Interview: Joanna Newsom
But there are some things about Newsom that you won't get from this text, like how she tends to whisper "yeah" as you speak if you're saying something she agrees with, and that-- despite how she's frequently presented in the press-- Newsom is no bright plastic oddity. Her 2004 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, marked the young harpist as a drastically polarizing artist-- some promptly swooned at her otherworldly presence; many others balked at her bracing voice and penchant for exalted language. Critics implied that Newsom's music was essentially affected and insincere, and the gravity of the charge was compounded by the fact that her sincerity was exactly what the swooning set adored in her.
Newsom returned this year with Ys, an album that will do nothing to allay these criticisms. In an indie culture that rewards well-turned mediocrity and can be suspicious of ambition, the record's long compositions, ornate orchestral arrangements, and antique lyrics are guaranteed to be dismissed as pretentious by many. And they are-- symbolically dense and anachronistically stylized, Newsom's songs expect a lot from the listener. But whether or not the music is pretentious is beside the point. The debate between Newsom admirers and detractors seems to revolve around one question-- does she mean it, or is she selling us snake-oil? I don't claim to have gotten to the bottom of Joanna Newsom in a 45-minute conversation, but she left me with the impression of being an uncommonly graceful and articulate person, not a collection of tics and fancies; a person who, regardless of what she's doing, always means it.
Pitchfork: The Milk-Eyed Mender was a relatively small album, with its minimal arrangements and concise pop structures. Ys, by contrast, is huge. The songs are really long, and only "Cosmia" approaches pop phrasing. Can you talk about how Ys came to be conceptualized and what attracted you to this expanded format?
Joanna Newsom: It wasn't so much as conceptualized as fumbled toward instinctively. I don't really even consider it a concept album, even if it does have some unifying aesthetic choices that make it really different from the first record. It's the product of a series of very small decisions, as opposed to sitting down like, "I want to do this record with long songs and huge orchestral presences." Basically I wanted to undertake the task of writing songs about a particular year of my life. Not the task of telling that story in a linear way, or in any way that would make the story explicitly knowable to a listener, but rather, to tell the story to myself. I was starting to see a lot of connections, and I wanted to make them more substantial to myself, or at least explore them. Writing these songs was a way to organize my brain and organize these events and how they had affected me. There were four very big things that happened in my life in this particular year, and so four of the songs are about these things. The fifth song, "Only Skin", was an effort to talk about the connections between the events.
Pitchfork: Is it fair to say that the songs are longer because you needed a lot of space to examine these events?
JN: Absolutely. As soon as I knew that this is what I wanted to do, I recognized that it would be extremely awkward and vulgar to try and fit them into shorter forms. I'm not a huge proponent of the long song in general; I think they are often justified, but in general I believe economy is a tenet that's worth upholding in songwriting. It's important to say what you need to say as accurately and truly as possible, but with as few words as possible as well. In the case of this record, I did think I was doing that, but it didn't seem possible to tell the story in any fewer words than the amount I ended up with, or in any other form than the one I ended up with.
Pitchfork: And this was due to the magnitude of the events you were engaging with?
JN: I think so. And the magnitude of the individual events, and the larger structure ordered themselves for this record-- the particular form and the song lengths, and the presence of an orchestra. It hadn't really occurred to me until I was about halfway through writing these songs that it would be necessary for an orchestra to be involved. I'm not sure why I thought that; I have theories, but it was just an intuitive decision. It seemed necessary. Two of the songs, "Sawdust and Diamonds" and "Cosmia", were written before I had come to this realization, and the other songs had bits and pieces written but hadn't been completed yet. So "Monkey and Bear", "Only Skin", and "Emily" were all written with me keeping in mind there would be an orchestra involved at some point. In the case of "Sawdust and Diamonds", I wasn't ever able to make orchestral arrangements work. Van Dyke [Parks] came up with several drafts and lots of ideas, but it never worked gracefully, so I ended up deciding it was fine because it wasn't written with an orchestra in mind, unlike those other three I mentioned.
Pitchfork: Were you composing string arrangements for the album yourself before you hooked up with Mr. Parks, or did you just know it would have them?
JN: I just knew I needed to have them. I think it would be a stretch to say I composed string parts, although I did have [the songs] timed with certain parts in mind. I can't claim to have scored anything. I was, however, planning on doing so originally. The more I thought about it, I realized that as long as I had a good working relationship with a collaborator in which I had complete creative control, and as long as that arranger was a very good one, I could more capably make the sound I wanted to make than if I was writing the stuff myself. In other words, a collaborator could make it sound more like quote unquote "my music" than I could myself, because I didn't have the musical vocabulary within the realm of orchestration to make the sounds I needed to make. I had very rudimentary training in orchestration.
