Joanna Newsom:
Don’t Call Her A Prodigy. Or Maybe Do.
West Coast Performer
September 2003

It’s around 9PM on a Thursday in July and people are milling about San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall. It’s early to be arriving for the headliner, Smog, and the house is still fairly empty, but the most zealous fans are filing in to get good spots by the stage, and maybe - what the heck, they paid for it - to catch the opening act, that “harp girl.” An imposing harp sits center stage, unexpected yet oddly appropriate in the grand, almost baroque old venue. The announcer comes over the PA, “Ladies and gentlemen, Joanna Newsom,” and suddenly a young woman is standing at the edge of the stage, clapping and kind of shout-singing in an almost Southern evangelical fashion: “Do you know what this is, son? / This is the panopticon / and all around us blink the brash / and shifty eyes of common cash.”

It’s unnerving. Some audience members seem a bit flustered, like they’ve been caught passing notes in class, and hurry to find their seats. Newsom herself seems nervous, with a slight quaver in her voice, yet simultaneously almost cocky. Her brash call-to-order quickly comes to an end and she sits down at her harp; suddenly she seems small and quiet, says a shy hello, and with the first staccato pluck at her instrument, a hush falls as the house slowly continues to fill.

Toward the end of Newsom’s set, the audience has doubled but also settled into an odd rapture for the usually rocking hall. A Smog fan gets his ticket ripped, stops in his tracks, looks and listens for a few moments, then turns back to the ticket taker, asking “Who is that?”

Two words are often used to describe singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom. The first is “prodigy,” used in its common definition 2a from Webster’s Collegiate: a highly talented child or youth. The other is “channeling.” After that Great American Music Hall show, for example, a woman who’d just seen Newsom perform for the first time described her as “an unusually creative young woman who’s channeling old wisdom at a recital.”

While the concept of channeling and the idea of a prodigy are both oversimplifications, they also both make some sense as people try to put into words the kind of eerie reverie that Newsom’s music and performances evoke. The main reason that “prodigy” in its most common sense doesn’t fit Joanna Newsom, though, is that, while she is indeed very young, she’s an old hand as a harpist, having played the instrument for 14 of her 21 years.

“I don't know exactly why I wanted to play harp but I think it had something to do with the aesthetic I tended to embrace at that age: unicorns and fairies and flowers, things that were fantastical and gaudy, mysterious, and pretty. My family knew a wonderful harp teacher, and I actually was persistent enough about wanting to play the instrument that my parents brought me to meet her when I was just five years old. She said that I should learn some piano first, so I did that for a few years and then came back to her when I was seven. She rented me a tiny harp and began giving me lessons and teaching me a little bit about composition and improvisation. As I got older, I graduated to larger and larger harps, but they were always Celtic harps. Then, in about seventh grade, I finally got my own full-size concert harp with pedals and everything.”

She’s been ecstatically playing the instrument ever since, and attributes her greatest breakthrough as a musician to a later teacher, Diana Stork “She taught me a lot of West African harp figures that have been the most influential factor in my making music. There’s a certain rhythmic factor that - once I could wrap my brain around it - I wasn’t bogged down in Western music. I could suddenly do things I wanted to do.”

And while people often cringe at the thought of going to see a harpist, they’re quickly relieved - this ain’t no Lawrence Welk. Newsom’s playing can veer from delicate to furious (that’s right, furious harp!) in the space of a beat, her hands like two harried spiders furiously spinning out melodies and polyrhythms.

The other pitfall of the harp, besides its schmaltzy heritage, is that it could be seen as a gimmick. But what quickly separates Newsom from any such critiques are her innovative virtuosity at the instrument, her voice, and her utterly unclassifiable songs. Like her playing, Newsom’s voice can range, within the course of one song, from sweet and lilting to almost grating, like a ragged dust bowl flower girl desperately hawking her wares.

In performance, Newsom can easily seem like a delicate waif, but then suddenly shift gears and remind one of an old blind bluesman, staring up at the ceiling through her bangs as if in a trance, contorting her lower jaw for just the right sweet lilt or ragged crow’s caw.

