Joanna Newsom by Roy Harper

BOMB 116 Summer 2011
116 20Cover
Joanna Newsom 1

Photo by Annabel Mehran.

I first learned of Joanna Newsom when I read a review in the UK’s Observer six years ago. I was initially struck by her beauty, and I was inspired by knowing that she was “in the world.” I fell in love with the whole idea of her—not only did she look like the prototype shadow woman I’ve been chasing all my life, but she was saying the things I had always wanted that woman to say, e.g., “Even if no one else knows what you’re talking about, [as a writer] you do.” I realized straight away that there were only a few million men who thought the same thing of her, so it wasn’t an absolutely lost cause, although my age did, in fact, put me some way down the list.

Inevitably, her records came into the house and confirmed everything I thought about her. Eighteen months later I got an email out of the blue. “Hi, I am Joanna Newsom’s agent. She is a big fan of Roy’s and would love him to ‘special guest’ for her at the Royal Albert Hall on Fri 28th Sept. 2007.” What luck! I was going to meet someone of whom I already thought the world. She wildly enthused from a box at the Royal Albert Hall as I played Stormcock (1971) for her. I was, in turn, transported by her set. In the time I’ve known her, she’s been absolutely lovely, and I’m sure she has been instrumental in awaking interest in my songs again. I can only thank her deeply, and reflect on the obvious humanity in the whole of her output.

She’s a wonderful addition to a widening genre of transatlantic exchange that’s been ongoing since the first European folk songs were sung on the American continent. “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” from The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004) heralded a modern voice that sounds eerily primitive, like it’s been here for thousands of years. Conversely, “Cosmia” from the album Ys(2006) is touchingly American, largely because of Van Dyke Parks’s string arrangement, which gives a voice from Arcadia the classic ethos of a Maxfield Parrish painting with wisps of Aaron Copeland thrown in. And, finally, in “Good Intentions Paving Company” from Have One On Me (2010), I’m entertained by the subtly reflective pangs of a tense love journey that seems to be over, but spills further over into a dark humor that makes it seem like a song from a night so black it tried to play possum!

Roy Harper I can understand your not having a proper grown-up harp until just recently. I’ve searched for a guitar for a lifetime, and never found one. I’ve got about ten pieces of assorted wood hanging around, all of them with imperfections. Is this is a sign of continuous stupidity, vocational disillusionment, relentless search for inspiration, or combinations? Answers on a postcard please. Can you look in my mirror for me? (A good song title.)

Joanna Newsom Hmm. Finally buying my own harp was less about reconciliation with some unobtainable instrumental ideal, and more about reconciliation with the unfortunate reality that nobody was going to just give me a harp. I ended up receiving a discount from the good folks at Lyon and Healy in exchange for my endorsement, but it still hurts to pay that much for anything, you know? It had always made more sense to pay a fraction of what a new harp would cost and rent one. I was reserving the elevated musical experience of a quality harp for recording and performing—all the outward expressions of music. Buying a harp seemed to coincide with a moment when I needed to value my private musical life as much as I value my public, workaday musical life.

As for you, Roy, when you say you’ve never found a guitar, what does that mean? What do you play on tour? What do you record with? These pieces of wood lying around your house—are they in pre- or post-lutherie state? Considering the unparalleled music you’ve written in your life without the assistance of a guitar you love, I’m afraid of what will happen when you finally find it. You’ll play the first note, and poof! Green flame.

RH I have problems! I can still get most of the foolish top notes I used to write into vocals, but I’d need a 24-hour break between each note! (Or castration.) Consequently, to sing the old songs, I now tune the guitar down two and sometimes three semitones. This makes the average guitar with medium gauge strings sound like a mechanical fart machine. To make the strings tighter again, I need to use very heavy strings. Not a lot of guitars can take this— I use two Scottish guitars (Freshman) for live because I’ve got a decent sound out of them, but they’re as narrow as a Fender Stratocaster in the neck, which isn’t ideal for an acoustic guitar. I’ve got further problems in that I’ve long since started writing in these lower tunings. This could be a book about tearing my hair out … aaaaiieeeeee!

JN That’s so surprising to hear. I wouldn’t have guessed from your performances that the songs have been tuned down. The high sung notes still sound as otherworldly—as beautiful as they do on your records, and the guitar stuff is epic. I was a composition-school dropout, so I have a good ear for mechanical fart machines and believe I can speak with authority in this case.

