Interview by Ryan Gillespie

That voice. All that it means to be human—the tragedy, the comedy, the nostalgia, the abyss, the vulnerability, the penchant for being off-key—is present in the textured force of Joanna Newsom’s voice. Delicate and confident, innocent but jagged, mature yet wistful, the grain of Joanna Newsom’s voice is the grain of democracy: polysemic, contradictory, fluid. If the voice on The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom’s arresting debut album, was the sound of democracy in Ancient Greece then, the voice on Ys, Newsom’s highly anticipated sophomore LP, sounds like democracy in America: mature, confident, progressive. The pluralities of democracy in content—all the causes, the mantras, the politics, and the religions—could be distilled into one abstract, layered and innocent form: the initially distancing but deeply familiar voice that unifies, that shakes us to our core, that reminds us that we are more the same than we are different. That voice. Her voice.

“I feel like I am more familiar with [my voice] now,”
asserts the 24-year-old singer/songwriter/harpist. “From singing so much in the last few years, I have a wider singing range now. I know that has changed my voice.”

History will change a person’s voice as well. Five years ago, Newsom was studying music and creative writing at Mills College in Oakland, working at a clothing store, and playing her harp at country clubs and weddings. But she was always writing and recording material, using a Fisher Price tape recorder at first and then a home computer, which allowed her to burn tracks and distribute them as EPs. The first of those EPs, Walnut Whale and Yarn and Glue, were sold at shows and swapped among friends. A friend of Newsom gave one of these home-burned CD-Rs to singer/songwriter/actor Will Oldham. Immediately impressed, Oldham wrote Newsom an email, asking her if she wanted to come on tour with him. He also encouraged her to get in touch with his label Drag City, assuring her that they would be expecting her call. “I swear that was how it happened,” Newsom claims with sincerity. “It was simple and ridiculous.”

And with that, Drag City released Newsom’s The Milk-Eyed Mender. Artistically, all the right people were listening—and loving—this timelessly antiquated masterpiece of harps and pianos and shrieks and whispers, at once guttural and cerebral. So, as the sophomore project began to emerge from looming in the shadows, Newsom was able to spend some of her newfound artistic capital, hand-picking her production team. This included the legendary Van Dyke Parks, Steve Albini, and Jim O’Rourke. The diversity of this all-star technical-artistic team speaks to Newsom’s universally particular appeal.

Under the Radar spoke to Newsom about Ys via e-mail, her preferred method of interview. You can read a two-page article on Newsom in the Fall 2006 issue, but here is the full un-edited transcript of our interview with her.

Under the Radar: Let’s start with some personal history. You attended Mills College in Oakland. Did you graduate? What kind of student are/were you? Overall, what was your college experience like?

Joanna Newsom: I didn't graduate. I think I was at the school for almost the prescribed four years, but, because it took me a lot of time to figure out what I wanted to do there (I think I changed my major three times—first composition, then an attempt at a self-designed-major in ethno-musicology/Senegalese kora, then finally creative writing), I wasn't about to graduate any time soon. I wasn't a fantastic student. I was selectively pretty good, and sometimes shamefully bad. I hated certain things; I thought there was something really irritating about the fact that undergraduates like myself had to slog through a very traditional course of study in composition (all the theory, all the orchestration, music history, chord analysis, diatonic harmony & counterpoint, etc) while the graduate students—some of whom I think didn't even read music, and many of whom didn't actually play an instrument—got to work much more closely with these amazing composition teachers, who were the reason I'd wanted to go to that school in the first place. I guess I felt a bit disenfranchised. But it was partially my fault; I was easily intimidated. Anyway, I think that was when I dropped out the first time—for a year. I left school and went back to Nevada City. I wanted to entreat Terry Riley to be a teacher. But I got so lazy instead. Just worked at a coffee shop, lived in a little apartment across the street from the coffee shop. Then moved back to the Bay Area, moved in with my boyfriend at the time, and started going to San Francisco City College. I think I was trying to be a French major at that point. And I was working at this fancy clothing store and occasionally playing harp at weddings and, like, country clubs. Then I went back to Mills, and it was great. I had this amazing teacher, Chris Brown, a composer and a real genius, I think. He taught a lot of ethno-musicological stuff. He introduced me to a lot of my favorite American composers. He's a faithful champion of the great Ruth Crawford Seeger. And he's a scholar of Henry Cowell, and remains one of the only musicians who know how to play his piano pieces. He inspired me so much. In retrospect, I feel like it was maybe his equal affection for 'new' music and 'folk' music, the way he absolutely revered and almost seemed to make no real distinction between them, that opened me up to the idea of not feeling like I needed to make a distinction...or, like, didn't need to separate the work I was doing into brain-music vs. heart-music. I also had a great recording-engineering-professor, Maggi Payne. All sorts of great teachers. Maybe the reason I started loving all my composition and recording and music-related classes all of a sudden was that I was no longer majoring in that stuff. I wanted to be a writer I thought. And that's what I was losing sleep over when I was writing the songs for the first little home-recordings I did. Then, when Drag City offered to release a record for me, I just dropped out of school. I had one semester where I basically never came to class, and then I left altogether.

