by carl wilson

'All my bulbs are burned out,
and cheery aunts and uncles are just rolling in,
and being like, "Where can I store this ham?"
and "Here's some harvest-themed centerpieces
for your table." And I'm like, "What tables?" '


Lots of people have been interviewing Joanna Newsom this week, as the official release date of Ys finally draws nigh, but for the most part, read one you've read them all - largely due to her demanding email interviews, as discussed when I interviewed her last month. And the exception that proves the rule is this cover piece from Stomp & Stammer, an interview that was conducted by phone and is human and digressive and colourful and a million megawatts the brighter for it. Truly worthwhile and illuminating on her conception of Ys - confirming much of what I've come to think about it, and recommended for those finding its russian-doll shell hard to crack.

(Peli, I'm not including you in that, but I would say that your anxieties over Ys seem exaggerated; they should be relieved by the thought that this is not a restatement of poetics on her part but a departure into a particular form for one long personal piece. Wait until the next disc before beginning to draw bigger conclusions, especially since you say you like Ys.)

Honourable mentions must go, though, to Mike Powell's funny and 3/4 right-on review in Stylus, as well as to the Under the Radar interview, not in itself the bestest of interviews (another e-mailure), but one containing this exchange, which I have subtitled, "Trussed Up! How Style-Goober Rock Critics Ruined My Wardrobe," and which really deserves to be anthologized somewhere. Like here. Like now:

UTR: On style and persona. From the Renaissance portrait painting that adorns the cover of the new album to the elf boots, you have a distinct style that permeates your music, both within the actual songs and in the packaging of you as an artist. That is, Kelefa Sanneh of The New York Times called your songs "weird antiques, rescued from some extraordinary attic" and your aesthetic persona seems to match that spot-on. I suppose what I am really trying to find out in the above is how aware are you of your own persona? Is it conscious effort to construct an image, a persona, or is this just more or less who you would be with-or-without a professional recording contract?

Newsom: What elf boots? No, seriously, a lot of things get written about my clothes that ain't true. Like, I just played keyboards with my boyfriend's band, in Austin, and afterwards Pitchfork reviewed the show and said something like, I don't know, I was wearing my "trademark renaissance sleeves" or something. I was just wearing some vintage dress from the '30s, I guess it had voluminous sleeves or something, but, I don't know, 'twarent remotely renaissancey. Anyway, that's neither here nor there.

But it bugs me because I'm really into clothes and design and so forth but definitely not into, like, "costuming" or constructing a persona through clothing. There's a silhouette and style I favor, in the way that most girls come to favor a silhouette and style, and I've favored it for years, and it does sometimes involve some volume in the sleeves and a belted waist, but it also often involves blue jeans and shitkickers. I'm sorry to say this, but, in my opinion, music writers - most of whom are dudes - often don't seem qualified to make sweeping statements about someone's style; it comes off clumsy and ill-informed, since most of these dudes don't really spend much time thinking about girls' clothing or paying attention to what girls are wearing on the street. I'm not saying they should think about that stuff but it's annoying to hear some people make sartorial calls with the same suggestion of authority with which they might analyze your music.

I went to this big vintage store in LA once - one of these joints that hang clothes on the wall with little signs, like, "70's Dior Smoking" and so forth - and up there was a little Gunne Sax dress, and the sign said "Joanna Newsom dress." Blech! And my friend Jamie has forwarded me similar shit on eBay, people selling dresses and labeling them that way. It's caused me to be sort of self-conscious about wearing certain things that I used to wear all the time. I've given away a lot of clothes because I feel weird wearing them now. Before I ever put out records, I dressed a little flamboyantly, but I don't like the degree to which people take that stuff into account when listening to your music. I think on some level I might have toned things down for that reason.

Achhh, snap! In retrospect, I am astounded no female musician has made this point quite this way before.

PS: Do not read the recent crap in the Village Voice about Newsom, which is self-congratulatory and gossipy goop and left me with a sulphurous feeling all through my torso and up my sinuses. Growl.

| Posted by zoilus on Friday, November 10 at 12:14 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (15)



Style is fair game for a writer, and so are the lyrics, etc. However, I suggest that maybe, just maybe, some writers devote so much space to the artist's wardrobe (or to the lead singer's drug problem, or to the drummer's sex life, or to the ultra-rare Japanese pressing they own) because they are uncomfortable writing about music - an elusive topic they know nothing about. They thought that owning lots of records somehow entitled them to being paid for their opinions. I don't want to name names; I am certainly not talking about you, Carl!

Posted by Michelangelo on November 16, 2006 6:09 PM



While I obviously basically agree with you, Kevin, I would say of Newsom that I do sympathize with the desire for control, due to the amount of weird personalized fucked-up reaction (both positive and negative) that she has experienced, and to which she's clearly sensitive. Her early dealings with the press were very open and friendly, and it's too bad she's been bruised enough to retreat - I'm hoping it will pass in time.

Posted by zoilus on November 15, 2006 12:09 PM



Email "interviews" should be boycotted. They aren't interesting to read and they aren't interesting to conduct. Joanna Newsom's email interviews are especially boring. I regard musicians who do them with suspicion. Usually I think they want to be in control of the situation. The artist will often conveniently ignore certain questions and then ignore follow-up emails. If Joanna Newsom wants publicity for her record or gig, she can pick up a phone. But unfortunately she's able to dictate the format of the interview. Newspapers and websites should have a "no email interviews" policy for musicians because frankly, musicians aren't that important.