RH I’ll be hoping to put you through the test again soon then! Do you think your lyrics would be different if you played a different instrument? They seem to be a little different when you play the piano, for instance.

JN I do. Because the lyrical forms are governed by the swing and weight of the instrumental arrangement, and that varies depending on whether I’m playing harp or piano. A song’s structure builds outward, for me, from the idea of tension rising up between the syllabic emphases in the lyrical line, and the rhythmic and melodic emphases in the metric line.

RH What do you think has been gained and lost through the increasingly ambitious scope of your albums? There would seem to be more orchestration, for instance. Do you miss the immediacy of your earlier work, such as The Milk-Eyed Mender?

JN This is a real hot topic for me, Roy. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I’m trying to write again. When people talk to me about my last three albums, they always seem to invoke a sort of trajectory, some traceable, stepwise evolution from sparseness to density or from simplicity to adornment. Yet, for me, the differences from record to record don’t follow a linear progression; the albums are three unrelated sets of ideas sprung up from the rubble of the spent ideas that preceded them. My basic creative assumptions tend to shift every few years in the wake of some levee-breaking accretion of new biases, longings, habits, preoccupations, mythologies, fears, superstitions, demystifications, heresies, tics, values, attachments, grudges, vices, diversions, avocations, sources of inspiration and of discouragement. I always end up in the same place after I finish recording and touring an album: devoid of ideas, and afraid I won’t be able to write anything worthwhile again. One of the first thoughts to flicker into that void tends to be, How can I make my next work relate to what preceded it? I usually make a plan, which later reveals itself to be moot, but to which I cling for a little while, in a talismanic sense.

The plan might be, for example, a “return to immediacy” (per a suggestion from the great Roy Harper). Then I’d set out and try to write those songs, and they’d be comically different from how I’d planned them. As much as I dislike the tired comparison of songs to one’s children, I do think the futility of my “planning” a record is similar to the futility of choosing the hair color and gender of one’s unborn child. To set out a conceptual blueprint for an album, and follow it meticulously and unerringly, seems like building a model airplane—something with no life. I always feel bound to make some concession to Providence, whether worshipful or superstitious—the source of unborn life, in humanity and the humanities. This is a very roundabout way of answering your question, or maybe avoiding it, but what I’m getting at is that the accepted theory of my albums being marked by an “increasingly ambitious scope” doesn’t ring true for me in the first place. The songs are always too much of a mystery for me to plot them along a creative time line.

RH I agree with that, but I often find that I’ve set myself a mood that eventually predominates, which is okay.

JN I’d say that’s true for me too. At least, it usually turns out to have been true, after the fact.

RH I was very influenced by long poems and symphonies when I was very young, and that sort of an influence still motivates me because I have an impulse to deal in epic forms. What would you say are your influences in writing long?

JN Well, the long form was what I began with before I was a singer or ever wrote lyrics. For the first eight or so years of my musical life, the songs were always around ten minutes in length. I thought I was following some sort of formal template, connected to what I viewed as the work of a “Composer.” Even once I had begun writing lyrics and singing, as with the earliest versions of The Milk-Eyed Mender songs, the results were quite lengthy; I cut them all down when making the first album. By the time I was working on Ys, though, it felt important to realize some of those old forms that were most natural to me, especially in the context of the story I wanted to tell with that second record. The process of writing those songs was like shucking off the weight of everything I thought a record had to be, conventionally speaking, and tracing the kernel of a story back through this mosaic, five-song form. Then my friends Zach and Kevin heard those Ys songs in early, demoed forms and told me I had to hear your record Stormcock. That was the beginning of the rabbit hole for me and your music.Stormcock quickly became, and has remained, my favorite album. There must have been a solid two years in particular when I didn’t listen to anything except Roy Harper. So of course you have influenced the way I write, especially in terms of how those expansive song lengths can be navigated and structured, and pushed and pulled between instrumentation and leanness.

RH Thanks, Joanna. I feel responsible. You might well find that you’re still as able to retrace your steps to the subtle satire of “The Good Intentions Paving Company,” in your latest albumHave One on Me, because in some way it sticks its tongue out at the world (perhaps second nature to us all), but what about keeping up with the allegorical voice as on songs like “Sprout and the Bean” from The Milk-Eyed Mender?

