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February 7, 2010

Thoughts on Joanna Newsom

Until very recently, listening to Joanna Newsom made me uncomfortable. I found her weird, unnerving. In the past couple weeks, due to her upcoming three-disc album, Have One on Me, and sold-out Town Hall performance in March, there has been a surge of hype surrounding Newsom. It got hard to keep her on mute; a second listen was in order.

Upon reconsideration, I remain unnerved. But this time I’m floored, and I’ve listened to the 11 songs I have of hers on repeat for the past three hours.

There’s something utterly unleashed about Joanna. I can’t decide if her lyrics are nonsensical or brilliant (“I have read the right books/To interpret your looks/You were knocking me down/With the palm of your eye”), and the wandering rhythms of the songs are often completely erratic. She quickly flips from cooing like a girl playing with her dolls to a soulful, world-weary songstress. The comparison to Bjork is inevitable.

In the world of 2010 alternative music, Joanna strikes a unique chord. Her weapon of choice, the harp (of which she is a master), is not a common instrument in contemporary music. But her approach is also rare; she is unafraid, unrestricted, unorthodox. She ignores conventional sounds and song structures and just runs. This is why her music can at first be discomfiting. But, without question, this is also the reason for her success, her rapture.


Megan said...

I have to check her out!

matt said...

"I can't decide if her lyrics are nonsensical or brilliant."

Ok, I will decide for you. They are atrocious. She is atrocious. As an artist and human being.

Bump that-- she is not a human being. She is a witch. Who sings about sprouts and beans.

She strikes the "unique chord" of being one of the worst musicians to dupe the world into thinking she's one of the best. Above all else, she is simply unmusical. She is so focused on developing a distinct voice that she forgets what a clever melody is, or how to use 'unrestricted' form to her musical advantage while still sounding 'unafraid.' The Dirty Projectors are far better at this than she is. Even better than they is Jimi Hendrix. I think about these terrific musicians and look at her and continuously find myself saying, "what a waste."

Emma said...


I think it’s obvious from my original post that I disagree with you, but thanks for starting the discussion!

For me, what’s most interesting about Joanna is her ability to be so polarizing and provocative. The fact that you have such a strong reaction to my praise for her demonstrates that I hit on something when I noted that her music makes people uncomfortable. A friend of mine put it well when said he found that first-time Joanna listeners often “squirm.”

The best comment you made is that you find her “unmusical.” This complaint (“that’s not music!”/ “that’s not art!”) has been filed time and again against the most innovative artists. Consider hip hop, for example. Or Andy Warhol. Some of the best, most remarkable art has been responded to in this very way. Which is why I think Joanna is great: she is outside of the box and ultimately challenges your idea of a “clever melody,” or of “music.”

This is what music is all about—doing something new. About doing something from the heart that people react to. And it’s nice that Joanna does this with her music, rather than through performance stunts like so many today (a la Lady Gaga).

Brad said...

Roan Press's new "Visions of Joanna Newsom" book is now available through as well! No more excuses left; order today!

matt said...

It's not difficult to be "polarizing" and "provocative." Dash Snow (RIP) literally ejaculated onto newspaper clippings about police brutality, framed them, and sold the collection for $500,000 to the Saatchi family. It is one of the most well-known works of art of our time.

Though I agree that being novel is important for progressing art, there HAS to be a balance between stylistic innovation -- in this case, Joanna Newsom's nails-on-chalkboard voice -- and musical substance -- her (lack of) compositional skills.

Though I agree that artists like Bob Dylan and Andy Warhol challenged the concept of what art is, the reason they aren't just studied but also coveted and admired in the artistic community is because they had enduring artist talents that embrace the vocabulary of their medium. In other words, Bob Dylan understood that, even if you're going to "play fucking loud" and sing with a snarl and whiny voice, you still have to back it up with fabulous stories and captivating melodies. Warhol was an undisputed master of palette; like Rothko, he knew EXACTLY what colors and patterns matched and enhanced the personas of the people he painted over, even if at the end of the day he was ripping off pre-existing photos of Marilyn and Jackie O.

