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 (May 2004), with photography by Melanie Pullen.
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.
Arthur: You’re living in San Francisco, which seems to be a hotbed of talent at the moment. What is it about the city that is attractive to you?
Joanna Newsom: I think that things that require closer listening in order to get have an audience here: things that have more layers to them and maybe aren’t quite as bold on the outside. I visited New York last year and, granted I wasn’t there long enough to get any sort of a realistic view of what the music scene is like, but my first impression was that in order to get noticed there for what you’re doing musically, it seems like the work has to be sort of…heavy-handed, I guess. Music that’s done in big broad strokes. Subtlety or strangeness or delicacy have, for the most part, not seemed to be qualities that attract a lot of people’s ears in other cities.
Arthur: You grew up in Nevada City, California, a small Gold Rush town.
Joanna Newsom: It’s a really, really strange town. Basically every building there has been there since the Gold Rush. There’s still stages around that had a lot of Gold Rush-era performers come through, people like Lola Montez and Lala Crabtree and Mark Twain. There’s miles of boarded-up mines and tunnels. And in downtown Nevada City, there’s a network of tunnels that had to do with a system of brothels that existed during the Gold Rush. I worked in a coffeehouse downtown, which was located right above this hive of little tunnels, and it was definitely haunted. Pretty much everyone who worked there would see the ghosts of Gold Rush whores. I’m convinced I saw one.
Arthur: What kind of people live there now?
Joanna Newsom: It’s a really weird combination of extremely rural farm-type folks and older retirees, but there’s also a lot of art people and hippies and composers and artists and poets. There’s seven hills ringing the town, dotting around the edges of Nevada City. That’s where a lot of the people live… Gary Snyder lives there. Terry Riley the composer lives there. Utah Philips lives there. I grew up neighbors with the singer of Supertramp, Roger Hodgson, who has a big pool shaped like an electric guitar next to my house.
Arthur: So, were you living in the woods, then, or…?
Joanna Newsom: We were surrounded by trees. From the back porch in the house that I grew up in, all you see is mountains, graduating in height, getting more and more purple as you go further back, until you see the Sierra Butes and the snowcaps. That was my view. We had your average Northern California forest wildlife: deer, birds… I saw a mountain lion a few times. And there is the river–all you do in the summertime if you’re a kid growing up in Nevada City is go to the river every single day, and it’s beautiful and it’s clear and there’s swimming holes. I loved it as a kid. I know a lot of kids got bored. But I had a good situation–I really liked my family a lot. If you didn’t get along with your family, I imagine it wouldn’t be a good place to be AT ALL. Because there would be very little way to carve out your own space and have a network of people who supported you and had things to do to distract you from it. I had a really wonderful experience but I don’t mean to paint it as this perfect utopia because it most certainly is not.
Arthur: How did you end up playing the harp?
Joanna Newsom: From about the time I was 5, I had been telling my parents I wanted to play the harp. They took me to the harp teacher in town, which does exist, an amazing harp teacher in Nevada City, and she said that she didn’t want to take a student so young and that she thought that I should probably take piano lessons first, so I took them for a number of years. When I finally started taking the harp lessons, I think I was around 10. From the very first day I took lessons I was in love with it. I think it was the first and perhaps only thing I’ve ever done where it was just a perfect fit. Nobody had to tell me to do it because it just resonated with me so much.
Arthur: Harps are expensive instruments. Did you have one in the family?
Joanna Newsom: My parents rented one for me, and then when I was a little older they bought me a Celtic harp, which is a little different from the one that I play now. It has levers that change keys instead of pedals. It has fewer strings and it’s much less expensive. Later, maybe in my freshman year of high school, I became really sure that I needed to be playing a pedal harp. I’d started writing my own music and I wanted to have the flexibility of changing keys and have the sort of range of expression that a pedal harp allows you that a Celtic harp doesn’t. A Celtic harp has a really pure, beautiful sweet sound–it’s lovely, but it’s sort of limited to that, in terms of timbre, whereas the pedal harp can be really percussive, it can be loud, it can be soft: it has the ability to express a lot more. So, my parents helped me buy a very used one, which is now very much used…. A new pedal harp, nowadays, is about 30 to 40 thousand dollars, and that is so far beyond what I can afford. It’s really unfortunate because at this point I would love to really get a beautiful new harp.
