An Interview with Joanna Newsom

An image of Joanna Newsom is presented, which was taken in 2004 during an interview.

It is not easy to explain Joanna Newsom to people. It is similar to the ancient parable of the blind men trying to decipher an elephant.

You may start off by saying she is a harpist and a singer, but most likely people will think of classical music instead of her own unique style. When you tell them she has a peculiar voice, similar to Bjork’s or Cat Power’s, they become even more perplexed.

You try to explain the complex constructions and obscure words of her lyrics, but your listeners are so lost that they start to edge away.

The only solution is to make them listen to her music and then they will be able to understand why it is so incredibly good – sorrowful, beautiful, and weird.

This interview was conducted in San Francisco shortly after the release of her album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, by Drag City.

— Judy Budnitz stated

A quartet of shellfish can be represented by Clams, Crabs, Cockles, and Cowries.

I’m captivated by the unique language employed in your songs. It’s quite interesting to hear words such as “poetaster” and “ululate” incorporated into the lyrics.

Joanna Newsom appreciates the freedom provided by combining words and music.

She likes to toy with interior rhymes and syllabic emphasis, something she feels inhibited from doing when writing prose. Rhyming is not widely appreciated in poetry or prose, however Newsom finds it stimulating.

With music, she states, it is unquestioned and consequently not labeled as “neoclassicism” or anything else. Her point being that nobody is paying attention.

BLVR: The words in your songs are very well-considered. You compose your lyrics like a poet.

JN: I really enjoy composing pieces. Even though I haven’t completed my studies yet, when I was in school I used to do creative writing.

The person that has had the most effect on my writing is Nabokov and not so much poetry.

There is something to be said about English being a second language and he has an exceptional sensitivity to the nuances of words and the manner in which they can be combined.

His vast vocabulary and his skill for manipulating a sentence in a unique way is what I admire and what motivates me.

BLVR: When crafting your tunes, do you generally compose the music before the lyrics? Or is it the other way around?

JN: There is no particular system I use when it comes to songwriting. At times I’ve had lyrics sitting in a notebook for years before they were used, and other occasions I’ve had both the melody and words come to me simultaneously.

Additionally, I have also had placeholder words for melodies that I’ve been singing, and the words eventually revealed themselves.

The vast majority of the songs started with the music, something I’ve been composing on the harp for a long time. Whereas, singing is a process that is still quite unfamiliar to me.

BLVR: The words that make up the songs are really well-crafted, demonstrating a strong adherence to a particular form, such as verses that are composed of four lines with rhymes at the end of each one.

JN: Certain pieces are structured, while others are more loosely composed and written with a freer flow of thought.

Would you rather not discuss the songs one-by-one, or may I inquire about them?

JN: There are some topics that are simpler to discuss than the others, not due to any emotional issues, but because some of the topics are more purposeful, more thoughtful, and others are more intuitive. However, feel free to inquire! I will do my best to answer.

BLVR: The piece titled “Inflammatory Writ” resonated with me as a writer. You depicted the experience of having a thought that you pursue in the wee hours of the morning, and I know so many writers who can relate.

That 4am period can be a magical time when you think you’re really on to something, and then come daylight, you realize it’s not up to snuff.

JN affirmed that this was indeed a factor in the situation.

BLVR: That depiction of Great American Novels, running across the plains as if they were buffaloes or some other animals… It’s amazing. Did you have any particular purpose in mind when you created it?

JN: All the issues you raised were in the back of my head, including the aesthetic need that some folks have when they try to pen the Great American Whatever-it-is… plus the irony that when they are striving to compose, they sometimes seclude themselves from living, and so don’t get to experience the things that they’re attempting to write about.

Writing from an isolated, sealed-off tower is the impression I had. I pictured a person scribbling all night and when morning comes, they peek out the window to see the chaotic mess outside.

BLVR: You also emphasize this point in another song with the words: “Don’t become so devoted to a poem that you overlook the truth even though it may not have a poetic quality.”

JN stated that although it was not something they had attempted to emphasize through multiple songs, it has been a constant battle for them.

A fabric of metal, weft and weave.

BLVR: What motivated you to begin playing the harp? When did you first start?

When I was five years old, my parents took me to a harp teacher in my hometown of Nevada City. She suggested that I take some piano lessons for a few years and if I still desired to play the harp, then she would teach me.

I studied piano but I wasn’t the best student since I didn’t care for it. When I was ten, my parents rented me a Celtic harp and I began lessons with the teacher. Right from the start, she focused on improvisation and composition.

During the lessons, she would play a basic chord pattern with her left hand and I would be asked to improvise with my right hand. The whole lesson would be spent this way.

BLVR: Intrigued, I was wondering how you acquired the skill of composing on the instrument.

I used to go to a folk-music camp with my mother for many summers. It was laid-back, just going from class to class with a harp.

Diana Stork taught me a kora figure with a four-beat pattern in the left hand and a three-beat pattern in the right hand, occurring every twelve beats. It was a foreign, confusing thing, but eventually I found it easy to do without thinking.

It gave me a new outlook on music and I was able to mix five against four, the seven against four, with folksy melodies.

I decided to attend Mills College because I heard it was the place for the best composers, and there I found out my ideas were quite conventional in comparison to the experiments being done.

I took an American music class to learn about obscure folk music, like Texas Gladden, who was a great inspiration for me.

Her voice was very raw and different from the conventional idea of a beautiful voice. It was then that I changed my major to creative writing and started to add words to my music and sing.

