by carl wilson

Joanna In (Even More of) Her Own Words

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Here is the transcript of the Joanna Newsom interview that I did this week for Pop Montreal. Wary of journalists (for reasons you'll grok as she talks), she is agreeing only to e-mail interviews, which is a pleasure when the subject is so articulate but also frustrating because it cuts off so many avenues for follow-up and elaboration. I add a lot more detail in my Globe article (later: hey, David Byrne read the piece!) but I figured that fans might like to have the whole exchange, as I could use only bits and bites in the piece. Joanna was just getting over a flu when she answered these, which delayed the article itself by several days. I've retained the dumber parts of my questions for the sake of honesty. But honesty is never a whole truth.

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1) Can you describe to me what the thought-and-intuition process was, even before the recording, that led you to the vision for this album, and for the more expansive approach to songwriting compared to your earlier work?

I don't think I can describe it in much detail. There was a particular set of thoughts weighing very heavy on my mind; there were three or four particular experiences that were staying with me, sharply, in a way that i couldn't shake, and so tried to articulate musically. And these things settled into a real form very quickly; it was immediately apparent to me, for example, that the songs needed to be long, and that it would be a clumsy, vulgar waste of time to even try to make them short. Then I just started working real hard.

2) Was it at all a reaction to the reception of the last album - did you feel that since it was surprisingly widely embraced, you would see how much further you could take it?

No, it was not that. Those things can't stay in the mind for very long, when they have to try to stand up next to actual life. Those sorts of thoughts pale and get washed out, get mushy and drain away. There were more important and pressing agendas (as there always, faithfully are, when you actually sit and try to write music), and these agendas operated independent and unconscious of anything resembling an "audience".

3) Were these songs each written as full pieces or are they, at least in some cases, different fragments incorporated into a larger whole? I ask partly because when I first heard Only Skin it was a four-minute live recording, with you playing piano, which was only what I'd call the verse and chorus parts of the song, which are now only a portion of it.

They were always intended as full pieces. What you heard, the four minute section of the song you mention, played on piano--that was in London. I had blisters on my fingers from my harp strings, and they'd burst and were bleeding, and so I switched to piano. But I wasn't able to play everything i'd written so far in that song on the piano; i'd never practiced it before. So I just played that little bit. It actually drives me crazy when people refer to these songs as, like, 'suites', or use any words suggesting a cobbled-together, modular narrative; because they're completely bound together, in my mind, and they tell the story I wanted to tell very deliberately. I did learn my lesson about playing unfinished songs in a live context.... I thought it was a lovely and interesting thing to do; but it's only lovely and interesting if it's ephemeral. Bootlegs and live recording ruin everything about that idea, everything.

4) Your songs take place mostly in quite pastoral landscapes, very elemental and rustic. Does this reflect what your hometown was like, or is it more an imaginary realm? Do you consciously eschew more urban and contemporary-sounding references, and if so, why?

I don't think it's either a direct reflection of my hometown, or an imaginary realm. And you'll notice that the "nature" represented in these songs is different from the one represented in the first record, and will probably be different from any version I'd invoke in the future. It's a collection of images intended to convey, collectively, certain themes... all sorts of things; I mean, you'll notice there are many, specifically 'contained', tamed, exploited versions of nature in this record; there are a lot of invocations of harvest, fecundity, rot, livestock, domestication, flooding, property lines, etc. And the other nature represented in these songs is a gaping, cosmic one; not close, not familiar, not harmless, not knowable. Like standing in a dark field at night, smelling the fruits on the ground and hearing the sighing animals but not seeing them, and only seeing the big, dark, swallowing sky. These are certain feelings that were integral to the subject matter; because I didn't want to tell a story explicitly; I wanted to tell the shadow-version of it.

5) Does the title reference to the mythology of Ys bear upon the songs as a whole? What is the connection for you?

The title was the last decision to be made. The songs are not about Ys. But there are many connections. And many coincidences, dreams and so forth that necessitated that title

6) It shares this title with the opening song on Alan Stivell's classic Renaissance of the Celtic Harp. Is he an influence, and was that reference significant to the album to you? I've always understood your style to be quite deliberately distinct from the Celtic one.

No, that's not a reference. I didn't know that. That wasn't deliberate. But there are lots of works of art in existence that were outgrowths of various people's experience of that particular myth. So I am not surprised.

I was trained in Celtic harp. My style is pretty different now. But I would not say it is completely devoid of Celtic influence.

7) On the previous album the harp was central, but on this one it frequently recedes into the background, as the voice and the strings take focus. Did arranging the harp for these pieces call for different techniques than the way you played it on your earlier songs? The harp lines seem perhaps a bit sparser and less polyrhythmic, but I'm not certain.

Yes, it's sparser. I knew i was going to fill in a lot of space with other instrumentation, and I knew that Van Dyke's arrangement style often involves figures playing off the beat in somewhat disorienting (albeit gorgeous) ways; I wanted the harp to feel really grounded on this record, more rhythmically straighforward than usual. But there are some particular moments of polyrhythm more complicated than any on the previous record.

8) Do you ever hear from young musicians who're taking the harp up because of hearing you, or harpists who've started songwriting or are emulating your style?

