Trying to describe Joanna Newsom to people is difficult. It’s a bit like the parable of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. You could start by saying she’s a harpist and singer. But when most people hear the word “harp” they immediately imagine classical music, or tinkling music-box stuff, and their eyebrows go up. You say: No, no, it’s sort of folk music, but sort of not, has a touch of Appalachia but really it’s a style all its own. That just makes people more skeptical. You tell people she’s got an incredibly unique voice, singular in the way Björk’s voice or Cat Power’s voice is, and people get even more confused. You try to describe the lyrics, the intricate constructions and marvelously obscure words. Catenaries and dirigibles! you cry. By now your listeners have given up and are backing away, nodding politely. Finally, in desperation, you shut up. You make them listen to Newsom’s music, which is what you should have done in the first place. Because now the confusion drops away. Because whatever it is, however you describe it, it’s really, really, really good—haunting, sad, lovely, a bit scary, and wonderfully peculiar. The following interview was conducted, in person, in San Francisco. Newsom’s new album The Milk-Eyed Mender has just been released by Drag City.
CLAM, CRAB, COCKLE, COWRIE
THE BELIEVER: You use words that I’ve never heard in songs before. It’s so cool to hear words like “poetaster” and “ululate” in a song.
JOANNA NEWSOM: I really like playing with interior rhymes, not just rhyming the ends of lines. And playing with different syllabic emphases. That’s something I love about writing words for music—there’s this immense freedom to play with language in a way that I felt hindered about when I was writing prose. Nowadays, there’s not a great deal of respect given to rhyming, in prose or poetry. But I’m really interested in rhyme patterns, the sonnet form. With music, hardly anyone notices that you’re doing that stuff. So it doesn’t get analyzed, it doesn’t get picked apart, it doesn’t get labeled “neo-classicism” or something. Because no one’s paying attention.
BLVR: Your lyrics are very thought-out. You write like a poet.
JN: Well, I love to write. I haven’t finished school yet, but when I was studying in school I was doing creative writing. But I would say that if I’m influenced in my writing, it’s less by poetry and more by prose. It sounds silly, but Nabokov has been a huge influence. The way he strings words together. There’s something about English as a second language… and with him you have a person who is hypersensitive to language, hypersensitive to the effects that different words have when they bump up against each other. And an extremely rich vocabulary. The way that he refracts a sentence, plays around with it, rethinks it, is really inspiring to me.
BLVR: When you’re writing your songs, do you start with music first? Or lyrics first?
JN: There isn’t a system for me. I’ve had the lyrics to some songs sitting in a notebook for two years before they found a home, and then other times I’ll be writing music and have a melody and words in my head at the same time. And other times I’ll have placeholder words, where I’ll sing a melody with nonsensical words, and then the words will assert themselves at some point. Most of the songs were music first. I’ve been writing on the harp for years now, and that’s a familiar process, whereas singing is not a familiar process at all.
BLVR: Some of the lyrics are really tight, they follow a really strict form, say, a lot of four-line verses, where each end rhymes, or…
JN: Some of them. And some of them are loose, sloppy, stream-of-consciousness.
BLVR: Can I ask you about some of the songs, or would you rather not pick them apart?
JN: Some of them are easier to talk about than others, not for emotional reasons, but because some of them are more deliberate, hyperconscious, and others are more stream-of-consciousness. But ask away! I’ll do what I can.
BLVR: The one called “Inflammatory Writ”—I could really relate to it as a writer. The image of getting an idea, and then hunching over it at 4:30 in the morning—you really captured that feeling perfectly. All the writers I know would agree—that 4 a.m. hour is a little magic hour when you think you’re really inspired, and then you reread it in the morning and it’s crap.
JN: Yes, that was definitely part of it
BLVR: That image of Great American Novels, fleeing across the plains like buffaloes or something… it’s fabulous. I wondered what your intention was with it.
JN: All the things you said were definitely in my mind, as well the sort of aestheticism that comes into play with some people when they think they’re going to write the Great American Whatever-it-is… and the irony that when people are trying to write sometimes they shut themselves off from living because they’re working so hard at writing, and then they don’t experience the things that they’re supposed to be writing about.They’re writing from a sort of sterile, contained tower. I had the image in my head of someone scribbling all night and then looking out the window in the morning at all this… wild messiness outside.
BLVR: You make that point in another song too: “Never get so attached to a poem / you forget truth that lacks lyricism.”
JN: It’s funny, because it’s not something I intended to hammer in, in song after song after song. But it’s a constant struggle for me.
