Music / Joanna Newsom

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With my steely will compounded in a mighty mound that's hounded
By the snap your steel string sounded just before your snores unwound it
And in store are dreams so daring that the night can't stop from staring
I'll swim sweetly as a herring through the ether, not despairing
— "Cassiopeia"

Joanna Newsom is an American harpist and singer-songwriter, known for her distinctive voice and poetic lyrics. Combining "an avant-garde approach to appalachian folk music, with an unconventional vocal style" (to quote Amazon.com), she's usually classified as psych-folk, although she's not fond of the label.

Newsom's songs are highly intricate fairy tales, with difficult melodies and very poetic lyrics, but they're always less abstract and more coherent than they seem to be at first. Newsom is most easily compared to The Incredible String Band and Christina Rossetti, adding her own Cloudcuckoolander philosophy to her stories and telling them with compelling melodies. Many of her poems star complicated characters and feature separate fantasy worlds. Some are Beast Fable tales, others just describe nature, and some are classic folk. Most critics call her an acquired taste; in many cases citing difficulties in getting used to her distinct vocal style (which is high, throaty, airy and distinctly childlike, but due to Vocal Evolution, less childlike than it used to be).

Her third album, Have One on Me, is decidedly more mainstream than her previous work. While still retaining much of her unique style, it's also somewhat reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos or Fairport Convention, and marked Newsom's breakthrough as a world famous singer. Due to the aforementioned Vocal Evolution, her vocals are somewhat less of an acquired taste on this album, and though the songs retain comparable length to those on Ys, the arrangements and the songs themselves are somewhat more accessible.

Her fourth album, Divers, was released in 2015. It is stylistically similar to Have One on Me, but much shorter. Like her other releases, it has been highly critically acclaimed.

For tropers looking to get used to her sound, great songs to start with include "Sprout and the Bean", "Good Intentions Paving Company", "In California", "Emily", "Colleen", "Peach, Plum, Pear", "Baby Birch", "Divers", and "Time, as a Symptom". Progressive Rock-minded listeners may wish to dive straight into the seventeen-minute "Only Skin", however.

Apropos of nothing, she is a distant relative of Gavin Newsom (Mayor of San Francisco 2004-2011 and Lieutenant Governor of California 2011-present) and (as of 2014) is married to (of all people) Andy Samberg.


Albums:

Studio:
  • The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
  • Ys (2006)
  • Have One on Me (2010)
  • Divers (2015)

Extended Plays:
  • Walnut Whales (2002)
  • Yarn and Glue (2003)
  • Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band (2007)


Tropes related to this artist:

  • AcCENT Upon the Wrong SylLABle: Used to great effect in most songs.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: The vast majority of her songs utilise this to some extent, and it is is a signature characteristic of her lyrics. In fact, it is a good reason half the lines from her songs are so memorable.
    • "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie", "Peach, Plum, Pear", "Baby Birch", "Walnut Whales", "Bridges and Balloons".
    • Combined with gorgeous rhyme in "Monkey & Bear":
    And so, with the courage of a clown, or a cur, or a kite, jerking tight at its tether, bear would sway on her hind legs, the organ would grind dregs of song, for the pleasure of the children who'd shriek, throwing coins at her feet, then recoiling in terror...
    • And in "The Book of Right-On":
    Do you want to sit at my table? My fighting fame is fabled, and fortune finds me fit, and able.
  • An Aesop: "Monkey & Bear" seems to have the structure of one, animals and everything. It also resembles Animal Farm: after Monkey and Bear escape from the humans masters, Monkey starts treating Bear like a slave, telling her that they need her dancing to make money. Monkey slowly becomes more and more human-like in behavior, and Bear doesn't stand up to him... instead, she chooses to cast off her body, limb by limb, and vanish from Monkey's life.
  • Animal Motifs: Birds (especially nightjars) show up in the first and last songs on Divers. Many of her songs mention horses.
  • Author Tract: She practically inverts the trope. Her songs can have political themes, but they're so subtle that you'd probably miss them if you weren't looking for them, and a lot of them require deep analysis of the lyrics to uncover, since many of them are used symbolically. In particular, she often uses the ocean to represent female sexuality and/or anarchic pre-civilisation human existence; this can be found in "Divers", almost every song on Ys, and "Colleen", amongst others. A relevant analysis can be found here.
  • Band of Relatives: Her brother Pete and sister Emily have frequently performed in her live band.
  • Baroque Pop: With her complex compositions, intricate arrangements, and strong melodic sensibilities, she is likely one of the best modern examples of this genre. The orchestra on Ys makes it a particularly pertinent example.
  • Bears are Bad News: Subverted in "Monkey & Bear", where the bear is the more agreeable character...
  • Beast Fable: "Monkey and Bear" is one.
  • The Blue Beard: "Go Long", complete with a visit to "a terrible room / Gilded with the gold teeth of the women who loved you".
    • Explicitly referred to in-song: "Run away from home; your beard is still blue".
  • Bookends: Divers ends with the word "transcend" cut off after the first syllable, and begins with the word "sending". This may be a Shout-Out to Finnegans Wake.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: As with a number of political tropes, this can be found in her work, but it's very subtle and you'd miss it if you weren't trying to find it. For instance, "Colleen" discusses the title character coming to know "such things as the laws that govern property". It's pretty clear we're not meant to think this is a good thing. Similarly, the early version of "En Gallop" from Walnut Whales has some lines discussing property, which don't come off as any more approving (they might actually sound like Word Salad Lyrics at first, but it's pretty clear that they're not).
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: Her reputation tends toward this impression, but if you actually listen to or read one of her interviews, you'll see that this is definitely not the case:
    "The big myth about Joanna Newsom is that she is fragile. An extraordinary idea when you think how radical, how ballsy, her choices have been. Her albums conform to no prescribed ideas about how many songs they should contain (the last one had five, this one has 18, songs vary hugely in length — and let’s not forget they’re written on a harp). Does anybody else put superglue on their fingers to make sure the callouses don’t grow soft? Schlep around the world to lead a different symphonic orchestra in playing her songs every night with barely any rehearsal time, everywhere from the London Barbican to the Sydney Opera House? Playing a huge 7-pedalled harp is tough stuff. And who else, aged 18, would go alone to a wild place down by the river, arrange some stones into a circle, and then sit inside that circle and stay there for three days, fasting. (Her friends camped a few miles away and left her small amounts of rice and water while she slept.) It’s a determination like none I’ve ever encountered."
    • However, one might argue that she might have felt quite at home in Cloud Cuckoo Land at an earlier stage of her career, which becomes quite apparent in this interview.
  • Common Time: Most, though not all (see Uncommon Time below), of her songs utilise this.
  • Concept Album: Ys is loosely based upon the story of the mythological city of the same name.
    • Actually, the name of the album was among the last things Joanna decided on. However, it is clear that there are some strong connections between all the songs and the title, particularly relating to imagery of water in excess. This said, it is still not a concept album in the traditional sense.
    • Have One on Me can also be argued to be a concept album, with some sense of continuous narrative, telling the tale of a woman entering a relationship under false pretenses, following the relationship and the narrator's emotional turmoil, and ending with a breakup; all the relations to fictional and historical tales, such as those of Bluebeard, Dick Turpin, and Lola Montez, can be seen as allegorical in this sense, especially since a great deal of their respective songs are somewhat fictionalised or invented by Newsom.
      • It could be seen as Joanna's account of her relationship with Bill Callahan - especially considering all the references to song titles of Callahan's in "Go Long".