Getting back to “Yarn and Glue,” Newsom’s unsettling set opener, a “panopticon,” curious lyricheads, is (again according to Webster) “a prison so constructed that the inspector can see each of the prisoners at all times, without being seen.”

Newsom recently explained the definition and her use of the word to her admittedly ignorant interviewer: “The song is a little bit about money, the effect of panopticism, of the possibility of being seen, being the object of the gaze, with all the disempowering aspects of that position. Of course the song's not just about that, it's also about dinner and crafts and old raggedy certainties.” Of course. Clearly, despite her age, despite CDs titled Yarn and Glue and Walnut Whales (see for info), despite her shy charm and that mythic instrument, this ain’t no harp girl singin’ folky, fairy songs.

As for “channeling,” Newsom in no way thinks of herself as an actual conduit for some olden poetic spirit, but does assert that a major source of her lyrical inspiration is “the really ancient part of young people, something that you can access as a child that becomes less accessible as you get older.”

Her lyrics, with subjects ranging from narwhals to capitalism, from “antediluvian crafts with yarn and glue” to a lighthearted critique of Lacanian structuralism, bristle with erudition, but also, undoubtedly, with that fairy magic, and with a great deal of kooky humor, as here, from “Cassiopeia”: “Like a slow low-flying turkey/ like a Texan drying jerky/ but his meaty mitts can’t hurt me.”

Newsom was raised in a musical family in Northern California’s Nevada City, a town which her lifelong friend Jamie Hillman describes as fostering an uncanny cluster of brilliant musicians and composers. Her mother plays piano, dad plays guitar, sister plays cello, and brother drums. Joanna has performed as a harpist for years. “I used to do orchestral harp. But harp in classical symphonic music is mostly confined to decorating the end of passages with glissandi and arpeggios, and it gets boring. I’ve also played harp at a great many weddings, which is even less fun. People want you to play instrumental versions of Celine Dion songs and that sort of thing.”

When Newsom talks about influences, harpists aren’t the first people she brings up. Her eclectic muses include composer and pioneering folk musicologist Ruth Crawford Seeger, Texas Gladden, Billie Holiday, Patti Smith, Karen Dalton, Kate Bush, Donovan, the Rolling Stones, and the Talking Heads. Of course she doesn’t sound much like any of them.

First time Newsom show-goers often struggle to find artists to compare her to. Bjork comes up, and sometimes Tori Amos, but then again so does the term “old-timey.” “Sweet” is used to describe her, but so is “ferocious,” and so is “wise.” It’s the odd mixture of tone and subject matter, and the juxtaposition of old sounds and new, the ancient instrument played at times like a lead guitar or piano, that make Newsom so hard to pin down.

There is some legitimacy to the “prodigy” label in that until a year ago Joanna Newsom’s public performances had been limited to family gatherings. She didn’t consider herself a singer and certainly wouldn’t have imagined making a career of it. And, while she was until recently a creative writing and music composition student at Mills College, she hadn’t written “songs” per se.

“Writing music is something I've done for a long time. I originally went to college with the intent of studying composition, being a ‘composer’ -- something I only had a vague notion of. But harp and singing is something I only started working on in the last two years. The first performance I really did in the city was with Devendra [Banhart, another quirky indie phenom and a close friend of Newsom] in January.”

Newsom also plays electric keyboards for the San Francisco-based Britpop-and-garage influenced band the Pleased. She looks forward to the day she’ll be able to have a grand piano on-stage for her own shows. That day may not be far off. Since that initial gig with Banhart, she’s been performing regularly, and her fan-base and momentum seem to be increasing exponentially. In the first half of 2003, she’s opened for Cat Power, toured with Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy) and Smog, and she has just signed her first record deal with Drag City. Her harp playing will also be featured on the upcoming album Nervous Cops (Kill Rock Stars) on which she plays alongside drummers Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) and Zach Hill (Hella).

It has to be the most overused word in recent music history but “buzz” is an especially apt term for Newsom. She not only has it, she does it. She buzzes. Like a bee, like a bass harp string plucked really hard. Buzzes like the air at one of her shows. And Joanna Newsom buzzes like a prodigy, as in Webster’s first, less common definition of the word: 1a.: a portentous event. b. something extraordinary or inexplicable.


© 2006 Jamie Berger