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.
And yes, to answer your question, the new songs are pretty different. I don’t have much to do around the house except sit around rooting out and picking at the sorts of anomalies that lend themselves to crisis. As you can imagine, I am a real blast to hang out with, L.A. Weekly!
As I was reading Erik Davis’ Arthur magazine feature on you, he mentioned that you had just purchased a house. How, a year or so later, has owning your own plot of land affected your creativity?
It’s real nice. The main thing is that the house sounds amazing. I know I’m biased, but I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a house that sounds prettier. Every room has different acoustics, and they’re all real sweet and resonant. And I like that I can work on music any hour, night or day.
Are you a disciplined writer who sets particular hours each day for writing and creating music, or does inspiration arrive in fits and starts? Can you describe your writing rituals?
Every day I do sit down at the harp or piano, and improvise, and try to write, and sometimes practice my own songs, and other times practice old classical repertoire from when I was a good harp player, or even etudes if my technique is slipping too much. But happening upon an idea that I like, and think is worth developing, is pretty rare for me; and if I do decide to go with an idea, it often takes me months and months to finish a song. And I write a lot of things that are bad and I hate. But I work every day. I think I’ve worked on writing music almost every day since I was about 8 years old.
When you were on the road performing Ys with your band, were ideas, either musical or thematic, in the songs that you discovered that didn’t reveal themselves when you were writing, or working with Van Dyke? Did the songs evolve from night to night on the road, and if so, will any of these evolutions inform the Disney Hall concert?
I think I knew the songs pretty well before hitting the road, having written them. But I certainly learned a lot about Van Dyke’s arrangements from playing alongside the very stripped-down versions that Ryan Francesconi (who plays tambura in the band) had prepared. 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.
The band members have incredibly interesting insights into the songs. The craziest thing for me about playing with these dudes (Lila Sklar, violin; Neal Morgan, drums/vocal harmonies; Francesconi, tambura/banjo/guitar) is that I’ve gotten really attached to the changes and additions they’ve made. They feel really necessary. I never thought I’d get to that point with a group of musicians. For years I kind of wrote in a vacuum, and jealously guarded my ideas against the contamination of anybody else’s opinion. It was weird. I don’t know where that paranoia came from. But I’m so amazed and awestricken by the folks I play music with now; it’s gotten to the point where they can go back and suggest changes to, like, sacred cow songs, songs I thought I would never, ever consider adding anything to, and then once I hear the changes I never again want to play the songs the old way.
You’re playing Disney Hall here. When I saw you last you were performing in a smoky little Midwestern club. That’s quite an ascent in such a short period of time. What is it, do you think, about the music that you make that seems to have struck a nerve at this particular moment in time?
I thank Jah that it isn’t my job to figure out why people like my music. I’m actually pretty scared, or maybe just superstitious, about looking into that too much. I don’t want to encumber myself with that kind of awareness. That seems like it would dull the instincts, or the senses. I do get a little freaked out from time to time, but mostly I just feel really amazed. And grateful.
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As someone who writes often about the natural world and wonder, I’m curious about your thoughts on where you think your songs come from. Some writers feel that they are only a vessel, a conduit, and that they’re simply delivering what has been dictated in some Other Place. Others believe in the power of the mind to construct and create, and that it’s all biology. Where do you fall along that continuum?
Aw, I reckon it’s a little bit of both. You’re born with a particular brain, and then you’re raised to learn to use it in a particular way, and then you find yourself moving through a particular spot in the universe that provokes particular reactions. And you experience love, and death and birth, and sex, and fear, and laughing at things, and you jot down your questions about what exactly in the world all THAT could possibly have been about. But I ain’t no conduit. If I could just go on record as rejecting the whole “conduit” thing in the strongest terms, that would be nice.
Are you working on a new album? Will you again be collaborating with an arranger, and if so, will it be Van Dyke?
I am working on new songs. I have a few collaborations I’m hoping to experiment with, if I even manage to write enough new songs good enough to warrant the making of another record. I’d love to work with Ryan Francesconi on some arrangements. He’s incredible. And the Moore Brothers, my favorite band. I’m hoping they’ll sing with me a little. And some other folks too. We’ll see!