Vision Creation Newsom!
I first saw Joanna Newsom 2004, filling the middle slot between Vetiver and Devendra Banhart on the magical "church" tour, where her distinctive voice echoed off a clam-shell shaped sanctuary and her intricate web of harp notes shimmered and hung in the warm June night air. She was just starting to make a name for herself then, on the strength of a couple of home recorded CDs and her first effort for Drag City, The Milk Eyed Mender had been released only a couple of months prior. I knew who she was because Banhart had mentioned her to me about six months before during an interview, in one of his long stream-of-consciousness lists of everyone worth listening to. (If he were as good at making stock picks as he is at pinpointing emerging musicians, Banhart would be a millionaire by now.) But that night, the combination of her very skilled and complex harp music and the childlike enthusiasm of her breathy, unconventional singing caught me off guard. At one point, she put down her harp and simply sang a capella, leading the crowd in a flurry of handclapping. It was weirdly primitive and sophisticated all at the same time.
I lost track of her for a while, then in early 2006, someone posted a rumor on the Dusted writer's board that Newsom was working with Van Dyke Parks, whose lush string parts and baroque orchestrations had embellished Beach Boys' SmiLE and his own Song Cycle. "How is that going to work"," I asked myself, thinking of the improvisatory lightness and vulnerability of Newsom's work, the polish and calculation of Parks' arrangements. The answer, when it came in Ys later that year was beautifully. Dusted's Rob Hatch-Miller called it, "one of those rare sophomore albums that shatters exceedingly high expectations" and the album topped a raft of best of lists for 2007.
Yet even as Ys drew unprecedented attention, Newsom had already moved on, taking a few long-time friends and collaborators on the road with a stripped-down, back-to-basics set of songs that, nonetheless, captured much of the complexity of her Ys recordings. Three of these songs were released in May, on the Joanna Newsom & the Ys Street Band EP, one new one ("Colleen") and two alternate takes ("Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie" and "Cosmia"). Newsom talked to Dusted about the EP, Parks and reggae, among other things.
Dusted: You must have recorded your EP right at the height of the media frenzy over Ys. I know you've said in your liner notes that the record was meant to document the live sound of your touring band...was there a conscious decision to get back to something simpler and lower key?
Joanna Newsom: Naw, i was just excited about the sounds we were making on tour and I wanted to preserve them. I do agree that the end result was simpler-sounding than the Ys record, but what really interested me was the dynamic of a group of amazing musicians who really knew the parts, as opposed to (albeit virtuoso) orchestral musicians reading them off the paper...I was happy about the sound of familiarity and ease that came into the songs after playing them with this group over and over. Also, I was happy about how the beauty and singularity of Van Dyke's arrangements stood up to that degree of stripping-down. Right down to the bones (with the impossible-to-sufficiently-emphasize assistance of Ryan Francesconi and Dan Cantrell, who re-arranged those orchestral scores for the tambura and accordion).
Dusted: Tell me about the musicians on this album, how you know them and what you like about the way they play?
Joanna Newsom: Well, there's Ryan and Dan, whom I just mentioned....I met them both at this folk camp I've gone to for years, where they both teach (Ryan leads the Bulgarian ensemble and Dan teaches musical saw...and also accordion, I think). They're in a band called the Toids, along with a great violinist/singer named Lila Sklar, whom I've also toured with recently. And Ryan has a project called RF that's real good. He's a really dear friend and so much fun to play music with. And he's helped me immeasurably with the task of making these orchestral scores of Van Dyke's performable in various incarnations (such as this band). I love him.
Then there's Neal Morgan, who drums and sings on the EP and has done several tours in a row with me. He lives here in my town and I am in awe of him...he elevates literally every musical project he touches (pretty much everybody in town asks him to help them out in some capacity or other when they're making a record). I love him.
And Kevin Barker is a gorgeous guitarist and banjo player. He's a friend i met years ago when he came along on one of the first tours I ever did, with Vetiver and Devendra Banhart. He's a very busy dude, and works on film, and in a million different projects (namely his own, Currituck Co.). Also, one of my best friends Katie Hardin came along on the tour and sang...but we didn't end up having time to record any of the songs she sang on for the EP, so unfortunately there's no audio document (yet!) of how gorgeous she is.
Dusted: It's a much more minimal, folk-rooted sound than Ys, I think. Can you talk about reinterpreting "Cosmia" in this format, after having had it arranged by Van Dyke parks on Ys? What changes about the song, in your view, in these two very different settings?