I was watching that DVD of Tom Snyder interviewing punk legends in the 1970s and 1980s and was blown away at the quality of the interviews. They are amazing because the artists are so natural, candid and chatty. They WANT to talk (with the exception of John Lydon). But then again musicians didn't worry about being dissected on the Internet seconds after the show aired. Patti Smith comes of as particularly weird, but charming at the same time. And Tom Snyder is great because even though he's not into punk, he doesn't condescend and totally follows within the logic of his interview subjects.


Posted by Kevin on November 13, 2006 10:36 AM



sorry to keep picking at this, but it struck me -- I'm taking it the same way Newsom did -- she toned down her dressing. now, that's showbiz, right? she's responding to the pressures of the marketplace; she gets flak for dressing flamboyantly, she dresses less flamboyantly.

obviously, fans and critics of the music didn't diss Little Richard, Funkadelic, Prince for their flamboyance. the quote Carl posts is so condescending! "Do you realize you dress like a fairy? And have you always dressed that way, or is it a put-on?" it points to the conformist pressures of indie. very different vibe than, "Hey, fabulous clothes; I dig 'em like I dig Sinatra's and Run-DMC's hats."

Jody, the band your friend Bryn worked with used to cover "Where Did You Get That Hat?" I'm sorry they never recorded it.

Posted by john on November 12, 2006 1:39 PM



Jody, it's fine to talk about the clothes, and I do it too; what struck me as sad is the attendant anxiety around it that I felt in some of the Newsom exchanges; namely, anxiety on the critic's part about liking music made by people who dress different, in this case, arty-hippie. (I could be wrong about that vibe, but that's how I felt it.)

It took me YEARS of going to rock clubs before I figured out that I was supposed to untuck my shirt before going. Embarrassing, really. What I realized in high school was, this sort of obliviousness was a luxury that comes with the Y chromosome. Girls who tried to get away with it were freaks.

Posted by john on November 10, 2006 8:03 PM



Oh, okay. I see now Carl. I generally think of email as a back and forth correspondence. With only one shot, I understand what a blank experience that must be.

Posted by Half on November 10, 2006 6:47 PM



Your points are well-taken, John, + the last especially. In fact, it's important to say, no profile or article can *ever* present "the whole picture." (And certainly to get close, the writer must talk to people other than just the subject - friends, enemies, colleagues - and that's seldom possible in daily/weekly music journalism.)

But you are still looking at it from the p.o.v. of the subject, while I'm trying to present the interviewer's position - if you can't talk to the person, you have no chance to break through persona. You don't even get to follow up a thought. You certainly don't get the chance to make a joke and put the subject at ease. An email interview is pretty much an adversarial model.

The exception would be if someone were willing to engage an email *correspondence*, in which a few initial questions can be followed by more, in a back-and-forth. I'd actually nearly prefer that to the phone. But that pretty much never happens.

Posted by zoilus on November 10, 2006 5:39 PM



I wouldn't call it damage control Carl. I would call it having a chance for a real appraisal of what you're trying to say. Giving some thought to your answers is, of course, still possible over the phone. Many people, however, have a practiced phone persona that can mask more than it reveals. When we start to talk about a fully-rounded portrait, I'm afraid anything less than personal contact is ultimately "not the whole picture".

Posted by Half on November 10, 2006 5:07 PM



I agree with you, Jody - but that's exactly the reason that critics who *do* comment on such things should put the same effort into knowing what they're talking about as they would with the music itself.

On the email issue: I sympathize with why people do it. I prefer email as a medium by far to phone myself. But the contradiction is that it's that very sense of control that undermines the resulting profile, I'm afraid: the resulting lack of spontaneity, vitality and genuine connection between writer and subject. Phone is already a poor substitute for in-person contact. Email is a worse one still. Should musicians care? Well, it depends: Do you want to be represented as a fully rounded human being? Because nothing's going to stop someone with a bad agenda from painting you poorly, but keeping access to a minimum will hamper even the most sympathetic writers from being able to create a compelling portrait. So the question is whether you're willing to sacrifice the best to do damage control on the worst, and that's kind of a philosophical issue.

(Oh, and by the way, I find that "twaren't" totally charming. It evokes her voice as both writer and singer all in a flash.)

Posted by zoilus on November 10, 2006 2:47 PM



Newsom's point is well taken (and beautifully put), and I've no doubt that most "dudes" have no clothes-sense. But clothes are very important. John, I don't think there's anything sad about clothes-obsessed music reviews. Music writers should consider the duds -- it's part of the package. (Do I need to do the list? Sinatra's fedora, the Beatles' moptops, Run-DMC's Adidas, Madonna's bustier, Cobain's flannels etc etc etc etc ad naseum?)

Posted by jody on November 10, 2006 2:07 PM



i figured out in high school that lack of clothes sense can make the man.

it is VERY telling how many ostensibly music reviews get clothes obsessed. clothes signify subcultural identity. "can i like her music even if she doesn't dress like everybody i hang out with?" really, the social anxiety such nattering expresses is very 8th grade insular. it's sad. (and i don't include your questions to her about it in this criticism, Carl; you were asking her about the phenomenon and her response to it.)

her incisive response to Under the Radar makes me want to hear her music more than ever now.

Posted by john on November 10, 2006 11:56 AM



oh this made my morning. thanks carl.

Posted by fig on November 10, 2006 11:54 AM



I understand her reluctance to go under the knife. At least with email, you retain the right to self-edit a little as you're performing a post-mortem on your previous year's work, and to keep a permanent record.

Posted by Half on November 10, 2006 11:33 AM



also, said pitchfork article was written by dudes zach vowell and kati llewellyn.

Posted by markp on November 10, 2006 7:50 AM



"'twarent remotely renaissancey"

Posted by markp on November 10, 2006 7:46 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson