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What We Talk About When We Talk About Harp Players
 

Joanna Newsom is a riddle wrapped in heartstrings

Thursday, Feb 17 2005
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Photo by Noah Georgeson
An honest discussion about songwriter Joanna Newsom has to start with her voice. Its freakishness brings to mind Tiny Tim (large frame, small voice, ukulele) or, if you prefer, Tim’s less naive successor Beck (small frame, large voice, editing software). On first listen, their singing makes you giggle, shudder or swoon. Sometimes, Newsom’s voice stirs the heart, soaring like a helium-filled balloon, yet it also squeaks, like she’s just inhaled the contents of one. As the sound travels from larynx to lips, it’s impeded by at least three obvious flaws — a slight lisp, a tendency to waver, and consonants that are alternatively dull or overdefined. Listeners unmoved by her music might compare it to a precocious pre-teen girl or a deaf person overcompensating for never having heard actual speech. Several already have.

Perhaps it’s this perception of vulnerability that’s caused so many indie celebrities to step to Newsom’s defense since her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, was released last March. The buzz was immediate, but things kicked into high gear when novelist David Eggers devoted a Spin column to her in June. It was an unexpected and rapturous fanboy rant, though you could be excused if that’s not what you took it for. “If Joanna Newsom knows what’s good for her, she should be covered in boils” went the most memorable passage. “I picture her looking like Emily Dickinson. Newsom lives, I imagine, like a feral woman child.” (Actually, she’s quite comely, in an elfin sort of way. She could be cast as Legolas’ trophy wife if there were a next installment of The Lord of the Rings.)

Nevertheless, Eggers’ conclusion was that her music could ward off evil, and his piece served as the cornerstone of a towering edifice of good press. Later, Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock praised her in Entertainment Weekly, and this past summer, while I was driving around Dallas in the minivan owned by Tim DeLaughter and Julie Doyle, the couple who guide the Polyphonic Spree, they cited her as their favorite new artist. This is worth mentioning not because they’re cool minor pop stars, but because they’re young parents in a family van equipped with child seats. They loved Newsom because she’s as effective at keeping them riveted awake as she is at lulling their three young kids to sleep.

Musical accompaniment is largely responsible for these hypnotic effects. Newsom favors the 46 well-articulated notes of the classical harp, occasionally switching to harpsichord or Wurlitzer, both close relations. A jumble of influences inform her playing, influences almost as peculiar as her voice and instrumentation. Rhythms are ringing and slightly syncopated, recalling the sound of the West African kora (a cross between guitar and harp); the homespun melodies come from Celtic and American folk; yet the overall artistry and sweep place her firmly in the West’s “high art” tradition. Her lyrics are self-aware (“And the signifieds butt heads/with the signifiers/and we all fall down slack-jawed/to marvel at words!”), her metaphors bold (“There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road”).

The combined effect of the jarring vocals and hypnotic sounds makes me recall a night at the Hollywood Bowl, listening to Beethoven under the stars. It was a lulling thunder that ran roughshod through both logic and emotion. Newsom’s songs aren’t as complex as classical, of course, but they do stimulate tears and sleep, instinctual wonder and frantic cognition, all at once. It’s the psychological equivalent of being drawn and quartered, being split apart like a pair of wishbones. In other words, it’s a delicious kind of torture. If you’re looking to rock out or complement your interior decorating, Newsom won’t work for you, but those with broad imaginations might never get enough.



A recitation of facts does little to explain Joanna Newsom, but let’s try: age 22; from a small town in Northern California called Nevada City (founded by the gold rush, preserved by hippies); lives in San Francisco; distant cousin of Gavin Newsom, the city’s gay-marriage-activist mayor. Slightly more telling is the fact that composer Terry Riley was a neighbor; that she played keyboards in the Pleased, a Strokes-indebted Bay Area band featuring Noah Georgeson, who produced her debut; and that she briefly studied composition and creative writing at all-female Mills College, an Oakland institution with a fine music program and quirky reputation. One professor, Pauline Oliveros, lists her professional interests as “Composition, the advancement of women in music and all the arts, and frog ponds.” Oliveros’ favorite instrument is the accordion. Newsom is a product of her environment, not a naif.

This brings us to the second topic in our honest talk — namely, her inclusion in a cobbled-together scene of friends and acquaintances that came to prominence last year. It includes Devendra Banhart and his wiggy, sometimes magical free associations; the fuzzed-out, head music of Animal Collective; the Southern melancholia of Iron & Wine; and Sufjan Stevens’ lilting Christian-identified music. They’ve been saddled with a host of unfortunate titles — avant-folk, freak-folk, urban folk — only the latter of which adequately explains this is a trend restricted to city-bred hipsters. And that’s the problem. Extra-musical stuff — ideology, idealism and audiences with a surfeit of both — has provided these artists a womblike support system. Newsom’s friend Banhart is a cult leader at heart, and cults inevitably end in meltdown. In an interview this winter, he pleaded that people listen to his friends: “Their records are good for me, and I’m just personally going to be honest, they’re good for you too. I can say that they are, I’m sure they are, I’m sure they are.”

By contrast, Newsom is a self-interested craftsperson, and I’m not referring to her penchant for well-fitting, delicately embroidered hippie outfits of the Renaissance Faire variety. She is enigmatic where her peers are just inchoate, able to be sexy one moment (“Your skin is something that I stir into my tea”) and then poke fun at such flirtation (“We speak in the store/I’m a sensitive bore/and you’re markedly more/and I’m oozing surprise”). Now for the showstopper: In my not-unusually-large record collection, I have 31 Bob Dylan albums, which I covet like the True Cross, and I find Newsom’s songs as compelling as many of them, especially his hallucinatory Blonde on Blonde–era work. She isn’t as catchy, of course, and certainly not as representative of a generation. (At this point could any musician try without mastering hip-hop?) But the writing is just as sharp, as fantastically detailed and confident, and as worthy of that icky word poetry, because it works both on the stereo and on the page.

Now for what scares me about Newsom’s music: It’s not the quality of her voice, it’s not that she may be covered in boils, and it’s not that she’ll get swept away on the waves of fashion. It’s the horrible prospect that she won’t make enough of it. Where Dylan was inspired by a rangy figure like Woody Guthrie, Newsom has said she draws strength from folk balladeer Texas Gladden — an Alan Lomax find who rarely made it off her Virginia farm — and Ruth Crawford Seeger, stepmother to Pete and, like him, an activist for America’s common folk songs and common people. Even though Seeger was considered the 20th century’s most prominent female composer, she gave up that career for motherhood and protest.

What does this mean for Newsom? Well, I wonder how long we’ll hear songs, at least poplike songs, from a singer capable of lines like these:


Never get so attached to a poem
you forget truth that lacks lyricism;
never draw so close to the heat
that you forget that you must eat



The song “En Gallop” is about art and love, career and education and, suffice it to say, in it she grasps some things you’re not supposed to realize if you’re a young poet — that well-phrased truths are not absolute, that even if you’re caught up in a wave of love, most meals will be utilitarian, and only a handful candlelit.

Basically, I wonder if Newsom has found her final destination, or if this might just be a weird stopover between youth and the enchanted forest of Mirkwood. For now, though, observe how such intellectually complex, well-structured music is so effective at touching the heart, and shattering it into a million tiny pieces. I recommend you start counting the bits — one, two, three . . . — and hope that Newsom keeps making music long after you’ve finished.



Joanna Newsom appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live on Wednesday, February 23. She appears at the Troubadour on Thursday, February 24.

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Reach the writer at alecbemis@brassland.org

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