The twenty-third of this month marks the release of Joanna Newsom’s Divers, her first record since 2010’s Have One On Me. For Newsom fans– which hardly seems word enough to describe our ardor– this is a momentous, thrilling occasion, one sure to contain many moments of high-feeling, including wonder, sorrow, joy, incredulity, excitement, solace, and tender gratefulness, among other more complex intellectual and emotional reactions. There seems to be a general feeling among the most ardent of Newsom’s listeners that her music is a guide and a gift: a way to process the world and our lives through her intricately-crafted lyrics and compositions; the release of each new record, in turn, is an emotional and spiritual relief, a meeting place for our divergent experiences to speak with one another and coalesce into something more unified and finely wrought.
To mark the momentous occasion, I’ve conducted a two-part interview with five Newsom fans; I began with Beverly Floyd, who I “met” via Newsom-related tumblr world years ago and who pointed me towards a few others humans who might enjoy being interviewed for such an endeavor. The first part of the interview, shared today, invited the interviewees to discuss their relationship to Newsom’s music thus far; the second part, coming at the end of the month, will grapple with their initial experiences with Divers.
Beverly Floyd is an English lit. student (who hates literary analysis). She loves dogs, swimming in rivers and oceans, hot weather, basking in the sun like a lizard, and staying up and talking with her friends until dawn.
Rosa Hinksman is a 23-year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist living in Warwickshire, UK. She recently graduated from a Music degree at Lancaster University and has been a long time fan of Joanna Newsom since early 2007. In her spare time she performs music, attends local gigs, and paints.
Scott Horsington started the Joanna Newsom Transcription Project in January of 2007 during his senior year of college so that people would be able to play accurate versions of Joanna’s songs. He has bachelors and masters degrees in music and is currently a professor at a liberal arts college in Western New York, where he teaches a handful of music classes and conducts the college orchestra.
Melissa Marturano hails from Brooklyn, NY and is a feminist killjoy, doctoral candidate, and teacher. Joanna Newsom has had a dramatic influence on Melissa’s life and sanity—no other musician has made her feel so human and has made her cry so much on public transportation.
Priscilla Wright is a Montessori preschool teacher and a writer from Eugene, Oregon. Her personal essay “Season” was included in Visions of Joanna Newsom.
GA: When and how did you first encounter JN’s music? Was it love at first sight, or did you warm to her music over time? At what times in your life do you most re-visit her records?
Floyd: My first encounter with Joanna’s music was in late 2006, right around the time Ys came out. A friend recommended her to me, so I downloaded some songs of her songs via Kazaa, or some other sketchy PTP application. This ensured that I ended up with an interesting conglomeration of songs— I certainly didn’t end up with a full album. The first song of Joanna’s I ever listened to was “The Book of Right-On”. It’s hard to look back and try to decipher first impressions, when you’ve been listening to an artist for almost a decade, but I’m pretty sure that I just thought her music was really, really cool. It definitely didn’t sound quite like anything I’d ever heard before (and it still doesn’t— I have a really hard time lumping her sound in with the sound of anyone else). It’s always kind of interesting to me when people have a difficult time with her voice on The Milk-Eyed Mender and the early EPs, because I don’t recall thinking anything about it except that it was interesting and different and beautiful. It wasn’t until I played her for someone else and they commented on it that I became aware that she might be a difficult artist for some. All of this is to say, it was love at first sight. She resonated with me immediately, and once I heard “Sadie”… That was it, I guess. I was completely enamored.
I’ve listened to JN constantly for the past nine years, so it’s difficult to pinpoint certain times when I re-visit her records. Her music is a constant in my life. There are certainly a few songs that I listen to when I’m having a particularly hard time, because they have a very specific emotional resonance for me. But, overall, her music is for anytime for me: when I’m feeling sad, when I’m feeling overwhelmingly happy, when I’m feeling disheartened by the world and need a reminder that there is still a lot of beauty out there. There is a JN song for every occasion.
Hinksman: I discovered Joanna Newsom’s music in the months leading up to the release of the Ys Street Band EP. I had recently been listening to more and more different artists, trying to expand my horizons, and was also trying to learn a variety of instruments. After my Grandma suggested I learn to play the harp my dad mentioned that he’d seen a harpist and singer perform on Later… With Jools Holland a while back who had “a voice like Lisa Simpson”. He said that he didn’t think I would like her, but when I listened to her for the first time I instantly fell in love with her voice and found that there was a very familiar sound to her music. I was also very intrigued by the way that she played the harp, in a distinctly chordal way very different from the stereotypical arpeggios that I had usually heard in harp music before.