UTR: I live in Northern California too (Roseville/Granite Bay area by Folsom Lake) and I once saw you on our public access television station. It was right around the time Milk Eyed Mender had just come out, or maybe right before. Anyway, it was like a benefit show for your old high school or something? All I remember, aside from your great performance of course, was that you were introduced by a former high school English teacher of yours. I am wondering if this person was a strong influence on you personally, or professionally, as you did go on to major in creative writing. If I am way off in my recollection of this, maybe you could just tell me if there were any teachers who had a strong influence on you.

Seriously? I used to play harp at Granite Bay Country Club on Mother's Day and stuff like that. In high school.…That benefit show was for the creative writing program at my old high school. I can't remember who it was that introduced me—maybe it was this lovely woman, Patricia McLean—not actually one of my teachers, but she was a teacher at my school. She is just a wonderful person, a real thinker. I'm sure she influenced me; I remember having a lot of great conversations with her. My friend Erin and I put together this little, like, poetry show when we were 16 or 17, just a bunch of kids doing a reading, and Mrs. McLean helped us organize that and encouraged us and gave us a place to meet, stayed late after school so we could meet in her classroom.

UTR: I want to get a better feel for your career process. What were the conditions under which the first 2 EPs (Walnut Whales and Yarn and Glue) were recorded? How did you pay for those sessions/recordings/printings, and then did you first shop them to labels before self-releasing? Then, how did you get connected at Drag City?

Newsom: They were basically free. My old boyfriend Noah recorded them onto the computer, at home. Then I just Xeroxed covers, burned CDs, all that. They weren't meant to be heard, much less sold. I had been recording all my song ideas on a little Fischer Price tape recorder, and it started ruining and tangling tapes, and I asked Noah to help me record onto the computer, so I wouldn't forget the songs. And then when I started playing shows, I think Noah suggested I just burn up a couple of copies of CDs of the songs, to sell. I definitely didn't shop them to labels! My friend gave Will Oldham a copy of one of those home-burned CDRs, when he played a little show in Nevada City. Will wrote to me, wrote to the e-mail address on the CD, and asked me to tour with him; he also gave a copy of the thing to Drag City. It was simple and ridiculous. I swear that was how it happened. I also got another offer from another label, but that was because Will had given my CD to a friend who had given it to his friend who ran that other label. So I think I wrote Will to ask him what he thought of this other label and he was like, “That's a good label but you should be on drag city! Write Dan Koretsky an email; he knows who you are.” And I wrote them and they said, ‘yes, they'd put out a record.’

UTR: Your voice has been called things ranging from weird and whimsical to fearless and beautiful. I have read interviews where you were quoted as initially nervous about the sound of your voice. Yet, even on early recordings you sing with a profound confidence! So, how do you feel about your voice, now, in 2006?

Newsom: I feel good about my voice. I feel like I am more familiar with it now and can control it better, and I think I have a wider singing range now—just from singing so much in the last few years. I know that has changed my voice.

UTR: On style and persona. From the Renaissance portrait painting that adorns the cover of the new album to the elf boots, you have a distinct style that permeates your music, both within the actual songs and in the packaging of you as an artist. That is, Kelefa Sanneh of The New York Times called your songs “weird antiques, rescued from some extraordinary attic” and your aesthetic persona seems to match that spot-on. I suppose what I am really trying to find out in the above is how aware are you of your own persona? Is it conscious effort to construct an image, a persona, or is this just more or less who you would be with-or-without a professional recording contract?

