Joanna Newsom: Kingdom of the Harp

Talk dirty to me!

"I had to master this record 11 times to get it to sound the way I wanted," Joanna Newsom growled with the knowing grit of someone who's worked through a sonic ordeal.

"Instead of test pressings, we had test lacquers for this one."

"I have no way to listen to music digitally in my house."

Oooh, baby!

At a time when the future of print is troubled, Newsom can make even a magazine editor feel slightly more secure.

"I love your magazine. I love your publication."

The story of Joanna Newsom is nothing but surprises. A childhood prodigy on the concert harp, she's turned her gifts to making intricate, layered, challenging, indie folk-rock. She mixes avant-garde edge with the approachability of rural string music, along the way adding healthy dollops of Fairport Convention–era English folk and a psychedelic approach to colors and textures, and sings in the kind of precocious, childlike voice you either love or hate.

Newsom's music may be an acquired taste, but that hasn't prevented her undeniably unique and powerful artistic vision from finding fans across the musical spectrum. Although she calls music nerds "her people," her admirers also include classical musicians, art-rock snobs, indie-rock kids, as well as nerds and obsessives of every age, creed, and color. She's made nerdiness cool, and put the concert harp back on the musical map as something other a piece of history, or a quaint oddity relegated to shimmery, reverb-drenched Celtic music or New Age noodling.

Her second and breakthrough album, Ys (pronounced ease), from 2006, was the work of an all-star crew. Recorded by Steve Albini and mixed by Jim O'Rourke, it featured arrangements by Van Dyke Parks and has been performed along with the London Symphony Orchestra and other orchestras around the world. Her last release, Have One on Me (2010), is a three-disc set—a rare event for an indie label like Chicago's Drag City. Five years later, she's back with a single LP, Divers.

Since the release of Have One on Me, Newsom has toured relentlessly, married actor-comedian Andy Samberg, and even dipped her toe into acting, appearing as both narrator and actor in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, Inherent Vice. She'd previously appeared as a character in a MGMT video and been drawn by Matt Groening as a Simpson (though she never appeared on the show), but feature film acting was something different.

"There was never a conversation where he said, 'Do you want to be in the movie? Do you want to be on camera?'" Newsom says in the lobby lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel, in midtown Manhattan. "I just got a call at one point from the wardrobe department at Warner Bros., and I was like, 'Oh, I guess . . .' Seems like it would have been a really bad idea to say no.

"It was kind of terrifying. And I'm a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, and so just the concept of the project was kind of intimidating and scary because I didn't want to mess up something that, you know, I was so excited to be a part of and that I cared so much about."

Newsom found certain commonalities between making films and making records, between being an actor and being a musician. "When we finalized it, the process felt super musical because I would go into the studio with him and he would kind of direct the voiceover in a way that was completely linked with what was happening on camera. The pacing of it, the loudness, the mood, the pitching of the voice—all of these things needed to sync with or provide counterpoint to the action on camera. They had to be married in a way that felt really connected to music for me. He never said that, but I felt like he was thinking in musical terms."

Newsom began making Divers four years ago, when, after repeated nine-week tours, she found herself wanting to be home. "It got to the point, no matter how much I did my laundry, everything smelled like bus. The bus had permeated the fibers. It was like, 'Burn these.'"

Newsom composes her music on the harp, though in recent years she's also gotten proficient on keyboards of all kinds. Accordingly, Divers is filled with a plethora of keyboard sounds from an array of esoteric instruments, including a Marxophone (a fretless zither, keyed and strummed like an autoharp), a Neupert clavichord, a Fender Rhodes, a Baldwin Discoverer portable organ and drum machine, an Estey Field Organ (an antique, portable pump organ), a Minimoog synthesizer, and a Roland Juno-106 analog synth.

"My habit, since I was a child—and since I began playing harp, basically—is to write little songs that sort of served as études, in a way. I would write these things to make myself a better harpist. I'd write things that I couldn't play at full speed, and then I'd play them over and over again until I could bring them up to speed. There are little piano sketches on this record that I think came from a similar place."

After two years of writing, Newsom was ready to record basic tracks with Albini. "The first phase is just me in the studio with Steve recording to tape, and that would be harp, just basic vocals—not the harmonies—piano, and, I wanna say, 15 other keyboard instruments."

Newsom's partnership with the Chicago-based Albini, the former music critic and multi-instrumentalist turned engineer and producer, most famous for his work with Nirvana on In Utero and an analog zealot, has proved particularly fruitful on the sonic front. Divers, like Have One on Me, was recorded on analog tape, bounced to Pro Tools for mixing, then dumped back onto tape for mastering.

"[On my records] I want to hear the acoustic qualities of an instrument, the instrumental characteristics, how those waveforms assign various colors and emotions to the music. So there's everything from that to the way that an instrument is miked, certainly the way it's mixed, and certainly the room it's recorded in. In this case, it varied from song to song. On Ys, I wanted to have a sort of unified sonic idea. I wanted to start, sound-wise, with something that was sort of affectless and clean and pure, even, which I think is what Steve Albini does.

