Joanna Newsom - Biography

Harp-wielding singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom emerged in the 2000s as a major figure in the indie folk movement, a genre alternately dubbed psych folk, new weird America, freak folk, and naturalismo (a term coined by de facto leader, Devendra Banhart). Regardless of genre tag, the style doesn’t bear one certain sound, and Newsom’s musical vision is unique. Her use of classical harp imbues her songs with the feel of Renaissance music, while her quirky, untrained voice yields a decidedly modern sound. Each of her albums has generated rave reviews. In 2007, Newsom was nominated for the Shortlist Music Prize.
Joanna Newsom was born on January 18, 1982, in Nevada City, California. She and her two musical siblings—Pete and Emily—were brought up in a musical household, with their mother being a concert pianist and their father a guitarist. Joanna took up piano as a very young child and switched to Celtic harp at age seven. She attended a folk music camp during her teens, which exposed her to a variety of global acoustic instruments and forms, including the harp-like African kora. Newsom took up classical pedal harp and moved to Oakland to attend Mills College, where she studied composition.

Before her solo career took off, Newsom helped form the Bay Area band, The Pleased, along with indie folk producer, Noah Georgeson. She played keyboards, and the group's self-released two EPs—Never Complete and One Piece from the Middle (2002)—as well as one full-length, Don’t Make Things (2003 Big Wheel Recreation). During this same time, Newsom launched her professional harp-playing career in experimental band Nervous Cop, which released one self-titled LP (2003 Rue De Christine).

In the meantime, Joanna Newsom recorded and self-released two EPs on CD-R—Walnut Whales (2002) and Yarn and Glue (2003). On the former, Newsom’s harp playing is clearly tentative, leading to watery, almost new age performances, and the charming, almost child-like qualities of her untrained voice had yet to develop fully. Three of the eight cuts on Walnut Whales have yet to be released in any other form, while the five remaining tracks are essentially demos, later re-recorded for Newsom’s debut full-length.

Yarn and Glue reveals her growing confidence, both as a singer and instrumentalist. Like its predecessor, the EP’s five cuts are early versions of songs destined for newer and better interpretations in the future. Despite no official releases to date, her reputation allowed her to score opening slots for Cat Power and Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham). Newsom’s association with the latter led to her signing with Chicago-based, Drag City Records.

The following year, Joanna Newsom released her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004 Drag City). Former bandmate Noah Georgeson of The Pleased produced the record, which introduced the world at large to Newsom’s inimitable sound. On the album, she frames the majority of her songs with her mellifluously plucked harp strings, which issue in near-constant arpeggiations. Like the works of minimalist composers Steve Reich (her family’s neighbor, incidentally) and Philip Glass, Newsom’s music is often trance inducing and propulsive. She also launches into beautiful melodic runs that reflect her adolescent study of the kora. By contrast, Newsom’s distinctive and agile voice works in seemingly unrelated rhythm, following the more jazz-like shapes employed by Joni Mitchell.

Yet, while sharing Mitchell’s girlish qualities, Newsom’s vocals aren’t as sweet. Her singing shares the flat twang and unself-conscious abandon of Appalachian artists discovered by itinerant musicologists in the early 20th century. Adding yet another seemingly incongruous element to Newsom’s music is her choice of language—her lyrics have more in common with the formally structured poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning than they do the folk tales of Maybelle Carter or the libretto from a Glass opera. She employs words such as “o’er” and “writ,” and even sings about writing a “sonnet.” And still, what could come across as either pretentious or a compete mess (or both) instead results in an album that feels like it’s born of pure feeling, but filtered through exquisite detail. The Milk-Eyed Mender received numerous critical accolades from music journalists all over. The album was given the 20th spot on The Village Voice’s 2004 Pazz & Jop Critics poll.

A week after the release of her debut, Newsom appeared on the compilation The Golden Apples of the Sun (2004 Bastet). This 20-track sampler—named after a William Butler Yeats’s poem, which later appeared as the title of a book of Ray Bradbury’s short stories—was assembled by Devendra Banhart, and generated a great deal of Internet buzz. This led to the creation of the multiple genre tags by the current generation of indie folkies. Along with Newsom and Banhart, the collection featured many other burgeoning acts, including Iron & Wine, Six Organs of Admittance, and the re-appearance of the scene’s godmother, Vashti Bunyan. All of this led to Newsom instantly having a prominent position in one of the hottest niche markets in music at the time.

The next year, Newsom made guest appearances on Bunyan’s remarkable comeback album, Lookaftering (2005 FatCat) and Smog’s A River Ain’t Too Much to Love (2005 Drag City). Newsom then became romantically linked to Smog’s leader, Bill Callahan.

While on a driving trip together, Callahan played Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle, introducing Newsom to the arranger who had collaborated with the likes of Brian Wilson, Carly Simon, and Rufus Wainwright, among others. This would lead to Parks teaming with Newsom on her sophomore release, Ys (2006 Drag City)—pronounced “Ease”—an album named for a mythical city swallowed by the sea off the coast of Brittany, France. This sense of existing in a world outside of time and place suits perfectly the feel of Newsom’s second album. Whereas The Milk-Eyed Mender is comprised of tracks of typical song length, Ys consists of a mere five numbers, ranging from seven to nearly 17 minutes. This allows Newsom more breathing room than she afforded herself in the past, as passages wind like vines along a trellis.

Of course, she also wanted to allow for contribution from Parks. Rather than capturing all Ys’ parts at once, the staunchly indie Steve Albini recorded Newsom alone on harp and vocals. The tapes were then overdubbed with orchestrations arranged by Parks, who once again proves himself a brilliant and sympathetic musical companion, ameliorating the moods evoked by Newsom and adding tonal color and enhancing her expression and ideas. Or, in the case of “Sawdust & Diamonds,” Parks adds nothing, letting Newsom’s wondrous performance speak for itself.

Though Parks’ contributions are exceptional, the record’s more naked moments afford Joanna Newsom’s words to shine through, enhancing what is perhaps the record’s strongest element. Newsom’s lyrics are spellbinding—elaborate, image-ridden, and colorful extended metaphors interweaving and overlapping in astonishing abundance, especially given the sophistication of her verse. The opening like of “Emily” runs: “And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee.” Here, she employs three pairs of internal rhymes, as well as the final word’s rhyme with the title subject—who, not coincidentally, shares Newsom’s sister’s name.

“Monkey & Bear” is an Aesopian fairy tale crossed with a sinister interspecies love affair. Newsom plucks jauntily, while Parks sends violins swooping in, and the Monkey prostitutes its tragically faithful Bear. Closing number “Cosmia” is—at 7:14—the most concise number on Ys. It is also Parks’ prettiest contribution, with high and sighing strings floating over Newsom’s rhythmically plucked harp. It’s a powerful and surprisingly straightforward ending to the otherwise complex and ornate album. Aside from Rolling Stone, critics went wild for Ys, predominantly awarding prefect or near-perfect scores. For an off-beat indie album, it sold relatively well, too, reaching #134 on the Billboard 200 and making it to #41 in England.

Newsom toured the album with a 29-piece orchestra, but chose a more stripped-down affair for her next release, an EP cheekily titled Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band (2007 Drag City)—a play on the name of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band. Recorded by a quintet consisting of guitar, accordion, drums, banjo, and Newsom’s harp, the three-track release lies in a sonic middle ground between her two LPS—less spare than The Milk-Eyed Mender, but nowhere near as lush as Ys. The EP also has a nice, loose, jammy feel. The one new song, “Colleen,” is a brisk, Renaissance-flavored romp. The new version of Mender’s “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” is a nearly spot-on reproduction of the original that, unfortunately, doesn’t utilize Newsom’s band at all. Ys’s “Cosmia,” however, is wonderfully reworked, as Newsom and company transform the tune into an eerie bluegrass number at nearly double the original length.

Throughout her brief career, Joanna Newsom has proven to be a fearless adventurer into realms few others are capable (or willing) to go. The high level of artistry behind her music has vaulted her to the upper echelons of the indie music world.

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