Joanna Newsom on Harps, Elves and her SF Faves
Joanna Newsom is a serious musician. Don't reference elves and otherworldly creatures or draw comparisons to fairytales—she hates that. She prefers, instead, to pontificate on “patterns of syllabic emphases” and “the emotional landscape of songs,” and rightly so. The indie sensation known for her quirky demeanor, deft composition, intensely literary lyrics and mastery of the harp has perfected the art of marrying classical and contemporary in the most unexpected of ways. Don't mistake her music for the folk-psych chantings of Bonnie (Prince) Billy or Devendra Banhart. Newsom is vastly singular, as evidenced in Have One on Me, her newest 125-minute, three-CD magnum opus of poetry in motion. Here, she puts aside her harp for a few moments to enlighten us on self and song.
You come from a free-thinking, musically inclined family. Did you ever want to rebel against your upbringing?
No. I was that super-weirdo kid who thought her parents were really cool. When I was 12, I went to a fertility empowerment workshop with my mom. We hand-embroidered flannel maxi-pads together. Incidentally, I still think my parents are the best.
Have One On Me sounds poppier than Ys and more polished than The Milk-Eyed Mender. What will the next incarnation of Joanna Newsom be?
I don't know yet. After finishing a record, I sort of feel like I'll never come up with another song. But, so far, at least, it's been the case that, eventually, the impulse to write does kick back in.
You've said that upon recovering from nodes on your vocal chords last year, you realized your “old voice was never coming back.” How has your voice changed?
I suspect it was more a reference to the general, overall changes my voice has undergone in the last few years, rather than any traumatic effect of the dreaded nodes. I can't sing the songs from my first record the way I used to sing them. And there are things I can do now that I couldn't do then. Over the course of a year or so, I found my voice was changing, without any intention or decision on my part, as if there'd been a tiny earthquake underfoot that left me standing a little to the left, or a little to the right, from where I stood before.
You grew up in the small town of Nevada City, have lived in the Bay Area and have played all over the world. Where's your favorite place?
Big Sur. I can't even talk straight when I look at those views. It's beautiful enough to arrest all thought and movement.
What's on your iPod rotation?
Robin Pecknold and I have played some shows together recently, and his new songs are the best I've heard in ages. Also Beach House, Broken Bells, Dirty Projectors and a lot of the new Jay-Z album. I don't have an iPod, but this whole “rotation” idea strikes me as a bit barbaric. It's like having dinner at a table where no one lets anyone else finish his sentence. I like albums.
You've graced magazine covers and modeled for Armani. What do you like most about being in front of the camera?
There is nothing in the whole wide world that I like about being in front of the camera. The only exception I can think of is with my friend Annabel, who seems to have figured out how to take my photo painlessly. She plays Dolly Parton records really loudly, plies me with Champagne, and cracks jokes nonstop.
Joanna's Top 7 SF Picks
1. Mount Davidson is a magical place. The air smells different up there. Dalewood Way and Myra Way, mtdavidson.org
2. Papalote Mexican Grill—I always eat too much there and then fall asleep. 3409 24th St., 415-970-8815, papalote-sf.com
3. Set aside an hour or two to sufficiently browse every perfectly curated corner of Torso Vintages. 272 Sutter St., 415-391-3166, torsovintages.com
4. I used to get a coffee from Spike's in the Castro, then walk up to Kite Hill Park. 4117 19th St., 415-626-5573, spikescoffee.com; 19th and Yukon streets
5. Gypsy Honeymoon for fanciful things like Edwardian tiaras and taxidermy doves. 1266 Valencia St., 415-821-1713
6. I used to just sit on the hood of my car and watch the dogs play at Fort Funston. 500 Skyline Blvd. at John Muir Dr.
7. Michael at Vidal Sassoon. His restraint [from cutting off my long hair] is formidable. 359 Sutter St., 415-397-5103, sassoon.com
Joanna Newsom plays at the Fox Theater on August 2. thefoxoakland.com