by Alexander Laurence
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
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).
SEE HER LIVE VIDEO FROM BIRMINGHAM IN 2004 HERE
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
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
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
AL: They exposed you to a lot of avant garde music at an
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.
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
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
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.