Above: an early draft for the cover of what was intended to be Arthur No. 26, originally scheduled for release in Spring 2007.
This issue was delayed til the fall amidst the publication’s ownership transition; by that point, some of the pieces scheduled for publication were no longer available, and Yoko Ono was no longer the cover subject. A real shame.
My biggest regret of all is we lost our massive salute to Sly and the Family Stone, which had been timed to coincide with the Spring 2007 re-release of the band’s entire catalog. The Seth Man had worked so hard, on an insane deadline, to cover it all with his customary sensitivity, scholarship and enthusiasm. Oh, the loss!
In any event, the Seth Man’s pieces appeared in some form later in the year on Julian Cope’s relentlessly inspirational Head Heritage website. Here they are:
Originally published in Arthur No. 24 (August, 2006)
How Comets on Fire and Howlin’ Rain singer-guitarist Ethan Miller got his cosmic Californian yawp
Text: Trinie Dalton
Photos: Eden Batki
Design: Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington
My adoration for Comets on Fire, Six Organs of Admittance, Howlin’ Rain and The Colossal Yes — all bands that either include or are tangentially related to cover boy Ethan Miller — stems from my love of music that reminds me of the Pot Growing Capital of America, Humboldt County. As a native Californian, any music that conjures up the Redwood forest—its clean, pine-scented air, abundance of ferns and fungi, and a high tree canopy providing year-round shelter from the elements—causes me to pause as I grind through traffic in Los Angeles and wonder: Why do I live in such a hellhole? (This doesn’t mean I’m moving up north to chain myself to a tree or that I bust out bootlegs from cheesy Phish wannabes, however.)
Ethan Miller’s music in his bands Comets on Fire and Howlin’ Rain does yeoman’s work by evoking his native Humboldt region. His guitar playing and vocals attest to a magical and ancient ability to conjure up place, recalling that golden hour in American rock history: San Francisco in the late ‘60s, the heyday of Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and the Grateful Dead, to name but a few. On the other hand, Miller is audibly influenced by Japanese freak-out messiahs like High Rise, Ghost, White Heaven, Acid Mothers Temple and Keiji Haino. Those inspirations supply the proverbial fireworks inside Miller’s balmy, casual Northern California sound. Consider it a Pacific Rim/Ring of Fire kind of thing.
Comets on Fire have built their sound upon the excitement and uncertainty of impending disaster. Their fourth studio album, Avatar (Sub Pop), sounds, at first, less chaotically punky than their previous records (2001’s Comets on Fire; 2002’s Field Recordings of the Sun; 2004’s Blue Cathedral), but close listening reveals its deeper strangeness. The new album has a more professional studio sound, yet Avatar also features powerful ballads whose lyrics has the power to hypnotize much like magic spells. In “Swallow’s Eye,” Miller sings: “Eye of the moon will turn the tides/Leaves of the orchard beckon the blight/Spite of our circle, ever on/Only a river can carry a song.”
While Comets’ awkward-but-beautiful tendency towards demolishing harmonic riffs and jams with screeching, scary guitar solos still reigns, Avatar has clearer piano, more bass, and, most notably, Miller singing sans effects. His earthy rasp is reminiscent of Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, and Ozzy. But when Comets played ArthurFest in 2005, Ethan was singing at maximum capacity, and it was impossible to understand one word he was saying through the distortion of the Echoplex. Now, the ability to understand Ethan Miller’s lyrics is a breakthrough, adding poetic and political significance to an already heavy experience.
Miller’s lyrics come through even clearer on Howlin’ Rain’s self-titled debut on Birdman Records. Howlin’ Rain is an Ethan-fronted revolving posse including old buddies Ian Gradek, Mike Jackson, Tim Daley and Sunburned Hand of the Man’s John Moloney. They have a real California-country feel, part Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, part original Charlatans, with the feel-good vibe of the Doobie Brothers. I sampled the Howlin’ Rain LP while crossing over mountainous Route 299, through Weaverville, deep in the Shasta-Trinity wilderness famous for its thriving Bigfoot population. With the trees rolling past, a river to stop at and dip into, and some beer and trail mix for nourishment, the tunes sounded pretty idyllic. Howlin’ Rain’s lyrics are another matter: doomsday vibes, as in “Calling Lightning With A Scythe,” set far off from pastoral troubadour musings: “We are only slaves/To our ghostly arms and legs/Got us dancing in our graves/And then lay around in the wreckage/Of this pitiful little world.” Bluesy murder ballads and songs about the apocalypse are further disturbed by Miller’s guitar solos that wreck the Neil Young-ian peace and harmony that the songs present on the surface.
