What We Talk About When We Talk About Harp Players
|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, Tims less naive successor Beck (small frame, large voice, editing software). On first listen, their singing makes you giggle, shudder or swoon. Sometimes, Newsoms voice stirs the heart, soaring like a helium-filled balloon, yet it also squeaks, like shes just inhaled the contents of one. As the sound travels from larynx to lips, its 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 its this perception of vulnerability thats caused so many indie celebrities to step to Newsoms 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 thats not what you took it for. If Joanna Newsom knows whats 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, shes 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 Mouses 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 theyre cool minor pop stars, but because theyre young parents in a family van equipped with child seats. They loved Newsom because shes 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 Wests 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. Newsoms songs arent as complex as classical, of course, but they do stimulate tears and sleep, instinctual wonder and frantic cognition, all at once. Its the psychological equivalent of being drawn and quartered, being split apart like a pair of wishbones. In other words, its a delicious kind of torture. If youre looking to rock out or complement your interior decorating, Newsom wont work for you, but those with broad imaginations might never get enough.
A recitation of facts does little to explain Joanna Newsom, but lets 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 citys 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. Theyve 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 thats the problem. Extra-musical stuff ideology, idealism and audiences with a surfeit of both has provided these artists a womblike support system. Newsoms 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 Im just personally going to be honest, theyre good for you too. I can say that they are, Im sure they are, Im sure they are.
By contrast, Newsom is a self-interested craftsperson, and Im 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/Im a sensitive bore/and youre markedly more/and Im 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 Newsoms songs as compelling as many of them, especially his hallucinatory Blonde on Blondeera work. She isnt 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 Newsoms music: Its not the quality of her voice, its not that she may be covered in boils, and its not that shell get swept away on the waves of fashion. Its the horrible prospect that she wont 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 Americas common folk songs and common people. Even though Seeger was considered the 20th centurys most prominent female composer, she gave up that career for motherhood and protest.
What does this mean for Newsom? Well, I wonder how long well 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 youre not supposed to realize if youre a young poet that well-phrased truths are not absolute, that even if youre 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 youve finished.
Joanna Newsom appears on Jimmy Kimmel Live on Wednesday, February 23. She appears at the Troubadour on Thursday, February 24.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.