the mythology of joanna newsom
    • WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17, 2010

    • Posted by:

    The "Milk-Eyed Mender" has left a lot of us slack jawed and running in circles with her rabid fan base.


    When the news broke of Have One On Me, the forthcoming triple (TRIPLE!) LP from indie-rock's most well-known harpist with a muppet baby voice, several of us in the office had a moment of synchronized confusion. When prompted, none of us could really say that we "got" Newsom or her music. As if 'getting' something was a prereq for liking it; plenty of people probably fake their enthusiasm for bands like Animal Collective and The Dirty Projectors, to seem cool or in the know (the indie equivalent of "poseurs", the late nineties craze of dressing like you skateboarded or liked ICP, but secretly spent your evenings knitting and watching Saved By The Bell). Personally, I get these outlier bands and their functions. Dirty Projectors are weird, but infectious and melodically complicated (read: music nerds). Animal Collective is a glorified electro-jam band who finally made a universally appealing pop record (albeit within their own little world of weird), and thus exploded. No mysteries here.

    I saw Joanna Newsom in Prague in 2007 amidst the encouragement of my peers. Not knowing her or her work was considered a severe faux pas in my music-centric circle, as if she was some primer kit for the budding music aficionado (more like for the aspiring wizard). Of course I was drunk, which was a better alternative than some of my friends concert-going choices. But even in my stupor I wasn't stunned or affected, as the doe-eyed audience was soaked in some sort of trance. Part of it was probably rampant drug abuse, but what was the other part? What did I not get about a harp toting, cute girl with a voice that borders on bride-of-Kermit? Is she the indie rock version of Pogs? What is with all the mending?

    Now before the Newsom-squad descends to swarm and kill me, let me explain that I have tried to understand Ms. Newsom in the past. I even went to the ILM message board a few weeks ago (a lively spot for discussing music on the interwebs) to have someone explain it to me. This was the conversation. I'll assume since ILM is a public space, reposting all of the back-and-forth is cool with everyone. Much thanks to "Ksh," who really was the only one who actually answered my questions and in a thoughtful, articulate manner. Also, I really was kept up all night pondering this mystery (check the post times).


    Can someone explain Joanna Newsom to me? I just don't get it.

    - joep, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 2:23 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    see there's this bear and a monkey and the wizard of Ys.

    - tylerw, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 2:26 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    Just watch this!:

    - ksh, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 2:26 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    Note: You should be dying while you watch that.

    - Brad Nelson (BradNelson), Tuesday, February 2, 2010 2:29 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    Jesus that looks difficult.

    - Mark, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 2:31 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    There has to be more than technical skill. Do people lose their minds over her for any other reason than she plays the harp and is very cute? The voice is a bit strange and inaccessible for the mainstream, the songs are kind of obtuse and nontraditional... I'm not saying these are bad things but I am wondering if she is more of an aesthetic self-fulfilling choice for fans.

    - joep, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 2:36 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    No one listens to her because she's the Yngwie Malmsteen of the harp -- she's isn't! There's no unnecessary display of technical prowess going on in any of her songs; they're all carefully, and painstakingly, composed pieces, and I personally don't hear anything "extraneous" in any of them. In addition to her precise and evocative lyrics, which are only Ren faire bullshit to people who either actively want to dislike her or don't know what close reading is, I love her because her music really is really idiosyncratic, but not in a way that grates, despite what others say. If you can find a way in to the songs that works for you, I think there's always a possibility that the world she's creating will open up to you in a way you might find really compelling and affecting.

    - ksh, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 2:45 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    Thanks man, no one has ever taken the time to explain any of this to me. Honestly I haven't listened extensively, so I plan to spend some time with the new one. But the most reasoning to listen I ever get from the trendsters is "she's amazing", with little to no elaboration or points.

    - joep, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 2:53 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    She is extremely technically proficient, and I think that contributes to the fullness of melody you might hear otherwise in two talented dueling guitars. Point is that it isn't show-offery, the ambitious compositions serve the song and the melody, as apposed to most jam-bands that have it exactly opposite.