Ethan grew up in Eureka, the Humboldt County seat, but now lives in Oakland. I had a fantasy of driving up to some remote redwood cabin to drink gin with him for the interview, but since he’s busy enjoying Bay Area city life with his wife and working a day job, we enjoyed a long, fun phone conversation. Ethan Miller’s lucidity, in his interview as well as in his music, reassures me that there are good things happening, in an age that can sometimes feel overwhelmed by corporate dread.
Country Life For the beatific country-soul musicians of Brightblack Morning Light, there’s no place like Nature By Daniel Chamberlin Photography by Eden Bakti
Originally published in Arthur No. 23 (2006)
When they weren’t slumming it with us youngsters at the all-ages hardcore shows, the older dudes at my Indiana high school would spend their weekend nights going “country cruisin’, reminiscin.” They’d all pitch in on a six-pack, score a dime-bag and then pile into somebody’s old car—preferably a late ’70s model sedan with stained plush upholstery and bench seating in front—and drive slowly down the deserted gravel roads and empty dirt tracks that criss-crossed the corn and soybean fields that spread for miles in every direction from the small town we called home. Though I never went on these sentimental rides—I was too young, pot-phobic and already knew that drunk driving was trouble—I was in love with their soundtrack: long-form blues from the Allman Brothers and heartbroken redneck ballads from Lynyrd Skynyrd.
These days, I score my drives back from walks in the San Gabriel Mountains north of my home in Los Angeles with the same music, maybe a bit more Neil Young and Fairport Convention in the mix. It sets the tone for the silent trekking to come and eases the re-entry into the urban landscape on the way back down. The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and Will Oldham’s Ease Down The Road are ideal albums to soundtrack trips to the deserts and mountains. I’ve added Brightblack Morning Light’s new album of organic wilderness soul to the list of music perfect for such peaceful expeditions.
The two core members of Brightblack are Rachel “Rabob” Hughes, 29, and Nathan “Nabob” Shineywater, 30. Their self-titled debut for Matador Records has the dense harmonic blur of My Bloody Valentine but the music is made with the kind of instruments you’d expect to find the world famous session musicians—the Swampers—of Muscle Shoals putting to good use behind Aretha Franklin or Mavis Staples. (The album actually features two of the Staples Singers along with a trombone player from Nashville, Andy McLeod of White Magic on bongos and Paz Lenchantin—the Argentinean-American multi-instrumentalist known for her work with A Perfect Circle, Silver Jews and Entrance—on guitar.) It’s perfect for coming down from the mountains, and custom made for coming down on Sunday morning. It has an almost gospel feel—since soul music is just gospel without as much god—that invites comparisons to the lonely space-age-blues of Spaceman 3 or Spiritualized. But where Jason Pierce put opiates on the altar formerly occupied by the Holy Trinity, Brightblack has placed a respect for nature, an amalgam of environmental convictions and Native American spiritual practices. Which is sort of obvious from song titles like “A River Could Be Loved” and “We Share Our Blanket With The Owl.”
Their live performance is as quiet and intimate—maybe even more so—than their album. The most recent incarnation of their touring band includes Oregonian Elias Reitz on congas and tablas and West Virginian Ben McConnell behind the kit, with their friend Mariee Sioux, who Nabob is careful to identify as a full-blooded Paiute, opening each show. They often bring sticks and other woodland artifacts onto the stage, erecting small lean-tos or tipi-like structures. All of it swirls and refracts in the rich, resinous sound of Rabob’s Fender Rhodes organ. The vocal harmonies are chorus of whispers, while the brushed percussion is more of a sparkle than a clatter. The instruments are so quiet that cash registers at the bar interrupt the spell. Nabob’s slide guitar work hangs in the dim lights of the stage, glowing and vibrating in the air. On his instrument, a wolf cub suckles at a woman’s breast.