Horsington: I first heard “Peach, Plum, Pear” in October of 2005 during a photo adventure I took with a friend from high school. We were juniors in college by this time, and she asked if I’d ever heard of Joanna (ironically, my roommate at the time shared the same last name, so I assumed she was local). She played “Peach, Plum, Pear” for me and I wasn’t put off, but definitely unsure of how to process it. I made her play it about 10 times that day, and by the end of the day I was hooked. I didn’t buy The Milk-Eyed Mender until April of 2006, though, so I had to rely on what was available on MySpace at the time, and YouTube was still in its infancy. MEM was unlike anything I’d heard before. As for timelines, MEM comes and goes but is most often revisited in Spring. Ys is a winter album (I remember sitting on my floor at 4am hopped up on painkillers post-wisdom teeth extraction trying to figure out how to play “Sawdust & Diamonds”). Have One On Me comes and goes on its own, though.
Marturano: I first started to listen to Joanna Newsom in 2010 with my friend Angela. It was a project for us. We both knew we would love her and people kept on recommending her to us. I had seen her lyrics floating around the Internet (probably on tumblr) and they were breathtaking. I heard from several people that the best way to listen to her was to listen to her once or twice to get used to her sonically, without the help of lyrics, and then listen to her with the help of the lyrics. During this process, I learned that the catchiness, the musicality, the wonder of her vocal melodies really do depend on knowing the lyrics intimately. It was work to get into her initially because everything felt like a wall of sound, but I am so glad I invested the time. Everything eventually clicked and here I am. My beginning process with Joanna cannot be defined as “love at first sight,” but I was definitely intrigued instantly. I know for most people this question—about how they got into Joanna—revolves around her singing voice (the most polarizing aspect of her music), but I have always found her singing voice really emotionally intelligent, skilled, and moving, especially on Ys. My favorite lyrics from Joanna are now very much also about my attachment to their particular melody and how they are sung.
I have not been listening to Joanna as much as I did in the past. It is not a case of loving her music less: I just do not have the emotional, intellectual, and physical time to give her music the attention it needs lately for various personal and professional reasons. Whenever I do have that time, I immediately put her records on and listen to them with my best pair of headphones. When I listen to Joanna’s music it reminds me to take care of myself and to be human. When Divers comes out on the 23rd, I have to find some time off from my five jobs to just…listen.
Wright: I first heard of Joanna Newsom while reading an album review for Ys in a magazine. The description of her music intrigued me, and I specifically held off listening to any of her songs because I liked the feeling of having something beautiful out there waiting for me. A few weeks later, I mentioned Joanna Newsom to a friend, and she played me “Peach, Plum, Pear.” I was horrified; I hated her voice. Later, I looked up the lyrics and decided they were good enough to deserve another listen. After only a few listens, her voice turned from grating to interesting, and after a week or two, it turned from interesting to all I wanted to hear.
GA: What combination of qualities makes JN’s work so compelling for you? Which song (or up to three songs, if you really can’t choose one, which I’d understand) do you feel best embodies those qualities, and how does it do so?
Floyd: It’s a combination of her voice, her vocal melodies, her lyrics, and her instrumentation, though maybe I should focus on everything but the instrumentation (I don’t have the musical vocabulary to discuss that intelligibly). As far as her voice goes, I would hate to hear her songs sung by anyone but her. I’ve seen these terrible comments on Youtube videos that are like, “She’s a great songwriter, she should just have someone else sing for her,” and I always stare at them, totally aghast. Her voice is my favorite singing voice, ever, and I think it’s been beautiful in every single one of its incarnations. I also love the way she uses her voice. She doesn’t only use her voice to sing words, she uses it like an instrument—she uses it to make sounds, like those “cuckoos” in “In California.”
