Joanna Newsom


I have been far too dismissive in my life, ruling out artists, writers, whatever, based on preconceptions or early knee-jerk reactions. As one gets older, these sorts of instincts seem to solidify and self-justify. Going into something you might assume is not your thing will, more often than not, leave yet another bad impression and strengthens your resolve to avoid more of “those sorts of things.”

The trouble is, however, that one runs the risk of missing out on things of almost incomprehensible beauty, such as this and other songs by Joanna Newsom.

Though I am as guilty as most in the closing of the mind, I can’t say that my initial reaction to Joanna’s music was to close myself off from it and recoil. See, for me, one of the good things about living in this era is that it is easier to just get exposed to the actual art, music especially, without reading about it first. In pre-Internet days, I tended not to base my decisions on whether or not to go out and explore new artists based on music press; that is not the most effective way to convey what an artist is like. Nevertheless, I would often find myself reading that this to that band was like this other one. Oh? Well I don’t like what I have heard of them, so the other ones who this writer says sounds like them must also not be my thing.

If someone had described Joanna to me before hearing it, I can’t say I would have heeded the George Michael dictum, “Listen Without Prejudice.” The adjectives most used to describe her are, “elfin,” “fairy,” “child-like,” “freak folk,” and so on. She pays the harp. Apparently, she grew up in a neo-hippy, new age, rural ex-mining mountain enclave alongside friends and collaborators like Devendra Banhart. Some would say her voice is often like that of Bjork. Sometimes it can seem like Tori Amos. OK? See why one might run away as fast as possible?

You would do so at the risk of missing out on something deeply rewarding. She’s not for everyone, but don’t automatically assume she’s not for you. Lucky for me, I clicked on something and heard her first, before knowing anything about her, a couple of years ago. I was drawn in pretty quickly. I had sort of put her music on the back burner, but it hs moved back to the front recently. There was a nice piece on her in the Times this past week. Then I clicked on this and watched the whole thing repeatedly. The harp playing is jaw-dropping, the voice is magnetic. But most of all, the poetry leaves me breathless. You simply will not find anyone who sounds just like her. Having listened, I can’t imagine her music not existing. It seems necessary. It feels at once magically inspired and stolen from the ether, and crafted artfully. It makes me believe in God and it makes me want to work harder. I think she has tapped the same mystic vein as Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, and Ricki Lee Jones.

You can find the lyrics online. I hate all those pop-up-y ad-riddled lyric sites. But I must quote at least one section that hits me on a primal level and makes me wish that I had written it:

And they will recognize
All the lines of your face
In the face of the daughter, of the daughter, of my daughter.

4 thoughts on “Joanna Newsom”

  1. i don't know how she can play like that… and for such long stretches too… it puts me in a trance just watching her… my jaw starts to drop and i start to forget to breathe.

    i watched this video of her playing the other day after listening to her new triple album… it left such an impact that i dreamt of her…

    in the dream she was playing at the old grog shop in cleveland with what as far as i remember was half japanese as the back-up band (since it was a dream they actually knew how to play)… some drunk guy stepped up upto the stage and started heckling her about the harp like he was at a brian jonestown gig… he reached forward to grab her harp and she took her fingers the same way she plays and quickly snapped his arms like twigs in three or four places… the guy just shouted something to the tune of, "damn you made me spill my beer" and stumbled backwards into me knocking me to the floor and out of the dream…

    …she's superhuman.

  2. But…Jane Siberry has a beautiful voice. Joanna Newsom's voice is… grating. I'm sorry, I just can't get into her and think she's very overrated.

    And it's funny…I have the exact opposite experience when it comes to discovering artists these days vs. pre-internet. In the '90s I knew practically nothing about the artists I fell in love with. Heard their songs on the radio (or a quality TV show like My So-Called Life ;)), loved 'em, bought their albums, maybe came across a handful of articles/interviews in music mags after I was already interested in the music. (I've learned lots more about those '90s artists *now*, thanks to the internet, than I knew back then).

    Btw, interesting blog, Bill, and I'm happy to say, after "getting to know you" better, I still like you! Not always the case in this too-much-information-age.

    Meanwhile, discovering somebody new today, because it's on the 'net, instead of on the radio, I'm much more likely to read press blurbs/blog comments/online reviews that give me preconceptions before/at the same time as I hear their music. There are so many WORDS on the web and I can't ignore them (even when I want to) …my eyes skim across them and I read things and absorb info before I realize it. And of course, sometimes I intend to read these things because there's so much music out there, and so little time, I need some information to help me decide what seems worth checking out.

    I like (early) Tori and Bjork. But I don't like Joanna. Maybe she's not similar enough to these other artists I like… or maybe she's too similar/derivative. Don't know – but her voice puts me off so much, I don't care to listen to her stuff again and study it. (To be fair, I found Tori's voice and weird enunciations on her last album, very off-putting and grating as well… She didn't always sound like that. I wonder if she's been listening to Joanna Newsom!)


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to Top