Happy Mediums How nature droners Growing found their flow
Text by Peter Relic Photography by Eden Batki Layout by W.T. Nelson
originally published in Arthur No. 22 (May 2006)
If Plato had had the necessary resources back in the day, he would have definitely buffed out his philosopher’s cave with black lights and fog machines. The old Greek dude never got the chance, but in the new millennium, Growing have done it for him, figuratively speaking.
Growing is Joe DeNardo, 26, and Kevin Doria, 27, two gentlemen who met at Evergreen University in Olympia, Washington. DeNardo is originally from the suburbs of Chicago, while Doria grew up in Richard Nixon’s hometown of Yorba Linda, tucked deep inside Southern California’s Orange County. Together they play a slug-paced, ocean-deep drone music without drums or traditionally recognizable melodies that nonetheless projects a palpable pulse and a sense of pro-biotic harmony. Over three albums, and assorted tapes and EPs, Growing have united the foreboding heaviness of doom metal with the reassuring beauty of placid ambience in songs stretching up to 20 minutes in length. The unlikely arranged marriage actually works. Call it life metal, or nature drone.
“We chose the name Growing because it seemed all-encompassing,” Joe DeNardo says, on the cel phone from the duo’s live-in bunker in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “A lot of people didn’t like it at first because they thought it was a reference to marijuana or boners. Not so. It does seem to describe the process of living and dying without being heavy and ominous. Which is nice.”
For their newest album, The Color Wheel, Doria and DeNardo have expanded the Growing sound to encompass even more: now, discord and rhythm join the Edenic shimmerblasts and underlying thrum of their past work. If Growing is an entity, The Color Wheel is the sound of it in adolescence: the bucolic innocence of childhood mostly lost, replaced by awkwardness, dark intimations of mortality and, of course, new joys. Adolescence is beyond volition—it just happens, whether or not you want it to—and Growing’s growth seems to have happened in the same way: the band’s sound has unfolded in ways its makers didn’t contrive or foresee, yet nonetheless accept.
Speaking with DeNardo and Doria is not unlike listening to Growing: it ain’t gonna work if you’re in a hurry, and the less you pry for insight, the more revelations are likely to come. Then again, these guys are don’t confine the big slowdown to their guitarwork. They do everything slowly, including going though college (Doria: “Took me seven years and I’m not even a doctor!”).
“We’re not very conscious guys,” says DeNardo. “Like, we’re not very aware of ourselves. We just kind of…float. We don’t articulate ourselves all that well. We don’t talk to each other much about this stuff; we don’t line everything up like ‘Okay this is the idea: I’m thinking about the French Alps right now, I spent time in the caves, we can make some music like…’
“We don’t do that. It’s just all kind of melts and flows together.”
* * * * *
Growing was birthed in Olympia, Washington. For two years—or maybe three years, no one’s really sure—DeNardo and Doria lived in a house with Joe Preston, a legendary musician with arguably the heaviest resume in guitar history, one that includes work with early Earth, mid-‘90s Melvins, White1/2-era Sunn0))) and now, High On Fire (which features an ex-member of Sleep), as well as his own one-man noise-drone-riff unit, Thrones.
“For the most part it was really just mellow times,” says Kevin Doria. “We played video games, went to Taco Bell…just hung out for the most part. He never practiced, not once. Okay, I think he did once when no one was around, for like 15 minutes. I guess he just didn’t like the way it sounded in the basement.” DeNardo and Doria didn’t mind the basement sound.
“Before Growing, we had a little tape thing called 1,000 A.D.,” says Doria. “It started out as Joe [DeNardo] and me fucking around in the basement: a lot more riffage, no drums or anything, just guitars and bass, really long tedious parts that went on for hours. We were simultaneously doing this other band called Black Man White Man Dead Man which, when it started was more hardcore stuff: fast, loud. As time went on, it evolved into slower heavier jams. Finally we realized that having two bands comprised of the same members was really stupid, so whatever, let’s just have one band. The writing didn’t dramatically change as far as the songs were concerned, but everything did get slower. I’m not particularly good at playing fast, or playing parts even—that had something to do with us getting slower—but also, we just kind of got bored playing hardcore. We got older. It was natural.”
