Joanna Newsom Still Calls Herself a Harpist, but She's Way More Than That

Joanna Newsom is on tour in support of her latest album, Divers.
Joanna Newsom is on tour in support of her latest album, Divers.
Photo by Annabel Mehran

"When I'm filling out my customs form every time I come back into the country, and it asks what my occupation is, I always write 'harpist.'"

Joanna Newsom laughs as she reveals this bit about how she identifies herself. Early in her career, that was often the first thing people would note about her, the oversized instrument that was — and still is — a rarity to see on any contemporary music stage. It was one element that allowed her to stand out, particularly in a crowded field of singer-songwriters with more portable accompaniment.

But over her 15 years of recording, Newsom has revealed herself to be much more than a harpist. She's a songwriter whose lyrical depth invites studious examination. She's an accomplished producer of her own work, in addition to collaborating with some of the most distinguished musicians in the business. She's appeared in films, modeled for Armani and sung with the Muppets.

For the past three years, she's been an Angeleno. "By the time I moved here, I'd already unburdened myself of the preconceptions I had of L.A. growing up," she says, joking that her Northern California background (she was born and raised in Nevada City, an old Gold Rush town northeast of Sacramento) made L.A. seem like "Mordor or something: a tar-scented, smoking pit of plastic surgery and billboards and bumper-to-bumper traffic."

But Newsom was no stranger to Los Angeles, and had already developed an affinity for the city before taking the plunge with her husband, actor-comedian Andy Samberg. "There are definitely parts of L.A. where the things I grew up thinking would apply," she says, "but there are some parts where that image doesn't [fit]. L.A. is 100 different things depending on where you are. And I love it."

Still, her new home hasn't been the career-altering experience it might be for a less established artist. She doesn't like networking (nor does she really need to), and she makes local appearances on a case-by-case basis. February's Fleetwood Mac Fest, where her rendition of "Beautiful Child" was one of the evening's standout moments, lured her out simply because the Mac is one of her favorite bands. Earlier this month, she performed as a guest vocalist at a live-score screening of P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love at the Ace Hotel, because Anderson is a friend and collaborator; she appeared in the director's last feature film, Inherent Vice, and he directed her recent music video, "Sapokanikan."

"I think if something is interesting to me musically, then I'll jump at it," she says. "I wouldn't do it just for the social component."

Newsom recorded most of her latest album, last year's Divers, in her adopted hometown, at Larchmont's Vox Recording Studios. She even convinced renowned producer/engineer Steve Albini to leave his native Chicago and come to L.A. to help record and mix the album with her and her longtime mixer and co-producer, Noah Georgeson.

"I may record here again," she says, "but I've always traveled for recording, depending on the kind of album I wanted to make. There's no real reason you need to live where you make a record."

Divers, her fourth full-length, is less than 6 months old, but it has already earned a place next to her previously heralded material. Her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, introduced Newsom to the world as an offbeat singer-songwriter with squeaky, unpredictable vocals backed by elegant harp plucks and melodies as immediate and inviting as those of folk icons Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

With 2006's Ys, Newsom reinvented herself with an album of five lengthy compositions, all densely arranged with the help of legendary Beach Boys orchestrator and lyricist Van Dyke Parks. 2010's Have One on Me somehow managed to raise the stakes even higher, combining the songwriting styles of her previous albums into a triple LP that, until Divers, seemed impossible to top.

But Divers manages to be another singular work from Newsom. She packs her usual layers of lyrical meaning into more manageable serving sizes, and adds surprising touches like an increased use of percussion, forcing listeners and critics to rethink earlier uses of adjectives such as "ethereal" to describe her work.

Robin Pecknold, leader of the band Fleet Foxes, has served many times as Newsom's opening act, as he will again when she headlines the Orpheum Theatre this weekend. Discussing his favorite of her albums, Ys, Pecknold says via email: "That album is a self-contained universe. ... One hears a lot of music that sounds like it was easy for the songwriter to uncover, but Ys has a ton of material that seems like it was pulled from a very deep well."

Newsom speaks openly about how her practices have changed over the years. She's a better piano player, for one thing, and vocal warmups have expanded her range a full octave. She's also become more involved in the mixing process.

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But perhaps the most surprising aspect of Newsom's work is how much hasn't changed. Even on her earlier albums, she took a hands-on approach in every aspect of her recording process. She leaves little to chance, directing her collaborators explicitly in what she wants even before anyone enters the studio. She describes in detail a three-page document she would send to an arranger, explaining everything from her narrative goals and musical references to the precise instrumentation she is looking for.

"Sometimes I'll get into very specific things," she says. "Like, 'On this line I want a solo violin to be playing harmony,' or, 'On this line I'd like a woodwind quartet to replicate the sound of a particular kind of bird.'" She hopes she isn't "too bad" to work with, but simply looking at her list of repeat collaborators, which includes heavy hitters such as Albini and guitarist-producer-mixer Jim O'Rourke, speaks to how much they respect her perfectionism.

Because of the complexity of Divers, bringing it to the stage has been difficult. She and her live band have had to condense what they consider to be the most important aspects of her songs into material that can be performed without, say, 13 keyboardists.

If fans are lucky, they might get an up-close-and-personal encounter with the once-shy Newsom, as she has become fond of meeting attendees at the merch stand when possible.

"I used to have a lot of anxiety around it," she says. "It wasn't that I was afraid of the interaction, but that just wasn't a role I was very comfortable assuming. As time went on, though, I realized it's not really about me ... it's just about meeting a really sweet person that wants to share something with me, whether it's about the experience of listening to music or something unrelated to that. I don't know when it shifted, but I kind of love it now."

JOANNA NEWSOM | Orpheum Theatre, 842 S. Broadway, downtown | Fri.-Sat., March 25-26, 9 p.m. | $31.50-$41.50 | laorpheum.com


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