    - Evan, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 2:55 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    Hey man, no problem! If you decide to listen to her first LP, Milk-Eyed Mender, first, it's a good idea to keep in mind that it's far more of a scattered and erratically pleasurable affair than Ys. Some songs, like "Sadie," are really compelling mini-narratives backed by the harp, but there's also harpsichord ("Peach, Plumb, Pear") and piano(?) ("Three Little Babes"). It's kind of all over the place, but it has its own charm, and when it hits its stride (the aforementioned "Sadie," "Book of Right-On," and "Sprout and the Bean"), it's awesome. Ys, in my opinion, is great all the way through, so I can only recommend listening to it closely a few times through, then perhaps a few times with the lyric sheet in front of you, and then another time after reading Erik Davis's piece on Ys from Arthur Magazine ( That's just one possible way of trying to approach her music, of course, but I think it could work. Still, some people won't like her stuff no matter how they listen to it, and that's fine too.

    - ksh, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 3:03 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    Holy f. I watched that Sawdust & Diamonds clip through to the end. I think a certain kind of artist has a kind of singular song that might not be a good jumping off point for a newcomer looking for their way in, but is a perfect summation of their aesthetic/what they're reaching for. Something like Voodoo Child (Slight Return) for Jimi Hendrix or Lover You Should've Come Over for Jeff Buckley. Those are probably bad examples for a lot of people here, but I do think she fits into a kind of capable rockist auteur thing. I mean, a lot of critical narrative hovers around "Well, they could barely [do x] but they overcome [] to interesting effect". What happens when they can execute whatever they want? So it's all back on concept? Not sure if I'm explaining this right. I'm just not articulate enough to, um, articulate what I'm getting at.

    - ecuador_with_a_c, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 4:29 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    Her new look and celebrity stizz isn't vibing with me hard, that said I like her new song much more than anything on Ys so hmmmmmm

    - Emily's Cheese, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 8:21 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    I've liked her since the Cair Paravel reference on MEM. Haven't listened to Ys more than a few times after an initial enjoyment of it. Her voice doesn't *SQUEAK* before every line on the new single like it does on Ys. That's good at least.

    - Sam Weller, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 10:34 AM (2 weeks ago) -

    She has another new track up on

    - Evan, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 6:01 PM (2 weeks ago) -

    Piano and drums!

    - Evan, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 6:09 PM (2 weeks ago) -

    wow, based on those 2 songs previewed on drag city i might buy this

    - velko, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 6:17 PM (2 weeks ago) -

    She sounds like shes conciously trying not to sing as over the top as he has previously. Maybe shes as bored with freak-folk quirks as most of us are.

    - Evan, Tuesday, February 2, 2010 6:31 PM (2 weeks ago) -

    Hahahaha "Ren faire bullsh*t" got me LOLing.

    So there you have it, the entire world is still segmented (although mostly leaning towards Newsom) and I'm left scratching my head.

    "Freak folk quirks" got me thinking about the whole ordeal. A few people (including Baeble's own David P) have suggested that there is something to the unattainable in music; bands like DP and Animal Collective present a set of music that is complex and hard to grasp, and audiophiles tend to gravitate towards the weird and unique, as it is often later hailed as pure genius or ahead of its time. Will people be singing Newsom's praises in fifty years?

    Ksh brought up some terrific points, some people enjoy the embeded narrative and value lyrically complexity, as well as feeling that the whole thing is working together and it's more than coincidence. The only time I remember sitting down with lyrics and studying them (but REALLY studying them, like a Norton Anthology) was my revisiting of Hail To The Thief. Yorke writes like a modern poet (Cummings or Elliot would be the two most well known comparisons, maybe Wallace Stevens), using really striking, often really weird or crowded imagery with many layers. Radiohead has a specific aesthetic and they do it well, from their website to their music to their words. Perhaps Newsom inspires the same kind of synergy, between her quixotic, neo-feudal behavior and use of renaissance terminology (not to mention a flipping harp).

    So basically, I'm ready to give Joanna Newsom another shot. I will give Have One On Me a long listen, and I will ponder the lyricism, as well as the details. Maybe then, I'll finally get Newsom. At the very least I'll appreciate her. At the very, very least, I'll google "Milk-Eyed Mender" and figure out what the hell that means. -joe puglisi

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