Harp's Delight - An interview with Joanna Newsom
Everybody loves Joanna Newsom. Well, maybe not everybody, but she certainly has attracted her share of ardent devotees: among the earliest to discover her home recordings (2002’s Walnut Whales and 2003’s Yarn and Glue) were Will Oldham and Devendra Banhart, both of whom have since gone on to tour with Newsom. While the novelty of being a harp-accompanied singer-songwriter alone might have been enough to garner her some notice, Newsom also happens to be a first-rate songwriter and an inspired lyricist: her music and words pour out in tandem like undifferentiated parts of a single stream, uncompromisingly personal, and wholly unique. She sings from a world that’s not quite childish, but not quite adult, filled with unicorns, whales, and seashells, in a voice that falls somewhere between a siren’s call and a banshee’s wail. With her debut studio recording The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City) on the shelves, and a series of tours with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, (smog), and Devendra Banhart currently underway, Newsom is enchanting an ever-growing group of listeners. Recently, she took some time out from her cross-country trek to speak to Dusted about her inspirations, her unique musical background, and the surprise of newfound fame.
Michael Cramer: Why did you choose the title The Milk-Eyed Mender? I know it’s a lyric from “Sadie,” but I was wondering why you chose to make that the title.
Joanna Newsom: Well, part of it is that for me, “Sadie” is a central song to the album, so I was pretty sure I wanted to have some connection with that song in the title. And then I had my friend Emily Prince embroider the cover for me. At a certain point I thought of using that line, and having it connect with that. I liked the idea of having it visually connect to the embroidery, just to the idea of handiwork; mending and embroidery.
MC: The first time I listened to the CD I was surprised that all of the arrangements are almost identical to the ones on the two self-released albums you put out. Had you planned to do that all along, or did you decided that the solo format was best after experimenting?
JN: Well, yeah, I wanted to resist the urge to thicken everything up with instrumentation, because I just felt like I was interested in seeing how the songs did on their own. I don’t really subscribe to the theory that that the more instruments involved the better; I don’t think that that necessarily serves the song, or the kinds of songs that I’m doing, although I would at some point love to involve more instruments. And it was something that became established up front.
MC: Have you been keeping track of the reviews of the album that have come out?
JN: A little bit. I’ve sort of stopped checking, because every once in a while I’ll come upon something that doesn’t make me happy to read. There are definitely a lot of people who don’t like it; that’s fine and I can respect it, but I don’t really need to read it. So I’ve stopped scanning for press, although Drag City lets me know, once in a while.
MC: In reviews that I’ve read, a lot of people compare you to Vashti Bunyan; Do feel any kind of connection there, or not?
JN: Well there could be. I love Vashti, but I only started to know her music after I wrote and recorded all the songs on the album. Sometimes I’ve wondered if what people are talking about was an aesthetic, like an overarching idea, rather than the actual ways we sound. I don’t know if that’s the case. Devendra [Banhart] was the one who played me her music for the first time, and it was just a few months ago.
MC: You mentioned that you thought people were picking up on kind of an aesthetic more than any real concrete qualities. How would you define that aesthetic? Not in her, but with you; what do you feel the overarching aesthetic is?
JN: Well, again, that’s tricky, because what I was talking about is what people perceive as an overarching aesthetic. I don’t aim for an overarching -- but there are some words that I’ve heard used in reviews a lot. That confused me at first, but at this point I’m accepting that it’s something that comes across on some level. A lot of people say that I sound like a child.
MC: But that’s not something you’re really trying to put in your music?
JN: Not intentionally. Certainly there’s the aspect of being untrained, and I think that I also sing from a place that’s very un-grown-up in a sense, in that it’s not a place that’s very centered itself. You can’t really approach singing and writing songs with anything other than a wholehearted acceptance of whatever comes out. And there’s a certain level of, “I’m just going to open my mouth, and what comes out, comes out.”
MC: So the way that you sing isn’t something that was deliberate, it’s just a very natural development.
JN: 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. I grew up in a family that sort of had a classical approach to music; it wasn’t really a thing to run around singing all day long if you hadn’t taken singing lessons. So I played harp all day long, and had harp lessons, so really when I started singing, I hadn’t sung in my whole life, and because of that, I will probably sound different in two years; it will be two years of training, whatever you want to call it, in singing. So, it’s totally not a conscious thing, or something that I can direct or affect, or anything like that.
MC: Had you been writing -- not songs -- but words or poems before you started singing?
JN: Yeah, definitely. They just were never intended to be set to music. But definitely, I’ve been writing all my life, and I’ve been writing music all my life, but it wasn’t until two years ago that I wanted them to coexist.
MC: It seems to me that the way your words fit with your music is more musical than most lyrics, because you’re so involved in the way that the words sound, instead of just communicating something.
JN: Yeah, I think so. I have a lot of interest in interior rhyming; not just rhyming at the end of the lines, but playing around with rhymes within the lines, playing with where the syllabic emphases in the sentences are, lining those up at strange moments in the line of the song. I’m not sure if that comes across or not.
MC: I think it does. Are there any writers or poets who have changed the way that you write, or affected you a lot?
JN: I think I was hugely influenced -— I don’t know to what extent it comes across -— but I love Nabokov, especially his gift for stringing words together, and his sense of how different words impact each other when they bump up at the edges. Like a really long strange word next to a really small, colloquial, and familiar word. And also the fact that English was his second language, sort of imparts on his diction this hypersensitivity. He’s always, always watching himself, making sure that every single word he chooses is perfect, and because of that, it’s sort of like the highest form of an English sentence, even more than one by someone who’s born here. But it also has this wonderful sense of disorientation; there’s always a bizarre element to every sentence he puts together, because it is not an inborn language. There’s something inspiring to me about that, but I’m not sure in what way that affects the way that I write.
MC: You mentioned that a lot of reviews picked up on things that you didn’t really feel were there. Not so much in terms of critics, but in terms of individual people’s responses to you, is there anything that really surprises you or seems odd about them?
JN: Well, particularly in the beginning. My mom, I remember, called me, and she had talked to someone in Nevada City, which is my hometown, and she had gone to some big music festival and had sat next to a woman from San Francisco who said, “Oh, I went to see this harpist, and I loved her music, and she sang.” And my mom said, “Oh, my daughter plays the harp.” And they talked, and at some point my mom realized she was talking about me. And my mom called me, amazed, and she said, “She couldn’t even hear your lyrics, she was just talking about you, your music and your singing.” And I think that was amazing both for my mom and me, because I think neither of us had a sense that anyone would be willing to just listen to my voice, just listen to my music. It was so strange that I just sort of felt like to some extent people were just humoring me to listen to what I was trying to say, if that makes any sense. Just musically speaking, it’s been the most surprising to me when people have come up to me and have liked my voice, and have liked what I’m doing. And certainly not everybody does, that’s definitely clear. But when people do, it’s mystifying to me
MC: So you didn’t expect to find much of an audience?
JN: Oh, no! Oh, god no. I mean, absolutely not. I didn’t ever say, “I’m going to start performing music in front of people,” I just wrote the songs to write them, and recorded them to have them recorded, and handed them out to my friends just to have them, and they just got to certain people who wanted me to play shows for them, and suddenly I was playing shows. It wasn’t a plotted out thing at all. And if it had been, I’m sure I wouldn’t have done it, because I would have been certain that there wouldn’t really have been an audience, that it would really have been worth trying. So it is incredible, I’m really grateful.
By Michael Cramer