Arthur: Having long fingers is helpful if you are a guitarist. Are there any physical attributes that are helpful to have when you play harp?
Joanna Newsom: [laughs] Well, I always got compliments on my fat finger pads, because the fleshiness of the tip of your fingers makes a big difference in tone. With most other tonal things, you can just learn: you can learn the right position for your hand, and the right amount of pressure to put on the strings, and the right sort of attack, and the way, what you do with you hands right after you play a note, all these different things surrounding plucking a note that make it as good a sound as possible. But if you have a really bony fingertip, it’ll make a harsh sound. And you can’t have any fingernail AT ALL, or else it’ll make a really metallic harsh sound.
Arthur: You were writing your own music as a teenager, as opposed to spending all of your time learning a formal repertoire.
Joanna Newsom: I had a really exceptional teacher as my first harp teacher. She introduced me to improvising, which I think is something that not a lot of harpists learn, in the way that a lot of guitarists might. When I was really young, she introduced me to the idea of playing a fixed pattern with my left hand and improvising with my right hand: sort of rudimentary stuff like that. Somehow, I really loved improvising more than anything else. As I got a little older, it turned into me loving to write music. So I went to Mills, which has a really well known composition program, with the intention of being a composer. But it became obvious that I hadn’t really known what it meant to be a composer: all I knew was that I liked to write music. There is an emphasis on melody that I have that, as far as a formal discipline of composition, didn’t really have much in common with what was being focused on by everybody else there.
At a certain point, I just started singing. I had written songs for years but didn’t really sing them above a whisper. I don’t know whether this is connected, but I switched majors from composition to creative writing and I was doing a lot of writing. I have a really big interest in the sort of ideas that don’t have much weight placed on them in modern poetry programs, such as rhyming and the number of syllables per line and strange embedded rhyme patterns, as well as rhymes at the end of the lines. Silly stuff like that. I certainly didn’t make it the focus of my writing, but… Anytime that something was supposed to be a poem it ended up really resembling lyrics to a song. I don’t think that’s what made me write songs—it just sort of was a parallel. At one point I was started singing, and I don’t really know why.
Arthur: You seem to take a lot of care with your lyrics.
Joanna Newsom: Nabakov is a huge influence to me. Because he was such a perfectionist, and because he had such a strong relationship with the senses, it’s almost as though he overcompensated for English being his second language by having every single word that he wrote be so carefully thought out, and its relation to all the words around it, and the rhythm of every line, and the kind of alchemy that happens when the different words bump up against each other. There is this heightened tension and heightened impact because it wasn’t familiar to him. It was like he placed a lens on his own writing. It isn’t entirely natural, but at the same time it’s like the purest type of writing, to my mind. Whether or not it’s reflected in my own writing, his sort of relationship to words is very influential to me. [laughs] And I love Faulkner! Sound and the Fury is one of my most often read and studied books.
Arthur: You cover an Appalachian traditional song, “Three Little Babies.” Do you have many of those old mountain songs in your repertoire?
Joanna Newsom: No, I don’t. I listen to plenty of them but that one’s really significant to me. When I heard it sung by a singer named Texas Gladden at an American Music class at Mills, it somehow…allowed me to sing. I realized that her voice was conventionally not beautiful and yet it was SO worthy of being listened to, and so affecting. Before that, I knew that I wanted to make music and I knew that I had things to sing about, and I knew that I could employ my voice, to whatever degree it was polished, in my songs and do something with it that I wanted to do with it. But something about hearing her sing was a comfort. Most of the people around me were saying it was really ugly, but for me, it was sort of like time stopped. I felt like I was gonna cry in the middle of class. I was so bowled over by her voice.
Although that song is deeply connected to all the Appalachian tradition, and to the body of work of all the other recorded Appalachian artists, for me it wasn’t just that she was from where she was, and that she sang in the tradition that she sang within, it was that she was HER. HER voice, in and of itself, is magical. HER interpretation of the music is magical. And rare. And has never been replicated by anybody else.
