Material originally published in vastly different contexts in Time Out Chicago and Stomp & Stammer.
I don’t know freak-folk from a funky chicken, but I can tell you that Joanna Newsom is an original: a one-of-a-kind wondermint whose far-strung stringed jingling is epic and arty in a way that skirts the usual idea of “epic” and “arty.” Which is to say, how do you fabricate a mini-opus like Ys (Drag City), her new album, fill it with allegorical star-swept illuminations, furry creatures whose hearts thump as big as the moon, and some of the most nakedly rapturous and soulfully turbulent singing since, seriously, Astral Weeks, and not come off a tad… overdone? I’m not going to mention, just now, that Newsom plays harp – the ornate, whopping Celtic kind, so evocative of angels in 1930s Hollywood musicals and new age frim-frammery – or that she hired the justifiably legendary Van Dyke Parks, the greatest living quirky genius arranger, to help score her songs, with their umpteen verses, and their marvelous turns of tongue, and their nearly archaic embrace of language as a forgotten kingdom. As such, Ys (Eeees!) seems to have less to do with contemporary pop as it does with, say, Chaucer, or the Farmer’s Almanac. Or just, you know, the brimming viaducts of your own pellucid dreams. All done up with a 30-piece orchestra.
I caught Joanna waiting in line at a Northern California supermarket, and when I checked back a few minutes later, as she motored home, she gave a pretty generous illustration of how she could seemingly indulge some crazily ambitious creative urges without becoming self-indulgent – which is why the rich and arousing beauty of Ys, as sweeping and demanding as it is, makes me think of Van Morrison at first blush and not, oh, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.
And so we began…
Joanna Newsom: I’m throwing a big surprise birthday party for my parents tomorrow, and got it into my mind I needed certain things, but for some reason it was ten times busier than usual at the grocery store. I was standing in that line, looking at my cell phone. Damn it, damn it!
Ha ha. So… do you still live in Nevada City?
What’s it like there? You’re close to Reno?
It’s not terribly close. It’s still like an hour from the border. It’s near the California side of Lake Tahoe, right up in the foothills before the mountains. We live near all the ski resorts in Northern California, right at the base of all that. Just a really small town. For some reason it’s a real creative haven.
Like a California hippie town?
I think what happened is there was an exodus from the Bay Area. Some people went to Marin County, in the mid-’70s, when a lot of the artistic community got disillusioned with what was happening in San Francisco. It got dark. A lot of things got dark there. And a lot of the people who were creative started going all sorts of places. This is one kind of outpost. A lot of writers, and composers and poets came here, and bought a bunch of property. You could buy property really cheaply back then. So there’s a lot of people with 100-acre, 200- acre plots of land.
Your parents were part of that?
They came later. They came in ’80s. They were both physicians. In some ways they are super-close connected with that stuff, especially my mom. She’s very radical, a very political person, very into protesting and organizing and having a lot of causes. But, in other ways, they were removed from all that. They joked that they missed the ’60s, because they were in medical school the whole time. So they only got to do the not-so-fun things… [Joanna trills!]: Oh Hiiii! [Then back] I just got home and my aunt and uncle are here. It’s complete madness. We have 90 relatives coming in and it’s at my house.
I thought it was interesting to see that the fabled minimalist composer Terry Riley was one of your neighbors.
He’s a neighbor in the sense that everyone is a neighbor here because the town is so small. We didn’t live next door to each other. I don’t live up there. I grew up across the river.
Years later, you ended up at Mills College in Berkeley. Which is the kind of place Terry Riley would teach, if he hasn’t taught there.
Going to Mills was definitely a decision influenced by Terry Riley. A lot of what I did musically for awhile took place within a framework that was partially defined by what I saw him doing. I wanted to write music and make music, because that was what I loved doing most of all. But just about the only person I knew of who did that as their job was Terry Riley. The fact that he had connections to Mills was one of the motivating factors for me to go there.
Have you ever had his hot sauce?
[Exuberant] No. [Laughs]
He makes a killer hot sauce. It’s just great stuff.
[Laughs]. That’s pretty awesome. No, I’ve never had it.
Well, if you get a chance … So, you kind of grew up and gravitated to Mills. Is that where you got most of your training?
It’s where I got a lot of one particular kind of training. That was the first time I approached writing music from a formal perspective. I’d been writing music my whole life, but I thought of what I was doing as composing. Because of the simple distinction that I wasn’t signing, so they couldn’t be songs. I really formalized it in my own mind when I went to Mills and attempted to be more experimental. Experimental for me is so much less experimental than anybody else at that school. Oh, my lightbulb just went out! My last remaining lightbulb in my kitchen just burned out.
That’s very rock star.