As far as her lyrics go, I could gush for so long, but I will refrain. She explores a lot of things that you expect people to explore in art— love, death, mortality, heartbreak, relationships of all kinds, the idea of home— but I feel like she does it in such a special way. She has a wonderfully expansive vocabulary, and a knack for putting words together in such interesting and jarring fashions. Nothing about her songwriting feels sloppy or unintentional. There are so many lines in her songs that can just stop me in my tracks— I’ve found myself suddenly grinning, or looking around in wonder, or bursting into tears while listening to her music more times than I can count. I have such an emotional reaction to the way she articulates things. Additionally, the way she crafts a song is nearly incomprehensible to me. She somehow manages to weave very grand, impersonal things— like nature imagery, folk stories, literary references, and historical references— together with things (characters, experiences, whatever) specific to her and create these huge, swelling pieces of writing where whatever personal experiences she is writing about are so blended in with fiction that you can’t tell one from another (and you shouldn’t try).
I’m going to restrict myself to one song, even though that feels impossible, and for now I’m choosing “Emily.” It’s just one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. It definitely contains that natural imagery that I mentioned above; it’s full of talk about trees, mountains, birds, light, far too many things to list. There’s a reference to Nabokov’s Lolita. She juxtaposes all these grandiose references, to astronomy and fading kingdoms and an excess of water (which recurs throughout Ys), with these tender little lines that seem so full of love to me. For example, one of my favorite lines is “The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined, and hold us close forever.” It’s relatively simple, but she packs so much into it. It reminds me of my relationship with my own sister, and the type of bond that seems almost exclusive to a sibling relationship. And then there’s that part towards the end, the one that I feel like everyone she loves, when she sings:
“We could stand for a century,
with our heads cocked,
in the broad daylight, at this thing:
landlocked in bodies that don’t keep —
dumbstruck with the sweetness of being,
till we don’t be.”
Wedged between all these elusive images and stories we have very little context for is this very relatable declaration, an acknowledgement of mortality alongside a declaration of the amazing and dumbfounding thing that is the joy of being alive. I just love it all so much. I’ve definitely read interviews where she says that if she could explain exactly what she wants to communicate in a song, she could just have a conversation instead of writing a song, and this song is definitely evidence of that. It’s such amazing art, to me, because there’s no one correct way to analyze this song, and there’s a lot about it that I would never claim to fully understand, but there are these little things that choke me up because I find them so relatable.
Hinksman: My favourite qualities about her music are the unusual chord progressions, intricate rhyming schemes (as seen in the song “Have One On Me” where there are often rhymes within lines as well as at the end of them) and also her use of repetition of melodies and words as a device. For example, a lot of her longer songs will have a climactic section where a single melodic line is repeated over and over again to build tension and I think she does it in a particularly clever way that doesn’t lose people’s attention.
Horsington: I studied music in college, so most of the time I was surrounded by classical/orchestral/etc. music, and was definitely one of those pretentious music students who thought all pop music was automatically bad. I had a friend who would feed me more unusual/alternative things periodically, which helped cultivate my musical tastes more, but Joanna’s music was unlike anything I’d heard before. I remember thinking that she could write songs about things that you wouldn’t think songs could be about – I don’t think I can explain it any better. There’s definitely this sense that a small world is being/has been created, and there is so much to hear when you actively listen. I’ve always admired her ability to say something simple that means so much more. My favorite has always been “En Gallop” for this very reason – you can be totally pulled into this other space/place and moved by what seems so simple. I wish I was more articulate about it.
Marturano: Listening to Joanna’s music is an intense intellectual and emotional experience for me. The fact that she can write songs that are, I think, the best pieces of music, poetry, philosophy, and emotionalism around today is why I love her songs. She really is on a different level from other artists and I get very frustrated when people won’t concede how ridiculously talented she is. I have literally gotten into fights about this, with bros particularly.
I can definitively say that “Only Skin” is my favorite piece of music and poetry ever written. I am always so sad to realize that because I got into Joanna so late in the game that I will probably never get to hear her perform it live. When I was at Pitchfork Music Festival in 2013, someone requested it for her last song and she said no, but then she played “Sawdust & Diamonds,” my second favorite song ever, so I was mollified a bit and cried next to my friend Rachel.
