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Slaying Fraudulent Vampires:
JOANNA NEWSOM: Highlights from 20 Interviews (2006)

Highlights from 20 Interviews (2006)

Photograph by Amy Cobden


Friday, October 27, 2006

By Katie Hasty

The following interview with Joanna Newsom originally ran in Issue 28: 20 Interviews


Armed with a Celtic harp and an incomparable voice, Joanna Newsom hit the independent music world with a pluck and a warble. First playing keyboards in San Francisco’s the Pleased, this Nevada City, California native began her solo adventures in 2002 with the self-released collection, Walnut Whales. She combined elements of folk, classical and pop with the whimsy of lullabies, and scored an opening spot for Bonnie “Prince” Billy and signed to Drag City Records shortly thereafter.

After the critical calamity over 2004’s full-length The Milk-Eyed Mender, the dainty songwriter returns with Ys. While her second album has only five tracks, each song’s epic length and breathtaking heft of full orchestral arrangements churns into a substantial and compelling work. Newsom agreed to a rare interview with STOP SMILING via email, her preferred medium.

Question 1: What were you hoping to evoke differently on Ys than what you did on Milk-Eyed Mender?

Joanna Newsom: This will sound strange, considering how different this album ended up being, but I didn’t set out to do something different. That’s not really a huge musical value for me — the idea that someone should reinvent themselves with each new album. I think that expectation detracts from actual musical values. But this album had its seed in one or two little ideas, which in turn begged some pretty large changes. The things I wanted to write about — the ideas I was interested in — demanded longer songs; the particular form and structure these longer songs took demanded a denser musical texture, i.e., an orchestra. The things I wanted to be able to do with that orchestra demanded the presence of an “outsider” to help with arrangements, because I didn’t feel capable of creating the sounds I wanted to create, with my own limited orchestration abilities, hence Van Dyke Parks’s participation. Q2: Do you think Steve Albini, who engineered the record, and Jim O’Rourke, who mixed it, brought out the best in the recordings?

JN: When it comes to capturing the live sound of acoustic instruments, Albini is hands-down the best recording engineer working today. So, for this record, he did what he does best: He made the harp sound like itself and he made me sound like me. Jim O’Rourke did an amazing job mixing the record. Dan Koretzky, the owner of Drag City, at one point mentioned to me that he thought that, to some extent, the mix was going to “make or break” the record, and I think he was right. There’s so much going on, and I think mixing the thing properly required good judgment and vision and musicality, which Jim has in great excess. I think every choice he made during the mixing process was made to uphold, substantiate, buoy, sharpen, reiterate or complement the songs. This was so important. I love the arrangements so much that I might have allowed them to be too big in the mix, in a way that would suffocate the songs themselves. That wasn’t what I wanted, of course. But I think I’d spent so much time immersed in the minutiae of the project that I sometimes didn’t remember what needed to be done in order to protect the spirit of the original songs. And Jim was unflinching in that effort.

Q3: What are critics’ and fans’ biggest misconceptions about you?

JN: I think some people perceive me to be part of a movement or something that I don’t really associate myself with. I think there’s a lot of fakery, a lot of posturing — a handful of kids who just latched on to what they saw as a scene, and set themselves industriously to the synthesis of a particular vibe. I’m pretty insulted when I occasionally get credited in the press for having anything to do with the dissemination of that vibe. I keep to myself. I have friends in my hometown, and a few in other places, but I’m not part of some epic, bracelet-clanking, eyes-rolled-back, blasé, nihilistic scenester cult. I’ve seen some awful displays, let me tell you. I’ve gone to some shows that have left me feeling heartbroken about the state of music. A soulless, mindless, watered-down, image-obsessed, artless stab at John Fahey or Marc Bolan or Karen Dalton or Donovan or Vashti Bunyan is no less lame than Nickelback. There are so many kids who have this energy — you can tell they were into electro-clash five minutes ago, or whatever was big in Williamsburg or Berlin at the time, and now they’ve grown their beards out and they’re doing this thing that they think they understand, but they don’t understand it at all.

I know that’s a bitchy thing to say, but the discussion of this issue requires my being a bitch for a minute. I’m sick of being blamed for bad music. Or associated with bad music. That said, there are plenty of people I’m honored to be mentioned in the same sentence as. I’m not trying to dismiss an entire type of music, just fraudulent vampires.

