The Wire 251, January 2005
HARP OF DARKNESS
You're still touring with Incredible String Band?
Joanna: Actually last night was the last night with them. I have two more solo dates routing me home to SF. I played 7 or 8 shows with them. It was great, they're incredible, a band that I've always loved a lot, so it was kind of thrilling to get to travel with them and get to meet them and listen to them every night. Last night I actually got to sing with them on the cellular song. That was really fun. The places we played are about the same size as the places I've played before. Since this is the first US tour they've done in a long time, I think they kind of wanted to be conservative in the type of venues they were booking. It was kind of a low key tour.
How were the crowds?
Joanna: They were good. They definitely varied from city to city as far as age range goes and how full the houses were and all that. There were a lot of people really excited to see them. People know me. Chicago and Portland were really well attended for me, Missoula, Montana, not so much.
You've been touring a lot?
Joanna: Almost consistently since March. Overall, it's been pretty much good. It was really fun to do... I had a number of really fun tours, a Smog tour, and a Bonnie Prince Billy tour, and a Devendra Banhart tour with Vetiver, and the ISB thing. I got to play with Neil Young. Some really incredible things have happened, and it's been mostly fantastic. I got to go to Europe last month and I'm going again in a few days.
How did the Neil Young thing come about?
Joanna: His manager came to a show that I played in LA, and saw me and liked the music, and asked me to play with Neil!
So you opened for him?
Joanna: Yeah! It was at the Berkeley Community Theater. Jonathan Richman also played. It was pretty incredible. I had met him a number of times because he used to live in Nevada City. Meeting Neil Young was mind blowing, he's so incredible. He's always been probably my favorite songwriter of all time, I was so star struck, I just love him. Meeting him kind of made me forget how big the show was. Meeting him was such a huge thing for me, and he was so sweet and so gracious, and so kind. It sort of made me forget there were 3500 people out there, because I was so full of delight from actually getting to talk to Neil Young.
How has playing live changed? Are you more comfortable now?
Joanna: I do feel a little more comfortable now, than at the beginning. I don't think it's been a huge change, but I do feel a little more comfortable, it's not quite so scary. I'm a little more... the composition of the audience has changed a little too, in terms of how many people in the audience know me, and know my music and that sort of thing. That sort of changes the feeling on stage, of course it's a little less terrifying if I know there are people there that are pulling for me, and excited to hear me, and I'm not just singing to a bunch of people who have no idea what to expect. I've been playing a few new songs, but I've hardly had time to work on any. After this upcoming European tour I'm finally going to get a break of a few months, and I can work a little bit more.
Do people talk to you after the shows?
Joanna: Plenty of people come up to me who don't know who I am, especially on the ISB tour. People ask me about the harp all the time. It's mostly the same questions over and over again.
How many strings does it have?
Joanna: 46, mine has. You tune it string by string with a little tuning key, the pegs are sort of shaped, they have angles on them and you slip a key over them and turn them. I have to do it every time I play and it takes about half an hour. It depends whether I'm opening or headlining, I have to do it pretty soon before I play, so on nights when I'm headlining I have to check the tuning before I go on, and that takes about 10 minutes.
What's it like touring with it?
Joanna: It's a hassle. I drove a Forrester that's like a wagon, and that fits the harp, and on this tour I have my dad's truck with a camper shell and that works fine.
You've been playing since childhood?
Joanna: Yeah, I've been playing since I was about eight. I took lessons for about 10 years. I've always written my own music on it since my first lesson. I studied Celtic music, and Western Classical music, and West African music. Kora figures from Senegal, those were kind of an obsession of mine for a number of years. Definitely the West African harp... well, specific things have influenced my playing. When I studied Classical Harp I played a lot of Debussy, and that definitely influenced my writing style too. The West African music rhythmically has definitely influenced everything that I do. And the Celtic stuff has also to a certain extent. Bluegrass finger-picking guitar, I don't play, but I've watched and listened to a lot of it, and I think that kind of insinuated itself into my compositional style.
Did you have the same teacher?
Joanna: I had the same one for five years, and another one for five years, and another in the summer at a folk music camp, she's the one that taught me all the West African stuff. They've all heard my record. They like it, they're really nice about it (laughs).