Well, there are young kids in my hometown who've started playing harp because of seeing me play! That's about all I know of.

9) Was there a particular recording or aspect of his work that inspired you to invite Van Dyke Parks to work with you?

Song Cycle. Above anything else.

10) There seems to be a bit of a return to symphonic arrangements in the 'indie' world of late, between your album, the Sufjan Stevens records, and here in Canada we've got Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett, who actually has done a fairly well-loved cover of Peach, Plum, Pear that you might have heard), among others - all very different, I hasten to add, but there does seem to be some confluence, or at least a freshly receptive audience for orchestration...?

I don't know anything about that. The word confluence makes me break out in hives.

11) When I listen to your songs they seem consistently concerned with death, desire, friendship, sex and other adult themes. But many people emphasized the whimsy and "childlikeness" of the writing with the last album, and now this one will probably be received within the framework of fantasy and myth - partly due to the cover art. Do you worry at all that these trappings can create false impressions and prevent people from engaging with the more serious themes?

It bugs me to no end, but I've promised myself that I won't pay attention any more. I've tried engaging the various comments or assumptions made in various interviews, but the thing is, it never makes a difference. I'm tired of feeling like I need to put extra energy into making statements outside of my songs. But it remains startling, deflating, and somewhat funny that people can ignore so much of what I've said and am saying.

12) The obligatory question about the "new folk movement" hype: On one hand, it's brought attention to some of the lesser-known influences some of the people in that boat have in common, such as Vashti Bunyan. On the other, I hear what you're doing as very distinct from what any of the other artists lumped into the category do, even those you've toured and collaborated with. What have been the advantages and demerits for you? Do you think there are any broader social reasons, media trends aside, why this kind of music is getting renewed attention at this time

I'm gonna take the obligatory pass on that one. No offense.

13) Do you feel that these long-form pieces are what you'd like to continue doing indefinitely, or are you still interested in working in pop-song-sized forms? Would you take it further, and perhaps write a full-album suite?

No, I think it was important to do these songs this way, but i think writing longish songs indefinitely could create a bit of laziness. In this case, it was necessary; I don't know if it will be necessary for me again.

14) And finally, aside from this tour and the release of the album, what's in your future (immediate or more distant) that you're excited about?

Well, I just moved into a new house. I'm excited about decorating, gardening, and getting dogs when I'm able.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Sunday, October 08 at 5:59 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

COMMENTS

But much doesn't mean better. I quite enjoy it this way: as a conversation. Although it frustrates to no end when you're the one trying to shape the interview, (as a reader) I always enjoy when the artist elides / avoids questions.

I suspect she might have been forthcoming in this context because she had some measure of control.
I enjoy her succinct answers.

Posted by spitz on October 9, 2006 12:31 PM

 

 

Email interviews are okay when they're with someone who's not in a mood to be guarded (and can write). They're a good way to interview a whole band, for example, who might just be starting out - you get more thoughtful answers than the often glib group thing in an interview. But in this case it was obviously way less than ideal. In a conversation I would have followed up on what she said and been able to take it in more interesting directions, but in a one-shot email, yeah, all the questions basically are DOA as are the responses, and if the respondent doesn't feel like saying much - as Joanna, for understandable reasons, apparently doesn't right now - you're stuck.

Posted by zoilus on October 9, 2006 1:26 AM

 

 

Yes, strength may be necessary - if Rolling Stone's dismissive squib-review of Ys suggests what's to come (rather than just confirming RS's precipitous decline as a measure of anything beyond reader tolerance). First, they refer to the album as an EP .... then they give it all the critical scrutiny due a Jessica Simpson outtakes collection(two more sneering sentances, if memory serves). I realize her work tends to polarize opinion, but Jeez! Just heard she's coming to North Carolina next month. Your descriptions and the two albums make this a concert I anticipate eagerly!

Posted by Jerry on October 8, 2006 3:25 PM

 

 

Thanks for sharing your transcript. She seems to have acquired a much harder stance on a number of issues in her recent interviews.. probably a good thing because too many people seem to dismiss her work as this frothy fairytale nonsense. I love reading discussions with her because she always comes across as sharp, articulate and insightful... Unfortunately I still can't get into Ys despite repeated listens, long song forms are fine but I just think it lacks the spark of the first album. Still expecting her to do great things in the future though.

Posted by ttu on October 8, 2006 1:20 PM

 

 

Many, many thanks for posting that, Carl. Joanna's so articulate and self-aware, isn't she? And what with her admitting that she loves dogs and gardening, I think I am developing a crush. :-)

I love what she does, and I have a huge respect for her talent. Unfortunately, I have to confess that I find her voice unlistenable in a beyond-Victoria-Williams kind of way. I sincerely wish I could get past it, but so far I have been unsuccessful.

Posted by Jamie on October 8, 2006 10:48 AM

 

 

On her side?
It's always best to be on the side of truth or at least honesty when it comes to art.
This is a woman that knows her own mind and has the serenity to speak it.
I am always truly impressed with unvarnished honesty backed with rock ribbed conviction and insight.
My respect for her continues to grow.

Posted by nilan on October 8, 2006 10:27 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson