By Mark Guarino
To play a harp is to look like you’re in love. You rest its spine on your shoulder and extend your arms in an embrace of its 47 strings, running your fingers back and forth in a way that looks like the instrument is being gently caressed.
For this reason, harpists are often thought of being sort of otherworldly. Unlike guitarists or drummers or saxophonists, harpists evoke images of wood fairies and Enya, the type of feel-good, misty mountain, shampoo commercial aesthetic that — unless they actually are Enya — can be a hindrance.
“I think the harp helped people create a character for me that wasn’t mine,” said Joanna Newsom, a 24-year-old songwriter who composes on and performs with a harp. When The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City), debuted in 2004, Newsom became semi-famous for working in a niche that is solely her own. Critics, bloggers and a devoted fanbase tripped over themselves to describe her music — beguiling song poems sung in a raw, youthful voice — in ways that inevitably made her sound like she belonged more on the renaissance fair circuit than in indie rock clubs. She soon realized that if she were just another girl with a guitar, this would not be the case. To everyone who encountered her, she felt the harp became this “fetishistic thing.”
“I was disappointed by some of the people who liked it and liked it for the wrong reasons,” she said. “I know you have to remain open to people getting whatever they’ll get out of your music, but it was sort of exhausting and disheartening to know that a certain portion of my audience was attracted to the music because they thought it was a fairy tale or ‘whimsical’ or ‘childlike’. I would hear these words so often, it was like, ‘are you listening? Like, I’m really proud of this part I wrote, it’s really good, it’s fucking hard to play, and I’ve spent hours a day practicing. I’ve spent so long refining this, I think it’s really good. Will you please listen to the songs?’”
She is bracing for another round of public dissection due to Ys (Drag City), a spacious new album of richly orchestrated songs. Five in all, the songs stretch between seven and 17 minutes. While her harp was at the forefront of Mender, here it blends into the bed of orchestration. The songs go on a journey of shifting moods and meters with lyrics that create striking images through its crafty wordplay (“I wasn’t born of a whistle, or milked from a thistle at twilight/no, I was all horns and thorns, sprung out fully formed, knock-kneed and upright”). Absorbed in a single listen, Ys feels like a soundtrack to a restless and inexplicable dream.
“I don’t think every new record needs to be a huge shift in style for it to be worth anything,” she said. “But for me it had to be this way.
The cover of Ys is a portrait of Newsom that is not who she is but who her music suggests her to be. Beside an open window framing a landscape directly from a J.R.R. Tolkien epic, she sits donned in medieval garb, a band of flowers in her hair, with two braids falling down and the space adorned in baroque symbols: a butterfly caught in a frame, a crow offering her a cherry. The scene could be extracted from Xena: the Warrior Princess. For someone easily frustrated by fairy tale characterizations, it is a strange choice.
It also contradicts who Newsom is in person: giddy, humble, talkative and exceedingly polite.
“Swim every day, long lunches, drink, go to bars, go dancing,” is how she described her life outside indie rock. Newsom lives in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, three hours north of San Francisco near Lake Tahoe. Last summer she rediscovered her circle of friends after being away on tour for almost a year. Her new goals became barbecuing, swimming in the nearby river and hosting dancing parties. “I socialize, I kill time, I go on the internet, I go outside and just do nothing. The only legitimate thing I do is play music. Otherwise I just hang out,” she said.
Paris Hilton needn’t be threatened. Newsom’s life of leisure follows an obsessive musical life centered on her harp, an instrument she first picked to play at age eight. From Celtic harp, she graduated to the much-larger orchestral harp at age 14, an endeavor that required her parents to drive her from their home in Nevada City, Calif. to Sacramento for lessons. Her father, a hematologist/oncologist, and her mother, an internal medicine physician, both happened to play music with Newsom and her sister and brother. Newsom and her mother still attend a one-week folk music camp together every summer.
As time passed, Newsom became, not just enthralled with the instrument; she was in love. “It’s crazy that human beings are allowed to do something that feels that good in this lifetime. It’s a lot like being on an insane drug,” she said. She describes the sensation of playing harp as a physical (“the tactile aspect … when you rest a harp against your collarbone and your whole frame is vibrating”) and creative rush (“the insane idea that you can write a melody that hasn’t been written before”). By junior year in high school she remembers sitting down to play and having six hours disappear. “It’s enough to keep a person happy for a whole lifetime,” she said.