Did you have a big catalog of songs when you started recording?
Joanna: No, I mean, I had a lot of music, but it was all instrumental, there was no singing, the whole time I wrote music, all my life. I wanted to be a composer, that was what I thought I was going to do, that was what I ended up going to school to do. It wasn't until like 2 or 3 years ago that I started singing in my music, and also structuring my music very differently. It was still stylistically similar, but I started shortening the songs and making them a little more cyclical, so that they did really adhere a little more closely to the song form. As opposed to these big epic pieces. And changed my arrangements a little bit so they could accommodate a vocal line.
What was the impetus to start singing?
Joanna: I kind of got disillusioned with the world of composition, that was one thing that did it. I went to this school for music because it was really well known for its composition; it's called Mills College and a lot of really reknowned composers teach there, and have been produced there. And so I thought, that's the best place, that's the place I have to go. But once there, I found myself definitely... you go there and you workshop pieces in groups of students, and it became clearer and clearer all the time that the music I was doing wasn't in any sort of dialogue with the music that was going on around me, and wasn't really benefiting from workshopping. Everyone else was concerned with a different set of ideas than I was, and a lot of things that informed or inspired my music are considered sort of passé in the music world right now. So I dropped out of that program, and I went into creative writing. Also I was starting to realize my songs resembled much more closely "songs," than pieces as they were being defined by modern terms. And concerning myself with words much more was also an inspiration, or something that made me realize that it might be good to incorporate that into the music. And also I was listening to a lot of old Appalachian folk recordings, particularly some of the Lomax recordings, like Texas Gladys. It helped me realize that the voice that I have and that I've always had, which is rough and not groomed and not trained, is an instrument at my disposal. Listening to all that folk music was something that led to me realizing that. Because I was reacting to those strange timbres in some of those voices, and realizing how deeply moving and touching those voices were even though they didn't adhere to any conventional ideas of beauty in singing voices, so it was just a reminder that there can be worth and strength in an unconventional voice. And that some people, not everyone, but some people still may listen, and still be interested in what you're doing, even if you don't sound like... Britney Spears (laughs).
Did you start to add vocals to old tunes or write all new ones?
Joanna: There were some older pieces that I had that I was able to rework, and a lot of new stuff happened all at once.
How much do rehearse and how many takes do you do when recording?
Joanna: Some of the songs were good from one take, Swansea for example I just recorded once and it worked. Others I do many takes. But that had more to do with me messing up than anything else, I pretty much play it exactly the same every time. The songs go through a lot of iterations and reincarnations before they get recorded, but when they're recorded, they're done. I try to see that as like a stopping point, because I could rework them and reimagine them indefinitely.
Did you write songs specifically for the Drag City record?
Joanna: Almost all the songs were written, when I was given the offer to release them on Drag City. They heard some home recordings I had done, and I just re-recorded them for the album, with a few exceptions. It was somewhat challenging deciding what to put on the record. There was a certain intuitive arc to certain songs, that I felt sort of an album forming I guess. Certain songs just made sense to use, and others just made sense to save for another album or to not record.
Did you record in a studio?
Joanna: Noah Georgeson produced it. We just recorded it at my apartment, the same way the EPs were recorded, just with greater care and time put into them. Some of them are multi-tracked, I would record the harp track first and sing over it, it kind of depends on the song. I hadn't done it that way before, I had to teach myself how to do that. But it made the most sense in order to get the best possible recording of my harp, to not have my vocals bleeding through on that recording.
Do you write lyrics before songs?
Joanna: I tend to sing through vocal melodies before I fix them down in words. I feel like the subject matter of the songs is kind of out of my control. Basically, they're going to be about what they're going to be about. It kind of comes from the gut. And it's sort of intuitive. But I also think that any particular idea can be expressed or conveyed or illustrated thousands of different ways, so I do find myself spending a lot of time picking a particular arrangement of words. But the idea starts out early, and I sing placeholder words, until I find the right way of saying things.
So the idea of what you're trying to say is pretty immediate.
Joanna: Yeah, and usually the music is a reflection of that.
Do any writers that you've studied have an influence over your lyrics?
