Joanna Newsom The Harp Wants What It Wants

Joanna Newsom The Harp Wants What It Wants
Photo: Annabel Mehran
If you've ever heard the labyrinthine melodies, the nuanced instrumental arrangements and the dense, poetic lyrics of Joanna Newsom's music, you've probably gotten the sense that Newsom — the pop world's pre-eminent harpist and perhaps one of the most respected songwriters of her generation — takes great care with every aspect of her music.
So naturally, she was annoyed when an early version of the title track from her fourth album, Divers, was recorded live and shared online with the incorrect title "The Diver's Wife."
"It's kind of funny how mad it made me," she laughs over the phone from her California home. "It made me so mad that I almost wanted to join Twitter or something to just be like, 'Stop calling it that!' The reason that really got my dander up is that it's crucial. It crucially changes the meaning."
Newsom's music has always been rich with meaning. Though she debuted with her folksy 2004 full-length, The Milk-Eyed Mender, she set the groundwork for her career since then with Ys in 2006, an hour-long song cycle that turned a tragedy Newsom still won't speak deeply about into five orchestral epics, none shorter than seven minutes, the longest 17.
By the 2010 release of Have One on Me — an 18-song triple-LP inspired partly by the life of revolutionary countess Lola Montez — she'd amassed a devoted, near-obsessive fan base that pored over every note and lyric of her intricate compositions. They waited five long years for a followup.
The lyrically and musically rewarding Divers marks a return to the conventional runtimes of her debut, but retains all the complex orchestral beauty of her lengthier albums. Thematically, it confronts death, love, gender duality and, on first single "Sapokanikan" — whose typically ornate lyrics never repeat and are delivered with such elaborate rhythm and intonation that they'd tongue-tie most rappers — the passage of time. She's loath to discuss the specific meanings of the songs, though.
"It took so long to get the songs right where I felt like I was saying what I wanted to say, and to say anything else on top of that changes the meaning into something more heavy-handed, more clumsy. The lyrics, for me, are complementary to the music. All of it together is a whole, and it's meant to project an immediate sense of meaning and a secondary meaning that sinks in over time."
That might explain why the mistaken inclusion of the word "Wife" in Divers' title track online irked Newsom so much. While she's happy to have her work's meaning interpreted and re-interpreted by fans after it's released — "I can't be a part of that conversation; it's not for me" — until that point, sharing her own vision provides her incentive to create.
"I think probably anyone making music benefits from a slightly neurotic level of self-aggrandizement when it comes to the importance of the task they're doing — we have to convince ourselves that it matters so much that it is sacred," she says before pausing.
"How else are you going to commit to something for five years?"

Read the entirety of this interview below.
You've said that you started working on Divers basically as soon as you finished touring Have One on Me — earlier, even. Looking back now, what was it about this record that made it take so long? Other projects? The refinement of the songs? Or… ?
I'm not sure it was either of those. I think it was the specific nature of this project, which wasn't so much about the refinement of the songs as it was about the multi-part process that each of these songs, and ultimately the whole record, had to pass through. Part of it was that there was a narrative connection in a lot of the songs, and that one of the conceits of this particular record involved a lot of history and research, kind of pulling from a lot of different historical moments or cultural moments.
Lyrically, the editing process and the writing process maybe took a little longer than usual for some of the songs, but I also think a lot of it had to do with the collaborative aspect of the record. It always takes me a while to have the initial conversation with an arranger — which usually just happens once, because in the past, I've worked with a single arranger for an entire album.
On each of the songs on which I worked with an arranger, it was a different one, so a lot of the origin conversations — talking about what the album is about, what role I wanted the particular song in question to play on the album, the ways in which I wanted the instrumental palette to support the narrative — took a while. Each human has a different, very subjective vocabulary when it comes to talking about composition — music in general, I suppose — so that takes some navigation.
I'm sure that with Van Dyke Parks, when you were working on Ys, by the end of it, you'd developed a sort of communicative shorthand, whereas with these, you're starting from scratch with each collaborator.
That's exactly right, yeah. It sounds like a lot of trouble, and maybe with some albums, could be considered more trouble than it's worth, but for this record, it was really important to me to have the instrumental character of each song feel fundamentally different — that they'd be different instruments, but the authorial voices behind the instrumentation keep shifting.
Fans of your music tend to be pretty devoted. Did the expectations of listeners weigh on you at all over the last five years?
When the record was done, maybe. I try, whenever possible, to kind of peel off the part of my mind that's conscious of the reception, the theoretical or future reception of an album. I kind of don't allow my brain to go there when I'm working on a record. That kind of covers the whole thing, whether you want to think of it in terms of "How would I to sell this album?" or "How would I package this album?" or "How will this album be viewed in the context of my other albums?" or "How will it be reviewed?" or "How will the fans like it?" or "What will the people who don't like my music say?"
It's all an afterthought — after it's composed.
It's so not useful to the writing process that I just kind of press pause on it and pretend that nobody will ever hear this record… that it won't be a record. It's not yet a product that will be put out into the world — it's an art project. That obviously sounds incredibly pretentious, but it's a useful way of thinking about it while writing, collaborating, mixing and all that.
You've spoken about the relationship between love and death in relation to Divers — the way love heightens one's awareness of mortality — and it got me thinking about how investment in something — in love, in a career, whatever — changes it, makes it a high-stakes endeavour. Because there's so much invested in it, your music has always felt high-stakes in that way.
For whatever reason, the impetus for writing music has always been so self-generative and kind of private, the stakes have always felt kind of comically high. What I mean to say is, there's a certain self-delusion to feeling like the stakes are incredibly high; if you're an 18-year-old working at Buffalo Exchange and coming home to make these intense harp epics that no one is listening to, that's a weird point in life to feel like the stakes are life and death, but that's how it felt then, and it feels that way now.
You referred to the making of Ys as something "sacred" to you, and I thought that word choice was indicative of how you see what you do.
Sure. Part of what made Ys so sacred was that it was very much prompted by the loss of a friend, and that made it feel like there couldn't be anything false on the record, or flimsy, or substance-less. The standard was so high in my mind, because even when the songs weren't about the person who I had lost, they were still for the person I had lost, if that makes sense. There was sacredness to that act.
But yeah, I think probably anyone making music sort of benefits from a slightly neurotic level of self-aggrandizement when it comes to the importance of the task they're doing. We have to convince ourselves that it matters so much that it is sacred. How else are you going to commit to something for five years?
You said in a recent interview, about the references and double-meanings in your lyrics, that "Those are for me." I liked that firstly because it's indicative of your love for your craft, but also because I feel like it brings up an interesting point about music's ability to communicate feeling. Music can make you feel so many emotions, and in a way, lyrics kind of contradict that — they too often simply spell out the meaning. They can almost be… I don't want to say secondary — it's not the right word. Is that why you're so protective of the meaning behind your songs? I know you don't love to talk about the specificities of song meanings.
I totally agree with the point I think you're getting at. I wouldn't say that the lyrics are secondary, but that one word more is too many. The lyrics, for me, are complementary to the music, and the lyrics, plus the instrumentation, plus the additions and subtractions and atmosphere that are given by the decisions made during the mixing process, all of it together is a whole, and it's meant to project an immediate sense of meaning and a secondary meaning that sinks in over time.
The reason I hate talking about meaning in the lyrics is that I feel like it spoils everything. It ruins it! It took so long to get the songs right where I felt like I was saying what I wanted to say, and to say anything else on top of that isn't spoiling it in the sense of giving away the secret, but it changes the meaning into something more heavy-handed, more clumsy, less multi-layered; it throws the balance off. It takes the magic away, it takes the life away and turns it into a math equation, somehow.
And cuts off the chance for readers to make their own meaning from the text.
Right, absolutely.
Writing about you for NPR, Ann Powers noted that, "on Divers she does ultimately seem to come down on the side of a feminized ability to make life even under the weight of mortality. She repeatedly contrasts the cyclical, seemingly freer or at least more independent lives of female figures with the experiences of men driven toward heroic tasks, including war. Her women walk, they labour, but they also wait and wonder after men." Is that something you've purposely confronted on this album? It feels like you're confronting a more feminized perspective here that started on Have One On Me.
I definitely think it's accurate for Have One On Me. On Have One On Me, the narrator was saturated with female-ness. The narrator was a concentrated version of a feminized aspect of me, as a writer. Whether that's fiction or speaking to my own life, I was completely inhabiting that part of my writerly voice. There are moments on this record that I think touch a similar place, but the narrator on this record kind of keeps changing; it's a very fluid narrator, jumping from perspective to perspective, and voice to voice.
Was there any intent to explore those things in response to the social or political climate today? I ask partly because when you first started performing the song "Divers" live, it was referred to as "The Diver's Wife." That change feels loaded with intent — it feels political, almost.
