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The Truly Amazing Joanna Newsom

"I get very overwhelmed," Joanna Newsom whimpers, when she thinks of how, in the space of mere months, her music has gone from something intensely private and personal to something being heard by thousands of other humans. And whilst she's nothing but touched when I make mention of just how much I am fond of her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, she's a little bit taken aback when she starts to think of how so many other people can be finding meaning in her music, and can hardly bring herself to think about the intensity of emotion that they will bring to listening to it.

And, in even being aware that there are people out there hearing her, even if in just a cursory fashion, Newsom, who is currently on tour with Devendra Banhart and Vetiver (for tour dates, go to the Young God Records site), is desperately hoping those thoughts won't infringe on her songs. "Now that people are listening to my music, it's creating a new environment for making music, potentially," she offers, "and I don't want to get too acclimated to that environment, that I'm already thinking of the audience when I'm writing a song. That was never a concern before — what will someone think of this? — because there was never even a possibility that someone would hear it. I really want to try and preserve that lack of censorship, and that obliviousness to a potential audience."

See, Newsom is a variation on the outsider artist. She's not some neophyte, coming at making music from an untrained perspective; in fact, she's quite the opposite, having been studying and playing music since she was 4 years old, and playing her instrument of choice — the harp — since she was 9. But Newsom's childhood, growing up in Nevada City, California, was filled with folk-music camps every summer, where she headed off to Lark in the Meadow, a "hippie gathering" amidst the redwoods of Mendocino. It was there she encountered musical forms that had a huge impression on her, from bluegrass, to Venezuelan and Andean folk, to the music that she's been obsessed with for over half her life: Senegalese harp music.

Whilst she was inspired by, and fluent in, such foreign form, Newsom was, is, and has been continually oblivious of the popular music of Western popular culture. "I'm sort of illiterate when it comes to other musicians, and music history, and that sort of thing. Especially 'pop' music," Newsom says. "I can't think of any records that I grew up listening to that influenced me back then. Since then, I have one or two influences as I've grown up, but I don't know what initially worked itself into my music."

From as soon as she could remember, Newsom wanted to play the harp. At 4, she pursued potential lessons, but her future harp teacher decreed she'd have to take piano first, and wait until she got older. Having "the intention of creating music, and the aspiration of doing something with it, from the very earliest lesson onward," Newsom was taught piano by ear, and, then, when she was 9, she started learning the harp. Her teacher, Newsom fondly recalls, was someone who was keen for all her students to explore experimentation, and with such a well-cultivated musical upbringing, there's no surprise that, by the time Newsom had hit high school, she planned to be a classical harp performer.

But, she soon found, the creative lessons she'd learnt didn't stand her in good stead when she tried to translate her ambitions into the confines of the classical world. When she played in orchestras, her struggles with sight reading (having been taught to learn a piece by ear) meant that she had a hard time keeping up with everyone else. When she went to Mills College in San Francisco to study composition, she had to take songs she had composed as wholes and painstakingly transcribe them in pieces onto pieces of paper.

It was in these studies that she also found that her works — fanciful folksongs composed on a harp — were at odds with the refined ideas of "modern composition," something Newsom sees as having "gone beyond atonal, into pitchless static noise made by people on computers."

And whilst she could see merit in what many were doing in such a setting, Newsom realized the songs she was writing weren't "in any dialogue with anyone else there, including the teachers."

She eventually came to the conclusion that she was more a songwriter than a composer, and that there was no point in continuing her musical studies. Disillusioned with the composition program, she "jumped ship," going back to Nevada City, working in a coffee shop and living in a tiny apartment. After a few months, she went back to school, but switched her major from modern composition to creative writing, and ceased all scholarly studies of music. Which, not surprisingly, sparked her creativity.

"Around then," Newsom recalls, "as I was doing so much writing, writing poems and short stories and so forth, it was just a natural thing for me to integrate that into my music, and to start singing for the first time in my whole life."

That Newsom only begun singing very recently adds more credence to the idea of her being some sort of "outsider" artist — an alien talent, if you will. When you listen to The Milk-Eyed Mender, it's her voice that immediately jumps out at you, and her voice that defines her music. Highly idiosyncratic, it's a trembling wail that ranges from plaintive purring to savage screeching, the multitracked harmonies cast over harpsichord on "Peach, Plum, Pear" pitched somewhere between a shrieking banshee and a hive of bees. And it's not affected, either. Speaking with Newsom, in conversation, it's easy to hear how the tones of her talking amplify directly into her singing. Her voice is her own, completely unique. It was, she says, a hard process finding this literal/metaphorical artistic voice, but, along the way, she found a particular source of inspiration, one who truly struck a vocal-cord chord with her.

"I've never, ever been a singer, obviously," she says, with blushing modesty. "But I had been listening to a lot of old folk recordings, especially Texas Gladden, who was an old grandmother in Virginia who was recorded by Alan Lomax. Her voice was so inspiring to me, because it had a lot of the same roughness and strangeness that mine has. Although it's a very different voice to mine, I felt liberated by hearing her voice, and I felt I could legitimately use my own voice as a tool in my music."

This was all happening, Newsom offers, about two years ago, with those three things — the writing of lyrics, the harp songs, and the singing — all finally coming together. At the time, she says, she was leaning on her nascent music "to stay sane," doing it largely on her own, for herself. Some of those songs that ended up on The Milk-Eyed Mender Newsom recalls composing in an empty rehearsal room at Mills in the middle of the night. It was simply a release, a creative outlet, and this expression didn't involve performing, at all.

