Joanna Newsom looks at her fingers and can’t help but fret about what the forthcoming week has in store. It starts this afternoon, when she leaves her Newcastle hotel for a six hour rehearsal with the Northern Sinfonia. Away from her beloved pedal harp, a fortnight in Argentina with her family has softened her callouses. Even if her cuticles stay intact today, three shows in six days may yet call for extreme measures. “I have put superglue on them before – and, at a pinch, that works. But blisters need time to heal and with another month of touring after Britain, that’s one luxury I don’t have.”
The words are uttered not so much in self-pity, but with the pragmatism of someone familiar with that pain barrier. The pain is expected. Harder to deal with is the gale of flattery directed Newsom’s way since the release of her second album Ys – five songs whose narrative and musical scope suggest that, in years to come, this may be come to be seen as the Astral Weeks or Hounds Of Love of its generation. Emptying two sachets of sugar into her latte, she smiles, “I never really know what to say, but mostly, it depends on the context.”
In the context of Los Angeles’ Roosevelt Hotel just over a year ago, Newsom cried tears of disbelief after Van Dyke Parks – the man who, lest we forget, co-conceived The Beach Boys’ Smile – interrupted her flow to declare that he wanted to work on the album. Newsom had just performed Emily – the twelve-minute letter addressed to her younger sister, which opens Ys and sets out the album’s vast thematic boundaries: the childhood intimacies which bind people through life, the redemptive power of love and nature. It sounds like a literate but overheated memory desperately ordering a lifetime of recollections into any sort of comprehensible order: “Anyhow, I sat by your side, by the water/You taught me the names of the stars overhead, that I wrote down in my ledger.” Six months previously, she had premiered the song to an audience which included her sister at the 2005 Green Man festival. On that occasion, it had been her sister’s turn to cry. “She didn’t say very much,” recalls Newsom, “but I think she just hugged me and said thank you.”
Back at the Roosevelt Hotel, Newsom was mortified that she had so dramatically lost her composure before one of her musical heroes. But the way she tells it, it sounds as though Parks was having similar trouble. She won’t quote his reaction directly, “in case, he feels differently about it now”, but the telling detail, as related, by the amused 24 year-old, is that of Parks’ wife sitting next to him, apparently, saying, “Let her finish, dear. She went to all the trouble to rent this harp.” Nevertheless, at the end of a “a surreal day”, Newsom commenced the eight hour drive back to her Nevada hometown and thrust herself into a kind of denial – embarrassed that she “had just cried in front of this poor man who had taken time out of his busy schedule to listen.” She decided that what Parks probably meant was that he might enter “a kind of mentorship, in which we might work together over the years. I didn’t even tell my friends about it.”
You can hardly blame Newsom for keeping her own counsel when it comes to her lofty musical aspirations. The history of singing harpists in popular music pretty much begin and ends with the Celtic harp played by Incredible String Band’s Robin Williamson. As for the huge, pedal-driven classical version, Newsom is forging virgin territory. With this lack of precedents in mind, the teenage Newsom – raised in a family of classical musicians – told herself that she might, with a bit of luck, go into composition. But when she dropped out of the composition program at Mills College in San Francisco to embark on a creative writing course, events swiftly gathered their own momentum. “As soon as I did that,” she recalls, “I found myself gravitating toward song forms a lot more. It felt really intuitive to start writing more words, and I felt more open to the possibility of singing.”
Though it probably didn’t feel that way at the time, her biggest leap of faith involved burning a few CD-Rs to solicit advice and opinions from friends. Though it’s a voice that has famously polarized critics – detractors uniformly put it somewhere between Lisa Simpson and Bjork – Newsom’s chums were more diplomatic. Or maybe they just liked it. Given that her boyfriend at the time was Noah Georgeson – guitarist, producer and best friend to the outsider-folk deity Devendra Banhart – it was probably the latter. So did Will Oldham, who happened upon the CD-R and passed it on to Chicago indie imprint Drag City.
Though she remains friendly with Banhart, the mere mention of his name on this sunny Saturday afternoon, is enough to make the skies momentarily darken. Whatever you care to name this new uprising of acoustic music that has helped propel Newsom and Banhart to wider acclaim – nu-folk, strange folk, acid folk – Newsom is eager to draw a line between it and her. “I’ve gotten real prickly about this drawing of connections from artist to artist. I love what Devendra’s doing, but in the case of certain others, it’s a comparison that offends me. A lot of what I see out there is a real, smug, knowing otherness. And meanwhile, I’m like…”
In what might be an all-time first, words momentarily fail her. “…singing your guts out?” I venture.
