by carl wilson

Pop Montreal, Nuit Deux: Oh, oh, oh, oh, Desire

Joanna Newsom in Toronto the night before last, as portrayed beautifully by Frank Chromewaves.

I wanted to let you know earlier that my Joanna Newsom/Pop Montreal piece appeared today (a day delayed) in The Globe & Mail. You can read it here. Also, in a day or two I will, I promise, post the interview transcript, which includes many nice moments that didn't make it into the article.

It's nearly 4 a.m., and I've just come from eating a very filling smoked-meat special at the Main with Helen Spitzer and Michael Barclay, so I'm not going to be up long enough to run down today in full for you - a day that included not only Joanna's concert but a lot of noteworthy moments at the Future of Music Coalition Summit: I'll recap some of the "Mini-Me-Dia" panel that Spitz and I were on, as well as such weirdnesses as David Byrne's surprisingly useless talk (he was so much better in this interview, f'r'instance,, tomorrow - mainly, I want to say that this meeting, which has never been held outside DC before, and could be so great, needs to turn into an Unconference immediately. More meaningful as always were the personal encounters - with fellow panelists such as Matt from Fluxblog, and Dan from Said the Gramophone, Montreal blogger MC, our convenor Andrew Rose, conferencegoers such as Frank from Chromewaves (first time in-the-flesh!) (btw Frank's speaking this morning on the doomed-to-be-dominated-by-Pitchfork-talk panel), and many others. (Okay, the one that geeked me out was, thanks to Spitz, finally meeting Mac McCaughan, which happened so unexpectedly that I couldn't even choke out, "Uh, sir, I just want you to know that in 1994, I kinda would have given my life for Superchunk." Mac, if you see this - I should have said. And if your show hadn't been counterprogrammed with Joanna Newsom's, I'd never have missed it.)

And then, yeah, there was Joanna's concert, which mainly felt like 90 minutes in which she drew us up close and whispered the stories of love, loss and mystery that are Ys into our ears. The old songs were extraordinary to hear for the first time live - especially Peach, Plum, Pear which, as Barclay said, having heard Owen (Final Fantasy) cover it so many times, sort of felt like hearing a cover-in-reverse of "our" (Canada's) Joanna Newsom song. But never has it been so clear how much stronger and deeper her writing and singing have become from one album to the other. And meanwhile her fingers whirligigged around the harp like a superior alien intelligence - her couple of missed notes (and one case of forgetting the lyrics in the encore, Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie, where a crowd member stepped in and shouted out, "dedicated dourly!") were welcome, if only to ground the phenomenon in fallible reality. It's otherwise an impossible show to review, because, as I gleaned from post-show conversation, my thoughts like many others' were on terribly personal, emotional matters all the way through. I didn't actually burst into tears, as some did, I think because I knew well beforehand that it would be so, but seldom have I reflected on and felt so much during a show while at once feeling that my attention was riveted every moment. However, since I have a bit of a cold, whenever I did feel like weeping, I started sneezing instead - sorry, if you were sitting near me. (Does this happen to you? It's so annoying!)

The single most powerful new songwriter and performer of the decade? Tonight, I and hundreds of other people in the never-before-used, beautiful venue of the Ukrainian Federation on Hutchison in Montreal said yes, at a roar, rising from our seats. Each individual song practically got a standing ovation. There could be more words for it, but Joanna had already used them: "We could stand for a century, starin', with our heads cocked, in the broad daylight/ at this thing, joy, landlocked, in bodies that don't keep."

Set list, as I remember it, corrections welcome:
Bridges and Balloons
The Book of Right-On
Sawdust and Diamonds
Only Skin
Peach, Plum, Pear

encore ("I'm getting serious blisters, so I can only play one more song"): Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie

Later: It always feels redundant to link to Pitchfork, but these photos by Ryan Schreiber really do a lovely job of capturing the visual impression. (I met Ryan briefly - who was either faking it or does read this site now and then - and he was very nice, but we didn't get into anything substantial. Which is just as well, as I have no more desire to argue about Pfork than to argue about the weather. My opinion on balance is like the Hitchhikers' Guide entry on Earth.)