The attachment to her playing led her to think of the instrument as a companion, so much so, at times it could feel “like an extension of your body.” “I feel very tender towards it,” she said.
The intimacy of that connection emanates in her playing. The flourishes on Mender are tricky and often mesmerizing.
“Joanna is an incredible musician,” said Steve Albini (Nirvana, The Pixies), who recorded her harp and vocals on Ys. “I always like working with people who have a command of their instrument and she exemplifies that. She can make that thing do whatever she wants it to. She is a super bad ass harpist.”
Mills College in Oakland seemed a logical next step. The liberal arts college was known for its experimental music program. Laurie Anderson, Steve Reich and Dave Brubeck are among its graduates and its faculty at one time included minimalist composer Terry Riley and avant jazz pioneer Anthony Braxton.
Newsom entered for composition but switched her major three times and then dropped out. She was busy writing songs and eventually self-released two EPs but still had no ambitions to perform live. Mostly, she stuck to home recordings she made for the purpose of not forgetting the songs. One of those tapes ended up in the hands of Will Oldham, the songwriter and occasional actor who also records under the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy. He asked her to join him on tour while at the same time introduced her music to Drag City, the Chicago label he records for. The moment she signed, she left school for good.
“I recall not being blown away when I first hear it,” said Drag City owner Dan Koretzky. “When I saw her play it all came to life for me and I got intimidated because she’s great.”
Mender forced Newsom to perform in public, something she was not prepared to do. She was nervous and shy, two qualities that contributed to her image as an innocent savant. Her lack of vocal training didn’t help. Still, the album came at an opportune time when other idiosyncratic songwriters like Devendra Banhart, M. Ward, Sufjan Stevens and others were re-imagining American folk music through a mystical lens.
She toured, received critical accolades, but by the end of Mender’s cycle, she was struck by the intuitive sense that, on her next album, all the songs needed to be long. “It wasn’t an intellectual thing,” she said. “I was writing these songs and they were so unwieldy, it seemed so awkward and unnatural to squeeze them in the short song form.” Her Mills College training taught her the value of space where “it was permissible to talk a half an hour to develop an idea.” “As soon as I started writing songs, I thought they had to be much more abbreviated. Part of this record was I wanted to give myself the permission again to see what I can do with the chord progressions and the melodies and all the blood and bones that makes a song a song if I gave them more space to develop,” she said.
After finishing a few songs, a friend handed her Stormcock, the 1971 album by British folk hero Roy Harper. Just four songs in length, the album sets acoustic music against the grand scale of progressive rock, creating a profound vision that is simultaneously highly personal and epic. The album is intensely orchestrated and after she thought about it, “the more it made really good sense” to go into that direction.
There remained one problem: She needed an arranger. Newsom was already a fan of Van Dyke Parks, the lyricist and arranger who most famously collaborated with Brian Wilson on the aborted SMiLE album. She was familiar with Parks’ 1968 album Song Cycle (Warner Bros.) and was struck by how the pop composer rotated an array of American music styles through classical constructs. After settling on one or two arrangers who she thought would sound like Parks, she thought: why not ask the man himself?
She did but learned he came with price she or her label could not afford. Yet Parks was interested enough to hear Newsom audition her songs. She was in L.A. on tour with her boyfriend, Bill Callahan, the singer-songwriter otherwise known as Smog, and rented a harp. Parks and his wife Sally visited her hotel room and after Newsom played two songs, he said he wanted to do it and lowered his cost to make it happen.
“I had written most of the songs but I refined them after I heard Stormcock. There was a cool thing that happened — Stormcock inspired a lot of what I wanted orchestrated. After me articulating it in my weird way to Van Dyke and him writing his version of what I explaining, it didn’t sound anything like Stormcock. It was really great to watch that happen. Van Dyke hadn’t heard Stormcock and that was a good because I wasn’t asking him to copy something he hadn’t heard before,” she said.
