By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Hippies at the Phil??By Randall Roberts?
(b. January 18, 1982)
(b. January 3, 1943)
The Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra are thrilled to bring you a special performance by harpist Joanna Newsom, a young hippie woman who has taken the alternative rock world by storm. With her flowing locks, plucking fingers and birdlike warble, this Mills College graduate first gained attention in 2004, when she released a song cycle with the intriguing title The Milk-Eyed Mender. Issued by the experimental Drag City recording company, home to equally “outside” artists Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “The Silver Jews” and talented veteran comedian Neil Hamburger, the album featured Miss Newsom accompanying herself on harp and piano while singing, in her flitting soprano.
Miss Newsom followed Mender with 2006’s critically acclaimed (and oddly titled) Ys, a five-song creation that she will perform this evening in its entirety with orchestral accompaniment. Featuring arrangements by the West Coast veteran of weird hippie music Van Dyke Parks, Ys combines folk and classical elements in much the same way that Stravinsky did in Petrushka nearly a century ago.
In many ways, Newsom, part of the “freaky folk” movement (in “indie rock” parlance), represents the purer side of the dichotomy best captured in English romantic poet William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Like Blake, who wrote of “sick” roses and hills “all cover’d with sheep,” Newsom conveys an allegiance to the natural world, hymns to solitude and the stars. Her ideals have struck a nerve in an “indie rock” community currently obsessed with progress and the future.
Miss Newsom spent much of 2007 touring with a four-piece band performing Ys. Unlike on the album, which features instruments familiar to the symphonic crowd, the tour employed the guitar, tambura and violin. There was even a fellow playing a drum kit! Asked during an “e-mail” exchange whether this experience revealed to her anything new about the songs, and whether she has fused the two renditions, Miss Newsom replied: “I’ve made a lot of modifications to my harp parts to better accommodate the orchestral arrangements. I think that what I do with the harp at this point feels more like a conversation with those arrangements; I think that now the harp part more audibly anticipates the changes and nuances of the orchestral arrangement.” (For a full transcript of Miss Newsom’s fascinating interview with the L.A. Weekly — in which she references South Park and Shakey’s Pizza — visit www.laweekly.com.)
Lyrically, the five songs are vast, open meadows generously seeded (4,100 words’ worth!) with the influences of Walt Whitman, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charlotte Smith. A lyrical synopsis of each composition follows.
Part One: “Emily”
The narrator and an unidentified other watch a Pharaoh and some Pharisees from a window. The Pharisees holler that the sun makes tree trunks strong, creates wood to make spires. The narrator has seen things which have taken her breath away. Enter Emily, the narrator’s sister. Last night the narrator saw her by a river, then had a dream in which Emily was skipping stones which sunk to the bottom with a thud and caused a muddy disturbance. The narrator sat beside Emily and they looked to the sky. Emily taught the narrator the names of stars. The narrator vowed later to preserve the moment in verse. Emily explained the difference between a meteor and a meteorite. The meteorite is a space rock that has landed on Earth with a thud. The meteor is the burning thing hurling through space.
Emily has on many occasions comforted the narrator, who has a problem with boundaries, and dark moods. The townsfolk, represented by farm animals, stink up the narrator’s meadow. Some Newsom scholars have submitted that the narrator might actually be pregnant in this song: “There are worries where I’ve been,” sings Newsom. Time passes. We are maybe in an Afghanistan poppy field, and maybe heroin is involved. Yes. The blossoms have all fallen off the poppies, and what is left is the sticky, sticky pollen, which, when refined, becomes the brown dragon. Probably.
It’s hot. Even the ants are sweating. Birds and insects crowd the skies. The narrator relaxes. She’s not pregnant anymore (“my clay-colored motherlessness reclines”). Back at the riverbank with Emily, the narrator is remembering an interaction with their father. The narrator compares the relationship to an asterism — a pattern of stars. “Here,” says the narrator, “eat this.” The meteorite is a space rock that has landed on Earth with a thud. The meteor is the burning thing hurling through space.
Part Two: “Monkey and Bear”
An unnamed monkey and a bear named Ursala are awakened to learn that the horses got loose, ate some bad grass and might die. The monkey notices that the gate is open and urges Ursala to join him, explaining that he is in love with her. Though their future may contain challenges, once they get outside there will be ample sustenance. The monkey asks Ursala to wear her fancy clothes and dance, but to keep the leash on. The monkey, though in love, is afraid of the bear’s teeth.