Tugging at the harp strings
Joanna Newsom's complex, charismatic work has shot her to the indie-music stratosphere, CARL WILSON writes

The Globe and Mail
Review section

How much scope and challenge is there to California songwriter and harpist Joanna Newsom's coming second album, Ys? Well, the chorus of the first, 12-minute-long song - to the extent that there are any choruses here - provides a lesson in cosmic terminology.

"The meteorite is the source of the light, and the meteor's just what we see," she sings in a high, passionate lilt, proffering a mnemonic for science students everywhere. "And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee."

Newsom, who plays at the Pop Montreal festival tonight, can empathize with such issues of perception and mismeasurement.

She burst into the skies of the indie-music planet with her acclaimed 2004 debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender. Ever since, she has seen her own intentions confused with the constellated guesswork that fans and detractors alike project onto the charismatic figure of this "elfin" 24-year-old blonde with a very-non-rock axe wedged between her knees.

She has been mistaken for "childlike" because of the heady naturalism of her singing style, when on closer inspection her songs leap routinely from personal lyric to themes of sex and death and environmental disaster. She has been labelled an antiquarian nerd for her allusions to mythology and the pastoral - and the occasional "thee" - when in fact the delicate stateliness of her harp line is consistently juddered away by a verbal and vocal tone as urgent as an ambulance siren. (Though the Renaissance-pastiche portrait on the cover of her new album does her no favours in that area.)

"It bugs me to no end," she said in a rare interview with The Globe and Mail this week, which she would conduct only by e-mail. "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."

Then again, to extend the astronomical analogy, that's what happens to a star. Which is what Newsom is rapidly becoming.

She grew up in the exotic atmosphere of Nevada City, Calif., a former prospecting town taken over by artists, academics and post-hippie intellectual families like her own, which may account for some of her distance from her popular reception. Minimalist composer Terry Riley was a neighbour. She nursed a fascination with the harp as a toddler and began studying it as soon as she could hold one, but quickly spurned the instrument's stereotypical, decorative glissando pastels, learning Celtic styles and then catching on to both Appalachian traditions and African polyrhythmic harp idioms as a teenager at folk-music summer camp.

In university, she started as a composition major but, finding her inclinations out of fashion with academic currents, switched to creative writing.

Her first album (which followed a pair of homemade EPs) shot to the upper stratosphere of best-of-the-year lists from music blogs to magazines to The New York Times. It was an unpredictable fate for a collection of idiosyncratic pop-folk tunes played mainly on solo harp, and one that led to concerts before adoring fans around the world - wherever a quality instrument could be borrowed - including opening a show for an admiring Neil Young.

The status she has garnered among musicians is further evident in the personnel list for her second album, due next month. It is co-produced by Van Dyke Parks, the veteran eccentric best known as Brian Wilson's collaborator on the Beach Boys' legendary lost-and-found master stroke, Smile. Parks built his elaborate symphonic arrangements around voice-and-harp bed tracks engineered by Steve Albini, whose most famous work among hundreds of seminal underground recordings was with Nirvana. And the record was mixed by composer-guitarist Jim O'Rourke, a former member of both Sonic Youth and Wilco.

What, were George Martin and Brian Eno tied up? One has the feeling they wouldn't have said no.

Yet, rather than merely consolidating her position, Ys is an intensely personal album that will test the capacities of acolytes and new listeners alike. It has only five songs, but together they last nearly an hour, with Parks's orchestra, as she put it, "playing off the beat in somewhat disorienting (albeit gorgeous) ways."

The twirling verbal mobiles that Newsom pasted together in miniature on her first record (rhyming "dirigibles" and "irritable," or coining hybrid synecdoches such as "you were knocking me down with the palm of your eye") now become a 4,000-word torrent of images, metaphors, ontology, epistemology, anecdote, punning and rhetoric that seldom repeats itself.