A LOOM OF METAL, WARP-WOOF-WIMBLE
BLVR: Why’d you pick up the harp? When did you start?
JN: I was five. My parents took me to the teacher in the town I grew up in, Nevada City, which is very small, and there’s one harp teacher. She said, “Have her take piano lessons for a few years, and if she still wants to play the harp, then I’ll teach her.” Because it’s an investment of energy and time, and money as well, to get a harp. So I studied piano. I was a really really shabby student, because I didn’t care for piano. I was ten when we went back and I still wanted to play, very much, obsessively. So they rented me a small Celtic harp and I stared taking lessons from this teacher, who from day one emphasized improvisation and composition. From the very earliest lesson she would play a simple chord pattern with her left hand and she’d have me improvise with my right hand. We’d spend whole lessons that way.
BLVR: Yes, I was curious about how you learned to compose on it…
JN: There’s this folk-music camp I went to with my mom every summer for years. It was really casual—it was basically dragging the harp around from class to class in the dirt, to different campsites. One of the things I learned one year, from a harpist named Diana Stork, is this west African harp figure—kora is the west African harp—and it’s a rhythmic pattern with a four-beat pattern in the left hand and a three-beat pattern in the right hand, so they come together every twelve beats. It’s a very non-Western, jarring, disorienting thing. She taught it to me, and it took me three days to get it—stop thinking about it and just let my hands do it. Once I did, it was this enormous moment for me. It was like adding—it’s a clichéd thing to say but it’s true—it added a new dimension. I went home and started putting five against four, instead of three against four, so then it would come together every twenty beats; and seven against four, all these different patterns. I started quilting that into my own compositions, having folky melodies, broken up into this new rhythm. I went to Mills College because I heard that was the place where the best composers taught, and it had this history in the Bay Area of experimentation in music. And I went, and immediately discovered that what I was doing was not really considered experimental at all in light of the ideas being studied at that school—atonal music, non-pitched music, conceptual stuff, intuition… but I certainly found some great musical inspiration while I was there. I took an American music class and got exposed to obscure folk music, field recordings. Like Texas Gladden, whom I had never heard before, and who became a huge inspiration to me. Because her voice is so powerful and so affecting and so devastating and so untrained and so different from the conventional idea of a pretty voice. It was around that time that I stopped studying composition; I switched my major to creative writing, and somewhere in there I started putting words to my music and singing.
BLVR: So how do you tune a harp?
JN: There’s a little tuning key—
BLVR: For each string?
JN: There’s a peg at the end of each string. I use an electronic tuner to measure the pitch because I don’t have perfect pitch. It has to get tuned every time it gets moved, and that includes getting moved across the room.Any time any stress is on the wood, it causes settlings and creakings and strainings…. and there are forty-six strings that all reorient themselves.
BLVR: A technical question: my husband, who’s a musician, wanted to know—how do you mic yourself when you’re using the harp, mic the harp and also get your voice, without getting a lot of feedback?
JN: That’s an excellent question, actually. It’s been an ongoing struggle. For live performances, we always had problems with feedback, always had problems with sounds bleeding through. They make a pickup for the harp which is a contact microphone that’s really sensitive. I saved up for one for about two years. I finally got it, and it’s my new best friend. In addition to that I use an air mic, to get a more organic sound.There’s potential for it to sound a little canned if it’s just the pickup, because that only picks up the sound waves directly on the harp, it doesn’t pick up any of the ambient noise, any of the sounds after they’ve softened through the air a little bit. I have the vocal mic right here, right on my mouth, angled away from the strings. And then I have a condenser mic in the air pointed at the strings. And it usually works out.
OUR MUSIC DESERVING DEVOTION UNSWERVING
BLVR: You’ve got this really distinct singing style— I wondered if you taught yourself that, or whether you had training.
JA: Definitely no training on the voice. It’s kind of intuitive.
BLVR: Who are your inspirations, influences?
JN: Ruth Crawford Seeger is a huge influence. She was an American composer who was working from about the twenties to the forties, and she was part of the whole group who were working on creating a new American sound—classical composition, but a sound that was specifically American rather than Eurocentric. She eventually married a composer, Charles Seeger, and stopped composing, because she didn’t believe at that time that you could be a composer and a mom. Her kids were Mike Seeger and Peggy Seeger and Pete Seeger, and all of them became very involved in the folk movement in the sixties. So I feel like she’s representative of the intersection of art music and folk music. Also, I love Karen Dalton. She was a singer in the sixties who ran around with Fred Neil and Bob Dylan a lot, and had a beautiful voice. Devendra Banhart introduced me to Vashti Bunyan’s music—she was an English singer in the sixties, and I love her songwriting style. I love Donovan, Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen. Dylan, of course.
