the harp-toting wonderchild from nevada city was certainly the 2004 girl o' the year. dawn sutter madell got the scoop on bone collecting, folk school and unicorn tears.
chickfactor: when did you start playing the harp, and why?
joanna newsom: I was about eight, I think, when I started taking harp lessons. I wanted to play the harp since I was two or three. I don't know why, but I was just kind of fixated on the instrument since toddlerhood. but when my parents investigated harp lessons for me at that early age, the teacher said she'd prefer I take piano lessons for a few years, first. so I slogged through detestable piano lessons until I was about eight, then finally got to start in on the harp, which I pretty much loved from the first lesson onward.
cf: what other instruments do you play?
joanna: I don't really play any other instrument very well, but I have a passing ability with piano, recorder, hammered dulcimer, harpsichord, and any other instrument that was lying around the house while I was growing up. except guitar. I can't play a single chord properly on the guitar.
cf: your harp playing style seems more like a guitar than the traditional harp style that I think of. is it typical?
joanna: no, I don't think it's very typical. I'd like to always be trying something new with the harp, trying something that's divergent from the conventional sound everybody is accustomed to—a sound that I kind of hate, because it's so bloated and muddy and gaudy and overwrought, and also sort of crude... it mostly consists of arpeggios and glissandi, which are the absolute easiest and most artless techniques a harp player can learn—I mean, the stuff you can master in the first week. that's the sound people associate with the harp...because most composers have a limited sense of what the harp is capable of, so they just stick to glissandi, and those poor, bored orchestral harpists sit in their orchestra pits and crochet for an hour during every concert, and then halfheartedly drag their pointer finger across all the strings as fast as they can, making that "heavenly" glissando sound that everybody expects, and then they go back to crocheting for another hour.
cf: I read that you grew up near terry riley. did you know him? if so, what was he like? did you know his music at an early age?
joanna: I did grow up near him, but I didn't know him very well. I did know his music, though. I was privileged to hear him play at a few local concert halls, like saint joseph's hall, or the north columbia schoolhouse, mostly these fantastic, improvised performances. and my parents played recordings of his pieces as well, around the house.
cf: what was it like growing up in nevada?
joanna: nevada city is in california, actually. weirdly enough. and it was lovely. a very small, old gold rush town—maybe three thousand people? lots of trees, a beautiful river we swam in every summer, and not much for a kid to do except run around and play outdoors. and the whole town is swarming with artists and hippies and old prospectors...a very eccentric collection of people.
cf: what was your first concert?
joanna: probably one of the bluegrass festivals at the nevada county fairgrounds.
cf: who were your musical influences when you were young?
joanna: my harp teacher was my first major influence—she was the person who encouraged me to improvise and compose music, from the very first lesson onward. when I was a little older (maybe 11?), I started going to this folk music camp—a really informal camp, more like a hippie gathering in the mendocino redwoods—every summer, for six or so years, along with my mom. there were always these amazing musicians playing together, around the campfires, late into the night, or perched on some stump in the middle of the forest. that's where I got kind of obsessed with west african harp figures—these strange, rhythmically disjunctive, meditative little patterns, which totally changed the way I've written music ever since! they're really different from western music, to such an extent that I struggled just to wrap my head around them. like, in western music, things are broken down by meter—you know, music will be notated in 4/4 (a four-beat-based rhythmic structure) or 3/4 (a three-beat-based rhythmic structure), etc.... but, in this west african harp stuff, the right hand plays in 3/4, and the left hand plays in 4/4 (though of course that's a western way of explaining it...the music isn't really thought of in those terms). this creates a sense of disorientation, with two rhythmically discordant and seemingly unrelated melodic lines playing at the same time...but then, every twelve beats, the two figures intersect, come back to the beginning. anyway, ever since then, I've found myself playing with new variations on the idea...for example, one of my songs uses a five-beat-based pattern in the right hand, and a three-beat-based pattern in the left hand, creating a figure that intersects and begins anew every fifteen beats. that folk music camp also got me really into all sorts of musical traditions—venezuelan music, celtic music, andean music, balinese music, bulgarian polyphony, etc—but most of all, appalachian music. that was where I first sort of fell in love with the american folk sound.
cf: who are your biggest musical influences now?
joanna: the composer ruth crawford seeger, the singer texas gladden, and I guess, to some extent, any songwriter or band that I've listened to in my life...karen dalton, donovan, robert wyatt, dolly parton, bob dylan, john fahey, anne briggs, billie holliday, fred neil, etc...my boyfriend, my friends, people I've toured with; everybody, you know?
cf: your music has a very literary style to it, who are your literary influences?
joanna: well, nabokov is definitely my favorite author, though I feel strange calling him an "influence," since I can't trace the ways in which his writing may or may not have seeped into my own. but I also love william faulkner, thomas pynchon, kenneth patchen, joyce carol oates, philip roth, mark helprin (who wrote a beautiful book called winter's tale), and kurt vonnegut. my favorite book of all time is the last unicorn by peter s. beagle.
cf: listening to your lyrics, it seems that you are really into wordplay. what's your favorite word?
