Key Albums: The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), Ys (2006), Have One On Me (2010)
Joanna Newsom is a singer-songwriter whose uniqueness is defined by her voice (untrained, screechy, amazing), her lyrics (densely poetic, filled with "strange syntactic parallelism, zeugmas, and alliteration"), her instrument of choice (the pedal harp), and her manner of composition (long songs owing more to modern classical than pop-song). Newsom's astonishing 2006 LP Ys rates as the best album of the 2000s, and she followed it up with the jawdropping triple album, Have One On Me, in 2010.
Born into a musical family, Newsom began learning piano, by ear, at four years of age. Having "the intention of creating music, and the aspiration of doing something with it, from the very earliest lesson onward," she began devotedly playing the harp at nine. Attending summer folk-music camps at Lark in the Meadow, a "hippy gathering" amidst the redwoods of Mendocino, Newsom discovered bluegrass, Andean folk, and the polyrhythms of Senegalese Kora music. Newsom started writing her own instrumental compositions as a teenager, settled on dreams of being a classical harpist, and enrolled in a modern composition course at Mills College in San Francisco.
Such careerism came unstuck; Newsom, having been taught by ear, struggling to sight-read when sitting in with orchestras and to transcribe her songs. At Mills, Newsom found her folk-influenced pieces at odds with the prevailing "pitchless static noise made by people on computers." Dismayed, she dropped out, and returned to Nevada City to work in a coffee shop (this time is chronicled in "'En Gallop'").
Newsom returned to Mills in 2002, but she decided to stop composing, and switched her major to creative-writing. This only served to spark her creativity. "Doing so much writing," Newsom would recount, "it was just a natural thing for me to integrate that into my music, and to start singing for the first time in my whole life."
Newsom's untrained —or, as she calls it, "untrainable"— voice was, in the beginning, an idiosyncratic squawk. "I’ve never, ever been a singer, obviously," she'd confess. But, after hearing Appalachian folksinger Texas Gladden, Newsom "felt liberated by hearing her voice" (and inspired to record "Three Little Babes" in tribute to Gladden). Playing her music in empty rehearsal rooms at Mills in the middle of the night to "stay sane," Newsom only chose to capture these works "so [she] wouldn't forget them." Working with then-boyfriend Noah Georgeson, she record the tracks that would populate her self-released EPs, 2002's Walnut Whales and 2003's Yarn and Glue, and lay the groundwork for her debut album, 2004's The Milk-Eyed Mender.
In 2003, Will Oldham heard Newsom's CDRs, invited her on tour for her first-ever live performances, and lead her to signing with legendary label Drag City, who released The Milk-Eyed Mender early in '04.
Newsom thought her first LP revealed "a very personal, embarrassingly intimate part of [herself]," which was perhaps part of its charm. The record was hailed by many for its lack of irony and guile; for its anachronistic language and defiantly odd, uncool ways. Newsom's voice —a screech that occasionally bordered on banshee wail— proved a sticking point for some listeners, but it could hardly dent such an astonishing display of musicianship and lyricism, which walked a fine line between poignancy and humor.
Newsom's friend Devendra Banhart selected her song "Bridges and Balloons" for his scene-starting Golden Apples of the Sun compilation and took her on tour with him in the summer of 2004 (as chronicled by Kevin Barker's documentary The Family Jams). This lead Newsom to being associated with the freak-folk uprising.
In truth, Newsom's art was beyond such audio recidivism, something proved by her stunning second album, Ys. An opulent song cycle swept up in the grandeur of Van Dyke Parks' orchestrations, the recorded traded in feelings of death and longing, dealing in childhood imagery of the kind of dense, epic poetry last seen in the 16th century. Only five songs yet 56 minutes long, the "long and constantly changing" compositions were more in keeping with her aesthetic. "I think when I was writing the first album, I felt there were these rules about how long songs could be, and how much I could ask of the listener," Newsom explained.
"I had to reframe my writing style [for Ys)," Newsom explained to The Wire, "based on the fact that it was going to be contained within this longer form. The pacing of the ideas, the rate at which the ideas develop and unfold, it was all going to be different, because the songs were going to be long, from the first line I wrote."
Despite the "less-accessible" nature of the album, it gathered a growing audience as Newsom played with a band (as documented on the 2007 EP Joanna Newswom and The Ys Street Band) and orchestras around the world. Newsom's budding romance with comedian Andy Samberg took her further into the public eye, as did modeling for Armani and starring in the video-clip for MGMT's hit "Kids."
In early-2009, Newsom developed vocal-cord nodes and couldn't talk for weeks, nor sing for months. Once she could use her throat again, she had to recondition her voice; smoothing away the rough edges that once made her so screechy. Her 'new' voice would be the driving force behind an album that would officially crown her as the most singular, astonishing artist of the 21st century.
In February 2010, Joanna Newsom unveiled her third album, a monumental triple-album set called Have One On Me. 18 songs and 124 minutes long, the LP found Newsom moving more confidently and comfortably into 'singer-songwriter' territories; her compositions no longer mad tangles of syllables and obtusely arcane lingua, but incredibly sad lovesongs.
"The mood that they project seems to feel a little more open, and a little more simple," Newsom admmitted, to Triple J. "There's less density of lyrics, and there's less rapid-fire syllabic form. There's maybe more directness, and it feels more physical to me."