What elf boots? No, seriously, a lot of things get written about my clothes that ain't true. Like, I just played keyboards with my boyfriend’s band, in Austin, and afterwards Pitchfork reviewed the show and said something like, I don't know, I was wearing my “trademark renaissance sleeves” or something. I was just wearing some vintage dress from the 30s, I guess it had voluminous sleeves or something, but, I don't know, 'twarent remotely renaissancey. Anyway, that's neither here nor there. But it bugs me because I'm really into clothes and design and so forth but definitely not into, like, “costuming” or constructing a persona through clothing. There's a silhouette and style I favor, in the way that most girls come to favor a silhouette and style, and I've favored it for years, and it does sometimes involve some volume in the sleeves and a belted waist, but it also often involves blue jeans and shitkickers. I'm sorry to say this, but, in my opinion, music writers—most of whom are dudes—often don't seem qualified to make sweeping statements about someone's style; it comes off clumsy and ill-informed, since most of these dudes don't really spend much time thinking about girls' clothing or paying attention to what girls are wearing on the street. I'm not saying they should think about that stuff but it's annoying to hear some people make sartorial calls with the same suggestion of authority with which they might analyze your music. I went to this big vintage store in LA once—one of these joints that hang clothes on the wall with little signs, like, “70's Dior Smoking” and so forth—and up there was a little Gunne Sax dress, and the sign said “Joanna Newsom dress.” Blech! And my friend Jamie has forwarded me similar shit on eBay, people selling dresses and labeling them that way. It's caused me to be sort of self-conscious about wearing certain things that I used to wear all the time. I've given away a lot of clothes because I feel weird wearing them now. Before I ever put out records, I dressed a little flamboyantly, but I don't like the degree to which people take that stuff into account when listening to your music. I think on some level I might have toned things down for that reason. Regarding the record cover—any of the elements in the painting were subject to much discussion between me and Benjamin Vierling, the painter. The outfit we ended up choosing wasn't meant to be “renaissance clothing;” it was just supposed to look un-dated, like it could have existed in any time, because the style of the painting is very overtly classical—the 3/4 profile and formal pose and the window with the curtain in the background—all of that stuff is so referential to renaissance portraiture that it seemed like it would have been awkward to put me in blue jeans. The one concession to modernity that Ben decided to put in the painting was the airplane trail in the sky outside.

UTR: Onto the new album. What was the driving force behind Ys? That is, why did you want to make an album called Ys? Why these 5 songs?

I don't know how to begin to answer that question. That would take me a long, long time and I would not be satisfied with my answer.

UTR: On Ys seems like you are exercising your creative writing background much more so than previous outings, if even only in length. But there are seemingly even less interpersonal dimensions and even more highly ornate lyrics and stories. Is this the logical progression of your music or was this more of a conscious elevation in your lyric writing?

Newsom: I don't think the shift, if there was one, was consciously made. I do not, however, think the lyrics are more ornate on this record; except for one or two particular lines—the “awful atoll” section of “Only Skin” particularly—I feel like the lyrics tend to be simpler and more straightforward than on the previous record. Of course it's hard for me to read them objectively, but that's my opinion. They're certainly denser, this time around, but they seem clearer to me.

UTR: Ys features the creative and technical work of three industry giants in Steve Albini, Van Dyke Parks and Jim O'Rourke. How did these connections come about? Did you personally choose all three? Why did you enlist each of them (e.g. what specific albums had they done that you admired)?

Newsom: I did personally choose them, of course. Van Dyke is my favorite arranger—and, within the context of 'pop' music, my favorite composer—of the latter half of this century; Albini is the best recording engineer alive I think (especially with acoustic instruments); and O'Rourke is an all-around genius who manages to elevate and refine anything he's involved in (I knew this was true before I worked with him, but I don't think I really understood the extent of his magic until he stepped in). As far as the connections—Van Dyke was a shot in the dark; Albini and O'Rourke have a great deal of history with Drag City.

UTR: In the press notes you say that Steve Albini mic'd the harp “in an insane and never-before-done manner.” Can you give a few more details about this unprecedented recording process with Albini?

Newsom: Naw. Maybe you could write him! I just feel like the things I’d feel at liberty to describe, I'd probably describe in a technically-off manner; and everything else is just like giving away a magic trick. I will say it involved a lot of microphones.

UTR: You also said in the press notes that two of the songs were already written and three were written specifically with an orchestra in mind. I'm guessing that “Sawdust and Diamonds” was one of the already written ones. What was the other, and what made you decide to add an orchestra to one of the completed songs but not the other?

