Joanna Newsom

(California)

Joanna Newsom is harpist and singer-songwriter from Nevada City, California. She is one of the successful and important acts to have emerged from this scene.

Newsom had been captivated by the harp from an early age and, when finally acquiring one, started playing passionately. She enrolled at Mills College in Oakland to study composition became quickly disinterested in in her studies. She started playing keyboards with The Pleased, an indie band, alongside a fellow student, Noah Georgeson, who would later produce her solo records. After stumbling upon Alan Lomax’s work, more particularly the recordings of Texas Gladden’s unusual singing, Newsom decided to start singing herself.

Newsom recorded Walnut Whales (2002) and Yarn and Glue (2003) at home using simple equipment: “Those CD-Rs were just things I had recorded at home as documentation,” she explained in 2005. “I didn’t want to forget those songs, so it was like jotting something down on a Post-It note.” Copies of those CD-Rs landed in Will Oldham’s hands, who contacted her and recommended her to the independent label Drag City, of which he was also a signee.

Newsom recorded her recorded her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004) with Georgeson in her apartment, with a more polished production approach. It featured new and old compositions, some from her demos, as well as a cover of Texas Gladden ‘Three Little Babes’. The album was released by Drag City to critical acclaim, critics praising the contrast of the Newsom’s strong, emotional lyrics and her unusual, sometimes childlike, voice. Her harp playing was heavily influenced by the West African cora, as these songs are filled with multi-rhythms and complex patterns.

Newsom, however, doesn’t really identify her music with the freak-folk term, although she is heavily involved with the scene, having toured and collaborated with many artists.

Her second album, Ys (2006), is more ambitious, featuring five lengthy songs where Newsom focusses on creating a bucolic narrative. Her once lone harp is now accompanied by orchestral arrangements as well as traditional instruments (banjo, pedal steel). She first premiered her album live at an Arthur-curated event before releasing it to universal acclaim. The album has been praised as one of the most important releases of 2006 and is still considered one of the greatest album of that decade.

Her third album, Have One on Me (2010), marked a stark departure in sound. Newsom’s voice broke and she had to undergo an operation which ultimately changed her voice. She then had to adapt to a new singing style. Have One on Me is a three disc album in which Joanna Newsom truly shines as a innovative contemporary songwriter. The folk aspect of her earlier outputs however, becomes less and less obvious. Her long narratives are now embellished by even more refined orchestral arrangements, which include Middle-Eastern and East-European instruments. The album was again well received, though comparisons with Banhart et al. had stopped and Newsom lost most ties to the freak-folk label.

Arguably, Have One on Me is still infused with the essence Americana and has garnered many comparisons with the works of Californian singer-songwriters of the 60s, mainly by Joni Mitchell. All in all, the album sounds like a fresh and innovative approach to ‘New Weird America’.

Full Interviews from Arthur Magazine

Forty-Six Strings and Some Truths: a conversation with Joanna Newsom (2004)

"Nearer the Heart of Things": Erik Davis profiles Joanna Newsom (2006)