life after whimsy: why joanna newsom is no ethereal creature

The Queen of Folk talks growing up, avoiding doom, and ignoring the stereotypes people have about her.

by Courtney DeWitt
15 January 2016, 11:20pm

Photo by Annabel Mehran

It almost seems redundant to try describe Joanna Newsom's music. Since she released her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, in 2004, she's created a sound that exists in a universe apart from space and time. Her songs feel comforting and eternal, like a scent or story from childhood. Coming up in the swirl of new wave American avant-garde music of early 2000s alongside Devendra Banhart, she gave folk an injection of contemporary youth and wonder. She also managed the seemingly impossible task of shifting focus away from the decade's dominant indie-rock music scene.

In October, Newsom delivered her fourth studio album, Divers, her first in five years. It was immediately lauded and confirmed what we already knew—Joanna Newsom is an untouchable, unique talent. Over the past 12 years Newsom has carved out an enviable position for herself, wherein the release of her new record constitutes an event. Her live shows have also always managed to live up to the hype: filling out Carnegie Hall or the Sydney Opera House is standard for the Cali girl. 

We spoke to Joanna from her home in Los Angeles ahead of her Australian tour, to discuss the construction of her sound and why meeting Grimes made her feel old.

You released Divers a few months ago. It seems that moment can be bittersweet; you're releasing your little baby to possibly be pulled apart in the span of 10 minutes. Do you experience anxiety around releases, or is it a relief?
When the record is finished, wrapped, out of my hands, there are no more decisions left for me to make, and I'm just waiting for it to come out—that period is fraught with anxiety for me. Usually that period is four months but this time it was almost six months! I tried to keep myself busy but I can't remember what I did now... I'm like blacking out on that period.

The first time you came to Australia was around the time Milk Eyed Mender dropped. You were so young and there was a lot of attention on you and so many opinions and obsessive fans. I'm wondering if you'd had a chance to reflect on that period?
You know it's funny I was just thinking about that today. I've always thought of myself as a really happy person, and I definitely would have said that at that time had you asked me. But it came up because I was getting rid of a lot of my clothes from then, mostly because I'm too old to wear them now, but another thing I realized was I bought them because I didn't know exactly who I was.

Obviously we're talking about clothing, but I think that without realizing it, I was less sure of myself in my twenties, which led me to a low level of angst that I don't feel anymore. Things are a lot looser and more real now, I care so much less about what people think of me in terms of public and private perception. I care about being a kind and good person to my friends and loved ones but everything else, I don't give it my energy anymore.

At that time you were put in this "ethereal, whimsical, otherworldly female" box, which was mainly perpetrated by men...
Yeah, even that sits in the category of things I can't really be bothered to care about anymore, I don't really know when that happened. Intellectually I know it's sexist and fucked up, but I talk about it now with a weird distance because it's so hard to get caught in something like that. Life is so short and part of impending doom and mortality is the thing where it's probably not a good idea to sit around Googling yourself to find out whether rude things or kind things are being said about you.

Agreed. What is it about the harp that has enthralled you since you were a little girl?
Well -- working backwards in time -- I'd say at present, the thing that enthralls me is that it's natural. It's not easy in the sense that if I don't practice for a month or more it will be very difficult for me to play the songs that I might have otherwise been able to play. It's a difficult instrument and it's also difficult because I can always get better if I work harder at it. It's like an extension of me, not to be corny, but it comes very naturally to me and I've done it since I was a small child. There's a ritual to it and an immediacy and instinctiveness to it; I feel like it's past intellectualizing, like my brain shuts off from it a little bit and my hands know what to do. I don't know, it's a very magical feeling.

You've said in the past, "if a song doesn't truly move you in some way then it isn't really a great song." Looking past your own work, what are some of the songs that make you feel like that?
There're so many different ways to be moved, sometimes I can be super excited just by the way the song is mixed even if I don't love the song. Sometimes I'm moved by some little aspect of it where I can say, "I think this might be great! I hate it, but I think this might be great!" You know, we listen to music for different reasons: there's lots of music that's great that I wouldn't want to listen to necessarily. I tend to go back again and again to a lot of the same stuff. I love a lot of records from the 70s: Roy Harper, Mickey Newbury, Richard and Linda Thompson, Randy Newman, Karen Dalton, Sandy Denny, Harry Nilsson, Joni Mitchell.

What young artists do you feel an affinity with? I heard you're a Kendrick fan.
I'm coming out of a period of complete cluelessness about what's happening. I did not hear a new song, unless I was at a restaurant or something, for at least five years. But I loved the latest Bjork album, I'm excited about the idea of Grimes. I haven't wrapped my head around the record. I find her so compelling and so unlike anybody else and so incredibly talented, skilled, and fun. I love her. I met her in LA a few months ago, she told me something along the lines of, "I grew up listening to your music." I will say, it made me feel really old for about five minutes, then it made me feel really happy. I was like well, I guess I'm old now, but that's okay because this awesome and amazing young musician likes my music and said that it was special to her when she was younger, so that's great.

It's kind of the way that you feel about Bjork, it's this nice circle of appreciation.
Right! Exactly. Well, actually I don't presume that but that's my dream, I'd love to be someone's Bjork someday.

Joanna Newsom will be touring Australia through January.


Text Courtney DeWitt
Photography Annabel Mehran

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