All this changed when she decided to record the songs for artistic posterity. "My boyfriend helped me to record the songs I was working on, almost as documentation, so I wouldn't forget them; almost like you'd do with any creative work," she recalls. "But, it still wasn't intended for anyone else to listen to them. At that point, I gave CDs away for friends of mine to listen to, and give me their ideas, and that was the thing that gave me the opportunity to play in front of other people. Because these CDs started circulating a little bit, and one of them somehow got to Will Oldham, who asked me to tour with him. And that was actually before I had ever played a live show."

In the interim in-between the Bonnie Prince's emailed offer of shows and the time she actually had to go on tour in May of last year, Newsom had an open window of a couple months. So, knowing how unsure she was about performing, the songwriter forced herself to play several small shows around the Bay Area. When she went out on the road, though, with Willy O, she was, she says, still terribly unsure of herself, and of the situation. But when she found herself on stage, Newsom remembers that "it was an extraordinary feeling to play in front of all those people.

"I had worried so much that not everyone was going to like my sound, that not everyone was going to like what I was doing. Then, when I was up there on stage, I suddenly wasn't concerned with that at all, because I realized that, regardless of whether people liked it or not, there was this wonderful feeling of relief. Like, no matter what, they're listening to it right now, and no matter how they react to it, this project that I've been working on so much, and that I've put pretty much every part of myself into, is being heard, and it is being listened to. I could not play another show ever again for the rest of my life, and this would be something that I had been very glad that I had done."

It was through Oldham's support that Newsom came to the attention of Drag City, the label that has released those recordings as her first finished album. Calling The Milk-Eyed Mender "a very personal, embarrassingly intimate part of myself," Newsom talks of the album as if it's a fresh wound, a part of herself extracted, that has yet to heal over. Yet, she's not sure that she wants it to, that she ever wants the record to recede to a distance where she's no longer troubled by its closeness. And she's not even sure that it'll happen.

"A lot of the ideas that I'm preoccupied with now are ideas that I've been preoccupied with my whole life, and I expect to sort of remain preoccupied with them for the rest of my days," she reasons. "It is sort of a snapshot of the last two years or so, but I think it's one that I can revisit, and that I can continue to play without feeling like an impostor in somebody else's life."

Newsom's songs are, like her insider/outsider musical approach, a strange mixture of naked honesty and fanciful imagery. When you read her lyrics inside the album artwork, it's easy to see the author's creative-writing history on show, the text a tangled-up mix of brackets and dashes, repetitious syllables and embedded meaning. Yet her tremendous voice transcends such punctilious syntax, turning the heavily-punctuated into the heavenly; the album's aching closing cut "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie" culminates in a soaring verse that, in Newsom's transcribing, reads: "Just see me serenaded hourly!/ celebrated sourly!/ and dedicated dourly;/ waltzing with the open seaŚ/ clam, crab, cockle, cowrie:/ oh, will you just look at me?"

"I insist upon embedding weird rhyme patterns into the lines, and obsessing over strange syntactic parallelism, and zeugmas, and strange alliteration and that sort of thing. I don't know why I obsess over it, but every single line has to be perfect to me. It's probably very, very far from perfect in reality, but I have some model, and I don't know what it is, that all these things aspire to, and so it takes me a really long time to arrange and settle everything into a song. Even though the songs themselves I would still consider stream-of-consciousness, or journalistic in a strange way," Newsom offers, contemplatively. Eventually she comes to the conclusion: "I can't really choose a subject; usually I feel the subject chooses me. I don't have a lot of control over content, so I insist on having control over the form."

Whilst as writer, she yearns to be able to get out of her head a little more, and construct songs whose images are fictional, Newsom knows that, for the moment, her music is — even with a brand new audience paying attention — something so personal, so private, that it's no surprise the words she sings seem to amplify sentiments drawn direct from her subconscious. They're so specifically of her that merely playing them fills her with vivid evocations of the times in which they were born.

"There's something specific about a song, for me, that's extremely preservative," she offers, "like the second I'm singing it I rip backwards through time, and I'm exactly where I was when I wrote it, or exactly in that time period from when I wrote it. Every word is loaded for me in a way it might not be for other people, so there are all these synapses firing off as I'm going through it, and remembering different things and associating all the lines with different things from my memories. I think [songs] preserve things a lot better than a journal would, for me, or that my memory would."

Ask if she's thought that particular people listening to her music would, now, be forming attachments to it so strong that hearing her songs would fracture their temporality, taking them back to times specific to the days soundtracked by The Milk-Eyed Mender, and, well, that's when she starts getting overwhelmed, again. Newsom thinks it "a really interesting idea," a beautiful thought that she'd normally love, but she's worried about what this means, whether having "people going through huge events in their life whilst listening to my music" is somehow a transformative thing, something that changes the songs; and she, thus, wonders whether it'll change her approach when she writes more of them. So, I pledge not to tell her about all the dramatic events in my life her record has backdropped, content with the intensely-personal relationship I've formed with her intensely-personal songs, feeling no need to get embarrassingly intimate with someone who just happens to have authored one of the most amazing recordings ever committed to tape. — Anthony Carew [Tuesday, June 15, 2004]

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