Alchemists are often characterized in modern times as bumbling would-be wizards at best, greedy charlatans at worst. They’re portrayed as fumbling hopelessly in cluttered laboratories, unenlightened madmen trying to turn lead into gold. The reality is more complex, of course.
Alchemists were up to plenty of things, many of them having to do with relating to the natural world—and understanding its processes of transformation and transmutation—in philosophical and spiritual dimensions that transcended traditional religious thinking, both Christian and pagan, and preceded modern scientific thought. The whole “lead into gold” thing was but the most lucrative of the alchemical —or hermetic—practices in the eyes of the monarchs and rulers. Alchemy’s material prima as Peter Lamborn Wilson writes in the recent collection Green Hermeticism: Alchemy and Ecology, “can be found ‘on any dung hill.’ Hermeticism changes shit into gold.” It’s an image memorably realized in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 film The Holy Mountain wherein the thief character takes a dump in a fancy bucket, and Jodorowsky, playing an alchemist, distills those fresh turds into a hefty chunk of golden bling.
Such fantastical processes are well known to dirt-worshipping gardening sage Tim Dundon, the beneficent caretaker of California’s most famous compost pile and the kindly warden of the tropical forest that has fruited from its rich humus. It’s here that Dundon, a scientist-poet in the truest hermetic sense, finds hope and salvation in the transformation of death into life—of rotting organic matter into nutrient-rich soil—that takes place daily in the fecund jungle he maintains on his one-acre yard.
The botanical odyssey of Dundon, the self-proclaimed “guru of doo-doo” and the man whose mammoth compost pile once covered a football-field-sized lot, begins in 1967 with a marijuana shortage. Like any good gardening story, it encompasses Hollywood producers, fires, suicide, PCP injection, a nude Quaker iconoclast, standoffs with city officials and a violent pet coyote.
1. quinoa, growing it and harvesting my first half of a handful from five plants.
2. amaranth, discovering it and eating it. smaller, shinier and crunchier than quinoa.
3. pigweed, relative to quinoa, identifying it in the cracks of the concrete in los angeles and other cities.
4. purslane, highest level of omega-3’s in a plant, grows wild in bad dirt.
5. ashland mines‘ mix c.d., he deejays at moustache mondays in los angeles.
6. edie fake’s zine “unisex”
7. dewayne slightweight’s beautiful large zine ” i want to know the habits of other girls”
9. yampah vapor steam caves, glenwood springs, colorado
10. morro de sao paolo island off of salvador, brazil. there are no cars allowed.
11. sichuan hot pot
12. timbaland, “timbaland presents shock value”
13. electrelane, “no shouts, no calls”
14. jeff burton’s “the other place”
Eden Batki is a great photographer, a sparkling human being and a regular contributor to Arthur. Her work has appeared on the covers of Arthur Nos. 22 (Growing), 23 (Brightblack Morning Light), 24 (Ethan Miller of Comets on Fire and Howlin Rain) and 25 (Joanna Newsom). Plus she photographed Yoko Ono for Arthur No. 26 and Tim Dundon for No. 27. Ridiculous!
SCREAM AT THE SKY Thurston Moore & Byron Coley talk with YOKO ONO
Photography by Eden Batki
Originally published in Arthur No. 26 (Sept. 02007)
Yoko Ono is a beauty. When we walk into the room for our interview she is stunning, vivacious, delightful and welcoming. We discover her handlers have deemed us worthy of only half an hour of access. Because our interests lie in focusing on specific, somewhat more arcane aspects of Yoko’s career, particularly those related to her access points into the avant garde of the 1950s and 60s, we are bummed about these time constraints. Yoko is an extremely significant figure in the flow of much that is radical and/or experimental in visual art and musical culture of the last half-century. Our century, the century where media, performance and multi-disciplinary expression was galvanized into wholly new alloy.