To me, Newsom is indeed a novel act, and probably will be remembered historically for her unique style. However, I don't think she will have any lasting artistic impact, simply because she doesn't embrace the fundamental architecture of what makes good music good-- lucid storytelling, intricate melodies, and a tasteful way of pushing comfort zones. This is why I cannot embrace her as a musician, or an artist in general.

Emma said...

I do not intend to claim that being polarizing or provocative is difficult—it’s not. Particularly not as an artist. As you point out, it can be as easy as exuding bodily fluids and publicizing them. What I intended to say with that comment is that I appreciate how Joanna Newsom manages to be polarizing and provocative by doing things that are not scandalous (namely, by singing and playing the harp). What I think is interesting is that the mere sound of her voice elicits such strong response. Here is where your comparison to Bob Dylan is especially appropriate.

There is still a large population today who just does not like Bob Dylan’s music because they can’t stand the sound of his voice. But saying a piece of music is bad just because of the timbre of the singer’s voice is a serious mistake.

I acknowledge that this is not the argument you make—you’re saying Joanna also lacks compositional skills. But I think you are wrong here as well. What makes music interesting (and I think you’ll recognize this argument from a book I still need to return to you) is deviance from common compositions. The most successful music achieves its success by doing something that is not only different, but exactly the opposite of what its audience expects it to do. This is the story of Jazz. Shunning music because it does not adhere to a certain compositional framework leaves you with very little (and very boring) music.

The argument for Joanna, as far as I can tell, is that her triumph lies in her ability to combine eccentric elements that usually make for bad music (her voice, her choice of instrument), and create something new, interesting, and alluring-- but, of course, we don't need to agree on this last point.

Ashwin said...


The fact that you attack Joanna Newsom for not backing up her provocative style with "fabulous stories and captivating melodies" like Bob Dylan makes me wonder if you have ever listened to her for more than the 10 seconds it takes for you to decide that her voice is like "nails-on-chalkboard". She released an album in 2006 called Ys. Before you criticize her for not embracing the fundamental architecture of what makes good music good, listen to this album.

Ys is replete with everything you define good music by. Each song in the album contains a story more fabulous than most I've encountered. Granted, they are not lucid, as you propose as requisite, but how interesting would music be if all songs were completely direct and immediately understood? In my opinion, ambiguity has an important place in music. And "intricate" melodies! How could you ask for more involved and elaborate melodies than the ones she has created.

I honestly think you should give her another listen - your complaints seem inconsistent with her music. It may take some strength to get past her polarizing voice, but when you do I hope you uncover what makes her music so amazing - storytelling and melodies. And even if you ultimately find her music distasteful and her voice obnoxious , I hope that you can at least appreciate the fact that she is an objectively skilled musician who isn't afraid of pushing boundaries and beating her own path. What is music without innovation?

(and Emma, since when does a harp make for bad music??)

Emma said...

No, a harp doesn't make for bad music. That's obviously wrong. I meant that in the current music scene, involving a harp certainly isn't a surefire way to make a hit song. So in that sense it's eccentric and risky, which is why her ability to incorporate it into an song that works, and works well, is admirable.

Megan said...

U guys are so freaking....heady. U make me wanna crawl under a rock. hahahaha. Just kidding. I listened (for only a few seconds) and was instantly drawn to her very personal style. I love that. Like you are in her bedroom. Will I buy her? Prob not. But I know Em will burn me a cd.

matt said...

The main point of my argument that got overlooked was the issue of taste. I'm not saying melodies have to be dizzyingly complicated and breathtakingly lucid, I'm saying that these qualities need to exist, and need to be executed by people who have skill and tact in the execution of these qualities themselves.

Yes, Newsom clearly has the "techincal skills" to sustain a career as a musician. However, technicality is a very small part of the picture. And Newsom will be the first to agree with me. She's not trying to astound anyone with her technical or harmonic prowess. She's trying to astound us by creating a persona and, as you said, beating her own path.

However, it is my belief that the path she has created is undisciplined, and uses her technical skills in all the wrong ways. This to me is unique, but not innovative.

megan said...

good greif! another big article on joanna in the nytimes mag. what the?

megan said...

and who was on fallon? yes. joanna! whoaaaa. and her left ear was sticking out just like that!