe?
JN: My second. The first was a very short tour in August.
TMT: Any hassles getting the harp over there safely?
JN: I actually can't afford to fly my own harp over there, so I rent
one in the UK.
TMT: Aside from the upcoming tours, what are your plans, musical or
otherwise for the remainder of the year?
JN: I have one amazing, gargantuan, paradigm-shifting plan involving
a lot of my friends and a lot of music (and hopefully a lot of grant money!),
taking place over about three months next summer...but I can't say much about it
yet. Stay tuned. Other than that, hopefully I'll just spend a lot of time
writing music. And I get to go to Costa Rice in December with my family; I'm
really excited about that.