BLVR: Do you like performing? Do you get nervous?
JN: I do get nervous. It sounds sappy, but the truth is that it was with such shock and delight that I discovered that there were people in the world who would willingly listen to the noise I was making, that it overshadowed the fact that I was terrified… It was never a stated goal of mine to be a professional musician. But it would be incredible, now that it’s been dangled in front of my face as a possibility. I toured with Bonnie “Prince” Billy last year, and he turns his tours into these incredible road trips.We all went to the Grand Canyon on Easter, and he’ll always say,“Go to this hot spring on the way to so-and-so”; he’ll route his tours to little strange towns in the middle of nowhere.
BLVR: I love his music.What’s he like in person?
JN: He’s wonderful. I was terrified to meet him because I thought he would be very somber… he’s not. When I was making my record we had email exchanges through a lot of it and he was one of the most comforting people to speak to, because he told me: it’ll be OK, you’ve just got to do exactly what you believe in and not worry about how people are going to receive it. I knew I believed in my music but I was worried that other people might be listening to it for the wrong reasons, because there’s this indie aesthetic that the more shoddily recorded a piece of music is, the more strange the background hiss is, the more nostalgically low- fidelity it sounds,the better received it will be. And I had made two home recordings already (prior to the current album), by necessity, and it’s not my style. I don’t believe in leaning on that sound to provoke an emotional response from an audience. I think that’s cheating. I’d had a few people listen to early versions of the recordings for this new album and they’d say, “I like it, but it just sounds too clean, it just sounds too professional.” Also my voice has changed since the very earliest recordings.I honestly had been singing for about a week when we recorded those first songs, and there’s a sense of terror you can hear—you can hear me teetering and trying to catch my balance. Since then my voice has dropped, it’s settled, it’s become more what I want it to sound like. But it has lost a bit of what some people lean towards—a lot of people were excited about the earliest recordings because I sounded like I was five years old. That’s not what I was trying to do. You sound like you’re five if you’ve never had a singing lesson in your life! I was so afraid that I would put all this energy and love into this record and then it would not be liked because it wasn’t strange enough for the people who flocked to it originally for its strangeness… They’re interested in it as a novelty; they’re not interested in the lyrics or instrumentation, they’re just listening and saying, “Look, ma, she sounds like she’s five years old! Shucks!” I still maintain that I do not.
BLVR: Your voice is definitely unique. That’s not how I would describe it.
JN: Texas Gladden, who was an influential singer to me, she was a grandmother when she got recorded.She was in her seventies.And I’ve had some people say they couldn’t tell if I was seventy or thirteen.Which I prefer.I like hearing that. Because it’s closer to how I feel when I sing.
BLVR: The songs do have this sort of wise, fairy-taletelling tone.
JN: I’m certainly not interested in innocence at all. I get very upset when people tell me that my record’s all about innocence. If I’m interested in childhood, it’s not the innocence, it’s the part of childhood where you have this huge capacity to be sad. You understand an innate sadness in a lot of things, and you also understand an innate beauty in a lot of things. You pick apart something dead that you find on the side of the road, or you ask really embarrassing questions at the dinner table. There’s this curiosity and this lack of embarrassment and lack of self-censorship—that’s interesting to me. But not innocence, because I think innocence in music is something that exists in a vacuum, like it hasn’t been exposed to any ideas. And it would be a huge affectation, too, because I’m twenty-two, I live in San Francisco, I watch television, I drive a truck—
BLVR: Do you?
JN: I do.
BLVR: What kind of truck?
JN: Chevy S10. But I’m looking for a new car because my truck leaks on my harp when I drive it around. I have a camper shell and padding, I have it all tricked out for my harp, but it’s leaking persistently.There’s a pernicious leak somewhere—I’ve had it fixed thirteen times and no one can find it. It’s going to destroy my harp one of these days.
BLVR: One final question—if you could know the day and time of your own death, would you want to know? Or would you rather not?
JN: If I could be assured that I’d be old, then yes I’d want to know. But I’m so easily made sad that if I found out I was going to die on my thirtieth birthday I’d probably cry every day between now and then. I can’t fathom myself making peace with that idea. I really like being alive.A lot. I’d never want to know, because of the possibility that it’s sooner than I’d want it to be. I’d be grieving for my own death every day. I don’t think it would make me more productive. Some people get empowered by it and live these really rich beautiful lives. But I don’t need the fire behind me, like “You’re going to die on your thirtieth birthday, so get cracking, kid!” I’m perfectly happy to just exist.