Pitchfork: Did you find all these qualities in Mr. Parks, such as the ability to take dictation and help you realize your vision?
JN: Yeah, what I found in him was a constantly expressed desire to help me make the record I wanted to make. I think he could have chosen to be more adamant about creating a Van Dyke Parks record, but that wasn't his desire. He generated his initial drafts based on a big pile of notes that I gave him; this sort of manifesto about how I wanted the record to sound and the mood I wanted it to have. While it's not important to me that the audience explicitly understand what the record is "about," I did think it was important that the collaborator understand that explicitly. We needed to have a cohesive vision.
So I started by giving him that manifesto, then a more detailed series of notes as well, going line by line through the songs. "When this lyric is being sung, I want this happening musically," and then I would describe something, usually pretty abstract and non-technical, sometimes in more concrete musical terms. But usually I would just describe the mood, coloration, and instruments I wanted involved. It took seven months of him writing up drafts and sending them to me, then me sending them back with pages of notes; it still took all of that before we were finished, because so many of the guidelines I gave him in the beginning included phrases that were, in retrospect, completely subjective. There's a thousand different ways for something to sound "sinister". That's the most nebulous instruction in the world.
Pitchfork: Was this an interesting part of the process for you, giving him these ambiguous notes and seeing them manifest as something entirely different from what you'd envisioned?
JN: At times, it was interesting. At times, I was worried, because I wasn't sure it was going to end up sounding the way I needed it to sound. But he always proceeded in such good faith that I usually had an almost non-reaction: "Well, that's not it yet, let me choose a word that more clearly expresses what I want this to sound like." It certainly wasn't like, "Let's just see what happens and I'll accept it," because for me, the subject matter and the story made this whole process kind of sacred. I know that sounds pompous; I don't mean that it should be sacred to anybody else.
Pitchfork: Were you intimidated at all? Van Dyke Parks is this iconic figure, and you're giving him dictation.
JN: Mostly not, because he chose not to be intimidating. I think he could've been. He did make it clear that he didn't want me to settle just because he's so great. Of course the first draft he sent me was genius; it was brilliant-- it had his mark and compositional voice all over it. It would've been so easy to fall in love with those parts because of how great he is and how much I love his sound. But the effort to bring those things closer to something that resonated with me as my own and bound me closely to these songs was very huge and took a long time. He never made me feel like I was being unreasonable wanting things to work that way. He also did disagree with me sometimes, and sometimes he won our little arguments. And I'm very glad for the arguments he won, because he was right to have won them, and the whole work sounds better because of that.
For example, I did not want electric bass on this record. He argued for it because we had enough tracks and it wouldn't contaminate anything, and we could just take it out off the mix if we didn't want it. So I said, "Fine, fine, we'll do it; it'll be cheesy, but we'll do it." He had Leland Sklar come in and play bass, and it was incredible how architectural those parts were, and how they substantiated the chord changes. In a weird way, even though we're talking about an electric bass, somehow it managed to make the songs sound more like the original forms, when I wrote them with just harp and voice. These orchestral arrangements are sometimes esoteric, sometimes not; they move in all sorts of directions from very romantic to very angular and dissonant, but throughout it the electric bass wound up being very important. We used it sparingly in the mix; all thanks to Jim O'Rourke, very deliberately choosing, note by note, each place where it would be useful to have this bass. There are a number of other things like that, that Van Dyke argued for and I conceded, and I'm very glad he won those arguments. But he only did that when he felt really adamant about something, and most of the time when I wanted something changed he would go back to the drawing board.
Pitchfork: You spoke earlier about the importance of concision, in terms of not losing the message in the medium. There was a feature in Paste that implied that the songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender were originally much longer, perhaps more similar to the new ones but got whittled down for the record. Is that true?
JN: Some of them, definitely. That was mostly a product of the fact that I was in school studying composition when I wrote most of those songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender, and I was still in the habit of writing longer instrumental pieces. When I first started writing songs with singing in them, I was still stuck in that form, and it was really good for me to force myself to shorten and distill these songs. For that record I really needed to go through the process of learning to write shorter songs; for this record I needed to work within a longer form, and I'm not exactly sure what either of those things imply about the work I'll do in the future.
Pitchfork: You tread a pretty thin line between pop and classical composition. How do you personally reconcile them? Are they even that far apart?