"Steve is the best. I'm sure he can do any number of things that he wants to, but as a person who plays acoustic instruments and uses my voice to sing with, the reason I would go to Steve Albini is that he makes things sound on recordings like what they sound like. But he makes things sound like you're sitting in a room listening to them, but he makes it sound like you're sitting in a reeealllly nice room listening to them, you know? [big smile, laughter] I think there are some people who can record in a true-to-life way that is like ugly true to life—gritty, and almost documentarian—and I would say he doesn't do that. He records things the way I would like to remember them, with this warm nostalgia suffused throughout."

After Divers' basic tracks were complete, another year and a half of working with arrangers and collaborators ensued. Much of the overdubbing on the record, by the eight other musicians involved, was done during the mixing of the album, by longtime Newsom collaborator and Divers co-producer Noah Georgeson. In addition to Albini, 13 other recording engineers are credited.

One of Newsom's greatest strengths as a musician is that she seems to actually enjoy the recording process. Referring in one recent interview to the fact that people assume she's a "pixie" because of the instrument she plays, Newsome is anything but. While the combination of her singing voice and her instrument of choice may fooled some into thinking she's a willowy waif, there's a whip smart steeliness underneath her perky manner that knows exactly what it wants. Although she can clearly be hard to work with, she says she enjoys collaborating. Although "formal arrangements add a lot of time to the process," Newsom nevertheless worked with eight arrangers on Divers, including Nico Muhly (Björk, Sufjan Stevens), David Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors, and her brother, drummer Peter Newsom.

"To be a good arranger is a very specific gift. It's a weird magic," she says, sipping a cup of strong black tea. "All of these arrangers are also composers, they also write their own songs. They are all distinct creative voices in their own right. But to be a great arranger, you also have to have the ability to subvert your ego and identity as a writer beneath your wish to hear the person you are working with in terms of what they want a song to be.

"The huge pool of collaborators here did mean that I was having a lot of the same broad-overview conversations again and again. With a single arranger, you only talk about narrative and thematic . . . stuff [laughs], for lack of a better word, like once: 'Here's what this record is about, here's how I want this record to feel.' And then you get into the detail work, and of course that's the same whether you're working with one person or ten people—except, I would say, for the disorientation and slight recovery time that comes from constantly adjusting to different people's subjectivity when it comes to language. [another laugh] Everyone's language is subjective, but within that, I think you can orient yourself to the way one person thinks about music, and they can orient themselves to the way that you think about it. But when you're working with a lotta lotta lotta people, that orientation happens again and again.

"While that seems, in a way, kind of crazy, it really felt important for this record, because there's a lot that unites the songs, and there are a lot of threads that run through them, narratively and harmonically, and so I really wanted to balance that, I guess, with an instrumental palette that just varied constantly, not only in terms of the instrumentation but in terms of the character of the instrumentation. It's not just about having different instruments on each song. It's about compositional voices varying, 'cause every composer or arranger treats the violin a little differently. Although that's a little reductive in and of itself, because he or she might treat the violin differently not only based on who he or she is, but also based on what the song is, and what the conversations are that we've had. There are so many variables, but the main thing is that I wanted each song to inhabit its own specific world. I wanted the air to smell different. I wanted the quality of the light to be different. I wanted the ground to feel different underfoot."

Asked whether having so many minds working on one record has ever uncovered surprises—has ever turned a song in a direction completely different from what she originally intended—Newsom leans back to ponder. "On a detail level, I get surprised sometimes. Sometimes I think, 'Oh, I want a contrapuntal brass cluster here, from this section to this section,' and it just turns out I'm wrong. What it really needs is a synth, or nothing, or, you know, a timpani part—it's kind of endless. But I don't think it's ever happened that someone's written the opposite of what I asked for and then I was, 'Oh, cool, let's do that instead.'"

To anyone who listens carefully, it's obvious that Newsom has learned how to make good-sounding records. More than most musicians it seems, she enjoys and has spent time understanding that process. "When I first started making music, I thought of myself so much as a writer and performer that, in a way, the recording and mixing of it was sort of like, 'Well, that's not my area. I'll work with someone who's really good at it, and what I do is write and play the parts.'

"In the case of Ys, Jim O'Rourke's mixing style is like, take six hours on his own while I'm sitting outside on the couch reading a book. He would finally let me in, and get a round of notes, and then it might mean starting over if it wasn't right. But he wanted to be able to make his complete take on the song before I would weigh in, and I was okay with that. For that record, it made sense to do it that way. And by the way, Noah could very easily do that. There's a version of this record that I think would be really good, that would just be the one where Noah locks me out for eight hours and mixes it himself, and then I come in and give notes."

Newsom's knowledge of recording extends to specifics. "I have pet peeves, though they are kinda hard to describe. Like, there's a punchiness in the high end of the harp that I really like to avoid. It's hard, and Steve is one of the only people who manages to get this sort of corona around the shape of each note and the attack, in a sort of a crystalline way—but not a punchy way, not a popping way.