Newsom: The other song was “Cosmia.” I actually planned on trying to orchestrate all five songs, but none of the experimental arrangements we tried out for “Sawdust and Diamonds” worked for me—they were all great, but none of them “felt” the way I wanted that song to “feel.” Finally it was evident that that song would be best served left unaccompanied.

UTR: The centerpiece of the album, “Only Skin,” is a 16-minute production of epic poetry, with a complete score, and even a duet passage with Bill Callahan. Talk to me about the evolution of this song, from inception to pen to performance to recording. Then, if you could, talk to me about some of the specifics of the verse, the story itself and the poetic devices employed?

Newsom: Oof! You ask great questions, very smart questions, but I’m a bit overwhelmed trying to tackle some of these! Let's see. The evolution of the song took a long time. I knew from very early on in its life that I wanted it to be a very long song, that it would be vulgar to make it short. But it took me a long time to finish it. I worked sectionally, I guess—I knew where each section was supposed to go; I knew the story I wanted to tell, more or less, and the order in which I wanted each piece of the story to appear. I know I'm using the word 'story' real loosely here, but the song is telling a story, from where I'm standing. But some of the pieces were a long time coming. I might have had some lyrics, and some instrumental passages, and then I'd get a bit more in the way of words, or a bit more in the way of music, and I'd just kind of whittle away at the thing awhile and then wait it out again. As far as the specifics of the verse, the ‘poetic devices’ employed and all that—I have to say that it makes me feel uncomfortable to think too much in those terms when I'm looking at my own songs. I love looking at other people's music real close-up, like that, but I feel like I worked hard enough writing the dang thing, and I shouldn't really have to go back and explain what I was doing from a technical standpoint or analyze my own style—just makes me feel squeamish and claustrophobic.

UTR: You thank a Gayle Levant for letting you use her Lyon and Healy style 11 harp. Three questions on this: a) who is Ms. Levant and what is your relation to her, b) what is extra special about this particular harp (besides the price), and c) how did using this harp affect the outcome of this record (either in actual sound or in performance feeling)?

Newsom: A) She is a great LA-area harpist who has played on all sorts of projects. I was referred to her by Van Dyke because she was the harpist on his Song Cycle record! B) Well, I only play Lyon & Healy harps, and this is my favorite, I don't know why. Of course that's a major over-generalization, because each individual harp is going to sound different from another. But the style 11 just has an incredible sound. This particular one was really bass-y, which was important to me. It also had a great history! I was excited to hear about all the different recordings that Ms. Levant had used that particular harp on. Lastly, it's an unbelievably beautiful-looking harp—a real art-nouveau design, a column made out of climbing irises. C) It was actually a really difficult harp for me to play. In a way that's hard for me to describe very well, it just felt “loose”; the tension of the strings was such that they gave the illusion of being “sticky.” They gave so much; they clung to the fingers; they were insanely resonant and watery-wounding. But just imagine the sound. Like playing spiderwebs.

UTR: Now that the album is completed, a tour is probably in the works, yes? Do you like playing in front of an audience? Will there be accompaniment in some of your upcoming live performances or will it just be the solo Joanna we know and love?

Newsom: I will be doing plenty of touring, yes. Maybe in more than one format. Like, I'm trying to put together a tour at the moment with some of my close musical friends, and if that comes together, it would be sort of a “band”—pretty different from the record. I shouldn't try to explain it too much; it'd be better to just see if we can make it happen musically. But I'm also hoping to do a few orchestral shows, if and when I can afford it. That's hard to do, money-wise! But it would be lovely. I'm really hoping Van Dyke might like to come out and conduct a few of those. And, I'd like to do some solo shows as well. These songs are fun and interesting to play, solo.

UTR: Who is the most inspiring artist in music today? Outside of music, what inspires you to create?

Newsom: There's a number of folks playing music today who inspire me a great deal. Bill Callahan is an enormous inspiration, as a writer and a songwriter. Terry Riley, Michael Hurley, Jim O'Rourke, Josephine Foster, Andy Cabic, Vashti Bunyan, Mira Billote, Lee Perry, Neil Young, Graham Nash, Neil Michael many people. I don't think there's any “thing that inspires me to create,” as such—I just really love to play music and to write, and I always have.

UTR: If you were not a musical artist, what would you be doing professionally?

Newsom: I would be an English teacher. Maybe 7th grade or 10th grade. And I would be thinking that someday I'd try to publish some short stories.