Joanna: I don't think so, really. It's possible that Nabokov has influenced my writing, because I've spent so much time reading his stuff. But I'm really hesitant to talk about word influences, because, it's hard to say. I think any number of things I spent a lot of time reading or studying may have influenced the way I string words together. But it's not a conscious attempt at emulating his syntactical style or anything like that.
How's Europe compared to US?
Joanna: It felt different, it felt magical and new and special. Anytime I play somewhere new I really, really like it. I like playing for people who don't know what to expect. I love playing for people who are... who just have this recording and have no real concept for what it's going to be like live.
Do you always start with the acapella?
Joanna: Yeah, always. Because it's so scary for me to do. I feel like once I've done that one I can be brave.
Has it been weird getting so much attention?
Joanna: Yeah, it has been. I didn't expect it. It doesn't affect a lot of my day to day world, but when I go on tour it does get a little strange.
Are there stories behind the songs, do any of them describe things that have happened to you?
Joanna: They pretty much all do, though not necessarily in literal terms. But they are all autobiographical in some way. I'm no good at making stuff up. It's just the way I write, it's not really calculated, but a lot of them are sort of abstractions.
Do you ever want to play with a full band?
Joanna: Not right now. I'll have to see how things go. I'm pretty interested in music that's self contained, where I can just travel around with my harp. If I wrote a record with other instruments involved it would change my writing style. Because I would have to create enough space in the songs to accommodate other instruments. That's interesting, and it would be a good challenge at some point, but I'm so in love with the harp and so fascinated with its possibilities and the range of expression, that right now I just want to explore that... I've played with a guitarist named Kevin Barker from Curriticuck Co., he's really fun to play with, he's an amazing amazing finger-picking guitarist and banjo player. So that was really fun. And Noah Georgeson played slide guitar on my album, and that was nice too, but I haven't played much with other people. My mom plays classical piano and conga drums and hammer dulcimer and autoharp. My dad plays guitar.
Did Drag City approach you?
Joanna: I contacted them, but they knew me already through Will Oldham. He told me to write to them. I asked him what he thought of another label that had approached me, and he said, "they're a great label, but I think you should be on Drag City." He said, "write them, they know your recordings", because he had already given them to them. And then they arranged for me to play with Smog, and they flew out to see that and they liked it, so they said they'd put out my record... Will got one of my home recordings from a friend, and he wrote me out of the blue and told me he liked them and he wanted me to come on tour with him, which was incredible because I had never played a show before. These were just things I had recorded at home as documentation. I didn't want to forget these songs, they were just like jotting something down on a post-it note to not forget it, it was that kind of thing. But I recorded them all and handed them out to friends just to see what they thought, and that was how he got one of those. It was just from a friend of a friend. At that point, when he invited me to tour with him, I decided I better get some shows out of the way so I could be warmed up and I wouldn't be so scared. I did some shows with Devendra, who was a friend from before either of us were involved in recording or performing. And then I got to play at a festival called Noise Pop, and opened for Cat Power. So there were some pretty special shows right away, I was pretty excited about them.
Did you know Will's music?
Joanna: I did. But not... I had loved what I had heard, but I don't know a lot about music in general, so I hadn't understood kind of the impact that he has on the music world, I didn't know how many other people knew him or anything like that. So I didn't understand that it was this huge deal... I mean it was a huge deal to me because I loved his music, but I didn't know how many other people loved his music. Touring with him was wonderful, he's a wonderful, kind, great person.
What do you think of what's made of the "new folk" scene?
Joanna: I don't like that it's happening. I think it's dangerous. I think that some of the associations that are being made are pretty big stretches. And the ones that aren't are... I feel like there's as much of an connection between my music and some of these people I'm being grouped together with as there is between my music and music that has been made for the last 30 years. There are as many commonalities, and there are also aspects of what I'm doing that I don't feel have many correspondents, or many elements that correspond in other people's music, currently or for 30 years or so. I just think it's awkward. It's a media thing - there isn't a new folk or new folk movement, there's just a new resurgence in media interest in the kind of music that has been that way for 30 years or more.
An article based on this interview appeared in The Wire 251, January 2005
© 2005 The Wire.