Some of the many wonderful people playing music at this moment in time who do get grouped into that same genre (and accused of being part of the same questionable “movement”) include Josephine Foster, who is gorgeous — the most incredible, knowing, brilliant songwriting, and always backed by interesting instrumentation and fueled by a true, genuine spirit: uncompromising and not influenced by trends or whatever; Andy Cabic, the singer and leader of Vetiver, and, I think, a genius, capable of putting together a “perfect” song, the old-fashioned way, like Neil Young or Randy Newman; Kevin Barker from Currituck Co. — one of my big inspirations as far as being a good person goes, and also a transcendentally good guitar player; Espers, a group of true musicians, and also, I think, music nerds — in the best possible sense — who probably, side by side, have the best record collection in the country; Shearwater; Noah Georgeson, the guy who recorded my first album and Devendra Banhart’s Cripple Crow, and just produced the new Bert Jansch record — he’s also a classically trained composer and writes lovely songs; Ryan Francesconi, who records all sorts of music under the name RF, and is also a complete scholar and master of Bulgarian music; Six Organs of Admittance — I toured with Ben Chasney and was in awe of his songwriting ethic and his approach to playing guitar; Helena Espval, the cellist from Espers, who has her own amazing solo project; Vashti Bunyan, whose new record is so good, and who is, I think, an actual angel; Little Wings — completely original, oft-ripped-off music that makes me laugh out loud in delight, and not because it’s “funny”; the Blow; Mirah, and many other people. There’s so much good stuff, but there’s terrible stuff, too. I hate when it all gets lumped together.

People in the same dubious “genre” who have been playing music since before this whole “scene” was being championed, and whose music I love, include Smog, Michael Hurley, Loren Mazzacane-Connors, Neutral Milk Hotel, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Matt Sweeney, Sir Richard Bishop and Ghost.

Q4: Your new record has leaked on the Internet. How do you feel about illegal downloading, and have you done it much yourself?

JN: No. I didn’t really know how, and I didn’t spend much time on the Internet. Now I do spend more time on the Internet, but it’s mostly e-mail. I’m not too computer-literate. I don’t really know how people download music. It’s all very mysterious.

Honestly, I don’t want to sound snobby, but I pretty much just try to listen to vinyl and buy vinyl records. I listen to CDs in my car, and those are all store-bought, mostly on road trips and tours. But I just moved into a new place, and I vowed I would not have a CD player in the house. I think it’s more restful on the ears and conducive to happiness for me if there are no crispy digital noises indoors. Only analog. And there’s no downloading analog.

As far as how I feel about it — honestly, I don’t feel like I understand the issues enough to really know the extent to which illegal downloading negatively affects me. Or doesn’t. I’d like people to hear my music, and I think there are people who can’t or don’t want to pay money for music, and if there was no way to download the songs they’d just burn their friends’ CDs. If they like my music, I’d rather they hear it than not hear it. Of course I want to make a living and everything. At the same time, I think musicians’ griping about illegal downloading has gotten silly. You know, millionaire pop and rock groups complaining about being victimized. I feel like, once they’ve gotten so out of touch with any sense of gratitude that anybody would even want to hear their music in the first place — when they’d rather people not listen to their music at all than listen for free — that seems pretty awful to me.

That said, I’m real happy with the design of the album, and I have a really specific sequence in which I’d like the songs to be heard, and I would prefer people have the physical album with the liner notes and artwork and proper sequencing and everything. I think anybody who makes any sort of creative work has an ideal context in which they’d like that work to be viewed or heard or received, in the same way that a painter has a preference about how and where a particular work should be hung, and whether the wall behind the painting should be white or brick, smooth or textured. I would like people to experience it as an album.

Q5: You requested to do this interview via e-mail and don’t do many interviews. Why is that?

JN: I say silly things on the phone. I get nervous and say things I don’t really mean. I like to be able to think over what I’m trying to say. But I’ve noticed that I also say a lot of silly things in e-mail interviews. So I’m not sure why exactly I prefer e-mail. Maybe it seems less likely that I’ll be misquoted this way. I’ve been misquoted a few too many times now. Makes me paranoid.


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