Joanna Newsom Explains 'Divers' Transition from "Art Project" to Album

Joanna Newsom Explains 'Divers' Transition from 'Art Project' to Album
Photo: Annabel Mehran
With the much-anticipated Divers now out on Drag City, Joanna Newsom has ended the five-year wait fans endured for new music following the release of Have One on Me in 2010. But as Newsom tells Exclaim!, there was a complex, "multipart process that each of these songs, and ultimately the whole record, had to pass through" before Divers felt ready to be shared.
"Part of it was that there was a narrative connection in a lot of the songs, and that one of the conceits of this particular record involved a lot of history and research, kind of pulling from a lot of different historical moments or cultural moments," she says from California. "Lyrically, the editing process and the writing process maybe took a little longer than usual for some of the songs, but I also think a lot of it had to do with the collaborative aspect of the record. It always takes me a while to have the initial conversation with an arranger, which usually just happens once, because in the past, I've worked with a single arranger for an entire album."
Unlike on 2006's Ys, where she established a communicative shorthand with arranger Van Dyke Parks after months of working together, on Divers, each time she worked with a new arranger — Nico Muhly, Ryan Francesconi and Dirty Projectors' Dave Longstreth among them — the "origin conversations" about how each song should feel had to take place again from scratch.
"Talking about what the album is about, what role I wanted the particular song in question to play on the album and the ways in which I wanted the instrumental palette to support the narrative took a while. Each human has a different, very subjective vocabulary when it comes to talking about composition — music in general, I suppose — so that takes some navigation."

So while she admits that "it sounds like a lot of trouble, for this record, it was really important to me to have the instrumental character of each song feel fundamentally different."
Asked whether she thought at all about the expectations of her fans over the five-year wait, Newsom is frank: "I try, whenever possible, to kind of peel off the part of my mind that's conscious of the reception, the theoretical or future reception of an album. I kind of don't allow my brain to go there when I'm working on a record."
Rather, she says, "I just kind of pretend that nobody will ever hear this record — that it won't be a record. It's not yet a product that will be put out into the world. It's an art project. That obviously sounds incredibly pretentious, but it's a useful way of thinking about it while writing, collaborating, mixing and all that."
Read our review of Divers, then head here to see Newsom's forthcoming North American tour dates.