If you’ve heard her once, you know the voice. Fragile, playful, original and, okay, childlike, Joanna Newsom sings of sleeping all day, of sprouts and beans, and on first listen you know you’re in the company of something altogether different. Her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, was one of our favourites of 2004. Listening to it over the course of a year, though, we heard more and more influences. I, for example, insist that The Milk-Eyed Mender is a bluegrass album; my colleagues claim it’s music for a hidden people carnival. Given the opportunity to talk with the most distinct recording artist this side of Sigur Rós, we begged for an explanation.
/// You’re flying out here. It seems like you’ve been a part of the scene here for a while, it’s almost a surprise that this is your first visit.
– I’ve been trying to come out for a few years. The impression I get from other musicians is that in order to come out to Iceland you almost have to be invited. A promoter has to take interest. I’ve been making noise about wanting to come out to Iceland for a number of years.
/// You already have a following; I should tell you that Sigur Rós burned a copy of the Grapevine’s Joanna Newsom collection a few months ago to take with them on tour. Actually, Icelandic music, or the plight of Icelandic musicians, comes to mind when I read interviews with you. Why do so many people ask you such bizarre, cute, elf-based questions?
– I actually don’t know why. This is a huge generalisation, but I feel like some people assume certain things about the way I am because of the way the music sounds and therefore certain questions they wouldn’t ask other people come out. And I usually answer them… my interviews often spiral into this bizarre realm.
/// What interests me most about the album I’ve been listening to is the songwriting. There’s a lot of folk and bluegrass influence, but the patterns, the way you play with melodies, you seem to toying a lot with the idea of the basic song. What, for you, is a complete song? What are the benchmarks, a full melody, a tone? Let’s start with other bands. When you listen to music, how do you evaluate success; how do you evaluate a good song?
– I’m not sure. I don’t know. I certainly don’t think it’s as easy for me to tell as it is for some people. I have a friend who can tell within five minutes whether a band should be playing.
Something tends to resonate with me if it is brave enough to strive for something different and singular within a pre-existing form. You know, like watching some version of experimentalism taking place within the confines of song. As opposed to new music or modern composition. Or any of the new idioms.
I went to composition school, and I saw people do very new, avant-garde things, but I’m really interested in doing new things with pre-existing vernacular.
If you’ve read other interviews you’ve probably already heard me talking about Ruth Crawford Seeger. She did the same thing. She went to a very prestigious school in Chicago to study composition and was a very powerful influence and helped establish her own counterpoint methodology. But in her later years she became a big influence in the attempts to catalogue American folk music. All the stuff that the Lomax brothers were doing, she worked with. She put out a book of American folk music for children that was very popular. And she went on to raise these children. Pete Seeger, Peggy Seeger and Michael Seeger. I was looking at her music right before I decamped from composition school. I was trying to find some sort of trajectory.
The huge difference between her and me is that everything I tried to do in experimental music was basically a failure whereas what she did was genius and transcendent.
/// So you had a falling out with composition and moved into the pop and folk world. It seems like the ultimate insult to your school. Like leaving a poetry program to write journalism. How quick was it to switch over?
– There was a major overlap. I’ve been writing music since I was a little kid. That was why I originally went to this school. I’d been talking originally about being a composer. The major shift wasn’t about writing one kind of music to another. The shift was the kind of music before I went to school and the music I was playing just for fun while I was in school had as much worth and interest as the music I was paying a lot of money and spending a lot of hours trying to get some grasp of. I needed to validate the work I had been doing all along.
/// We see this in other art forms. The classic examples are novelists who turn to a straightforward narrative in their forties, or actors who suddenly relax and find their roles.
– Yeah, that’s kind of how it was. I still am. I think it’s also about rediscovering a point off of which I’d like to continue working. It’s not as if I’m there, and everything from there is satisfying to me.
/// Despite being played on independent radio alongside rock acts, you’re coming at music from quite a different perspective. Where would fans of yours go to listen to your influences?
– This wouldn’t be an educated answer. For me what separates experimental new music that I like from what I don’t like is a measure of arbitrariness. But then you’ll see composers like Seeger and Ives and…
/// I’m sorry, Charles Ives? I thought people with book learnin’ looked down on Ives as too Americana.
– I think what Ives was doing was working to create musculature of sound that responded with the American landscape. I thought it was heavy and strong but it was all about rugged cowboys and Indians stuff. In a way I felt like his sound was a caricature of that stuff.
He was among the composers looking for a non-Eurocentric, American-derived sound. So I think he’s worth listening to for that reason. I think he’s more interesting than emotionally important to me.
Lou Harrison is one of my favourites. I love Pauline Oliveros and Fred Frith. (Laughing.) What makes a lot of those guys and gals good is that, in my mind, they have a different relationship with dissonance than the arbitrary experimentalists. Rather than aiming for dissonance and discord, I feel that they redefine. They are creating tensions and resolving them, one of the oldest tricks in the book. But one doesn’t always understand that they’re doing this. You have to unlock it. It makes you feel worthy of the trust you put in them. I feel like I hear a lot of composers and they betray the trust you put in them. Consonance doesn’t have to be easy to find, but it is essential to music.
/// Those names are good starting points for people just getting into composition, and they give a context, definitely. You’re coming on tour just as you’re completing the follow-up to the successful album The Milk-Eyed Mender, right?
– It’s almost done. All of my stuff is already recorded. But it’s got a lot of other stuff left to do. Because this is a very symphonic record. I’m working with a really good arranger. Orchestration is not my strong point. The new songs are really long, the longest song is 16 minutes. There’s going to be five songs and a full-length record. It’ll be a very different approach, with some of the same feeling.
/// What is the feeling of the Joanna Newsom recordings? Can you describe that for readers?
– The feeling I think of certainly isn’t the feeling I heard described by people. But I can respect the different opinions. I’m amazed by the thickness of the skins of many musicians. But I’m actually very thin-skinned.
/// When you come are you going to play the 16-minute song? Might be different than the sing-along show that must occur when you play Sprout and the Bean.
– Recently, I’ve been only playing the long new songs. But I thought since this is my first time to Iceland I should play the songs people know.
Joanna Newsom will perform at Fríkirkjan on May 16th and 18th, playing songs that have dominated iPods across Iceland for the last year, along with new material. Her guests will be Drag City label-mate Smog and Icelanders Slowblow. Tickets are on sale at BT or at www.midi.is.