Yeah! Ha ha! I just feel bad, because this is ostensibly the center of the action for tomorrow’s party. But I’m a complete wreck. I’ve been traveling non-stop since I bought my house. Some rooms are empty and some rooms are cluttered beyond like, beyond neatening, and all my bulbs are burned out, and cheery aunts and uncles are just rolling in, and being like, “Where can I store this ham?” and “Here’s some harvest-themed centerpieces for your table!” I’m like, what tables? It will be very interesting. I’m going to need lightbulbs that work in the house by tomorrow.
You need candles.
That was one of the things I was getting at the store was candles. I thought, “You must have candles.” Candles alone do not a party make. My house must have light in it. It’s an outdoor party. We bought tiki torches and we rented big propane heaters and tables. It’s a full-on event, and I know people are going to be interested in coming in and seeing my house. It’s going to be the ultimate embarrassment in front of my whole family if I don’t even have a lightbulb that works [laughs].
You have a lot of friends there?
I know everybody. A lot of my really good friends did something similar to me. They went away to go to school or to travel, and have elected to come back. It’s really exciting.
Did you gravitate to harp at college?
I’ve played harp for 16 years! Certainly, when I was at Mills, it came to my attention that I was one of the only people remaining in the school who wrote music on their instrument. Very few people even played instruments anymore. Most people wrote on laptops. Very few people even wrote music involving pitches that the human ear can recognize. Most of it was beyond dissonant. Just noise music. That was the conversation that was going on.
Your record is amazing, but it’s definitely not something you can absorb in even a few listens. It’s a huge piece of work. How did it all come together?
It was the product of a series of instinctive and natural and at the time not very huge-feeling decisions on my part. The first and most simple and probably most formative decision in the whole project was what I wanted to write the songs about. As soon as I knew what I wanted to tackle in the story of the record, I also recognized the requirement that the songs be long. The story would need to be paced in a certain manner. It’s sort of the difference between how certain topics are best-suited for a 100-word blurb, and other topics are best-suited for a 2,000-word essay, and the pacing of your idea will be fundamentally different because of the form you use to discuss it within. I felt it would be vulgar to make them short, and it would be a great disservice to the work I was trying to do. It was an easy decision. It wasn’t intimidating. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. I was finished with two of the songs, and part-way finished with the other three, at that point I realized it was also going to be required of this record that I involve an orchestra – for all kinds of reasons.
What kind of feeling is that when you realize, oh, darn, I’m gonna need an orchestra now? That must have been a fun phone call to make to the record company.
Yeah, it was sort of like that. I was definitely laughing sheepishly. Dan Koretsky, who runs Drag City, was really, really excited from the get-go. It was still really conceptual. We didn’t know how it was going to work. A few months after that, I got a copy of Van Dyke’s record Song Cycle and, upon hearing it, realized that it was the closest thing I had heard up to that point that approximated the mood and gestures that I wanted the orchestra to be armed with. For the first time, I was encountering somebody’s arrangements that resonated with me on this record, and how I wanted it to sound. I had no idea what a big deal Van Dyke Parks is. I’m talking to the record label [does gee-whiz kid’s voice]: “Hey! OK! So I wanna ask Van Dyke Parks to do it.” “Ohhhhhhh, OK. Well, we’ll give it a try.” They said they’d ask him but that it would be maybe difficult for him to do it, and prohibitively expensive. But they were willing to try.
Had you heard him before?
Only Song Cycle. And basically nothing before that.
None of the Beach Boys stuff?
I didn’t know that he had been involved in that. I guess I had heard him before, without knowing it was him. I didn’t know about Smile. I had never heard of that. I remember seeing that name everywhere, but I didn’t realize what had gone into that record. Yeah, so we … It all took place in the course of one roadtrip. At the beginning of that roadtrip my boyfriend gave me a copy of that record and told me, “You need to listen to this.” And I heard it, and fell in love with it, and called Drag City. And by the time the roadtrip ended up in LA, Van Dyke and his wife came to a hotel room that I had, and I rented a harp, and they came and sweetly introduced themselves, and perched on the edge of the bed, and listened to me play my songs. Van Dyke, he was so immediately receptive and expressed such immediate interest, that I immediately felt like it wasn’t going to happen. I was sure nothing would come of it. But true to his word, he was involved from there on out. It was a really long process …
The vocals, which you recorded separately with Steve Albini, are really intense. The emotions.
The whole thing was really, really emotional for me. There’s one song I can’t even listen to my own performance of, I can hear certain places where I was starting to cry and it makes me feel so weird. I still think it’s valuable in terms of honesty and authenticity to have that preserved, even though there’s the hugely formal, lush, bombastic orchestral presence. So it was good to have that division. And when I was finished, I could set it aside. That was months before the album was done, and I went into a different part of my brain, a very critical one. I’m very difficult to work with!
How was Van Dyke to work with?
He was amazing. He was very graceful about recognizing how specific my vision for the record was. And he humored me in that doggedness, despite the fact that I was seldom able to articulate myself in a technical way. So not only was I really stuck on the album sounding a certain way and feeling a certain way, but I didn’t even have the vocabulary to give him any sort of shorthand. It really is a bunch of trial and error. I gave him a pile of notes on the lyrics to help him generate his first draft. Occasionally, I might have said something semi-technical, but usually it was kind of out there. Like, I want this line to evoke this image musically, or I want the trumpets to do this sort of movement, low strings or high strings. I also gave him a 30-page manifesto! I thank him eternally for putting up with all of my shit. Just sort of saying, I want the record to feel this way. I want these certain things to not be sacrificed no matter what. Here’s what I want this album to end up sounding like. I would burn CD-Rs of certain things I liked the arrangements of, which he promptly disregarded. He listened to them and he appreciated them, but he also thought it would not be helpful for us to work in that way. And then he started Draft No. 1. He would send things to me usually in the recorded form of a cheesy old synthesizer. Some music program on his computer that hadn’t been updated in 15 years. That was beautiful. He’d send his drafts to me, and I would tear them apart. And they were exquisite! The struggle revolved around making his arrangements do exactly what I needed them to do for these particular songs…and resonate for him and for me as the product of our ideas. I’m really, really bad at giving up any kind of musical control. And he was hugely graceful and patient and full of so many ideas. He was a joy to work with. He didn’t always give in. He would interpret my criticisms in his particular way. We’d get into arguments about certain choices, and he would sometimes win, and in every case that he won the argument I had always been glad that he did. Like, I didn’t want electric guitar or bass on this record and he had Lee Sklar and…
Yeah, I’m looking at some of these names and it’s like the LA session posse. It’s your Steely Dan record.
Hee hee hee hee. My Yacht Rock record! They’re all such incredibly sensitive players and they gave us a lot to work with. When I sat down with Jim O’Rourke (to mix the record), we cut a lot of that stuff out, as they had expected we would. Their goal was to give us raw material to use where we needed it. In the sections we used those instruments, it contributed so much to the record. The arrangements are so complicated sometimes, that I think the record really benefited from the grounding force of bass and guitar substantiating the chord changes. In a weird way it made it sound like a folk record, because it backed up the idea of chord changes.
If someone hadn’t heard the record, how would you describe the story?
It’s hugely autobiographical but, then, it’s a fictional narrative. It was an effort on my part to organize and score and make some sense of and articulate my reaction to a year of my life that was a very hard year. I mean, obviously, there are overt enough references to mortality on the record, it’s clear that’s a huge thing. There was a lot of death that was rough for me, but also other kinds of death. And some really, really good things that happened, too. And all those things in the process of poeticizing them. Ahhh, in the process of organizing them lyrically and musically, these things started to spookily assert this kind of synchronicity and a real shape. Almost like there was a causal relationship between all these things that happened. Each thing that happened created the environment in which the next thing happened. In my mind there was five steps to the story. One thing that was really important to me, and I really made sure this was the case, every lyrical line means something really, really specific to me. There’s no arbitrariness. No saying something because it sounds good. Every single line is an effort to be completely truthful and to say something in a certain way. At the same time, it’s not hugely important to me that anyone else “get” the story.
Well, “hydrocephalitic listlessness” has a different meaning to every person.
But it’s also an image. It’s supposed to be immediately accessible. It’s supposed to mean having a head that’s full of an excess of water. That’s a flower. It’s also an image of decadence and excessiveness and fertility and fecundity and laziness and all these things that have direct parallels to the story, the actual story, but also have a certain value as images.
Do you feel you absorb a lot of things and it just comes out? People are always analyzing Bob Dylan and finding things. Are you inspired by something else, or do you try to write without worrying about other existing ways of writing?
Probably the most honest answer to that is that I obsess over structure but I don’t think about it in the context of anyone else’s work, especially with this project. I don’t even know what to compare it to. The only thing I was influenced by on some level, in storytelling I guess, was <I>The Sound and the Fury<$>, by Faulkner. Only in that there’s one story that book aspires to tell, and the different angles from which the story is told are so incredibly different, and each character except for the final passage, the first three sections involve people doggedly running in circles around particular obsessions. There are psychological hiccups they can’t free themselves from, but the loops and the circles sort of take on this particular shape, and all of these characters together, their different obsessive running – the shape that those things form in relief is sort of the story, you know?