[Vision2020] 9-13-18 NPR: Joanna Newsom Is The 21st Century's Timeless Voice

Ted Moffett starbliss at gmail.com
Wed Jan 16 20:28:47 PST 2019

Given I consider Joanna Newsom one of the most significant
poet/songwriters, I was pleased to discover I am not alone in this
evaluation, as the following article indicates.  I was fortunate
to meet Ms. Newsom for a brief conversation following one of her concerts.
Though no doubt I am emotionally biased, I have met some amazing human
beings, but have never
experienced a human presence as marvelous and wonderful!  I won't even
attempt to clarify what I mean... Just give all her albums a careful and
fully involved listening...
Vision2020 Post: Ted Moffett


Joanna Newsom Is The 21st Century's Timeless Voice
September 13, 2018

Liz Pelly

Since the early 2000s, Joanna Newsom
<https://www.npr.org/artists/15329982/joanna-newsom> has challenged the
independent music world's standards of what a feminine voice can be. Hers
is strange and unrestrained, pushing and pulling recklessly. It is also
uncompromisingly *girlish*, as critics have oft described it.

Like the multi-layered metaphors and double-meaning wordplay that laces her
lyrics, in Newsom's world, rare and rich dualities exists. She shouts,
screeches, creaks and coos. And yet this is all entwined within her
distinct femininity: her high-pitched inflection, masterful harp playing,
epicly emotive lyrics and intuitive writing. There is a sense that she is
following her voice where it goes, but she goes there gracefully and
attentively, matching her syllables with the most emotionally suited turns
in her voice.

With her gritty girlishness that critics have often infantilized, she's
also an arbiter of wisdom, of expertly crafted folk songs rich in metaphor
and mythology, and an expert composer. Throughout her discography, her deep
love of history and literature has shaped a collection of poetry that
stands up on its own on the page — words that jump with the alternatingly
chilling, pensive and glistening presence of her harp, her lines
syncopating with the plucks and hums of the strings. She bridges folk
traditions with enormous arrangements for concert halls.

"Am I so dear? Do I run rare?" she asks near the end of "Peach Plum Pear,"
one of the more immediately affecting songs from her 2004 studio debut *The
Milk-Eyed Mender*. Stretching each of those last two words, the questions
come amid her pondering of a soured romantic interest — "You've changed
some / water runs from the snow," she shout-sings earlier in a choir of
one, enchantedly reflecting on the slow fading of what was. But as she
sings over a bright, sticky harpsichord loop, these two simple questions
seem prescient of ones she'd likely consider as the music world grew shook
and split by her beautifully unusual work.

In a more just world, Newsom's voice would never be compared to a child's.
To suggest that Newsom's voice is like that of a little girl is to suggest
that *only* children should express themselves so uncompromisingly. To call
Newsom's voice childish is to accept the ways society encourages
self-consciousness that eventually stomps out creativity. Indeed, Newsom
ought also be celebrated as a defender of those expressive, child-like
impulses that are torn away too quickly.

With her art, Newsom is also a defender of depth, which makes it all the
more powerful that she is one of the only artists at her level of
accomplishment to vocally reject the music streaming economy. Newsom, in an
with the *Los Angeles* *Times*, famously called Spotify a "villainous cabal
of major labels" and "a garbage system." She made a pretty psychedelic
comparison: "I've walked out of grocery stores because I can tell that
there's a banana over-ripening that's fallen under the produce bins. It's
been there for a few days," she said."It's brown and gives off this gas. I
can smell it walking in the door. Spotify is the banana of the music
industry. It just gives off a fume. You can just smell that something's
wrong with it." To date, her music is not to be found on the service; even
when the rest of Drag City's catalog was distributed to Spotify after years
of resistance, Newsom didn't budge. (Her music is on other streaming
services, though.)