JN: I guess I shouldn't say that I've struggled to reconcile them, because for years I didn't understand that what I was doing was slightly different than what I thought I was doing. Since I was about 13 or 14 years old, what I wanted more than anything was to be a composer, and I spent all my time playing harp and writing music. If you ask any of my friends who knew me back then, they remember coming over and finding me playing harp in the family room every spare minute, and writing music. I was really obsessed with that as my life's goal. But even though that was what I spent all my time doing, I didn't truly understand what it means to go to school, study composition, and be a composer. I hadn't really plotted out that life in my mind. All I knew is that the name for writing music is composition, and one who writes music is a composer, so I had to go to school to be a composer.
I ended up going to Mills College to study it, because a lot of composers I really liked had gone there or taught there or had some sort of affiliation with that school. The second I got there, I realized that what I was doing was completely separate from the dialogue taking place in that school at that time, and I think that is when I started struggling to reconcile where my music fit in. Not that it needs to fit in, but what should I even call it? Should I call them songs now, or can I still call them compositions? My music generally retains an interest in melody and harmony and some sort of meter-- it might be a polymeter, but some sort of meter that repeats for more than one bar. But a lot of these ideas that I was interested in seemed to be considered passé, like they were unworthy of discussion and unworthy of listening. I wouldn't necessarily say that would be true of the professors at that school, but the climate was dictated by what the students were interested in, and most of them were writing incredibly dissonant music on their laptop computers and didn't play instruments [or] know how to write notation. It was a whole different thing than what I thought it would be, and it might have been smarter to go to a less experimental composition school, where I would have gotten neo-classical training in composition.
After a few years I left the music program and went to study creative writing instead, which in a way I'm really grateful for, because I think that sense of alienation drove me to feel like I could go even further in the direction I'd been embarrassed of previously-- an obsession with melody rather than a rejection of it; an analysis of every interval that separates every note that follows in succession.
Pitchfork: How did Drag City react when you told them what you wanted to do with Ys?
JN: I think they felt pretty good. I didn't tell them much about it until it was time to actually start organizing the recording sessions. They're incredibly supportive of anything and everything. When I mentioned that I wanted to try and work with Van Dyke, [Drag City owner] Dan Koretzky said, "Well, I think that's going to be difficult, but we'll definitely talk to him." I think they understood to a greater extent than I did that it was a big deal to ask Van Dyke to do this. I didn't really know about most of the work he did; I was in love with his record Song Cycle and that's it. So I was intimidated because of the quality of his work and how much I respected him, but [not because] he was this hugely appreciated and obsessed-over person. He kindly chose to not unburden me of my ignorance of what a big deal it was to ask him, and agreed to meet with me in Los Angeles. I played my harp for him and his wife in a hotel room there-- the five songs that would end up being the songs off this record-- and he agreed that he would do it and make it financially possible to work with him.
I think under his normal fee it would have been impossible to make a record with him on Drag City. Of course, Drag City has a very accurate reputation for being economical, and not spending a lot of money on advertising or putting a big push behind their bands with marketing campaigns, but they'll spend money on things if they believe in it.
Pitchfork: When you play these songs live, are you using a limited orchestra, or replicating them more simply?
JN: I started performing them solo, which I still like to do sometimes. But what I'm doing on this tour is incredibly fun; I'm working with a band. They're not an orchestra or even a chamber group. There's a Bulgarian tambura player named Ryan Francesconi and an accordion player named Dan Cantrell-- those two went through Van Dyke's score and transcribed his orchestral parts into parts that are playable on their respective instruments, which is seriously interesting and rad to hear. Dan condensed like five different string parts and he's just ripping them on his accordion, which is just insane. Ryan is doing a lot of those parts too-- the cimbaloms and woodwinds and brass parts. So they're holding down the orchestral parts, and then I have a banjo and guitar player named Kevin Barker, who's fantastic, and I have a wonderful drummer who's singing harmonies as well, and my friend Katie is singing harmonies and playing glockenspiel. I'm getting really attached to this particular form at the moment and am hoping that I can perform with this group as much as possible. Then, in London, in January, I'm doing some orchestral shows. I'm going to see how that goes and if it's possible to do more of those afterwards then I will. But for now I have just four orchestral shows planned, one of which is with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, which is really exciting and cool.
Pitchfork: A lot of music fans, including myself, don't know very much about your instrument, the harp-- you don't find them sitting in every third living room, like guitars-- much less the Lyon & Healy style 11 pedal harp. Can you tell our readers about the instrument?
JN: I pretty much always play Lyon & Healy harps because they're consistent in their dimensions; they're also really good harps. So if I have to rent a harp when I go to a particular city, I know the strings will be spaced the way they are on my harp, and I won't find myself unable to play the way I normally do. Many Chicago people know Lyon & Healy as the harp factory on Lake St. [and Ogden Ave.] in Chicago. [The harp] has seven pedals (the key is changed on the harp by pressing a pedal) and it's diatonically arranged. The harp that I played on the record is not my own; it belongs to the woman who played harp on Song Cycle. I really like to imbue every little thing with connections; the continuity makes me feel better about the finished work, so that's why I did that.