I should stop you there — it was never called "The Diver's Wife," and the first time I played it live, I introduced it and said, "This song is called 'Divers.'" Somebody recorded it and put it on the Internet and said, "The Diver's Wife!" and just left off the part where I called it "Divers."
My apologies.
The reason that really got my dander up is that it's crucial. It crucially changes the meaning.
It does! I just asked a question fully based on that!
[Laughs] It's kind of funny how mad it made me. It made me so mad that I almost wanted to join Twitter or something to just be like, "Stop calling it that!" Like, nothing infuriates me more than having words put in my mouth, which happens on a daily basis.
I'm sorry about the song title misreading — from what I could tell, you made the name change.
It's okay! The thing about gender on this record is, one of the things I keep coming back to, is duality. Not so much binary opposition, but actually duality, twinning. If you look at the lyrics on Divers, there's a lot of twinning, and there's a lot of navigation of the border between the man and the woman, and the sea and shore. That song is partially about gender, but part of the impetus of that song was something that I haven't seen anyone touch on yet. I don't think I even want to go into it, because eventually, someone is going to write something about this song that is going to begin to explore part of what the song meant to me. But it's very linked, the whole record. It's partly linked to gender identity and what it means to be a woman or to be a man in the context of our existence and our time.
I know you read your reviews, interviews and such much less regularly than you once did, but I'm curious if you ever read it nowadays and think, "Man, this person gets it!" Do you ever get to read the heartening stuff?
Yeah, definitely! I have an awesome circle of friends and family who send me stuff that they think will be interesting to me. I've lost Internet privileges in my house, so I'm not allowed to just open the computer and go, "Well, let's see what's out there today!" I can't do that. But, there's some incredible writing that I've been directed to that's hugely heartening and makes me… It reminds me that there is a relationship. There are people — oh my gosh, what is her name? This amazing woman, this writer, she has this blog called Blessing All the Birds. [The blog is actually written by two writers; their names are Melissa Marturano and Rachel Parent.] She has written a few things that people have sent to me, and I just think she's brilliant. She hosts a blog that is basically giving space for a type of analysis for my music that hadn't really been done up until that point. It was basically the first time anybody actually was hearing what I was trying to write. In a way, at that moment in time, when that was sent to me — I don't want to be too dramatic here — but I did have a sense, like, "Those are my guardian angels!" It was one of those moments where I was like, "Well, if I was to die tomorrow, I'd at least know that there are some people out there who have taken what I did and framing it in a way that I can always be grateful for." That was hugely heartening. But also, I think it's not totally for me. Even the good stuff, the amazing stuff that could make my day — I kind of have to extricate myself from that. I can't be a part of that conversation; it's not for me. It's kind of a sacred space for people who aren't me!
That's an interesting, and maybe correct, way of seeing it. Certainly, I'm never writing a review of an album so that the artist will read it — it's so that, if I'm writing positively, readers might see it and say, "I really want to listen to this album," or "I've heard this album and this guy really gets it." I can't really tell Joanna Newsom anything about her album she doesn't know.
[Laughs] Right. Yeah.
Your music is often called "timeless." Would you say that that's a goal of yours? To make timeless art? Or, I suppose, what's the ultimate goal of yours, through creating music?
I mean, writing music is kind of a compulsion. I'm not really thinking about what it will do when it's not in my hands any more. In a way, it's the opposite of timeless. It's like cooking a meal, a meal that you hope will be amazing, a meal that you want to be extravagant, that you will feed your loved ones, and they'll eat. And I don't think past that point because… you know. Things get gross.
The important part could just simply be that you made it. The interesting thing about that analogy is that in it, you've made the meal for others to taste. Is that the case with your music? Or is it more important, at the end of it all, that you made something that you're proud of?
I think that if you asked a chef, they would say the same thing. We're so used to thinking of food and cooking as being for the recipient, for the person who ate it, but I think for a chef, it's all the same thing. It's all one act — a continuous, drawn-out act in multiple steps.
When you're preparing a meal, you're not in that moment thinking about it being eaten; you're thinking about the plating, and the beauty, and you have to be completely present. You're watching — there has to be the perfect sphere on the bake, and every single element has to be perfect. It's very Zen; you're creating this thing that is putting your soul into a product, and when it's done, you bring it out and you get the joy of watching someone eat it. Then it's gone; it's done.
Then it's back to the kitchen.
Yeah! [Laughs]