JN There are definitely older songs that I have trouble playing nowadays. But that has less to do with the inaccessibility of those songs’ allegorical components than with the inaccessibility of their narrative voice. In general, though, I find I can at least empathize with the person I was when I wrote a song at age 18 or 19. What about you, Roy? When you play a song you wrote 20 or 30 years ago, do you become the person you were when you wrote the song or do you observe the person you were then from your current perspective?

RH One or two songs have been left behind an age ago, because they’ve been written over by better songs, but I still sing some of the very old songs. “Black Clouds” (1966) is a song for my first wife, who is very sadly no longer with us. When I sing it, I’m back there with her in that first “out in the dangerous world” atmosphere that a lot of young people experience. It’s a vivid musical diary entry that I’ll always be able to relive. The political/philosophical songs are all still valid also. It’s just a matter of pointing out a new relevance to an audience for a particular song. I can power the old with the new—always best done with a bit of humor.

Allusions to ancient and pagan myths, folk tales, and Americana make your songs seem to belong in a timeless era. Their popularity may be said to be tapping into a widespread longing for something other than pop culture, while their poetry is sometimes set in Restoration or Victorian English. Timelessness and Restoration English would apparently present themselves as mutually exclusive elements, but obviously they’re not. What’s your take on this?

JN One definition of a unique writing voice—and there are many in music—might be an instinctive and natural semantic reconciliation of two or more seemingly incommensurable stylistic elements. That’s all art or science can do now, synthesize things we haven’t yet synthesized. Until we discover life on Mars, or Jens Hannemann puts out another educational musical DVD, I guess.

RH How much of an escape do you think music should provide from “perceived” reality? And how much would you like to concur that for countless millennia it has provided that necessary escape from, or an alternative to, the naked reality of ourselves?

JN Ha. No matter what the lyrical content of my songs is, it’s a losing battle at this point to try to make albums unanchored by the times in which they’re conceived. My songs might not be littered with references to Twitter and Angry Birds, but they still fix me as irremovably in this decade as Daniel Day-Lewis’s hilarious shirt in Last of the Mohicans fixes him in 1992 and not the 1750s. I don’t aspire to write in a voice that is outside time; I just write about what is interesting and moving to me. That said, we certainly do need as much escape from “perceived” reality as art or science might afford us, and I do think the specific act of playing an instrument can situate one oddly outside of time. The simple act of sitting at the instrument and playing at will has a gooey, disjunctive effect on my own reality that I’ve only ever experienced elsewhere in the act of sprinting as fast as I can at the end of a very long run.

RH How much do you obey your body?

JN I obey the body’s loudest voices without question, which tends to involve a certain amount of explicit heedlessness toward the quietest voices.

RH Clothes are very important for me. Are they for you? Do you think that once you have method-researched a part you can carry off wearing the clothes for it and play it successfully “in character”? As yourself, of course.

JN Sure! My records have all been narrated by an entity, who was “me,” essentially, but selectively magnified in certain characteristics, or modified by the omission of certain qualities, and thus fictionalized in the way that writers of fiction say as much about themselves as do writers of autobiographies. So this narrator, this composite of fiction and truth—a stylized, exaggerated, playing-to-the-back-row embodiment of the themes and stories on the record—needs a costume.

RH What’s your favorite kind of character?

JN It changes, always. But I will tell you this: there’s a slim little deck of cards constituting the available archetypes, and, in a public capacity, I have used three.

RH What kind of clothes do you like the best?

JN I love dresses, especially good vintage from the early ’70s–Yves Saint Laurent and Ossie Clark, and anything in silk, printed crepe, or chiffon. I love polka dots, peplums, cap sleeves, tea lengths, cloth-covered buttons, high heels, and wide belts. Everything I buy has to have a waist that fits; that’s the only design element about which I’m completely inflexible.

RH Do you buy things you think are fantastic and then never wear them, like me?

JN My most fantastic and strange things almost always end up being worn. It’s the “practical” things that tend to hang forlornly, with tags still attached, in my closet for years.

RH How much of a part do you think your personal beauty plays in your vision of life?

