“Will you come down there with me?
Down where our bodies start to seem like
artifacts of some strange dream”
—From “Colleen” (Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band, 2007)
The sea is in many ways a fruitful literary landscape. It is the counterpart and complement to dry land, and was, in the past, largely outside the confines of what humans could explore. To fill in for the unknowable, several myths cast the sea as a mirror of land; a place where mermaids, selkies (shape-shifting seals), and other humanoid creatures populate societies that approximate, but fundamentally differ from, our own. This allows the ocean to be both a mirror and a surface on which to project our ideas of the “other”. Joanna Newsom exploits this power of sea imagery to explore the confines of the feminine role—and what happens when you see the sea as home, water as air, and a female literary voice as primary.
Joanna Newsom is a harpist who strings together songs in what has been called, for lack of a better label, the “freak folk” genre. Sometimes her songs have simple arrangements, sometimes deep orchestral undertows accompany melodies picked out on a harp, piano, or occasionally harpsichord. What sets this artist apart from other “rivulets off the musical mainstream” if you will, however, is the rich texturing of her lyrics. Newsom’s lyrics are often rooted in fables, and make use of symbols to provide coherent narratives even where songs last over ten minutes (almost 17 in the case of “Only Skin”, her longest work). To understand Newsom’s lyrics, it’s necessary to look not only at her works in and of themselves, but also at the rich mythical humus they draw some of their power from.
One of the more salient symbols or themes in Newsom’s lyrics is that of the ocean, and water in general. The sea in Newsom’s songs becomes an operator: it acts as a divider between different perspectives, but also as a mirror in which we see a smudged dream version of reality that might at any moment snap into focus to appear—or perhaps become—the true state of things. Many songs feature the sea quite explicitly, but three of Newsom’s narratives (created, borrowed, or a mix of both) are particularly important to understanding her use of this imagery. These are “Colleen”, from the EP Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band (2007); the story referenced by the title of Newsom’s second album, “Ys” (2006); and “Divers” from the 2015 album of the same name.
In “Colleen”, the “I” of the lyrics is stranded upon a shore, and is said to be “blessed among all women / To have forgotten everything” about her former life and real name. She believes she must have been a “thief” or a “whore”, flung overboard from some ship as punishment for her sins; only to be saved and taken in to be taught the habits of the land (“they took me in and shod my feet / And taught me prayers of chastity”). Still, she seems to grasp always at a firmness in the air that is not there, and to overwater any plant she is given to tend.
Eventually the sea’s pull on her becomes overwhelming. When she returns to it, the trappings of land-dwelling life fall away to appear merely dreamlike in her memory. The sun’s rays are replaced by lights “that seem to shine from everything”, as you realize (she sings, addressing the listener) “you never in your life have felt so free”. The narrative in “Colleen” appears based on the myth of “selkies”—shape-shifting seals that may shed their skins to appear in human form on land. She uses this myth to effect shifts in perspective akin to the classic thought experiment from the Zhuangzi about a man waking from a dream as a butterfly: “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man” (Möller 1999). While Colleen is assured that she has been saved from a nightmare when integrated into life on land, the implication is that she only truly reaches safety upon returning to the sea.
Newsom’s second album, Ys, is also linked to a story of a woman thrown overboard. “Ys” is the name of a mythical Celtic city, which, in the best known version of the legend, was banished to the bottom of the sea as punishment for the drunken and promiscuous escapades of the king’s daughter, Dahut. As the waves come crashing in to claim the city, her father initially attempts to rescue her. However, he is convinced by a saint to throw Dahut to the waves, where she becomes a siren or a mermaid (depending on the version of the legend concerned) (Sherman 2015).
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In the narratives of both “Colleen” and the tale behind the album name “Ys”, the sea therefore represents a contrast to the law and order on land—a place where those who err from the proper go. Dahut brought down her whole city by not behaving as a lady should, and Colleen is unable to adapt to life on land despite the “prayers of chastity” and “laws that govern property” she is taught. Newsom herself, in an early version of the song “En Gallop” (named “En Gallop!”, featured on the EP Walnut Whales, 2002), applies sea imagery to express the way she must break her everyday habits to create music from the shards: “In order to make the music / seems I must break so many things. / Turn over like bracken and sea-shrapnel / grazed by the tongue of a beetle-green sea”. (Note that this stanza is not present in the most recent version of the song, as presented on the album The Milk-Eyed Mender, 2004). The sea, then, acts as a divider between order and chaos, but also between rigidity—particularly in one’s assigned role and way of being—and freedom.
This role of the sea imagery in Newsom’s work is most forcefully driven home in the song “Divers” from the 2015 album of the same name. The narrative voice in this song is a diver’s wife, separated from her husband by the sea he dives into for a living. She cannot follow him, for women are not divers, so she waits on the shore. As she acknowledges, “I know we must abide / each by the rules that bind us here: / the divers and the sailors and the women on the pier”. They are all shackled to their respective roles, and in this sense “the divers are not to blame / for the rift, spanning distant shores”. Yet she dreams of diving into the waves, to find that “pearl of death” at the bottom of the ocean. Death is here the ultimate form of liberation; a precious jewel to pursue.
The sea is used as a divider between the orderly/restrained and chaos/liberation in a number of Newsom’s other songs. In “Monkey and Bear”, from Ys, two animals—the Bear coded as a “she”, the Monkey as a “he”—escape their human master to end the humiliation of caged performance, only for the Monkey to begin manipulating the Bear into dancing for money again. The Bear, dissatisfied, begins to wander off in the evenings, down to some caves by the sea. The Monkey does not like this, as “he was afraid of spelunking / down in those caves”.
One evening Bear wades out into the ocean and sheds her fur; “Now her coat drags through the water, / bagging, with a life’s-worth of hunger, / […] Left there, / When bear / Stepped clear of bear”. This is the same imagery of shedding one skin to take on another in the waves of the sea, as that used in “Colleen” through its allusions to selkie myths. Again, the sea represents liberation from an existence shackled to a constraining role.
What emerges from this analysis is an artist who is more political than she is usually understood to be. In the same earlier version of “En Gallop!” described previously, Newsom sings “Bitch, you laws of property / bitch, you free economy / bitch, you unending afterthoughts, / you could’ve told me before—”, which closely mirrors the mention of “laws that govern property” and “prayers of chastity” that Colleen must learn when she enters the regimented life as a land-dweller.
While Newsom’s study of the female voice is present in different guises throughout her work, it is most consistently, and arguably most effectively, presented through the prism of sea symbolism. Newsom uses the sea as a lawless—chaotic or liberating, as you wish to see it—mirror of our present social world, and therefore also as a flipside to societies that have put strict confines on what it means to be a woman.
Perhaps “Divers” summarises Newsom’s use of the sea imagery most explicitly. As she sings there, “A woman is alive, a woman is alive. / You do not take her for a siren / An anchor on a stone, alone, unfaceted and fine”. Throughout her artistry, Newsom is at times forcefully, at times gently, exploring the female perspective, and imploring us to do so, too (singing first “Being a woman. / Being a woman.”, then “Be a woman. / Be a woman.”, in her song “Only Skin” from Ys). When traditionally women have been reduced precisely not to something dead, but to something without agency, Newsom’s work explores a reality where they are full people, standing knee-deep in the ocean.