“Only Skin” routinely leaves me crying and in awe of how much music can make me feel and in awe that someone could ever write something so transcendent. Many Joanna songs make me feel like that, but this one does the most. My relationship with Joanna’s music is primarily one of awe and having an emotionally corporeal response to that awe through tears, goosebumps, shivers. It’s embarrassing when I listen to her music in public, in New York City, on the subway because I often cry. This was the first song where I said audibly: “Wow, Joanna Newsom is a genius.” I don’t understand how this is not every Joanna Newsom fan’s favorite song. Beverley and I have extensively discussed this. It is obviously her masterpiece as a storyteller and as a musician. It’s that once-in-a-lifetime type of achievement, and I am so grateful it exists and I can listen to it.
I think I unlocked “Only Skin” on an intellectual, narratological, and thematic level in 2011. I had been reading about the Freudian Thanatos/Eros drive, and understanding that theory really helped me understand what the song was “about.” But if I had to intellectually explain why “Only Skin” is my favorite, I would be here all night. BUT, what is so great about Joanna Newsom’s music is that one can have deep intellectual, aesthetic, and emotional reactions to it, all at once or separately. “Only Skin” has my favorite vocals melodies, vocal performance, and instrumentation from Joanna, and as a complete narrative, it is just is jaw-dropping and staggering in both its control and excess. It makes me weep because it is so impressive, so careful, so effusive, so beautiful, and so meaningful. The part from “Press on me…” until “…awkwardly molt along the shore” has to be my favorite five minutes of music in the world and it has become so important me because that was actually the first time I had cried to music in my life (I know I can’t stop talking about crying, but forgive me). The lyrics punch me in the gut in this section and I really feel that these five minutes are the most important thematic conflict area on Ys. The “though, we felt the waves…” part causes me to shiver, truly shiver. Overall, “Only Skin” may be my favorite Joanna Newsom song because it is the one that physically impacts my body the most.
Wright: Joanna Newsom’s lyrics are stunning — her writing mixed with the soaring harp, which sounds different than any other harp I’ve heard, and her attention-demanding voice are what make Joanna Newsom’s songs a constant in my life. I think that “Only Skin” embodies all the qualities that won me over. Her voice (and the harp) range from shrieking to trembling throughout. And there are so many different brilliant lyrical moments — from the bread roll milk bowl to the tongue-twisting awful atoll to the Bill Callahan-assisted lullaby at the end. “Only Skin” is lyrically perfect.
A second song that is perfect Newsom is “Colleen”, which is my favorite Joanna Newsom song. The chorus is a yelp — a yelp all tangled with harp. The lyrics tell a complete story that is both simple and distressingly complex. I love it when Newsom tackles womanhood, and “Colleen” is one of the best songs for that. “Colleen” is like an old folk tale that is achingly familiar, which is how I would describe a lot (but not all!) of Newsom’s songs.
GA: What are some of your expectations, hunches, or hopes for Divers? What are those expectations/hunches/hopes based on (i.e. previous movements between records, things JN has said in interviews, etc.)?
Floyd: Oh, I wish I’d answered this a week or so ago instead of now! I feel like I’ve heard a little bit more of the album than I wanted to. One of my expectations, based on what I’ve already heard, is to hear something that sounds different from anything else she’s ever recorded. That’s not a very grand declaration, though— there’s always been a bit of a leap between her albums. I wish I had a better musical vocabulary to use to answer this. It seems like she is really experimenting with sound, and she worked with a lot of different people on the arrangements, so it seems like Divers is going to be more varied than her other albums. I think we’re going to hear a lot of unexpected instrumentation; the studio version of “Leaving the City” sounded so different from the live performance she did at Pitchfork a few years ago— those drums and the use of what sounds like effects pedals were certainly not what I was expecting.
Lyrically, I have no idea what to expect. It’s difficult to judge an entire record based on a small batch of songs. But, so far, I’d say that these new songs seem highly intellectual, with a narrator that is a little difficult to pinpoint, and I think that’s great. A lot of the lyrics from Have One On Me seemed very direct, and while I loved that perceived directness, I think that led to some people then assuming it was appropriate to read into them as autobiography. Actually, fans will probably still do that, anyway, which is disappointing.
Lyrically, the songs seem just as dense, if not more so, than her other work. She’s always been great at weaving complex ideas together, and it seems like she’s continuing in that tradition. I’m really looking forward to seeing how she explores the idea of time on this record, as she’s mentioned that being a huge theme on Divers. I’m really interested in seeing how that plays out, as it was something I noticed and was captured by in both “Sapokanikan” and “Leaving the City.” I was actually talking with a friend earlier about time, and how terrifying it is when you look around and realize how quickly it seems to be passing— as I get older, the years definitely seem to pass by more quickly, and sometimes I stop and find myself horrified by time I’ve wasted not doing the things I want to be doing, not spending time with the people I want to be spending time with, etc. Time is always there, pressing down on us. It’s scary. I’m interested to see what Joanna’s own fixations are, and if I can tease them out.
