Things That Go Swing in the Night: The Rhythmic Gambits of Joanna Newsom & Jason Spaceman
by Peter Relic
Posted Mon Nov 26, 2007 in Arthur’s Yahoo blog
“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” Ella Fitzgerald once sang, but in the half-century since then popular music has accorded meaning to a wide variety of rhythmic developments, swinging and otherwise. Two recent concerts however–one by Joanna Newsom at the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and one by Spiritualized at L.A.’s ornate Vista movie theater–brought Irving Mills’ original lyric to mind. One swung, one didn’t. And what a difference it made.
I first saw Joanna Newsom perform in 2004 at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom (still my favorite venue in the U.S.). Accompanied only by her own harp, Newsom rendered the songs off her then-new The Milk-Eyed Mender LP faithfully, but with one profound difference: they swung like all heck. The technical excellence of Newsom’s harp-plucking became both more limber and more muscular in person, turning tunes like “The Book Of Right-On” into virtual funk workouts. She improved upon the recorded versions of her songs by realizing their additional rhythmic potential, thus evoking late great harpist Dorothy Ashby, whose albums Afro Harping and The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby are mystical jazz-funk classics.
So it was with great interest that I went to the Disney Hall performance this November 9th. Newsom performed songs from her complex-yet-accesible Van Dyke Parks-arranged album Ys backed by not only the L.A. Philharmonic but by three members of her Ys Street Band: a violinist, a banjo player, and a barefoot bowlcut drummer. Using both drumsticks and his hands, the drummer beat ultra-luddite 4/4 beats that had a twofold effect: first, he made V.U.’s Moe Tucker sound like Rashied Ali by comparison; second, he wrung all the rhythmic complexities out of Newsom’s music. When a member of the Philharmonic took to the vibraphone, it seemed like the whole thing might start to swing, but the vibes were inaudible. After the intermission, when Newsom performed sans-Philharmonic but with her quartet, the music retained its ethereal essence yet often seemed plodding. While it’s likely that my listening experience was affected by variable factors (an unbalanced soundmix, my upper tier seat), Newsom’s unaccompanied encore underscored the fact that strictly on-the-beat drumming inhibits the rhythmic possibilities of her songs.
Admittedly this is merely a matter of taste–the thudding drumming and approximately Appalachian style of her quartet set-up drew approving whoops from the crowd. But I’d love to hear her sometime backed by a nice little jazz combo.
A few days later I had the good fortune of seeing Spiritualized play on what could’ve been called their Acoustic Mainline Gospel-With-Strings tour. Leader Jason Spaceman, who has taken the sunglasses-at-night motif into the new millenium, rearranged his songs for a group that consisted of guitar, electric piano, two violins, viola, cello, and three female backing singers. No drummer, and no need for one–the absence of a drums created a huge space of rhythmic possibility, and the swell and ebb of the strings and voices realized the implicitly syncopated nature of that potential. Songs like “Going Down Slow,” “The Straight And The Narrow” and “Anything More” — slightly jazzy in recorded form–seemed to swing more than ever in their drum-free renderings.
I can’t help but think that the extraordinary uplift that I felt at the Spiritualized show–I’d go to church every week if it felt that good–had a direct correlation to the fact that the music swung. Which is not to say that the Joanna Newsom show didn’t mean a thing. It’s just that Spiritualized meant that much more.
“Always Coming Home”: 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, from Arthur No. 25 (Nov 2006)
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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.
curated and designed by DEVENDRA BANHART
Available direct from Arthur: the acclaimed 2004 compilation of current underground folk music, as selected by Devendra Banhart.
This is more than a compilation–it’s expertly sequenced and paced, like one long, slow flow of a particularly rich vibe. Liner notes are by the artists themselves, paying tribute to each other, all handlettered by Devendra, who also provides artwork on cover, back cover, sleeve, tray and the disk itself.
“Essential.” — Mojo, September 2004
“Sparkling.” — The Wire, July 2004
“8.6 (out of 10): [Its] sprawling landscape presents a persuasive case for the depth of a scene that seemingly sprung up (like mushrooms) overnight.” — Pitchfork, July 8, 2004
1. Vetiver (with Hope Sandoval) – “Angel’s Share” (from the “Vetiver” LP)
2. Joanna Newsom – “Bridges and Balloons” (from “The Milk-Eyed Mender” LP)
3. Six Organs of Admittance – “Hazy SF” (previously unreleased)
4. Viking Moses – “Crosses” (from “Crosses”)
5. Josephine Foster – “Little Life” (prev. unreleased home recording)
6. Espers – “Byss & Abyss” (from “Espers” LP)
7. Vashti Bunyan & Devendra Banhart – “Rejoicing in the Hands” (from the “Rejoicing in the Hands of the Golden Empress” LP)
8. Jana Hunter – “Farm, CA” (prev. unreleased)
9. Currituck Co. – “The Tropics of Cancer” (from “Ghost Man on First”)
10. White Magic – “Don’t Need” (from the Drag City EP)
11. Iron and Wine – “Fever Dream” (from “Our Endless Numbered Days” LP)
12. Diane Cluck – ” Heat From Every Corner” (from “Macy’s Day Bird” LP)
13. Matt Valentine – “Mountains of Yaffa” (previously unreleased)
14. Entrance – “You Must Turn” (prev. unreleased home recording)
15. Jack Rose – “White Mule” (from “Red Horse, White Mule”)
16. Little Wings – “Look at What the Light Did Now” (from “Light Green Leaves”)
17. Scout Niblett – “Wet Road” (from “Sweet Heart Fever”)
18. Troll – “Mexicana” (from “Pathless Lord”)
19. CocoRosie – “Good Friday” (from “La Maison de Mon Reve”)
20. Antony – “The Lake” (from “Live at Saint Olaye’s With Current 93”)
Go to the ARTHUR STORE to order direct from Arthur via PayPal, credit card or debit card.
BULK ORDERS: Contact Arthur staff (editor at arthurmag dot com) for quote.
Arthur is delighted to sponsor “Scala Naturae,” a show of exquisitely crafted paper sculptures by Tahiti Pehrson opening on May 7th at Oxenrose. In the past, Pehrson has developed album art for Devendra Banhart (covers of White Reggae Troll and Lover) and several t-shirts for friend Joanna Newsom, as well as comissioned portraits for XL recording artists (M.I.A., Peaches, and Dizzee Rascal, among others), and designs for a variety of skateboarding companies including Toy Machine, Blood Wizard and Familia.
On top of all these projects, Pehrson devotes his time to cutting away at his insanely detailed sculptures, made almost entirely of paper with some metal supports. Want to see? Check out this giant cake (real life dimensions: 4ft x 6ft). Something tells me that these pieces shine in their true glory when seen in person; you really have to get up close to experience the full effect of light and shadow interacting within the many crevices, shapes and openings. So if you’re in the Bay area, dig out your magnifying glass — and head over to Oxenrose to lose yourself in the tiny intricacies of Pehrson’s magical paper world.
On view May 7th – June 30th, opening Thursday, May 7th 7:30 – 10:30PM with a live performance by Kings & Queens
Oxenrose Salon (For directions, go here.)
448 Grove St. / San Francisco, CA 94102 Free admission
Get to know more about Pehrson’s artwork and lifestyle in this interview.
Above: Neptune’s Daughter, a 4-layered paper sculpture by Tahiti Pehrson
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.