Sailing the Seas of Ys

Joanna Newsom is nobody's pixie, sprite, bear, fairy, or folk freak

Regardless, post-Fairyland, Newsom went and got famous on account of The Milk-Eyed Mender, which everyone from Dave Eggers to Dave Bowie (probably) spat milk through their nose to, on account of its courage, really. This was before kids got famous playing lutes and zithers, remember. Before Mender, Newsom played harp at weddings ("Brick House," meet Lyon & Healy). At those first SF shows she took the stage like she was auditioning, which she was. And she didn't have Devendra Banhart's fuck-it-I'm-crazy attitude, either. What she wanted to say needed to be said directly, and in as naked a way possible. And so she said it while playing this harp of hers, and for that she got relatively famous, or at least a long way from playing weddings.

But as famous people know, the new life you cultivate as a public figure doesn't care all that much about the life you must simultaneously continue to live in private: your Real Life. In that life, as everyone was calling her a child prodigy, as The New York Timesdeclared her "maybe one of the country's greatest young singer-songwriters," as critics and fans were continuing to call her a pixie and a fairy and a sprite, as they were talking about freak folk and Banhart and the New Weird America and all that other junk—in that Real Life clouds were beginning to form.

So here's the story behind the record: Somewhere around '04 Joanna broke up with her boyfriend of six years, a good man and talented producer named Noah G. who's currently working with Banhart and the rest of the freak squad. She'd lived with Noah for five of those six years, had moved from Nevada City to San Francisco with him, had basically learned much of what she knows about playing music for a living from him. And the relationship eventually buckled under what I assume to be the pressures of her emerging career, although I really don't know, and don't feel like asking, and what I've just told you is pretty much all I feel like knowing or relating on the subject.

Request "Brick House."
photo: Paul O'Valle
Request "Brick House."

Same goes for her other personal travails from '03 to '05, wherein that dark cloud descended over her family and friends. It was not easy. But somewhere in there she met the Smog guy, Callahan, and they're in love now. Also somewhere in there she heard Van Dyke Parks's Song Cycle, and she got tired of the freak-whatever scene and tried to distance herself from it (no hard feelings). And when it all quieted down she decided it was time to start dealing with that intersection of her Real Life and Public Life, which meant sitting down to write songs about those lovers and these friends and that family and this world her head is all but sewn to: Nevada City, a place that truly does operate at about .03 mph, a place where she says most of her friends don't really register what she does for a living. And these songs she was writing, well, she knew they'd have to be long because, simply, "It would be extremely vulgar to make them short."

Like many hotel rooms in Los Angeles, the one in the Roosevelt where she and Van Dyke Parks first met should probably be cast in bronze. Parks was not familiar with Joanna or her music. Joanna really dug Song Cycle. Someone placed a phone call. Parks and his wife graciously landed on a bed in a room as a girl with a harp sat down and played her songs. Parks said, "Y'up." Joanna gave him a long list of particulars: During this moment, the music should feel orange, stuff like that. Parks put together arrangements, they went back and forth, he ordered her harp 'n' voice parts recorded separate from the orchestra. Albini did so. More back and forth. Then O'Rourke comes in, and mixes the whole thing as if the myriad instruments were a bunch of strangers scuttling through a downtown lobby. Then it's off to Abbey Road. Roughly a year later they had an album.

It's stupid to even begin to talk about the album*. You wanna know what it sounds like? It sounds like a saw cutting through a tree.

*Best album since Pet Sounds or Appetite for Destruction.


Joanna Newsom plays Webster Hall November 13, bowerypresents.com.

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