Joanna Newsom: The brunt of the preparatory work fell to Dan Cantrell and Ryan Francesconi, as it turned out. They spent weeks in advance of rehearsals, analyzing Van Dyke's orchestral scores, distilling what the "core"/most important voicings were, and painstakingly transcribing those parts for their instruments. And then they wrote additional parts of their own.
Neal was doing a lot of advance work, too--he learned many of the tympani parts from the orchestral score, but also wrote lots new parts (with such precision and sense of structure and musicality, it was amazing...and ended up being really important in terms of energy, when we started performing live). Kevin had this amazing flexibility, trading off throughout the songs between parts from Van Dyke's scores and parts he had written. He added this groundedness and architecture to the live set that was so important. His style of playing guitar--playing any fretted, stringed instrument really--is so pretty, and sounds so specific to him, that it makes my head spin.
Anyway, I hadn't known until we started rehearsing for that tour exactly what things would actually sound like. I had a glaring lack of plan. I never asked anybody to transcribe those orchestral scores. I'd been making sort of wishy-washy comments about "hopefully referring back to the score" and that sort of thing, but I had no idea how deep into it the dudes would end up going. So it was pretty incredible to sit and play music with them all and realize how committed they were to discovering some sort of structure and building some sort of decisive arrangement, and how many hours they were willing to put into it. These are real, true, rare musicians, you know?
Dusted: Can you tell me about how you came into contact with Van Dyke Parks and what it was like working with him?
Joanna Newsom: I think I knew, from pretty early on in the process of writing this most recent set of songs, that I wanted the album to include orchestral arrangements. And I knew that I didn't want to do the arrangements myself. At some point (I'd been listening obsessively to Song Cycle on a road trip) my boyfriend suggested I ask Van Dyke to do the arrangements. And I asked Drag City to approach him about it and he miraculously agreed to come to a hotel room in LA, along with his lovely wife Sally, and listen to me play some of the songs I wanted to work with him on. And after I'd played the songs he said he'd do it. And then we worked for a year or so on it.
Dusted: The lyrics in your work are really good...and I think they'd probably stand up as poetry. Do you read much poetry? Who are some of your favorite authors?
Joanna Newsom: I don't really read poetry. My favorite authors are Hemingway, Faulkner, Nabokov, Virginia Woolf and Cormac McCarthy.
Dusted: You didn't start in folk, but rather in classical music. Can you talk about how your classical training plays into your songwriting and performing process?
Joanna Newsom: I think chordally I'm influenced by some of the classical music I've played in the past...especially French impressionistic music, like Debussy, Henriette Renie, Ravel, Satie....certainly in terms of chordal shifts and key changes, and a particular type of 'piano-ey' chromaticism, and a kind of texture, a tendency toward arriving at a musical idea via certain figural paths...I feel that playing all that French, 1905-1930's repertoire sort of seeped certain instincts into my muscle memory, or my improvisatory tendencies (which end up forming the basis of the music I write).
Also I feel influenced by the early 20th century Amercian classical music I've played & studied (from something as cerebral as Ruth Crawford Seeger to more populist stuff, like Aaron Copeland)...I feel an affinity I guess with all those inherent rioting tensions (especially the tension between embracing American folk music traditions and while still trying to make something completely independent of those traditions...as well as an attempt to break free of that insidious Euro-centric aesthetic). And I'm sure all the later 20th-century stuff I've tried to play (Lou Harrison especially) has worked itself a little bit into my playing style.
Dusted: What have you been listening to lately? Is it having any impact on your own work?
Joanna Newsom: Lots of reggae, especially Junior Murvin; lots of Roy Harper (he's my favorite ever but I go in waves of not listening to him for six months and then listening obsessively again for a few weeks)...and Vetiver--I just saw Vetiver play at the Green Man festival in Wales a few days ago and they sounded so good. It made me think about how I need to listen to them more often. Andy Cabic has the most incredible voice and the most impeccable, resourceful writing style.
Also I've been listening a lot to Sandy Denny's The North Star Grassman and the Ravens. Such a great record. I've been working on covering the title track from that record, trying to decide whether I can get away with playing it. And listening to a lot of Bill Withers, too. And those Steven Stills recordings, I forget what that CD's called, but the recordings of him demo'ing songs he did with CSNY, just by himself? So, so beautiful. Another staple album that I've been obsessed with for a few years and keep revisiting in new waves of obsession is Songs For Beginners by Graham Nash. That is a perfect album!
Dusted: Are you working with any other musicians at the moment? Are there side projects or other people's work or film or anything like that that you'd like to talk about?
Joanna Newsom: I'd love to do some recording at some point with the Moore Brothers. They're amazing. My favorite harmonists currently making music. They're going to come along on the next tour I'm doing of Europe.
By Jennifer Kelly