The avant garde and its attendant testing, prodding, trapping, releasing, liberating and wildly intriguing vocabulary is something that looms large in Yoko’s history. It was a driving force for her transformation as an artist, and is an exploratory philosophical stance she has embraced for well over 40 years. Her physical trajectory took her from Japan in the 1940s to America in the ’50s and ’60s. There was a momentary return to her homeland in the early ’60s, then back to America (specifically New York City). After that there’s her mid-’60s visit to London, where she meets John Lennon, and all that transpires henceforth—famous and infamous. Hers is a spectacular timeline through the counterculture of the late 20th century.
The celebrated flash notes of her life with Lennon have been obsessively documented and analyzed. Yoko’s own, autonomous history as an academic, musician, artist, filmmaker and a radical innovator in all of those fields has been perenially overshadowed in mainstream journals. It has only been within the last decade that serious consideration of Yoko’s work by above-ground culturistas has even been considered. But it remains a subject that most media-types approach with mincing trepidation and uncomfortable jokes.
When the fantastic Yes Yoko Ono exhibition (and its amazing catalogue, published by Harry N. Abrams) was realized at Japan Society in New York in 2000, art critic Michael Kimmelman reviewed it succinctly in the New York Times (October 27, 2000), detailing Yoko’s rich art lineage. He noted how Yoko established, alongside La Monte Young, the first real artist’s loft, where music and performance were united with the shock of art-as-action. This was where Yoko created works such as “Smoke Piece,” where the audience were asked to burn the art and the self-explanatory “Painting To Be Stepped On.”
Yoko’s loft is where the iconoclast George Maciunas—an amazing outsider force in his own right, who ran the AG Gallery uptown—first became entranced by Buddhist positivity with its smiling, gentle nature. This was an element he immediately grabbed and threw into the berserk counterculture soupcon he christened “Fluxus.” If there’s anything that prefigures punk rock, it’s Maciunas, Yoko and the Fluxus movement. And even more than punk, they’re the direct antecedents of No Wave, that hermetic period in New York City between 1977 and 1980, where actual rock music, regardless of sub-genre, was temporarily obliterated. Yoko spoke of how the Fluxus movement consisted mainly of a single small group of individuals, most of whom were somehow connected to the scene’s own creative process. This is basically the same script the No Wave scene followed in its day, in terms of being part of a small, consistent and almost-fully-participatory community. The biggest parallel is that both scenes, as marginalized as they were at their times, continue to be living underpinnings (or secret histories) of contemporary avant-garde activity.
Interestingly, Kimmelman blows his cover as one art critic who might fully grasp Yoko’s genius, by denouncing her musical activities. He proclaims her visual art, in retrospect, to be underappreciated. He posits her marriage to Lennon as a leap into celebrity, but one to which she absolutely brought an awareness of celebrity-as-performance. He even opines that her films are her greatest achievements (alongside her brilliant, pre-feminist performance masterwork, “Cut Piece”). But he negates these opinions by tossing out a dismisssive kneejerk comment about her music, one whose idiocy is not mitigated by its wide currency. “The music is unbearable,” he writes. “And let’s leave it at that.”
An art critic without the ability to assess musical art with the same aesthetic consciousness he applies to visual art is, to some degree, crippled. But Kimmelman’s myopia is not confined to the compartmentalized world of conventional art critics. There has been a general idea batted about that Yoko Ono’s art, particularly in its musical form, is not worth much or is some kind of cruel joke being played on the public. This idea is so foreign to our ears that it’s almost ungraspable.
Yoko’s music and her visuals have always been stunning, and not easily separable. Yoko Ono as musician, as composer, is inhabiting personae explicitly integral to her life and career as an artist. The ideas and sounds that run throughout her compositions are as filled with wonder and humor and ingenuity as her most engaging work in film, object art, et al. Indeed, her vocal concepts, inside the context of Beatles recordings—the highest profile pop music recordings in history—are astounding, not only for their organic thought-tongue individuality, but also for their ability to deliver genuinely avant-garde statements to a mainstream world.