Hinksman: The thing that I’m most hoping for in Divers is more of a variety of instruments- from what I’ve gathered it’s going to have a lot more piano on it than other albums, and as a pianist her piano-heavy tracks are often the most exciting ones to hear for me! I’m also looking forward to see how her voice has developed.
Horsington: While I liked Ys and HOOM and each album is special to me, MEM has always been my favorite, probably for the reasons above: the songs are short but they achieve a lot musically and lyrically in just a few minutes. From what I have heard, it sounds like Divers will somehow be an amalgamation of MEM and Ys: jam-packed brevity. HOOM seemed to approach this, or head in this direction, so I’m excited to see what we have. Plus, I love Nico Muhly, so I’m really excited for his arrangements.
Marturano: My reactions to “Sapokanikan” and “Leaving the City” were, to be honest, both negative—and almost irrationally so—at first. It had been so long since she released new music. I became too used to the sounds and aesthetics of the other records, that it was hard for me to adjust to her new sound. But after a few listens, I love them. “Leaving the City” was such a shocker, but I am into the medieval metal sound very much and can’t wait to see it live. I love what these songs reveal about where she is going sonically and philosophically overall. I really hope that the album has other songs that focus on the passage of time, the creation of history, and New York City like “Sapokanikan” does. That song has hit me hard personally. I am a life-long New Yorker. I am one of the rare people who actually grew up in Brooklyn. So many of my friends who are transplants are surprised to hear that when they find out. People are actually born in Brooklyn? Weird!!!
In New York, time, history, remembering, forgetting—it all happens so fast. Forgetting happens the quickest. New York right now is dealing with a crisis of gentrification. I use the word “crisis” intentionally. It’s really bad. What is lost from gentrification? How will we remember? Do we care to remember? We also must consider that New York is the belly of United States and global capitalism. There is no profit in remembering the history of ethnic neighborhoods, of traditional working class and of color areas. It’s better to obliterate those pieces of memory. I think about what I am forgetting of my own history with New York and my life in general. Memory and history are so ephemeral, but more importantly, they are created and repressed out of need for domination.
I study ancient Greek and Roman history and literature and I am constantly thinking about what is not there in the historical records, what has been hidden, suppressed, omitted purposely by these dead white men. We only have distorted narratives from the Greek and Roman past and we can only barely piece any narratives together from the past. Joanna mentioned this dilemma in her Uncut interview. What history is actually real? Can that reality ever be achieved? Who controls the narrative and why? I am also a historical tour guide in the Lower Manhattan and the Lower East Side and I find myself constantly saying to the people I am teaching: “This used to be here, but now it is not.” “Sapokanikan” is such an appropriate song for New York. What is left of the Lenape and why so little? Few people care to know that Greenwich Village was once called Sapokanikan and they have to look hard because of how discourse and knowledge are controlled. The white people who forcibly colonized the island of Manhattan wrote the history they wanted to create. New Yorkers in the twentieth century built sculptures everywhere representing themselves as living and working in harmony with the Lenape. False notions of harmony abound in New York even today. This song asks who controls the past, the present, and the future. How is New York undergoing a crisis of memory as gentrification, another manifestation of settler colonialism, ravages the city and displace its people? I think: will anybody “look and despair?”
The songs, so far, do not sound as concerned with issues of femininity and womanhood as on previous records. I run a tumblr blog (previously with my friend Rachel, as well) called All the Birds, which analyzes Joanna Newsom’s music and image from a feminist perspective. Rachel and I believe many of her songs are fundamentally about “being a woman.” I hope that I can still write about her music in this way. Analyzing from a feminist perspective has always given me anchor. I probably only understand a small percentage of Joanna Newsom’s corpus at a deep level since all of her songs are teeming with symbolic, thematic, and narratological resonances, which are still quite mysterious to me in their connections, even as a dedicated consumer of her music and poetry. And that is why I feel most comfortable analyzing her corpus through a feminist lens, an analytical framework in which I can claim some expertise. But we shall see. Even if not, this album seems like it is going to be killer thematically and philosophically.
