There’s Something about Joanna (Newsom)

There is something enchanting about Joanna Newsom. 

Since her debut six years ago, the 28-year-old harp virtuoso has been an unlikely indie sensation, adored widely by critics and profiled by everyone from Pitchfork to the The New York Times. Newsom’s singular vocal style (a wild, sharp soprano that sometimes borders on shrill) and complex, sprawling arrangements walk a delicate line between traditional classical compositions, Appalachian folk songs and Celtic harp music that defies any meaningful comparison. Her last two albums are better suited to the symphony than the bar scene, and the singer’s literary writing style recently inspired a book of academic analysis entitled Visions of Joanna Newsom.

Clearly, she is an intriguing figure. And while that has earned Newsom a dedicated, almost obsessive fan-base, it’s also led to some intense media scrutiny. Much of it has portrayed the singer as otherworldly, a delicate elfin princess or fairy. But for her part, Newsom is down to earth, courteous and friendly, thoughtful and articulate in her responses and, well, pretty normal. She admits “the elf thing” used to get under her skin, but sees it as an inevitable part of celebrity.

“Every person I know who makes music has that headline, has the thing that is said of them that feels somehow oddly derogatory without necessarily coming from a place of negativity,” she says calmly.

It’s obvious that Newsom has developed a sense of humor about the whole thing, too.

“I was trying to use it to my advantage a few months ago,” she admits with a chuckle. “I was trying to launch a pretty heavy campaign to get the people making The Hobbit to let me audition. I just wanted to see if they would let me be an elf. I feel like if I’m going to have to deal with this f—king elf thing forever, I should at least be able to enjoy myself by getting to live in Middle Earth for a while.”

Luckily, she won’t be leaving our realm anytime soon. Newsom is currently on the road promoting Have One on Me (an ambitious three-disc set which includes, among other themes, an homage to her hometown of Nevada City, California) with dates already booked through next year.

Stylistically, her latest effort falls somewhere between the sparse, harp-driven polyrhythms of 2004’s Milk Eyed Mender and the dense orchestration of Newsom’s far-reaching sophomore effort, Yss. Have One on Me is arguably her most accessible to date, with familiar hints of folk interspersed with bouncy chamber arrangements and the occasional touch of the blues.

Newsom wrote most of the record on piano, an instrument which she admits is not her forte, in hopes of concentrating on melody and chord structure rather than any “athletics or embellishments” of instrumentation. Ironically, she says the project — which clocks in at over two hours — was initially “born out of a desire to make something simple.” But the songs kept coming, and eventually it became clear that they had taken on a life of their own.

“I couldn’t really identify the dividing aesthetic principle that would make the songs more than one album, more than one story arc,” she remembers. “To me, they felt so connected to each other and bound to each other.

“So, after looking at it long enough, I realized, first of all, that the structure was sort of three-part. I was working so hard to break the songs into two halves and it just didn’t work. Then at some point, when I stated to think of it in terms of a grouping of three, it just made sense. It felt like beginning, middle, end, or morning, noon, night. Sort of the three acts of a play. Somehow the story fit along that structure for me.”

With the track list and format squared away, Newsom and her band retreated to a cabin in Northern California for a week of rehearsals designed to “break in” the songs before recording. Although she was reluctant to perform the new material publicly before the album release, there is no substitute, Newsom says, for playing a song over and over until it “starts feeling more like an organism that’s interconnected and reacting to itself in different regions.”

The week-long excursion, which she jokingly refers to as “the company retreat,” was a success in that sense, but there was one hitch. Newsom lost her voice and was unable to speak or sing for several months, delaying the recording and forcing the singer to take better care of her other, embodied instrument.

“It backfired a lot,” she laughs, “because there was a woodstove that didn’t ventilate right, and the whole place was full of really thick smoke, and I was drinking lots of whiskey and not warming up. Prior to experiencing vocal troubles last year, I had never been a person who warmed up. But I sort of learned to start doing so because I really f—ked up my voice that time.”

Newsom emerged better than ever though, with a modified vocal technique that is noticeably gentler and less abrasive than on her previous recordings.

She rolls into Asheville on Friday, but don’t expect to see the singer strolling around town before the show.

“I’m usually fast asleep on the bus until it’s time to sound check,” she admits somewhat timidly. “The aspect of tour and of travel that is really gung ho is something I haven’t quite conquered yet. I have sleep trouble, and being on tour gives me even more sleep trouble. So I’m usually up really, really late and then I sleep really, really late. I don’t see a lot of the world.”

— Dane Smith can be reached at dsmith@mountainx.com.

who: Joanna Newsom, with Ryan Francesconi
what: Friday, Nov. 19 (9 p.m. $24/$26. theorangepeel.net)
where: The Orange Peel

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