Arthur: You’re also an admirer of Ruth Crawford Seeger, who I’m not familiar with…
Joanna Newsom: She was a really amazing composer, who in her 20s, was part of the loosely organized movement of composers spearheaded by Charles Ives and Carl Sprague Ruggles and Henry Cowell. They were all trying to formalize a specifically American sound–it involved a lot of experimentation that had never done before. She played around with a lot of exquisite dissonances: it’s really brave, confident work, and she got a lot of critical praise. Of course, a lot of it was tinged with that underlying misogyny of the era–“Miss Crawford’s work is so virile you can hardly tell she’s a woman”—that sort of thing. But it really was incredible work, and has stood the test of time.
It’s also a small body of work because, basically, she met Charles Seeger and married him, and had difficulty reconciling being a composer and also being a wife and mother. He had some kids already when they married, and they had kids together as well. She helped him to author a book on dissonant counterpoint. Most of this histories say that she was dictated to, that she basically wrote down all of his ideas, but now historians acknowledge that she probably had a lot to do with actually coming up with this methodology.
Their children grew up to be Peggy Seeger, Mike Seeger, Pete Seeger: all the famous folk revivalists in the ‘60s. I think her last compositions were around the ‘40s. Then she just slipped fully into mama mode. The interesting thing about her is that once she was doing that, she began to work with the Lomaxes. She scored and did all the arrangements for all their pieces, including a book of children’s folk songs. You can recognize her watermark on the pieces. They’re supposed to be these extremely true representations of American folk songs, and they ARE, and it’s wonderful that they did that, but they’re also totally her pieces: there are slots where she’ll just slip in these really strange dissonances. It represents this really unique and rare intersection of art music and folk music. And an equal reverence, on her part, for preserving history and moving forward.
Arthur: I can see why she would be inspiring to you…
Joanna Newsom: I know I’m doing something completely different, but her life is sort of a distillation of all the things that are important to me, except for the fact that she gave up our life’s work because she didn’t believe she could be a composer and also be a mother at the same time. Even then, it’s interesting to me that their children grew up very much focused on the work that she was pursuing, rather than the work that their father was pursuing, which continued to be formal ‘new music.’ So, she definitely had an effect on everyone around her. It was like she gave up one thing, but her involvement with folk music was NOT half-hearted. She was very passionate about it.
Arthur: When I first heard your recordings, I assumed there was some overdubbing. But when I saw you perform, I realized that you’re actually playing all the notes at once!
Joanna Newsom: Some of those songs I recorded the vocals and harp separately. But it’s very much not overdubbed. I work so hard on the harp pieces. They’re hard to play. I’m so untrained as a singer and the singing is so much more intuitive, whatever comes out comes out, but the harp, I’ll work on arranging and practicing those parts for months and months. I’m not super-prolific. I’ll often have one little figure that I’ll play with for like a year, some little harp thing that doesn’t have a home yet and then all of a sudden the right lyrics will come along and they’ll just meet and they’ll work out.
I saw a painting the other day of this gypsy lady that had a skirt covered in pockets everywhere and there were little things in all her pockets. Sometimes I feel like that: I have little objects and every once in a while I take them out of my pockets, lay them all in a row and I like the way they look next to each other, so that’s a song! [laughs] But I’ve had them in my pockets for such a long time.
I write songs with the intention of covering as much ground on the harp as possible: playing the high range, the middle range, and the low range. Just cuz that doesn’t get done very often in music. I try to make them as interesting as possible to listen to, because the harp is such an incredible instrument. I feel like a lot of people don’t understand what it’s capable of because it’s been so ill-used in a lot of popular music. You hear modern symphonic pieces or classical symphonic pieces and they all just use this horrible, gratuitous glissandi all over the places. To most people, that’s what the sound of the harp is. But I believe it’s capable of amazing, percussive, shimmering, interesting contrapuntal magic, and I work so much to come close to doing what I think it’s capable of doing. I don’t know if I’ve gotten there yet. Someday.