It's a vast thing to absorb. And yet Ys (pronounced "Ees," after an ancient Welsh and Breton myth about an idealized, inundated city, reminiscent of events a year ago in New Orleans) also feels like one of the richest, most moving works anyone has made in pop music this decade.

Despite the flood of information that passes through a listener from song to song, each one has passages that raise goose bumps. In that opener, Emily, she sings of how "tugboats shear the water from the water, flanked by furrows, curling back, like a match held up to a newspaper."

The process, beginning from a stubbornly nagging set of personal experiences, took over a year, but the conception was ever intact. "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."

The central, 17-minute saga, Only Skin, in particular, juxtaposes the erotic, artistic and ethical realms so vividly that it feels like a vast summation of Western existence in 2006. "You'll notice there are many, specifically 'contained,' tamed, exploited versions of nature in this record," Newsom said. "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. . . . I didn't want to tell a story explicitly; I wanted to tell the shadow-version of it."

But fans of The Milk-Eyed Mender need not worry that Newsom is giving up permanently on compression.

"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."

So Ys is just one more comet streaking across the infinite space of a restless young mind. It seems very likely that there are decades more yet of indelible radiance to emanate from Joanna Newsom, if we make it there - more light from a source that won't be mapped to any foreseeable orbit.

Joanna Newsom plays tonight in Pop Montreal at the Ukrainian Federation, 5213 Hutchinson.


Pop Montreal

Joanna Newsom's appearance is just one of many coups the Pop Montreal festival can claim in its fifth-anniversary year. Founded by a handful of local promoters, it has grown more and more ambitious by the year, now including nearly 30 local venues, with parallel programs for film, art and small publishing. And as its hometown deserves, it has a reputation for the best after-parties of any music fest on the continent.

Among the more official highlights this year are concerts by several long-lost legends of the 1960s and 1970s, including Bob Dylan's rival Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Newsom's personal hero, British folk singer Vashti Bunyan, Texas psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson and New York new-wave-era maverick Gary Wilson. Also not to miss are Calypso icon The Mighty Sparrow, young Eastern European emigre Regina Spektor, legendary hip-hop absurdist Doctor Octagon, and bands such as Denmark's Under Byen, Victoria's Daddy's Hands (a decisive influence on such current indie favourites such as Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown - who play the festival on Sunday - and Frog Eyes), and Montreal's own electronic innovators Akufen and Tim Hecker, among many others.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Friday, October 06 at 2:40 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)



she actually referred to her blisters as "pretty bad," not "serious." stop worrying.

Posted by dan on October 7, 2006 1:17 AM



it was indeed recorded, and Andrew of Pop Montreal said it would be available as a podcast on the "popcast" portion of the site.

Posted by spitz on October 6, 2006 3:58 PM



was the blog panel taped? i'd love to hear what you all had to say.

Posted by eric on October 6, 2006 1:31 PM



She made the same change to PPP in Montreal, Andrew.

Peli, you *would* zero in on the line I regret. When I re-read it in print, I thought, hmm, there's absolutely a better rhetorical term for what's going on in that line than a bullshit coinage like "hybrid synecdoche."

Posted by zoilus on October 6, 2006 1:14 PM



fwiw, the Toronto show was similarly wonderful (except for the total inappropriateness of the MOD CLUB! there were some LOUD bass and drum sounds coming through the floor (from underneath?) in the last third of the show, which were a little annoying). Regardless, the crowd was rapt (if a little fawning), and her performance was wonderful. Peach Plum Pear was a similarly a highlight (with "I am blue" --> "I WAS blue" being particularly moving, especially now in the context of your interview!).

Posted by andrew on October 6, 2006 11:55 AM



Not absolutely sure I get the synecdoche, thuogh.

Posted by Peli Grietzer on October 6, 2006 10:29 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson