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Joanna Newsom Interview
by Alexander Laurence

Early this year, musician Joanna Newsom, opened some shows for Devendra Banhart. Word soon spread that she was a musician to check out. The 21-year-old harpist grew up in Nevada City, California. She had been in bands before and had been writing songs, but never before had she played her songs in public in front of a large audience. The first shows were such a success that Joanna was invited to play with Bonnie Prince Billy and Cat Power. Joanna was also invited to play in this year's Noise Pop Festival and recent Mission Creek Music Festival. Her unique music has made an impression on many. Her league of fans grew so fast that Joanna self-released an EP of music, Walnut Whales (2002). This EP introduced the classic songs "Peach, Plum, Pear" and "The Fray."

Joanna Newsom now lives in San Francisco. She attended college in the Bay Area. Some of the records she grew up listening to include Texas Gladden, Ruth Crawford Seeger, The Lomax Brothers, Donovan, Karen Dalton, Patti Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Kill Rock Stars is releasing an album called "The Nervous Cop," with Joanna playing harp, alongside drummers Greg Saunier (from Deerhoof) and Zach Hill (from Hella). Joanna also plays keyboards in the San Francisco band, The Pleased. She played four shows in the Bay Area in May 2003. Hopefully she will tour the rest of the west coast soon. Also she has released a second EP called Yarn and Glue (2003). Both of these can be obtained from her website. I spoke to her briefly in San Francisco, right before the Mission Creek Music Festival (www.mcmf.org).



AL: Since you've done shows with Cat Power and Bonnie Prince Billy, has there been more people showing up to your performances?

Joanna: Yeah. It's weird. It feels like more than it actually is because the Bay Area is such a bubble. People in San Francisco and the East Bay have shown interest, done interviews, and have come to shows. I guess that the news travels fast out of this island that we are on. When I did the tour this spring with Bonnie Prince Billy (Will Oldham) nobody knew who I was at the shows.

AL: Do you download music a lot?

Joanna: I would if I knew how. At this point, I don't mind if people download my music because that means that there's a person who wants to listen. I give away CDs at shows if someone wants a CD but doesn't have any money. I wouldn't want to do that forever. I would happy for someone to download my music.

AL: Have you been playing music for a while?

Joanna: Yeah. I played piano for about two years when I was a kid. I didn't play long enough to be really great. I started playing harp about fourteen years ago. My parents are musicians. My mom was aiming for a while to be a concert pianist, but she became a doctor instead. So she still plays piano, and conga drums, and hammer dulcimer. She plays all sorts of stuff. My Dad plays guitar. My sister plays cello. My brother plays drums.

AL: Have you ever thought of having a family band?

Joanna: If I have a label funding a record, I am going to have my family flown to one spot. We are going to do at least one song. They can all sing better than me. They have great pitch. Especially my sister: she has an amazing voice. I am going to get all their various talents on my CD.

AL: What does your family think of your music so far?

Joanna: They actually like it which was very surprising to me. Especially with my mom, I thought that she would not like it because she has very classical sensibilities. She loves non-classical music too. But I thought that she would think that the vocals that I was singing were not good. She was very excited about it. Everyone was pretty excited actually.

AL: They exposed you to a lot of avant garde music at an early age?

Joanna: Yeah. Definitely. The community that I grew up in was very musically rich. Terry Riley was our neighbor. There were a lot of composers living in Nevada City. There is a composer's guild there. Howard Hersh, Terry Riley, and Jay Sydeman and a bunch of new composers all live there. I love Terry Riley. I love a lot of his piano stuff especially. I heard some stuff at my school. He didn't teach there but he had a strong relationship with my school. He used to give concerts there. I heard some old recordings he did with Paulina Oliveros on Accordion. There was another women on cello. They are very amazing improvised pieces.

AL: When did you start performing and writing songs?

Joanna: I have been in The Pleased for a while. I have writing songs on my own for about six years. I have a recording that I did of instrumental songs. I went to school to become a composer. I changed my mind there. I wanted to write songs which I think is a different thing. I wanted to write music that is informed by folk music. The chord progressions are obvious references. I am not doing something that it is experimental music in relation to classical music. I have a deep rooted folk sensibility that I can't get away from completely. I wasn't interested in writing music that wasn't beautiful for me to listen to.

AL: How did you find good records at such an early age? Most people are corrupted by pop music at some point.

Joanna: I lived in a strange town. Certainly there were a lot of kids at my high school who listened to top 40 radio. My parents had an amazing record collection. I have a big brother. Many people have big brothers who would bring in really good records and new music from a mysterious source. I did spend a year in high school being obsessed with Fleetwood Mac. That was pop music.

AL: What has been the reaction been to the early shows? People must be intimated seeing you bring out this big harp?

Joanna: I can't play my songs on the smaller harp. I have a Celtic harp. I can't do the key changes. I hadn't even considered the possibility of a negative reaction to the instrument. I understand people not liking my songs. After a few shows people were coming up to me, and saying "Wow, I saw a harp and I felt weird" and "Oh great, she is going to playing the harp: how boring." I can't really conceive of that. I can understand someone not liking the voice or the songs.

AL: People have this conception of the harp. It's usually one instrument in the background.

Joanna: First of all, the harp has this bad reputation. It's been used for easy schmaltzy crap. Much of the stuff that I do has been influenced by studying African harp, from Senegal to Mali. It's much more compressive and not always pretty. It's rattling, strange, small and complicated, rather than these huge muddy gestures. The harp is capable of much more expressiveness. It doesn't have to be this sloppy, over the top, dramatic instrument. It can be really delicate and yet abrasive at the right time. I am producing sounds that people are not used to hearing from the harp.

AL: Many people may be familiar with that girl who was kidnapped, Elizabeth Smart. They showed a lot of footage of her playing the harp. Did you see her technique?

Joanna: No, I didn't. I was pulling for her though. There are not many harpists. Maybe she will cut a record now? It will be good.

AL: The harp has a bunch of World Music connotations.

Joanna: Yeah. I don't want to do that. I like American music. I like Appalachian Music and old Blues. I like all the stuff the Lomax Brothers did. I love that music. I am inspired to try to do something that I consider working in those perimeters somehow. I want to make music that somehow connects to the things that I love in America music. I am consciously not trying to bring in World Music elements. The ways that I work and feel are completely different in how they sound than someone playing the Kora in Africa would play it. The rhythm is the same, but the notes that I am playing are really traditional chord patterns and melodies. They are being refracted and broken up in these completely new rhythmic patterns. That's what I am trying to do. I am not sure if that comes across. I am consciously trying not to make it sound Celtic or African.

AL: When did you record these two EPs?

Joanna: "Yarn and Glue" I did a few weeks ago in April. I recorded "Walnut Whales" about a year ago. I am not on a record. I do everything myself. I would like to be on a record label, because it is very expensive to tour with a harp. It's a huge deterrent for me to go cross country. When I get asked to tour with someone, and it seems worthwhile to go with that person, I don't know if I will eat at all if I go. Any vehicle that is big enough to carry a harp is one that burns up a lot of gasoline. I don't own a car either. I have to rent one every time I play a show.

AL: All the songs are recorded as live takes?

Joanna: They are. It's not like I recorded harp first or singing first. I recorded it all together. Part of the reason is that I don't know how to play the songs without also singing. I forget how they progress. I don't think that any of them are verse, chorus, verse, and so on. They are not simple. They have weird progressions. I lose track where I am if I am not singing. I am interested in having other instruments involved at some point. I definitely don't subscribe to the theory that more instruments, or more vocal tracks, harmony, or double tracking the voice, is a good thing. People do their early albums very stripped down, then each album becomes bloated.

AL: What is your inspiration for lyrics?

Joanna: For years I have always written. I am always trying to write. Lyrics are very different. There is a clear line between that and a poem. Something that has been a source of great excitement and delight for me is this idea that I get to rhyme. That is a big "no no" for a lot of writing. In high school, we studied a lot of poetical forms. I was really interested in the math that was involved and the strange live break ups. That gave me a great amount of respect for a rhymed stanza. The way that words fit together is always interesting to me. I love words.

AL: There is a quality of fairy tales in "Yarn and Glue." Were you more inspired by stories with that one?

Joanna: What is was written to was this idea of the feelings that I would have when I was very little and I was listening to these things. They are very old feelings that little kids have when they hear these stories. They get quiet and really big eyed. I think they have a feeling of having this incredible world that's just out of reach. I am trying to access it. I am trying to speak to it.

AL: Folk and classical music are sometimes really serious. Do you think that there's room for silliness?

Joanna: Yeah. It's there. You just have to look for it. The French Impressionist composers wrote so many silly strange pieces for their children. Those are some of my favorite pieces. If you are too serious, you are in danger of having everything taken at face value, instead of being allowed to have layers to it.

AL: What are your sets like now?

Joanna: "Yarn and Glue" is newer stuff and I am more excited about playing it. The songs are not as dynamic as the ones on "Walnut Whales." I tend to go back and forth between them. I have a set list. I start off with an a cappella version of the song "Yarn and Glue." It's not recorded that way. I wish that I did. In the live show it's me singing and clapping. It's very hard to do. I feel that if I can get through that song, I am good through the rest of the show. People do get quiet when I do the first song. Whether I am uncomfortable or they are. It's like they shudder and wait for a squirrel to get hit by a car. They think "What is she doing?" People are often afraid for me. They think that I am going to break. I can make it through a set.

AL: You are also a member of the group The Pleased?

Joanna: Yeah. I play keyboards. It's totally different. I usually don't tell people about the Pleased if they know me from the harp. And if they are there to see the Pleased, I usually don't tell them about the harp. I am nervous that these people will expect something similar. It's a big surprise. We have been to England twice in the past year. We have more success and more of a following there. But we are trying to expand.

AL: The Noise Pop guide spoke about the Pleased this way: "Television-inspired.... comparisons to the Strokes...." What do you think of that?

Joanna: When Noah Georgeson sings in a certain register, it has been said so much he sounds like the dude in the Strokes. We have been writing songs where he sings either higher or lower than that, because the voice takes on different qualities depending on the different ways you sing. We are doing things to fend off comparisons. It's valid that the Strokes and the Pleased have been influenced by some of the same bands. But it's invalid in the sense that we listen to the Strokes and try to sounds like them. I think that they are a good band.

AL: Do you have any advice for people who want to do music?

Joanna: You should listen to a lot of different music. I am not really sure if I am on the right track. We'll see. There are a lot of girls with guitars and instruments. You must really want to do it. It's more like getting rid of something. There has to be a need. It should be a need to expel or to exorcise something rather than the need to perform in front of people.

Website: http://www.walnutwhales.com



--Alexander Laurence



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