Wright: I’ve already heard several of the songs off of Divers owing to live recordings, but the things Joanna Newsom has said in interviews leads me to believe receiving Divers as a whole will be a singular experience — Newsom has mentioned that it’s a concept album of sorts, and I love the idea of a set of songs that aren’t complete without each other. Each Newsom album feels so stunningly different, but Divers (so far) feels like it’s not too far from Have One On Me; at least it sounds closer to HOOM than HOOM does to Ys. Joanna Newsom is one of the only musicians that I’ve stuck with over the years; I trust in her completely to make something worth listening to, no matter what that sounds like.
GA: If you imagined your tastes in various arts as being divided into “families” rather than categories/genre, who else (musicians, artists, writers, etc) would be in the “family” that JN occupies? What are the qualities, themes, values, or aesthetics that all these artists have in common?
Floyd: First and foremost would be Bill Callahan, simply because he is another musician whose music makes me feel the same way Joanna’s does. He’s tied with her for my favorite musician of all time, and even though she might have a slight advantage, his songs give me chills the same way hers do. Lyrically, they aren’t at all similar, but they both have a surprising sense of humor and they both craft albums that feel like complete pieces of art. I would definitely categorize both of them as album artists, never singles artists. I think the best way to really appreciate them is to get to know their albums in their entirety. I think both of them are concerned with creating something that sounds beautiful.
I’m afraid that I’m so focused on what I’m studying in school right now that it’s clouding my thoughts, but right now I’m definitely noticing some similarities between JN and the Canadian writer Alice Munro— she writes these really beautiful short stories, and is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Her short story collections seem to have thematic focuses in the same way Joanna’s albums do, and, similarly, many of those themes are subtle and it takes a lot of work (re-reading the stories) to fully piece those themes together. Also, she writes about home a lot, something that Joanna has also done. A lot of her characters seem to be leaving their homes and searching for new ones, but struggle with their connection to their original homes.
Others, sans explanation: Marilynne Robinson, specifically her novel Housekeeping; Kanye West (someone’s going to come after me for this, I just know it), for his insistence on making his art however he wants to make it. I’m certain there are a lot more, but, of course, I’ve forgotten every piece of music I’ve ever listened to, every piece of art I’ve ever seen, and every book I’ve ever read.
Hinksman: Joanna fits into the category that I can’t assign a genre to, along with the likes of Sufjan Stevens. These are musicians that I consider to be in a league of their own, creating a sound that is completely unique to them and that aren’t striving to fit into a concise genre but instead just want to make something based solely on their own imagination. I also consider her to be one of the most inspirational and influential female musicians that I listen to, along with Fiona Apple, Vanessa Carlton, and Regina Spektor. All are near virtuosic at their respective instruments, all have very detailed lyrics at times and all have been inspirations in my own songwriting and performances.
Horsington: Family… I’ve thought about this a lot in the past already. I tend to be drawn to female singers with unique voices, so Bjork automatically comes to mind, though ironically I identify them with each other more for those little universes they create in songs. Plus they’ve worked together! Others are Antony Hegarty and CocoRosie – ironically they have both worked together, and Antony and Bjork have also worked together, so all these artists just happen to be connected anyway (which also reminds me that Antony and Nico Muhly also collaborated – small world indeed)! Oh, and Ryan Francesconi & Lili De La Mora – I usually forget that Joanna actually played on their one-off album, and that’s not why I chose it – again, it’s that feeling of being transported elsewhere.
Marturano: I am probably going to shoot myself in the foot for saying this in print, but I like Joanna Newsom for many of the same reasons I like Kate Bush. The reason why I might regret saying this is because I ABHOR when lazy music journalists say Joanna Newsom SOUNDS like Kate Bush when she absolutely does not. Just because Kate Bush used harp in “Army Dreamers” does not a sonic comparison or influence make. They are not even close sonically. I discuss this with Beverley nearly everyday. Beverley was in my bedroom a few weeks ago and she saw the posters I had of Joanna and Kate on my wall and she pointed at them and said “Look, the obviously twin musicians” and we both laughed because it’s ridiculous. Joanna Newsom, like many musicians, loves Kate Bush and has said so, but Joanna has this way of filtering her influences in such a way that you can’t even hear they’re influences anymore. She makes something which is completely new. And if we were to rank the most important influences on Joanna Newsom (something music journalists barely ever research, which demonstrates their myopia and laziness and misogyny), Kate Bush is not making the top of the list. But Kate Bush and Joanna Newsom are women who write difficult, demanding, good music…so music journalists think they must be the same! This proves to me how misogynistic music journalists are and how misogynistic the music industry still is. Music journalists do not listen to women and therefore talk nonsense about them, and there are unfortunately few women to act as accurate reference points. It’s maddening.