BLVR: What is the process for getting a harp in tune?

JN: You can tune the instrument using this key here.

BLVR: Does that go for each string?

JN: Every string has a peg at its end. Since I don’t possess perfect pitch, I use an electronic tuner to measure the pitch.

Whenever it is moved, including being shifted across the space, it has to be re-tuned. Any tension on the wood can lead to settling, creaking and straining, with all the forty-six strings adapting to the new environment.

My husband, who is a musician, asked a technical inquiry–is there a way of capturing the sound of the harp and one’s voice at the same time with minimal feedback?

JN: That’s a good query. It has been an ongoing battle. For live concerts, we have always had difficulties with feedback and sound blending.

Consequently, I saved money for two years to purchase a contact microphone, specifically for the harp, which is very sensitive. It has become my closest companion. Besides that, I employ an air microphone to get a more natural sound.

If it’s just the pickup, there’s a possibility for it to sound a little dull since it only captures the sound waves near the harp, not any of the surrounding noise or softened sounds.

My vocal microphone is placed near my mouth, facing away from the strings and a condenser microphone is directed at the strings in the air. This usually works.

Our musical merit commands steadfast loyalty.

BLVR: Your singing has a unique sound to it– did you teach yourself that style, or did you receive formal instruction?

No instruction is necessary when utilizing the voice recognition feature. It is relatively easy to use.

What personalities, ideas, or works have motivated or inspired you?

JN has noted Ruth Crawford Seeger as a major inspiration to them. Seeger was an American composer during the 1920s-1940s and was part of the movement to craft an American sound for classical compositions, instead of relying on Eurocentric music.

She married another composer, Charles Seeger, and stopped composing because she didn’t think you could be a composer and a mother at the same time.

Her children, Mike Seeger, Peggy Seeger, and Pete Seeger, all had a hand in the folk music movement of the 1960s. JN believes she represents the combination of art and folk music.

Additionally, they love Karen Dalton, a singer in the sixties who was close to Fred Neil, Bob Dylan, and had a beautiful voice. Devendra Banhart introduced JN to Vashti Bunyan, an English singer of the sixties, who they admire for her songwriting style.

Lastly, JN has also noted their appreciation for Donovan, Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, and of course, Bob Dylan.

BLVR: Are you fond of taking the stage? Do you ever experience stage fright?

JN: I admit that I’m nervous about performing. It’s a bit overwhelming to think that strangers would actually listen to the music I make. I never aspired to be a professional musician, but now that it’s a possibility, I’m excited.

Last year, I had the opportunity to tour with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and he always made the journey a great experience.

He would take us to interesting places like the Grand Canyon on Easter and unique towns in the middle of nowhere.

BLVR: I have a great appreciation for his music. What is the experience of interacting with him like?

JN expressed his fear of meeting someone he had heard so much about and was greatly relieved to find him to be a pleasant surprise.

Throughout the process of making his record, he sought advice from the person and was comforted when he was told to simply believe in himself and his music, and not worry about how it would be received.

He was wary of the indie aesthetic that often gives greater value to low-fidelity recordings and felt that he was being cheated if he were to depend on this sound to provoke emotion.

He had received feedback that his recordings sounded too professional and clean, and that his voice had changed since the earliest recordings, losing the high-pitched sound of someone who had never had a singing lesson.

He was anxious that the people who had initially flocked to him for his strangeness would not like the record, viewing it as a novelty rather than for its lyrics and instrumentation.

JN maintained that he does not sound like he is five years old.

BLVR: Your vocal tones are certainly distinctive. It’s not the way I would characterize it.

JN: Texas Gladden was an important vocalist to me. She was a grandmother by the time she was recorded and she was in her seventies.

People have commented to me that they couldn’t tell if my singing sounded like I was seventy or thirteen. I like hearing that since it’s more similar to how I feel when I’m singing.

BLVR: The melodies possess a sagacious and narrative-like quality.

JN: I’m certainly not interested in innocence. It’s not a concept that I identify with in regards to my music.

If I speak of childhood, it’s not in terms of innocence, but rather in terms of the capacity to experience sadness, beauty, and curiosity.

That lack of embarrassment and self-censorship is intriguing to me, but innocence is something that exists in a vacuum, and is an affectation given my age, where I live, and the media I consume.

Do you, BLVR?

JN stated that they have an understanding.

BLVR asked what model of truck it was.

JN expressed their desire for a new car; the reason being that their current truck is leaking onto their harp while they are driving it.

The vehicle has been modified with a camper shell and padding to protect the musical instrument, yet the leak remains.

Despite having the problem fixed thirteen times, the source of the pernicious drip still eludes the mechanics. JN expressed their concern that the leak will eventually damage their harp.

BLVR: To conclude, would you prefer to be aware of the day and time of your own passing, or would you rather remain ignorant?

JN exclaimed that they would definitely not want to know if they were going to die on their thirtieth birthday. The idea of knowing this would make them sad and could potentially lead to crying every day until then.

They appreciate life and would never want to know due to the chance of it being sooner than they would prefer.

Knowing this would not make them more productive, but some people are empowered by having this knowledge and living fulfilling lives. JN is fine just existing without the “fire” of knowing they are going to die soon.

Something Else You Might Enjoy

The way in which one expresses themselves is an important factor in our society.

It is essential for individuals to be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings in order to connect with one another.

Having the capacity to effectively communicate is essential for fostering relationships and meaningful communication.

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