The fact that this person is female, Japanese, an artist, and was married to John Lennon is something people are still trying to figure out. For many, it’s just a weird bit of proof that there’s a world out there (somewhere) far more fascinating than Main Street. But Yoko’s music is still regarded by the straight press and the bulk of its adherents as an anomaly, some sort of eccentric affectation. The truth is that Yoko studied and practiced traditional composition in the 1950s, while simultaneously exploring ideas of alternative notational theory. This places her right in the same class as such acknowledged transitional thinkers as John Cage, Henry Cowell and David Tudor. Yoko’s compositional work, perhaps especially the “instruction pieces,” and her sharp-edged performances, were profound by any measure. When you factor in her ethnicity and gender, it’s easy to believe her efforts were more functionally radical than those of any contemporaries. In the context of her partnership with John Lennon, we got to experience a premier avant garde artist’s attempt to unify her own process with a rock n’ roll dynamic. Which, alongside the art/music relationship of Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground and the influence these mutually beneficial connectives have had on the modern state of art/rock, is pretty goddamn great.
Anyway, the time constraints meant we were only able able to get a small taste of Yoko’s incredible history. But with Yoko a taste is way more than a mouthful.
How California harper JOANNA NEWSOM’s masterpiece album Ys grew from a time of personal turmoil, ambitious collaboration and eating hamburgers again.
BY ERIK DAVIS Photography by Eden Batki
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN ARTHUR MAGAZINE No. 25/Winter 02006
Last February in Los Angeles, Joanna Newsom took to the stage at the ArthurBall and performed, for the first time in their entirety, the five loonnggg songs that make up her new album Ys. Many folks present were already chest-deep in the cult of Joanna, a fandom that made 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender a leftfield indie hit and turned Newsom herself into the sort of music-maker who inspires obsessive devotion as well as pleasure. At the time I admired Mender, but was, as of yet, no acolyte. I dug a handful of songs, but like many listeners, I found Newsom’s eccentric voice sometimes grating. I also feared that the outsider waif thing was just an underground pose stitched together with lacy thrift-store duds and an iPod stuffed with rips of the Carter Family and Shirley Collins.
My bad. The performance I saw that night was preternatural: a young artist stretching beyond her art towards something even more essential, simultaneously in command of her craft and caught in the headlights of her own onrushing brilliance. The song cycle she played was to Mender what, I dunno, Astral Weeks is to Blowin’ Your Mind, or what Smile is to The Beach Boys Today! She sang of meteorites and bears and ringing bells, of her and him and you, and she played not for us, it seemed, nor for herself exactly, but for the very presences her music conjured. Her songs were not performed so much as drawn from herself like nets dredged from the sea, heavy with kelp and flotsam and minnows that flashed before darting back into the deep. When she occasionally stumbled and lost her way, the material itself would pick her up again and carry her forward.
None of us standing there in that rapt crowd had ever heard music like this before. Newsom’s wild Child ballads seemed loosed from some location heretofore unseen in the realms of popular song, a secret garden lodged between folk and art music, or an unnamed island lying somehow equidistant from Ireland, Senegal, and California’s redwood coast. The music fluttered and leapt, and though there were few obvious refrains, the patterns she played circled round some magnetic core of return, at once familiar and strange. Yes she was genius. But genius has become such a throwaway word, a thumbtack of muso claptrap that marks the person rather than the source that lies behind the person. And this music was all source. And yet, it was she and not the source we heard—this charming young harper with the arresting voice and the awkward stage patter and the lacy thrift-store duds.
Sorry to keep the tankards of Kool-Aid raised high, my friends, but Newsom’s album is also pretty dang nifty: the cult disc of the decade, like the aforementioned Astral Weeks or In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. She is supported on the album by Van Dyke Parks, the sometimes Brian Wilson collaborator who feathered four of Newsom’s five songs with vivid and sprightly arrangements. The orchestration adds another dimension to Newsom’s already evocative ramble through memory and desire, a journey that goes in turns intimate and cryptic, like the alchemical meanderings of a deep dream.