With that being said, hopefully I can be more nuanced about this overused comparison between them. I love Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush because of how similarly brave they are as artists and how dedicated they are to both their music and its lyrics. All their songs have a strong sense of theme and narrative and they are profoundly “weird.” They are committed to an idea and demand that their audiences listen despite the difficulty. Joanna Newsom is decidedly weirder and more demanding than Kate Bush, but this is something I value in both of them. I would say the same of Laura Marling, Bat for Lashes, Björk, Patrick Wolf, Sufjan Stevens. For Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush I also love how their music is insistently fictionalized. Their songs are stories, first and foremost. With Joanna Newsom, it doesn’t matter if this song was in part inspired by Andy Samberg (although some prurient fans think it matters more than anything), because it’s a fabulous piece of art. I love that kind of separation from both Newsom and Bush. People always want a “personal narrative” to frame the “artistic” one, even to overshadow the art.
Wright: I am tempted to name people Joanna Newsom has specifically named as influences. I do think there are similar qualities between say, Newsom and Nabokov and Newsom and Karen Dalton. But I don’t think I would lump them all in the same family. I don’t really think of Joanna Newsom as belonging to any musical family; I’ve never seen the similarities other people draw. As for writers, I believe that Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, or at least her novel Madeleine is Sleeping, has a lot in common with Ys, and Karen Russell also has a Newsom-esque aesthetic. I know that referring to Newsom’s fairy-tale-ish qualities is often combined with devaluing her work, but it is true that many of her lyrics contain scenes that would fit into a fairy tale — talking animals, made-up birds, and natural scenes. But those qualities are all layered and intricate; her songs are anything but simple. Her (often) bucolic lyrics also add a timelessness, and I find that placing intense familiar events (such as loss) in a setting that I don’t necessarily live my everyday life makes the emotional aspects easier to take. Bynum and Russell have both written in a similar way — they use somewhat fantastical or timeless settings and lyrical prose to capture something very complex and familiar.
GA: Which of JN’s records is currently closest to your heart, and why?
Floyd: This is also a difficult question, because all of her records are my favorite records of all time! I always oscillate between Ys and Have One On Me, but they’re so different that it’s hard to place one above the other. For a long time, I listened to Ys from start to finish every night before I went to sleep. I feel like The Milk-Eyed Mender always gets pushed to the side, but it’s a brilliant record, and it’s what made me fall in love with her. For this one, I’m going to have to answer none. I know a lot of people have a strong preference for one record, but I don’t. They’re all important to me in different ways.
Hinksman: Ys will always be the closest record to my heart, mainly because I prefer music that has a lot going on to simplistic instrumentation, and I find that every time I listen to Ys there is some small sound that I’ve not picked up on before, like a small motif in the flutes part or a lingering note on the French horn. I like the idea of this music being so much bigger than my own comprehension of it, like it has its own world. Furthermore the sound quality is by far the best of any of her albums, so her voice sounds crystal clear and I love that.
Horsington: Milk-Eyed Mender! It was my first exposure and I remember feeling like I’d never need to listen to any other music again – like it could sustain me for the rest of my life. It stayed in rotation for almost 4 years straight, and to do this it still brings me back to college. That sounds silly, maybe, but maybe it’s the same thing I’ve been saying – transport to another place. When that other place is a memory of your own life, it is somehow imbued with this extra quality – I don’t want to say magic, but certainly an intensity of experience or depth of perspective. Oh! The word is “timelessness.”
