"Forty-Six Strings and Some Truths": a conversation with JOANNA NEWSOM (2004)

Forty-Six Strings and Some Truths
Harp-playing folksinger JOANNA NEWSOM talks history, theory and inspiration with Jay Babcock

Originally published in Arthur No. 10 (April 2004) (available from Arthur Store)

The Lyon & Healy pedal harp is not a regular presence in rock clubs. It’s expensive, it’s big, it’s complicated. It has 46 strings, which cannot be re-tuned between songs during a performance. It’s difficult to master—basic competence requires years of training and practice. Outside of Bjork’s last album and recent tours, it’s an instrument almost without history in pop music.

So, when the 22-year-old Joanna Newsom appears onstage, alone, playing this exotic device, attention is inevitably paid, not just cuz you never see it done, but because, as Joanna says, the harp is usually associated by contemporary listeners with a single cheesy sound: the glissandi, a simple, artless running of the fingers across a broad span of strings, used as a decorative cue in sitcoms, films and commercials. Which means the simple act of witnessing a harp really being played—of runs of notes plucked with one hand while the other plays a fixed pattern—is gonna be novel. It’s as if your only experience of the electric guitar was the sound of a single power chord, and then suddenly you witnessed the playing of whole riffs, whole rhythms, whole melodic lines, whole songs…

Songs. It’s Joanna Newsom’s songs, it’s her lyrics, it’s her singular voice—accurately described by Currituck Co.’s Kevin Barker as “eight and eighty, dawn and dusk”—that makes the gawkers stick around, after the initial curiosity of seeing a harp played by a pixie from a California Gold Rush town wears off. Cuz what Joanna is doing is neither experimental, avant garde stuff, nor the pretentious bloat generally associated with the use of classical instruments on the rock stage. It’s instead firmly rooted in the folk tradition: verse-chorus songs with careful attention paid to lyrics and vocal performance. When Joanna sings “This is an old song, these are old blues/This is not my tune, but it’s mine to use,” she’s stating fact and ambition. She’s making a claim. It’s one that she’s earned the right to make.

With support and advocacy over the last couple of years from friends and admirers like Will Oldham, Devendra Banhart and Cat Power, she began to record her music and perform live. After making two home-recorded CD-R EPs, she released her full-length debut on Drag City this spring with the stunning The Milk-Eyed Mender, and will be touring with Banhart in the early summer.

Two weeks after seeing her wow drunk hipsters in a Seattle rock club, and after tagging along on the photo shoot for this piece, I interviewed Joanna for an hour by mobile phone. I was struck once again by her essential singularity—it extends even into her conversation, which is learned, humble, passionate and articulate. Here is some of what we talked about.

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Arthur Radio Transmission #2: The Retro-Future Episode

Psychic happenings appear to be abundant on Arthur Radio…this week we focused our psychic energies on a matter that is very pressing for all of us: the future. Friends Emilie Friedlander (Visitation Rites) and McGregor (Chocolate Bobka) joined Ivy Meadows and Hairy Painter to discuss Chocolate Bobka’s forthcoming music publication The Report (which will include contributions from Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance, among and many other musician-writers). After a space-time bending hour of churchy-psych strangeness, we gathered together to play some retro-futuristic songs, dance very slowly, and attempt to visualize other realities that could have come about in 2010 if things had gone a little differently in the 80s and 90s…

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Download: Arthur Radio 1-24-2010

A Tuesday trawl round the internet

From Arthur’s Twitter feed today:

“Dungeons & Dragons Prison Ban Upheld”
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/27/us/27dungeons.html

New Joanna Newsom song from forthcoming triple-album via Drag City of Chicago
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Download: Joanna Newsom —’81 (mp3)

LA City Council votes to put 80% of cannabis dispensaries out of bizness
http://bit.ly/aBIKTt

First ish of JOE THE BARBARIAN, new comic book miniseries writ by Arthur No. 12 cover star GRANT MORRISON, is now out. $1 at your local comix hut.

Via machineproject: “how come nobody told us you could make emergency glasses out of a leaf?”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5on1id-0m4Y

Via ecstaticpeace: “MV & EE “Barn Nova” OUT ON REAL VINYL WAX NOW”:
http://alturl.com/qsei

“Tune in to Erik Bluhm’s “West Coast Fog” this Tuesday [tonite] from 7-9 PM PST
Expect Canyon people fort music, Millbrae mysto-rock, and East Side proto-garage! Only the best mid-to-late 60s Kalifornia kounterculture and teen-time vibes! Pretty much mostly vinyl originals! Romancers! Kim Fowley! Vejtables! Plebs! Kensington Forest! Love-Ins!”
http://www.luxuriamusic.com/lux_listen.html
All West Coast Fog shows are now archived as podcasts at
http://www.luxuriamusic.com/station/podcasts
Weekly Fog playlists posted at
http://greatgodpan.com/

Song Circle for Haiti Benefit Tonight!

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Los Angeles! Just added to the Largo Lovin’ Haiti series Arthur 26 cover star Becky Stark performs along with Jenny Lewis, Azure Ray, Johnathan Rice, Jason Boesel and Morgan Nagler…snap up your spot they’re going fast!

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Show starts at 8pm to benefit Habitat for Humanity and Save the Children > GO