Q&A with Joanna Newsom: Conformity Isn't My Thing

Greg Kot
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

In an interview, Joanna Newsom offers insights into how her artistic personality was forged.

Joanna Newsom says she doesn’t pay much attention to pop music, and yet she is one of the most popular indie artists on the planet. The Californian sells albums by the hundreds of thousands to an audience that keeps growing by the year.

On the recent “Divers” (Drag City) and three previous studio albums stretching back a decade, Newsom blends classical chops on a pedal harp with melodies and textures drawn from West African music, Appalachian folk, Celtic drone, ragtime and Renaissance madrigals.

Her voice, which veers from a chirpy warble to a sonorous trill, spins out tales of time travel and mortality in imagery rich with literary allusions. Her music can be daunting and ecstatic, opaque and melodic, sometimes all at once. “A woman is alive!” she sings on the title track of “Divers,” as if to underline her individuality.

“I stopped needing to conform,” she says of the time when she decided to dive into songwriting. “There was a point in my life where you just say, ‘F—it!’ I wanted to make music. I didn’t really like popular music that I heard, and I didn’t feel this ambition to be liked by the same people who liked that music. I didn’t have any ambition, I didn’t have a plan, or think anyone would like what I did. I just did what I liked.”

In an interview, she offers insights into how her artistic personality was forged. Here are some edited excerpts:

Of all the instruments in the world for a child to become infatuated with, you picked the harp. Why?

The harp is unique among instruments, because the payoff is kind of immediate, unlike the violin or cello, where the hope is that it will sound good some day when you first start playing it. You pluck your first note on the harp, and it’s a beautiful sound. Most who play it fall in love immediately. I started on a quite small harp as a child, a little Celtic harp. I was a flake in childhood, and I’d flit from interest to interest and not commit to anything. But the harp was one thing I loved and couldn’t get enough of.

What got you writing songs on the harp?

I knew that I loved writing and composing songs from an early age. The point where it took off and became this thing I spent all my time doing, I would locate at age 12, 13. There was a folk music camp I went to with mom, a music camp, and the music teacher taught me a West African harp figure, transposed from the kora. It was a polymetric idea that exploded my brain. It was so compelling to me and still is, such a meditative, magical figure. The idea of rhythmic tension, of holding two discrete metiers in mind at once, pulling them apart and bringing them together, endlessly, cyclically — that inspired me.

Did you ever wonder where you fit, if at all, in pop music?

To this day, I’m not sure I know contemporary pop music. I would go to school and try to have conversations about whatever the new band was, and I would try to be cool and try to have the same reference points, but I wasn’t committed. I was quickly found out. “You’re not a real Sublime fan.” (laughs)

You were writing music for years before you saw yourself as a singer. Why did you start singing over your music?

There was one moment of being given permission by someone who came before, in a survey of American music class in college (Mills College in Oakland). We were listening to the Alan Lomax archives, and I identified with some of the Appalachian singers, the timbre of their voices — the very same thing that caused me to rule my own voice out. I grew up with this classical mentality — you don’t sing if you don’t have a classically beautiful voice. Then I heard Texas Gladden in the Lomax archives, this grandmother who had a complex, textured voice. In symphonic music, the instruments have a wide range of timbres, but there’s only a very narrow range of timbres allowed in the human voice. After hearing Texas Gladden, I gave myself permission to incorporate singing into what I was doing.

When did you realize that what you were doing might be a way to make a living?

I started with home recordings as a way to remember my own music. I remember a song by recording it, not writing it down. I burned CDs to sell at my shows. They got listened to and disseminated. For a few years living in San Francisco, my mind was being blown because people were actually coming out to see me play and Amoeba (record store) asked for copies of my record to sell. By the time (Chicago indie label) Drag City got involved and wanted me to record an album for them, I was used to the idea that there was an audience interested in what I was doing.

How tough was it to perform live at first?

I would start out by singing a cappella and clapping, which was an exercise to get over my own stage fright. If I just sang as loudly as I could into the room, not hiding behind my instrument, somehow after doing that, it would be comforting to play songs sitting behind this huge harp.

How often do you practice?

It’s hard, but every instrument is hard. You can’t do this if you don’t practice. When I’m on tour, which I think of as a general state of my life, I try to practice three hours a day minimum. That includes tuning the harp and vocal warmups, which is about an hour, and then a two-hour rehearsal that covers the set list plus four or five songs additional. It’s my work, it’s my job. I’m trying to protect my voice, and I will lose my voice on tour if I do not practice four, five hours a day when I’m at home. I’ve had tendinitis issues, so I have to regularly exercise my throat. You have to maintain your body like an athlete does.

Did you set out to make “Divers” more concise, more direct in response to the triple-album (“Have One on Me”) you did before?

I’m not building on what I did before. Every project is tearing everything down to rubble and starting over. There’s not a linear connection. All the albums are born of such a different set of parameters, different ideas. I’m constantly amazed by people saying things like, “This is the most approachable, most digestible album she’s made.” It’s nice to hear, but it certainly wasn’t a consideration when I made the album. Just as impermeability or difficulty was not a consideration when making “Have One on Me” (in 2010) or “Ys” (in 2006). It’s not like I sit down and say, “This is going to be real doozy, I want people to work for this one.” That’s not on the table.

Is it tough to balance immediacy with the kind of layering you do in the arrangements and lyrics?

Let’s say someone doesn’t speak a word of English, doesn’t care about music theory or picking apart formal influences. It has to be a song that registers with that person. It has to have an emotional truth and melodic strength, integrity, beauty. . And it needs to connect with the listener. That’s the goal. But there also has to be something more there. I don’t think I’m unique in that I also want some substance and worth, so that people want to return to the song again and again. I’m not writing through a filter of trying to meet those standards. I’m just writing what is exciting and interesting to me, chord progressions that are harmonically interesting, lyrics that for my standards are good, honed, that keep justifying themselves through syntactic strength and have meaning, and rhythmic, metric imperatives that overlay the musical line.

You worked with a number of different arrangers and spent a long time mixing and remixing “Divers” yourself, a different approach than your previous albums. What prompted that?

This is the first record where I worked with more than one arranger. I gave each of the arrangers an essay, line by line of what I wanted each arrangement to do. It becomes a long, protracted conversation, or sometimes through luck and connection, we find ourselves hearing the same thing right away. I wanted an extremely wide variety of characters, vignettes and instrumental voices on the songs because of the harmonic themes that unite the record. Each song needed to stand out. And I felt a strong sense after working for five years on this album that it would find itself in the mix. There’s a lot of psychedelia, surrealism, sci-fi, layers of studio magic — I knew the mixing stage would leave a strong print on the record, and I knew it had to be mine and not someone else’s.

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