“Exactly. Really honestly trying to delight in discovering new things that my voice can do.” The charge of intentional otherness, of course, is something against Newsom has occasionally had to defend herself from those who simply couldn’t believe this was how someone would choose to present their singing voice. On this, it’s hard not to see both sides. Of course she’s wasn’t parading an act – but, at the same time, the Newsom of 2004’s Milk-Eyed Mender expressed herself with a voice that seemed pointedly untutoured. This, it turns out, isn’t so far from the truth. She talks about the singing on that album as though it were a pre-emptive strike against criticism that had yet to be made. “When I first started singing, it was almost like a ‘fuck-you’, punk thing. In the early recordings, I can hear myself really going full force for notes that I knew I couldn’t hit. Ironically, I’ve been doing that for so long now, that I’ve since ended up being able to hit the notes.” It’s true. If Newsom’s voice didn’t signpost the complex melodic pathways of Ys with such acuity, the resulting album would have been much harder work.
At the same time, she’s quick to point out that, had she been a man, she might not have come under the same pressure to prettify her voice. “I would venture to say that when a woman has a voice of a comparable timbre to Bob Dylan, it’s made into more of an issue.” It’s perhaps no coincidence fellow artists have been among the first to declare their admiration for Newsom’s musical fearlessness. Writing in Spin, Dave Eggers was moved to declare that her music “makes my heart feel stout and enables me, with my eyes, to breathe fire.” After they toured together in 2004, Bill Callahan of Smog started dating her. The two can be heard toasting their love some fourteen minutes into Only Skin: “But I’m starving and freezing in my measly old bed!” they harmonise, before a lone Newsom replies, “Then I’ll crawl across the salt flats to stroke your sweet head.” I suggest to Newsom that being in a relationship with another artist must surely make her more courageous. Without a trace of hesitation, she replies, “Being loved makes you more courageous. By whom – it doesn’t matter.”
If Callahan had plenty of love to offer, it also helped that he appears to have an ace record collection. By introducing her to Roy Harper’s 1971 prog-folk classic Stormcock, he planted in her the notion that she might seek the assistance of an arranger. By playing her Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle – the arranger’s belatedly acclaimed baroque crie de coeur, recorded in 1968 – Callahan planted an absurdly fanciful notion in her. One that, against all odds, came to fruition.
When Van Dyke Parks telephones from Los Angeles with his recollections of their maiden meeting, it doesn’t take long to work out what he and Newsom saw in each other. Newsom’s love of words – check out the “hydrocephalitic listlessness” of the peonies in Emily – is shared by Parks, who describes the moment he decided he would work with her. “Yes, I do remember stopping her,” he enthuses, “After thirty minutes, I thought she might want to pause. In my mind were the images of the bards, the troubadours, the poets. And the very druid marrow of my bones started shout at me, ‘You should serve this person. This is an anomaly to a very dull event called popular music.’”
In the months since they last spoke, the 64 year-old says that he has helped on her “finely handwritten ruminations about the arrangements” – 15 pages in total – so important does he feel its value will become to Newsom and her family. In order to do justice to Newsom’s “contained rapture”, he elected to set aside his long-standing rule that the artist refrain from chipping in with the arrangement. As he puts it, “It’s like the Pope and birth control. If you don’t play the game then don’t make the rules.” Making a concession that he didn’t extend to Brian Wilson, Tim Buckley or Harry Nilsson, the 64 year-old says he set about “reverencing her whimsy” by giving her his “best beta male behaviour.”
Back in Newcastle, Joanna Newsom remains reticent when it comes to discussing the enormity of her achievement. You can already see in her the beginnings of a reaction against what we think we know about her. And who can blame her? No-one wants to be perpetually on call as an alt-folk harp-wielding Bronte with an facility for endless ornithological allegories. The Joanna Newsom who celebrated her 25th birthday this week wants to go to a club and indulge her new-found love of roots reggae. She wants to go swimming. She wants to sing Carly Simon songs in a Karaoke bar. And when the tour finishes, she wants to go home and make mushroom moussaka with green bean salad, while listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. More than anything though, she wants her callouses to harden. “I’m rarely happy when my fingertips are soft. That’s the bottom line.”