JN Well, Roy, the phrasing of your question makes it seem like that beauty thing is a given, which is nice of you, although not necessarily the consensus. Certain aspects of physical appearance are mutable, boiling down to mere decisions, and, to the extent that those decisions operate as elements of an artistic project, I consider them valuable. All my three record covers depicted “me” in an allegorical setting—embroidered, on the first album cover; painted, on the second; and then photographed on the third. In each case, there are factors relating to physical appearance that can be tempered to underscore the spirit of the album and the identity of its narrator. The photo on the cover of Have One on Me was modeled after typical Orientalist fantasy-figure iconography, like an odalisque or a Venus in Furs—a sort of cartoonish amalgamation of feminine signifiers stylized to illustrate the Lacanian idea “Woman is a symptom of man.” Annabel Mehran, the photographer, used black-and-white film that the artist Becca Mann later hand-tinted over with watercolors. The idea was to mock-up a shabby, 1920s Parisian studio with an absinthe-dulled lady posing on a divan in bits of old drapery fabric, and then paint over the resulting tableau into some idealized, Technicolor, hedonistic fantasy set. The specifically female, earthbound, corporeal, and decadent character in that album art reflects the character of those songs’ narrator as well as the idea of feminine self-diminishment. That was a definite application of the idea of beauty. I don’t know whether that specific application could have any reason to occur again for me creatively. I have no idea who the narrator of my next record will be, and whether there will be a clear physical embodiment of that character.

RH There will be one, though, knowing you. Whether that narrator is obvious or not will be another thing. I absolutely love the Parisian idea—it now further informs my enjoyment of the songs. I had a signal experience when I first tried to release my record HQ in the US. The picture on the front cover was of me walking on water in jeans, long hair, and an urban cowboy shirt. I thought that it nailed a sense of humor necessary as almost an antidote to the more serious content of the record. I was told that under no circumstances would a record with that cover ever be released in the US, which blew that record campaign out of the water before it was even floated! Careers live and die on the whims of record company executives.

JN Or else quietly limp along on the tolerant arm of a weirdo indie label! But either way, I do think the phenomenon of notoriety, on any level—even the tiniest, briefest little flicker of fame—carries with it a touch of original sin, that shame of witnessing your own exposedness, seeing your appearance as it’s seen by the rest of the world. Right now we’re deep in a shit storm of new, uncontainable, un-chartable ethnographic data concerning the surging pervasiveness of the Internet, the perception of self, and the validation of the soul. And we’re still many years away from a moment that’s historically quiet enough for anyone to comb through and begin making sense of it all.

RH Yet what kind of sense could be made that would enable that quieter moment to arrive “after” the deluge we now face is, in effect, over? Who will or could ever pick up the burned-out torch and run with it to create an “after” in which to enjoy that hypothetical quieter moment we crave? Can we possibly deem to plant the seed of that sublime hope? That quieter moment is surely happening now, in the moment we snatch to catch a breath in the crashing din of the mania for “next” and the frantic dash to keep up, not fall behind the curve with the churchwardens of the analog apocalypse.

JN You never know, one of these days those churchwardens of the analog apocalypse might mutate into postapocalyptic holy warriors, chucking Edison wax cylinders stuffed with improvised aural incendiaries over the parameters of the iTunes bunker …

RH Jeez! Didn’t I already do that? I remember it well! Out there in the trenches, all these campaign medals, but then I finally succumbed … I’ve just done the dirty deal with iTunes, after all these years of holding out against such piracy. Bollocks! As we say in Olde England. What shame I face? As for you, my blessed lovely, that “shame of witnessing your own exposedness” can be, I think, largely permissible as a facet of solo performance. I suffer severe self-deprecation for even getting onto a stage, and some stultifying postmortems for what I do on it, but I still do it, so I know what you mean. But “the rest of the world” hails the beautiful storyteller. Performance is perhaps some kind of a healing drug for my often-faltering self-esteem. I defer to your profound humility, Joanna, but beauty is always in the eye of the beholder. The unfailing consensus of one.

Roy Harper emerged from the generation of troubadours who came of age in the folk clubs of London in the mid-1960s. His body of work comprises 23 studio LPs, among them the legendary Stormcock of 1971, and almost as many live and compilation releases. Now officially retired, he lives in a secluded corner of Ireland. Harper has recently been hailed as a key influence by a much younger generation of devoted musicians, including Joanna Newsom. In previous decades he has enjoyed tributes from the likes of Led Zeppelin, Kate Bush, Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour, and others.

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Originally published in

BOMB 116, Summer 2011

Featuring interviews with Francis Alÿs, Binyavanga Wainaina, Simon Van Booy and Siri Hustvedt, Natalia Almada, Joanna Newsom, Scott Shepherd, and Mickalene Thomas.

Read the issue
116 20Cover