joanna: that's a hard question. I tend to wake up in the morning with particular words stuck in my head, and more often than not I don't know their definition. so I walk around the house muttering to myself until I can find a dictionary. and usually it ends up being a bit disappointing; I'm never completely happy with the meaning... I can never figure out what dignified that particular word to such an extent that it stayed with me the whole night through. the last two words I can remember staying with me like that were "irascible" and "contumely." I guess if I had to choose a favorite word, it would be "derelict"—because the definition of it, in webster's dictionary, is really lovely and multilayered; it's like a short-short story, when you consider the adjectival meanings next to the noun meanings...
cf: what brought you to san francisco?
joanna: I moved there when I started going to school, at mills college in oakland.
cf: do you do any of the songwriting in the pleased?
cf: how do you balance the pleased with your solo performances and recordings?
joanna: actually, I don't play with the pleased anymore. they've got a wonderful keyboardist named jay now.
cf: are the pleased at all jealous of your recent success as a solo musician?
joanna: no! they are beautiful people and dear friends, and I see them and hang out with them all the time. and they've had plenty of their own successes, too—for example, they just got back from touring nationally with the psychedelic furs.
cf: do you have a day job?
joanna: not at the moment. I'm hoping to start working every once in a while at this store in berkeley that sells papier-maché sculptures—like fruit and flowers and animals—with toys and candy inside. they also sell taxidermied animals and other fancy notions.
cf: what was the first song you wrote? circumstances?
joanna: I'm not sure. I started writing songs when I was very young.
cf: you've played shows with bonnie prince billy, bill callahan (smog), and devendra banhart. that's a lot of personality. who is the biggest "character"? any good show/tour stories? please elaborate.
joanna: I don't think any of them are "characters," as such. they all have their own particular idiosyncrasies, but no more so than anybody else I know. all of them are extremely authentic, sweet, down-to-earth people. one common quality among all three is their desire to fit in as many non-tour-related excursions, on tour...like, we went to the grand canyon last year on the bonnie billy tour, and he also camped every night. I couldn't, sadly, because of my ornery harp, which tends to break strings and go massively out of tune if it's not kept in a climate-controlled environment. anyway, that tour in general felt like a dusty summertime road-trip. the (smog) tour involved bill introducing me and my friend stacy, who travels with me sometimes, to the roadside wonders of the american south. we did a lot of sight-seeing and had little adventures in louisiana, south carolina, alabama, texas...most of these centering on food. next week will usher in my first proper "tour" with devendra, but I've been friends with him for years, so I have a general idea of what touring will be like...and I expect it won't really feel like a tour at all. we have lots of little plans for our six-week trek.
cf: how did you end up getting signed to drag city?
joanna: will oldham initially played them my home recordings, I believe. he got one of my cdrs from a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, something like that...
cf: how do you tour with a harp? seems like it might not be as portable as a guitar... can you fit it in a car? I always think of robyn hitchcock hitting the road, just him and his guitar.
joanna: yeah, it fits in a car. I had a big old truck for ages, but it was wreaking havoc on my harp, leaving it pretty exposed to temperature and moisture fluctuations (even with a camper shell and a padded bed-liner). so, right before my most recent tour, I finally bought a car that fits my harp inside it. there's no room for any passengers, though, except the two front seats. but that's just perfect for stacy and me.
cf: what's your drink of choice?
joanna: hmm. if I had my druthers, I would only drink framboise lambic, which is a raspberry-flavored, frothy, garnet belgian ale that tastes like unicorn tears.
cf: do you collect anything?
joanna: embroidery, bones, teeth, vintage dresses, flowers preserved behind glass, friends' art, unredeemed gift certificates, diamonds.
cf: what would be your dream gig? any band/musician living or dead—a whole line-up.
joanna: I'd love to see the late, luminous texas gladden sing lullabies to her grandbabies in virginia...
cf: do you friendster? if so, what's the craziest friendster request you've received? as a somewhat public figure you must get crazy friendster requests.
joanna: yeah, I got a little into it with old nevada city friends...we would just all leave each other these sappy testimonials, which were so riddled with inside jokes that they were almost illegible to anybody who didn't grow up with us! then, of course, it was slightly alarming to realize that people actually search names on that site. not that I'm some celebrity, but even on the smallest scale, it's a little overwhelming to have a bunch of people I've never met know strange little details about me, and write me these very familiar-sounding e-mails. I had several people write to try to hook up for musical collaborations, which is sweet, except I don't really do much of that, even with the musicians I know, and now I had to figure out a way to diplomatically decline such an invitation from some guy in topeka! anyhow, I eventually changed my settings, so only my friends can send me messages and see my profile. because that's the only reason I was on there in the first place—to stay in touch with my friends.
cf: you're about to start touring with devendra b. and are playing some pretty big places, such as bowery ballroom in nyc, and great american music hall in sf. is it hard to play this type of music in a big room?
joanna: I imagine it'd be hard if I went much bigger than those spaces. but the great american has always felt perfect when I've played there—big, beautiful, shimmery acoustics. the hall is set up in such a way that I can see most everybody's faces. (they also have the best soundman in the world there, named lee brenkman.) I've never played the bowery, so I can't speak to that just yet. I hope it doesn't create too distant a feeling. we'll see.
cf: thanks joanna.
for more info, go to dragcity.com or walnutwhales.com