Have one on her
Indie-folk goddess – and harpist – Joanna Newsom tells Sinéad Gleesonabout staying up late, losing her voice and the three-CD, two-hour, 17-track story that needed to be told
AT ALMOST THE precise moment I call Joanna Newsom, there is a meteor shower happening overhead in the Dublin sky. It’s dark where I am and sunny where she is and, when she answers, we invariably have a conversation about time differences, astronomy and night-time.
Like many musicians, Newsom is a night owl, often working towards dawn in the hope of tapping a creative vein. “Sometimes I try to justify staying up so late, but I think there’s a peak of creative fertility, which then degrades as the night goes on and your work gets less focused. So to some extent my natural cycle is connected to creative work at night but then it goes off the edge into unfocused, manic, late-night opera.”
Opera is an apt choice of word, as it’s one that has appeared in the reams of column inches afforded to her last album. Released earlier this year, Have One On Meis a three-CD, two-hour opus of 17 songs. The title track runs to 11 minutes and, given the scale and breadth of the stories, for some, opera is a fair comparison.
“I don’t know much about opera, much to my mothers horror – and I don’t really understand the form, so it’s a big gap in my understanding of music.”
Ys, Newsom’s 2005 album, contained five tracks, so why the leap in size? “I felt that if the album wasn’t the size it is, several songs would not be usable in another form. They were too innately bound to all the other songs to separate them.
“This might sound very pretentious, but I thought that, if I took them out, people would feel the gaps where the songs had once been. To make any album you have to let it tell its story the way it wants to be told. In this case, there was a wider story arc than the normal shape of an album.”
Language is central to Newsom’s music – something to be experimented with. Much of her work has drawn comparisons to epic poems, not least because she can recite work at length. The track Have One On Mealludes to 19th-century Sligo-born dancer Lola Montez, and narrative is something she obsesses over. It’s also been the subject of critique, in Visions of Joanna Newsom, an academic book – featuring an essay by author Dave Eggers – published earlier this year. Despite the album length, Newsom feels Have One On Meis her “most direct” record.
“Making this, the language that gave me joy was different to the kind of language I’d worked with before. It carries over into the books I was reading at the time too – a lot of Walker Percy, Hemingway, William Faulkner’s later books . . . where the language was more direct. It certainly didn’t feel like the normal process – whatever normal is – of making an album.
“My two previous records are so different on their own, and from each other, that there is something maybe novelistic about this album – in organising it and the way it was constructed. It’s not overtly a story, but there is a similar story arc to the novel. The division of the three albums felt like three parts of a book. Someone described it to me as a three-act play.”
This intersection of art – theatre, music, books, the visual – has been Newsom’s experience since childhood. Growing up in California, she never imagined music would be a career. Her interests were broad, but she admits that she wasn’t completely focused.
“I always knew that music would be in my life, and there was a long time where I thought I was going to be a composer – in the classical sense. I went to school intending to follow that path, but there were other times in my life – say, all of my high school years – where I was also taking dance classes, theatre classes and was in a creative writing club. I wasn’t totally focused. I loved music but I wasn’t sure it would end up being something I would do, full time.”
For most kids with a musical bent there is the obligatory music tuition. Newsom started piano lessons at the age of four, but was drawn to the harp, badgering her parents to allow her to learn to play. They relented when she was five, and her lifelong connection to it began.
Irish connotations aside, there is something old-fashioned about the harp, and it must a logistical nightmare on tour. “When I started lessons, I didn’t have any sense of its cultural history. To me it just had this innate magic, and I was always drawn to the most baroque things. I used to put together these outfits where I had scarves tied everywhere. Then and now, I’m drawn to a chaotic visual aesthetic and the harp corresponded to that in my mind. There’s something about the instrument that is excessively beautiful. It’s an incredibly impractical instrument, and I really liked that about it.”
Newsom’s love of music was fostered and encouraged by her parents; her father played the guitar and her mother is a classically trained pianist. Her brother Pete is also a musician, and her sister Emily, an astrophysicist, collaborated on her album Ys on a song named after her. “She and I have been singing together for years. We would sing in the bathroom brushing our teeth before bedtime and she has an amazing voice, but is shy about singing.
“Musically speaking, she was the most gifted of the three of us kids. She’s also a really good cellist, so I’m still hoping to convince her to do a tour with me some day. My mom is still musical and my dad plays guitar as more of a hobby, but my mom plays a lot of instruments.”
At this point, Newsom interrupts herself. “You know what? Every time I talk about my family in an interview, I regret it later. You read it back and you feel as if you’re being mythologised in a way that doesn’t reflect nicely.” I suggest we move on and she laughs, relieved and grateful. She laughs a lot and is polite and considered in her answers – a far cry from the difficult interviewee I was warned she might be.
At the centre of this massive record is, of course, that voice – the one critics tie themselves up in knots to describe. Kate Bush, banshee, psyche folk, Appalachian, choral, classical: Newsom has heard them all.
“The different words don’t bother me, and I sympathise in a way because, when someone asks me to describe how I sing, I can’t.” Last year she had experienced every singer’s nightmare, developing nodules on her vocal chords. She “had a feeling” the nodes were there, and after some intensive rehearsals in a poorly ventilated room (and lashings of whiskey), her voice was gone. She couldn’t sing – or cry. She was terrified.
“Surgery is an option, and is generally successful, but if anything goes wrong you can lose your voice forever. Once you’ve had vocal chord nodes, it’s like a fault line; you have an increased likelihood that it’ll happen again but I’m trying to do things to prevent.”
Since then, Newsom has changed a lot of things about the way she sings. She warms up extensively, doesn’t drink before a show and won’t play venues where smoking is allowed. In Dublin next week, she plays with her full band, which differs from the last sold-out shows she played here, where it was just her and her harp. “I’ll have my band with me – including Ryan Francesconi, who did all the arrangements on the album. He’ll be playing kaval, guitar, recorder and banjo, Neil Morgan is on drums and I’ll have two violinists and a trombonist.”
At her last gig here, looking slightly like Annie Lennox in the video for There Must Be an Angel, Newsom told a joke (“How many hippies does it take to screw in a light bulb? Hippies don’t screw in light bulbs; they screw in dirty sleeping bags”), and the crowd loved it.
People have perceptions of her as doe-eyed and innocent, and I ask if the provocative photos on the album were an attempt to counter that. “The narrator on this record feels like a grown woman on earth. We wanted to project a feeling of decadence with those photos, because this album felt that way; it was hedonistic.”
Have One On Me