"I also have strong opinions about the sustain on the piano, 'cause it's not a harp, and so I don't want it to just be an endless, resonating body. But I also don't want it to be chopped off in an artificial-feeling way—which, again, basically comes down to making the piano sound like you're in the room with it. I think a lot of piano recordings do something or other to exaggerate characteristics about the piano that are there, but they're not perceived by the ear the way they are perceived by recording devices, and again, Steve is amazing for that.

"I also have real pet peeves about drum sounds and guitar sounds, but I don't exactly know how to explain it. I know when I hear it. There have been long, long mixing projects where Noah Georgeson, who mixed the record with me, would be hunting down some characteristic in, say, the drum recording to, like, take out this one frequency in a way I can't articulate, but I didn't like it. Not in the performance or anything, but in the way it was sitting in the mix.

"This record sounds exactly as I would hope and as I wanted, but there are a lot of phases to get it there."

crenca's picture

""I have no way to listen to music digitally in my house."

Oooh, baby!"

If you can't relate to how folks actually listen to music, how can your music ever reach them even if you have much to contribute "musically"??

Archimago's picture

Clearly pandering to a certain Stereophile demographic with that quote... Which IMO is not a good thing given how the vast majority of consumers purchase music nor is it meaningful from the perspective of high fidelity!

In any case, at least the "Divers" album was mastered without too much compression (album measures at DR10). Alas, not my cup of tea (I think many will find her voice "challenging")...

michaelavorgna's picture

Are you guys being serious? Do you actually believe what you are talking about has any relevance whatsoever to the music Joanna Newsom makes and how people react to it?

Michael Lavorgna

crenca's picture

Well no, as most won't ever know about hers or a certain demographic of "audiophile" who look down (falsely) on the way they consume and listen to music.

But some "people" will - obviously I did.

Much more important than any "reaction" is what her admission reveals - a rather ignorant and false attitude about her audience (on her part), and a better informed yet equally false attitude on the part of certain "audiophiles" (such as the author of this piece - or was he simply indulging those who askew digital?). This attitude (part ignorance, part ideological) IS very relevant. At the very least, it disempowers musicians in that they are then disconnected from how folks actually listen to their music.

One thing is fer sur, I have been into hi-res and the audiophile world for all about 5 months now, and I am already tired of it...

michaelavorgna's picture

You feel the fact that Joanna Newsom, or anyone for that matter, spent years recording this record, which obviously includes listening to what she's recording throughout, to be less important than how she chooses to listen at home? I'd suggest you have your priorities mixed up.

crenca's picture

It does nothing to address what I and at lest 2 others have correctly pointed out...

michaelavorgna's picture

So being correct is not a possibility.

crenca's picture

is "correct" essentially a meaningless term. Let's look at the language again:

""I have no way to listen to music digitally in my house."

Oooh, baby!

At a time when the future of print is troubled, Newsom can make even a magazine editor feel slightly more secure."

Now, you might argue that it was not a rejection against digital as much as simply an admission of anxiety - and the author admits as much.

However, the admission is explicit, she has not way to play digital in her house. That sets her apart, and distances her from the vast majority of music listeners today (I suppose I should say 1st world listeners). There is no "opinion" in this - she admits her lack of digital as fact. However, perhaps you are on to something - she simply can't afford digital playback, or is not aware of what it is, or something similar...oh wait, the fact remains...

michaelavorgna's picture

Are you suggesting that recording studios do not have digital playback?

crenca's picture

Are you suggesting that her audience listens to music in recording studios?

michaelavorgna's picture

Aren't you.

crenca's picture


dalethorn's picture

"One thing is fer sur, I have been into hi-res and the audiophile world for all about 5 months now, and I am already tired of it..."

You could buy an outer-ear earbud for $20, and with a good equalizer have 98 percent of perfection for less than $25, if good-sounding music were the goal. But a decked-out home system with speakers shouldn't be rushed into over a 30-day period. Maybe take this slower and savor each purchase with some of the music you know best, and then when you encounter something fatiguing, you can dump it before it ruins your experience.

JUNO-106's picture

Even my cheap Android can play FLAC/WAV files.

michaelavorgna's picture

As I sit here writing about DACs, and I'm not complaining mind you, I'm thinking that sipping tea, even strong black tea, in the Four Seasons with Joanna Newsom may be more, um, interesting ;-)

crenca's picture

Would you be able to live with yourself after she asks you what a DAC is, and whether the earth circles the sun, and is fire hot? Don't answer that... ;)

michaelavorgna's picture

...the LPs, except for the most recent. So I'm perfectly comfortable talking about music without introducing dogmatic nonsense ;-)

crenca's picture

Good choice, that way you can walk away with your dignity... ;)

michaelavorgna's picture

My mistake. I was taking you seriously.

crenca's picture

seriously... ;)

Martin Osborne's picture

A musician implies a preference for a certain format and she is holding her audience in contempt and driving another nail into hi fi's coffin? I think I need to go for a very long a walk ...

I'd love to read an interview with Steve Albini by Robert Baird. Albini is an intelligent musician, engineer (his preferred term)and commentator on the music industry and recording practices: could make for a great in interview.

doak's picture

By the content and tone of some of these comments, one might think the lady was ridiculing your "manhood" or your "one true god." She just likes analog .... and that's "OK."