Faced with music as singular as Ys, it seems almost churlish to try to pin the butterfly down. (Or is that a moth?) That said, there is no denying that the spirit of prog has moved across the face of its waters. The album, after all, has an allegorical Renaissance portrait for a cover, features oboes and French horns, and draws its odd, difficult-to-pronounce title from the Celtic folklore of France. (It sounds like ees, as in “Oui, Serge Gainsborough ees very heep.”) And indeed you must return to Van Der Graaf Generator or Trespass-era Genesis to find this sort of dramatic and, sorry, literary fit between highly wrought lyrics and the dynamics of long, intricate, tempo-twisting songs. However, I would urge you even farther back, to the great songs on the great Incredible String Band records, which also embroider earth visions onto patchwork tunes that combine heavy insights and bucolic play. For though the landscape of Ys is not particularly psychedelic, its peaks are very high, from “Emily”’s invocation of the cosmic void to “Cosmia”’s final ascent through the moonlight.
Happily for all, Newsom approaches such high-fallutin matters with a demotic American spirit and a folk fan’s love of homespun melody and pastoral grit—not to mention a canniness that makes her at once too young and too old for the truly pompous. Ys may be precious, but it is precious because the spirit behind it is rare. It does not rely on sentiment, nor does it make Great Statements. It is, rather, a Great Work: an organic but deeply intentional labor from start to finish, from the inspiration through the cover art, from the arrangements through the final, analog mixdown. Newsom gathered a stellar cast of characters around her, including Steve Albini, Jim O’ Rourke, and Van Dyke Parks, who contributes some of the best work in his career. But it is Newsom’s own visionary ambition that makes this record the very opposite of a sophomore slump. A lesser artist would have simply ridden the quirky crest of The Milk-Eyed Mender, but Newsom glimpsed a golden ring glittering on the far horizon, and she stretched beyond herself with pluck and hooked it good.
HOMESTEAD The house that Joanna Newsom recently purchased is, well, rather Joanna Newsom. The building lies in the outskirts of Nevada City, an old mining town nestled in the western foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada range. It has a small circular driveway, rose bushes, and a broken fountain with two cherubs smeared with mud up to their necks. The one-acre property is fringed by sycamores and pines, and two massive ivy-swaddled conifers loom over the patio out back, dripping gobs of sap onto a weathered table. The firethorn bushes that cloak the breakfast nook and the porch haven’t been trimmed in a while, deranging the otherwise orderly air of a proper British cottage. Past their plump clusters of golden berries, you can glimpse her old, worn-out pedal harp, peeking through the window like a stage prop.
Newsom answers the door with a smile and invites me in. She is dressed in a knitted brown skirt, a low-cut sleeveless shirt, chocolate brown knee-high socks and moccasins. The wide leather belt tugged snug around her waist looks a lot the belt she wears in her portrait for the cover of Ys. The bangs are gone, and she’s cute as a vintage button.
“I’m sorry. I just moved in and I haven’t really been here much.” There is not much furniture beyond a couch and, alongside her harp, a gorgeous Craftsman wooden stool inlaid with turquoise. There is hand-written sheet music scattered on the floor and one large decoration waiting to be mounted on the wall, a nineteenth-century funereal display scavenged from a San Francisco thrift store. “It was there for years, and finally I had to have it.” Having spent the last few weeks obsessively listening to Ys, I can see why, so crisply does the thing reflect some of her major themes and images: inside the large glass case, two stuffed doves face off over clusters of dried wheat, neatly arranged over a fat and faded ribbon printed with condolences.
We settle down on the table outside, and dig into the past. Newsom grew up around Nevada City, but she lived for years in the Bay Area, where she studied composition and creative writing at Mills before dropping out, writing some songs and recording them with her first boyfriend, the musician and producer Noah Georgeson. Even then, she kept returning to the nest on weekends, but feared the phenomenon an old Austin friend of mine referred to as the velvet rut. “It’s a real easy place to get kind of stagnant in your head, to get overly comfortable and have the years pass by.” Now that her career has taken off and she is constantly traveling, she decided to return to the place that, in her words, makes her feel happiest and most at home.