Pitchfork: Let's talk about Ys and its themes a bit more. There's an old Breton folktale where Ys is a sunken city very similar to Atlantis. The sea figures prominently on the album but there's nothing too overt about a sunken city. Did you draw the title from another source, or is it used more loosely, to allude to the mythological spaces the album inhabits?
JN: [The title] was the last thing that I chose, after all the songs and the cover art were finished. So none of the songs directly allude to that myth. But the main themes that emerge out of that myth are really close to the themes on the record-- mortality, decadence, an excess of water, isolation, rebirth. The myth is also significant to me because of the way that I encountered it, which relates to one of the huge events the record is about.
I also liked the power of the word itself. I liked how violent and cryptic it felt; it's such a daunting word to encounter. I like how it contrasted this finely rendered, carefully composed front cover-- the painting is information-dense, formal, and stylized; it looks the way something looks when a painter spends a year on it, which is what Benjamin [Vierling] did. So it has all this detail and carefulness to it, which was really important to me and relates very closely to the record. But I also felt like it needed some sort of ballast, or balance, next to it, to reflect the other elements of the record; its innate violence. I wanted a word that was like throwing a brick at the visual on the front cover; I liked that whenever someone looked at that cover they also had to encounter this short, weird word.
Pitchfork: So the ostensible resonance between your choice of "Ys" and the flooding of New Orleans and Indonesia is a coincidence?
JN: I wouldn't necessarily say that; those things probably did factor into my choice even if they weren't the central reasoning behind it. But I do feel that the image of the flood in general resonated more with me; I was coding a lot of my experience in terms of excess of water, and it was something that was seeping into my consciousness from all around at the time when I was writing some of these things.
Pitchfork: The cover seems like a good symbolic digest of the album's themes. There's a moth, which can symbolize transformation; a sickle, which can stand for depletion and renewal; an open window standing for entrapment and release, framing a bird, which, according to folklore, symbolizes bad luck or death when it lands in a window. So the album seems very taken up with binary, metaphysical transformations. Can you talk about the literary or musical traditions from which you derived this very classical interpretation of art, which seems to privilege the beauty of natural cycles over man-made beauty, and which seeks to root human experience in these cycles?
JN: I don't necessarily see the elements that I invoke on the cover and in the songs as being in binary opposition. I know certain binary tensions emerge between these elements, but a lot of times they're more like archetypal elements; these free-standing, huge forces. Mortality, standing alone, as a thing; as opposed to, "Over here's life; over here's death. Here's bad luck, but here's blessing and redemption. Here's water; here's fire." Certainly those things come up again and again in the songs, but it's not intentional, and probably has more to do with the fact that those things emerge in real life, without any effort on our part whatsoever, than they are derived from any classical tradition. I think classicism in general might reflect more closely the natural order of human life, while postmodernism is somehow removed from the natural order, more cerebral and sterile, removed from real life on some level. So what seems like classicism in some of these songs might be just what I view as an accurate reflection of real life on this planet.
Pitchfork: You don't perceive postmodernism as mirroring the disruption wrought by technology on these natural cycles-- effectively, a reflection of modern life, however unnatural it may be?
JN: I wouldn't necessarily argue against that; of course I rely on a lot of postmodern forms myself within the narrative of these songs. I can't call them linear narratives, and I can't call them chronological in a traditional, classical sense; I'm sure there's plenty of stuff I borrow more from William Faulkner than William Shakespeare. I just find it funny that at this point, we see a collection of highly charged, highly potent symbols as referring back to a classical aesthetic, because to me they seem deeply connected to the pedestrian actuality of real life.
Pitchfork: The song "Emily" is very taken up with astronomy and astrology, both literally and figuratively-- a mud cloud is "mica-spangled"; a far butte lit by a flare and ship sailing toward the morning both invoke lodestars; Emily's a "beam of sun," and so on. It seems like Emily has a very scientific grasp of the cosmos-- "she taught me the names of the stars overhead"-- while the narrator has a more mythological sensibility: she knew "only the Pleiades." How important is this tension between science and magic to the album, and how does it relate to its cycles of escape and return?
JN: Like every other song on this record, "Emily" is deeply biographical. The Emily in the song is my sister, who's an astrophysicist; the narrator is myself, who is not an astrophysicist. Emily is the wanderer; she lives in Argentina and sometimes New Zealand. I'm not a wanderer, which is funny because I'm on tour half the time. I'm a home, hearth and family kind of person. It's difficult for me to make too many intelligent comments about what you brought up because the song really is a very personal reaction to real life.
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