This all makes sense. Newsom's musical language exists in opposition to the
type of music that is served well by the streaming landscape: a space that
favors music that's poppy or otherwise chill, that gets to a hook within 30
seconds, or that can flow easily into another artist on a playlist. Much of
Newsom's music is unplaylistable, and in fact, against the logic of
playlists entirely.

Take, for example, one of her greatest works, the 12-minute opus "Emily"
from what many consider her masterwork, 2006's *Ys*. The album was produced
with Newsom alongside the legendary composer Van Dyke Parks, who arranged
its orchestral instrumentation.

"Emily" is an ode to Newsom's astronomer sister, but also more generally to
sisterhood, family, memory, love, loss. It's told through a winding series
of memories and vignettes where Emily and Newsom watch birds and skip
stones; Emily teaches her about the stars, and in the song's second half,
cares for her in times of intense difficulty. "I've seen your bravery, and
I will follow you there / and row through the night time / so healthy,"
Newsom sings. When Emily eventually moves away, and Newsom shouts for her
to "come on home," it is quietly devastating.

In Newsom's world, there are songs within songs, places to get lost in.
There's a reason Newsom calls her most dedicated fans "the delvers" — this
is music for close, careful listening; for delving, not background sound.
These are songs that resonate most strongly within the environment that
Newsom crafts on each album, whereas streaming playlists strip music from
its context.

Of course, Newsom's discography can be appreciated for its pure beauty,
too, without such delving. One need not know the story behind "Sapokanikan"
(from 2015's *Divers*) to hear her gorgeous piano playing, or feel moved by
a meandering verse like, "Do you love me? Will you remember? The snow falls
above me." But diving deep is a worthwhile endeavor. In fact, "Sapokanikan"
sheds light on hundreds of years of lower Manhattan history; the song is
named for the Native American village that once existed nearby what's now
Greenwich Village. Here, Newsom offers a sprawling meditation on history,
death and erasure, pointing to the 20,000 bodies that are buried below
Washington Square Park: "The cause that they died for are lost in the
idling bird calls / and the records they left are cryptic at best / lost in

To begin unpacking the scope of what Newsom is raising up here requires not
just careful listening, but a willingness to follow the threads she has
provided—to decode her references to poems and paintings and political
figures and lore. The beauty in Newsom's music is often in how she strings
together these tremendous portraits that have the ability to transport
listeners to different places in space and time, not by teaching, per se,
but providing a map with which listeners can teach themselves.

Newsom's music offers a particular gift in this way, inspiring listeners to
get lost on their own journeys.

Recently I learned that one of my favorite singers, Frances Quinlan of the
evocative Philadelphia indie rock group Hop Along
<https://www.npr.org/artists/416464786/hop-along>, considers Joanna Newsom
an influence. Quinlan calls *Ys* "by far one of the most affecting albums
of my life." She says the inspiration has been most palpable to her as a
painter. "Her songs themselves seem to be paintings, especially on *Ys*,"
Quinlan says. "Voices can so often get in the way of what one means to
tell. For me, hers makes a new environment that I feel so able to explore,
and even confident to create on my own, because of a strong understanding I

There do seem to be shared musical sensibilities: in Quinlan's huge,
illuminous voice; in that sense of limitlessness, of expressiveness in
every turn of phrase. When I think, additionally, of the songwriters in
turn inspired by Quinlan, I can't help but think of them in a continuum of
sorts: a lineage of voices, unlimited by genre, exploding what's acceptable.

Attempting to destroy the deeply entrenched male-dominated pop canon will
be an endless, ongoing task. Part of that task will be found in
conversations centered on complicated questions: What types of femininity
has the music industry historically allowed? What has history expected
female beauty to sound like? What has been deemed acceptable for the female

Newsom's work pushes forward new answers to these questions, her complex
voice sharpening her complex songcraft in unparalleled ways. Listening to
Newsom's work viscerally feels like hearing an artist born out of time, but
who, in turn, sounds utterly timeless.
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