The Art and Form of Joanna Newsom

The Art and Form of <b>Joanna Newsom</b>
Photo: Paul O'Valle
People immersed in lifelong alternative schooling can take a lot of heat in the real world. Yet sometimes their uniqueness gives them such cachet that it makes former bullies wish they had spent their awkward years practising calligraphy instead of masturbation techniques.

Such is the case with Joanna Newsom. The 24-year-old harpist's folk revivalism, whimsical lyrics and vocal similarities to Lisa Simpson have spawned heated debates over whether or not she's faking. But the proof is in the primary school: "I went to some weird Waldorf schools… we made quilts and wax sculptures, and threw javelins and beanbags. And recited strange English translations of German poetry about Saints and wild animals." If you think she's joking, go ahead and google it.

Such an education puts ideas in a young girl's head — and Newsom's ideas get bigger as she goes. While her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, was miles from ordinary, its follow-up, Ys, is epic by comparison: an hour-long, five-song suite replete with long fairytale narratives and sprightly orchestral arrangements. "I knew that this set of ideas and themes and feelings demanded a longer song-form; to attempt to fit them into a shorter song-form would require a vulgar abbreviation, and would render the whole project not worth doing."

Following a request made through her Drag City record label, Newsom rendezvoused with the go-to guy for concept albums, Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks. After hearing her perform on a rented harp, Parks agreed to write the arrangements for Ys. What ensued was five months of jumbled correspondence — each draft from Parks producing a new set of critiques and ideas from Newsom. "I had such a specific sound and feeling in mind, and I wasn't able to articulate a lot of this in technical shorthand, so there was a lot of experimenting and fumbling and discussion to try to get on the same page." Finally, she made the trip from San Francisco to L.A. in order to work with him face-to-face.

Parks has worked with some of the music industry's biggest egos, yet Newsom was still able to push the envelope. "He told me that in his whole career, he had never had anybody travel to his home office to do such a close edit of his work, measure-by-measure.” But the nitpicking was all in good faith: "People (myself included) trust his instincts, because he is an incredible artist. But the concept for this project was so specific, and the mood I wanted to preserve in the songs felt so easily shattered, it felt like one note or one musical gesture could be the difference between the mood being supported and reiterated, or smothered and choked.”

The "concept" she speaks of is open to interpretation; it seems futile to impose any grandiose meanings onto Newsom's wordplay. "It didn't even feel like I was making a record — a piece of work to be heard by a lot of people. It felt like making a weirdly detailed little altar or something, just for myself." Though Newsom's folk tales — starring pharaohs, meteorites, and a host of anthropomorphic animals — are cryptic, the orchestral accompaniment acts "like an exaggeration of a gesture onstage, in a play, so that even the back row can perceive the meaning of the gesture." In the real world we're awestruck, if not a little jealous.