Nevada City–based composer and harpist Joanna Newsom, who performs on Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, has released two of the most beautiful albums of the ’00s. The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City), from 2004, introduced her voice to the world with this timeless couplet, “We sailed away on a winter’s day/With fate as malleable as clay.” Those who boarded with her have been treated to amazing adventures. Lyrically imaginative and musically accomplished (she’s been composing music every day, she says, since age 8) the record’s dozen songs draw primarily from the deep well of folk music both British and American — but, informed by a classical education, she carved out a distinctive, lush plot of her own.
Next week is the first anniversary of the release of Newsom’s follow-up, Ys, a daring five-song vision featuring arrangements by Los Angeles–based composer Van Dyke Parks. Best known for his work with the Beach Boys and Rufus Wainwright — as well as the creator of his own baroque-rock classic, Song Cycle — the arranger created a vast orchestral landscape for the harpist to wander around in. Newsom’s playing is hypnotic. Her fingers move across the strings like birds flying patterns in the sky, swirling and fluid, dizzying and magical.
Newsom spent much of 2007 touring with a three-piece band and performing Ys in its entirety. The players adapted Parks’ arrangements for various combinations of banjo, guitar, drums, violin and harp. The result was a profound transformation: The baroque gave way to the backwoods, creating an earthy, campfire opera. At the Disney, however, Newsom will return to Ys’ original instrumentation, and perform it in its entirety with a 28-piece orchestra. Last week Newsom responded to a set of questions from the L.A. Weekly via e-mail.
L.A. WEEKLY: You mentioned in an interview that your musical development “hasn’t always felt evolutionary, often it’s felt like a massive shift all of the sudden.” I wondering whether you can expand on this. Do you mean structurally, or thematically? Have you felt any such earthquakes recently, and if so, can you discuss them?
JOANNA NEWSOM: Well, musical ideas are real self-contained, in my opinion; they’re all booby-trapped with some fundamental element that signifies their eventual limitations, the point after which they can’t go any further. That’s part of the deal, for me, at least. When I give an idea the right amount of attention, it’ll usually eventually indicate to me when it’s done. And the hope is never to just glom another, “better,” more intricate or sophisticated idea on top of the one that preceded it. Like an upgrade. That sounds disgusting. I mean, the visual image of that, like some big pulsing muddy-looking ball of tangential or baroquely cumulative variations on a theme — you know that South Park episode where Cartman uses stem cells to clone a Shakey’s Pizza? — corresponds disgustingly with the way that sort of music actually sounds. In my opinion. Healthy ideas aren’t incremental or cumulative. They are for a while, of course, till they run themselves into the ground; but every line of thought, even a creative and abstract line of thought, eventually hits some anomaly, which causes a crisis, which means you can’t go back to the place you were at before, creatively. Thomas Kuhn talks about the same thing in science, the same idea of an anomaly causing a crisis, and then a revolution, a “noncumulative developmental episode in which an older paradigm is replaced in whole or in part by an incompatible new one.” Yep, totally!
For me, the anomaly in question can be anything from a shift in the tools at my disposal (like, if suddenly I can do things with my voice that I’ve never been able to do before, and can therefore write songs that are shaped differently, with different types of vocal melodies) to an inherent sense that I’ve done as much with an idea as I ought to. Like, I don’t fuck around nearly as much as I used to with the idea of polymeters (the old “playing-a-part-with-my-left-hand-that’s-in-5/4-and-playing-a-part-with-my-right-hand-that’s-in-3/4” routine). There’s a bit toward the end of “Only Skin” on my last album that could be viewed, if you were the sentimental type, as the death-knell of that whole meter question. In my brain. It has sort of stopped being fascinating to me and started feeling wanky. Like, proggy. I have resisted going down that road for years now, the prog-road, and I started to realize that was the only place I could go with the meter question unless I just kind of laid it to rest.
But the main thing is that my songs are generally “about” things. Like, a story, or something I’m happy about or upset about; or some episode that I’m trying to pick apart and understand in that way. And (as you may or may not have noticed, L.A. Weekly) those sorts of real-life proceedings rarely happen in a cumulative way. They tend more often to just be a series of “If only I’d known!’s” and “Well, I’m a different person now!’s” Just like good Mr. Kuhn’s paradigm shifts. I reckon that, in general, life leads and song-form follows accordingly.