Marturano: Ys will always be my favorite record of hers. Joanna Newsom will probably never disappoint me musically, but even if she does, I don’t care because I have Ys. If people do not think this is the best album of the century so far, I don’t understand them. Before my relationship with this album, I thought I loved art and music and poetry, but I was wrong. This is love. This album is intellectually so satisfying and demanding, to go through all the symbols, the signifiers, the motifs, the themes…and even if I understand only bits and pieces of it, it is such an amazing honor to do so. “Sawdust and Diamonds” from 6:13 until the end and then “Only Skin” from 3:13 until 15:09 I think are devastatingly beautiful and complex and priceless and what is best about these minutes is how vulnerable and courageous they are, how they demand that we see the joys and tragedies of being alive and also always being so close to our mortality, the paradox of life and death. The polyrhythmic harp playing on Ys has an important thematic purpose, beyond being musically impressive. In “Sawdust & Diamonds” the bass notes in the polyrhythm remind me of a heartbeat. It reminds me we are alive, although we could drown in the waves like the city of Ys. We could succumb to the bell tolling death. This reminder of life extends to “Only Skin,” too. At the end of the song, where we encounter the possible death of the narrator and her lover, their heartbeats could stop. They could succumb to their death permanently. But then there is resurrection and thus, hope. The bones under their skin remain for now. That is what the line “scrape your knee, it is only skin” means to me. Opening yourself to your own mortality and the tragedy of death we all must experience, but deciding to live anyway. Death is always so near us, but we can choose to live despite the pain. That pain is important.
Wright: Ys, always Ys. From beginning to end, it is perfect. The way Joanna Newsom talked about Have One On Me endeared me to Ys even more. She talked about Ys being so precise, where every line was worked and reworked, while Have One On Me felt like coming home from church as a child and taking the stuffy clothes off and running around in your underwear. That statement made me realize that I like the stuffy-clothes music: the music the musician agonizes over until it is exact. It doesn’t feel stuffy to the listener; it feels triumphant.
GA: Do you have a favorite live performance of JN’s? If so, please post the link and tell me what makes it particularly moving/engaging for you.
Floyd: I have a long list of favorites, of course, but this performance of “Sadie” always comes to mind when I’m looking for a great live performance. It’s just one of the most beautiful and poignant performances I have ever seen. She seems to be playing the song a little bit fast, a little rushed, even, but it still sounds great. The quality of her voice is so perfect. I first discovered this recording in early 2008, because I didn’t have consistent access to a computer with high speed internet before then. I was living with some friends, and every morning, when a certain friend would go to school, I’d drag myself into his room (I didn’t have a computer) and watch this video on repeat while I got ready for class. I can watch it on repeat and never get bored.
I love watching all of her live performances, but I feel like they don’t always translate super well in recordings— they are still very beautiful, but they’re absolutely missing some unspeakable that you would get from being there in person. I don’t feel that here. This video seems like pure magic.
Hinksman: My favourite live performance is her performance of “Sawdust and Diamonds” at the First Unitarian Church Sanctuary in 2006. The performance really captures the song’s raw emotion, without straying too far from the record.
Horsington: I’ve always liked the Brazil performance of “Esme” back in 2007. The first performance of “Divers” with Philip Glass is a favorite, too, because it came out while I was teaching in Tanzania – and of course, listening to it takes me back there.
Marturano: My favorite performances are when we see Joanna on the verge of crying while performing (links below). I know that might sound cruel. But I think that the world needs more radical vulnerability, especially from women. Emotional vulnerability and openness from women is not weakness, it is strength, it is bravery. Think about how badass it is to open yourself up like that and almost cry in front of 1,000 strangers. It’s amazing. I am tired of a patriarchy, which tries to shame women for such bravery, tells us it is not bravery, which tells us we are always weak for its own power and profit. I do not care much for personal readings of Joanna’s songs (and she doesn’t either), but her explicit emotionalism during performances shows me how much of herself she has put into her music. It becomes manifest that she is capable of being moved to great depths when she writes her music just as she moves her fans to great emotional depths. I am not lying when I say that Joanna’s music has taught me how to feel in a different way. I am not scared of my emotions as much anymore. I retract what I said earlier: I actually don’t care if I cry in public, in New York City, on the subway when I listen to her songs. I am allowed to feel.
Wright: I absolutely love the pre-Ys snippets from Ys songs, in particular a portion of “Only Skin”. It’s on piano, and the lyrics are slightly different (in the album version, the cupboards are cold, with nothing to chew on, while in the early version the cupboards are “stocked full of provisions”). The sound is much darker as well, and it’s much more intense as a stand-alone song.