Their partnership was far from typical. Parks, who declined to be interviewed for this article, received instructions from Newsom that simply evoked moods or images and, from there, he had to figure out how that translated to an orchestra. For instance, for the song “Only Skin,” she told him she wanted to hear “an elephant marching down the street really heavily (and) there was maybe a bird darting around its head and it was distracted by that.” How did that sound musically? Parks had to figure that out.
Emails passed back and forth until Newsom went to his office where she listened to his scores, mocked up on a synthesizer. They worked through many drafts until what Newsom heard corresponded with the imagery in her head. He told her “in his entire career nobody he had ever arranged for had done that,” and she was surprised “he was so willing to open up the doors.”
“He’s very accustomed to people either giving him a lot of guidance or no guidance whatsoever, but accepting whatever he writes and not questioning it because he’s a genius and his work is wonderful,” she said. “I think he had seldom worked with anybody who was so specific.”
Albini said the precision of Newsom’s vision is what makes her “a joy to work with.” “She knows what she wants and you really can’t ask anything more of somebody. If someone is good at what she does and she knows what she wants, it’s almost impossible for her to be disappointed,” he said.
Albini arrived in L.A. to record Newsom’s vocals and harp. Never having recorded a harp as a featured instrument before, he realized “it’s a pretty modest instrument so you have to work up close to it.” He attached four microphones to the instrument and positioned two others in the surrounding room. The result is that, despite the sweeping orchestration, the music is also highly intimate, capturing the quirks and deft touch of each string.
When Koretzky was handed Ys, he realized he didn’t “own any record like it.” “So that’s exciting for me. Despite all these people involved for this particular record, I can’t think of a lot of reference points. I’m sure they’re there, I just can’t think of them. That strikes me as completely unique and that’s tough,” he said.
The songs, despite their length, never meander and can’t be consider suites or strung-together melodies. They work as segments that stretch out far then find their way back to choruses. The narratives travel sideways than front to back. Themes like transcendence, mortality and decadence boil to the surface in stories told through impressions and moods. “Somewhere in the album is a middle and somewhere in the album is an end to the story,” Newsom said.
Yet it is music that remains highly personal. “I don’t write music in a frame of mind that incorporates any conception of the listener. I write it because it’s really fun to write music. If somebody has use for what I’ve made, that’s awesome and if they don’t, no hard feelings,” she said. “Certainly that’s understandable.”
Saying that Joanna Newsom is the most high profile indie rock harpist ever is arguably a very accurate statement.
Not that it’s something she’s comfortable acknowledging: “I feel like I don’t know enough about what’s out there to say that with any confidence. I’m certainly doing something different from what I’ve heard,” she said.
Who’s been plucking strings before Newsom arrived? The list is slim.
• King David
Years before slaying Goliath, this humble shepherd and hobby harpist was sent to cheer up King Saul, a depressive who David later dethroned.
• Harpo Marx
The famously silent Marx Brother was self-taught, playing the instrument in several film comedies that showcased his strange tunings and incorrect style. After his death in 1964, his will directed the harp to Israel.
• Jon Anderson
The chirpy voiced singer of prog rock powerhouse Yes is known to solo with a Celtic harp during concerts, thereby increasing beer sales simultaneously.
• Andreas Vollenweider
The Swiss harpist scored commercial fame in the 1980’s when a succession of New Age albums married the harp with mellow synthesizers and gentle world beats.
• Art in America
The centerpiece of this prog rock trio was the harp played by Shishonee Flynn, who kills on their 1983 single, “Undercover Lover.”
• Zeena Parkins
A mainstay of New York’s downtown experimental music scene starting in the 1980’s, she has recorded and toured with everyone from John Zorn to Bjork to Hole.
• Patti Hood
Her resume is incredibly diverse — session work with members of Tool, Guns N’ Roses, The Church — but it was Harpo Marx who made the biggest impact. On her website, she reveals she took up the instrument when he appeared to her in a dream.
• The Polyphonic Spree
Not only does the poor guy have to wear a goofy robe when he plays but elbow room is cramped for classical harpist Ricky Rasura who is forced to pluck away while two dozen of his fellow musicians jump and shout at his side.