  • Corpsing: In an April 2, 2016, performance in Salt Lake City that has been bootlegged in soundboard quality, one of Joanna's strings broke, so she had to interrupt the show for a few minutes to change it. The new string kept going out of tune while it was being broken in, and a dissonant note in a performance of "Emily" caused her to crack up audibly. (She also apologizes at the end of the song for skipping two verses, noting that she'd been distracted by trying to think of a way mid-song to avoid using the dissonant string).
  • Dark Reprise: Arguably, "Does Not Suffice" to "In California" on Have One on Me. It may be intentional that both songs close their respective halves of the album (although it’s divided into three CDs/LPs).
  • Downer Ending: "Does Not Suffice" for Have One on Me.
  • Dream Team: Many people regarded Ys as an example of this. Joanna employed orchestral arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, known for cowriting The Beach Boys' Smile and for his own album Song Cycle, and her voice and harp were recorded by acclaimed producer Steve Albini. Jim O'Rourke (known for his work with Sonic Youth and his own solo career) also worked on the album, as did well-known session bassist Leland Sklar and singer-songwriter Bill Callahan (with whom Joanna was romantically linked for a time).
  • Epic Rocking: "Only Skin"
    • Lots of her songs, really, but "Only Skin" (at 16:53) is certainly the longest. Other examples include "Emily" (12:08), "Monkey & Bear" (9:28), "Sawdust & Diamonds" (9:55), the Ys Street Band version of "Cosmia" (13:23), "Have One on Me" (11:01), "Baby Birch" (9:30), "In California" (8:41), "Go Long" (8:02), "Esme" (7:56), "Autumn" (8:01), and "Kingfisher" (9:11). So basically, about half the songs on Ys and Have One on Me. It's also worth noting that Newsom will often rearrange the songs for live performances, and in many of these cases the songs will end up even longer. There is a bootleg on which she performed Ys in its entirety on which "Emily" is almost fifteen minutes long, for example.
    • Downplayed somewhat on Divers, but it still has "Anecdotes" (6:27) and the title track (7:07). The average song length on this album is about four and a half minutes.
  • Flower Motifs: Uses this in many of her songs. "Emily" has some good examples.
  • Fractured Fairy Tale: Yes. "Monkey & Bear" and "Colleen" are probably the best examples.
  • Genre Roulette: Her music is always based in folk, but it shifts wildly in style from song to song. This was particularly notable on Have One on Me and she took it Up to Eleven with Divers, where she deliberately worked with different collaborators from track to track to ensure the album didn't have a consistent feel between songs.
  • Grief Song: "Cosmia".
  • Historical-Domain Character: Lola Montez in "Have One on Me".
  • Humans Are the Real Monsters: As Monkey begins to treat Bear more like a slave, Monkey also comes to resemble humans more. This parallels Animal Farm, in which the pigs had a similar character arc.
  • Long List: When she introduces her band members, the lists of instruments they play frequently qualify as this trope.
  • Loudness War: Averted. Her least dynamic recording (Ys Street Band) still comes out to DR9. Her latest, Divers, is DR10, and some of her recordings reach as high as DR11.
  • Meaningful Name: Bear's name is Ursula, from "Ursus": "Bear".
  • Military Science-Fiction: "Waltz of the 101st Lightborne".
  • Miniscule Rocking: The studio version of "On a Good Day" is 1:49 long on an album where almost half the songs are over seven minutes long. When performed live, it tends to be slightly longer, but is still rarely much longer than two minutes.
  • Modulation: Many of her songs change keys several times, which is almost a foregone conclusion given how long some of them are.
  • Nature Spirit: Colleen is, by all indication, an amnesiac water nymph who got mistaken for a human. She doesn't cope well.
  • Never My Fault: Monkey, to Bear.
  • Portmanteau: "Waltz of the 101st Lightborne" introduces the world "simulacreage" ("simulacrum" + "acreage"). It probably has something to do with the places accessible by time travel.
  • Progressive Rock: Due to the complexity of her compositions and arrangements, she arguably qualifies as the most prominent modern practitioner of progressive folk. "Only Skin" is the best example, being a multipartite seventeen-minute composition, but all the songs on Ys and about half the songs on Have One on Me could be considered examples, as could "Colleen" and the longer songs from Divers.
  • Pun-Based Title: The title Joanna Newsom & the Ys Street Band is a pun on the name of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band (as well as to the title of Newsom's preceding album, obviously).
  • Purple Prose: A positive example. Her lyrics are incredibly verbose and intricate, but they're still very well-written and never feel overwrought like many other examples of this trope.
  • Rearrange the Song: Since it wasn't practical to take an orchestra on tour, the songs from Ys mostly got new arrangements for live performances ("Sawdust & Diamonds", which features only Joanna's harp and vocals, remained mostly the same). Some of these songs became drastically longer in the process; "Cosmia", which was re-recorded in its live arrangement for the Ys Street Band EP, wound up around six minutes longer. Live performances of all five songs from the album have been bootlegged. Earlier songs, such as "Inflammatory Writ" and "Peach, Plum, Pear", have also been radically rearranged in more recent concerts, and again, bootlegs are available, many of them soundboard-quality.
  • Selkies and Wereseals: The most common interpretation of "Colleen" is that the title character is an amnesiac selkie who ultimately regains her memory.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: One line from "Emily" mentions "hydrocephalitic listlessness"... in reference to peonies...
  • Small Girl Big Instrument: the Waif-like Joanna is dwarfed by her signature instrument.
  • Sophisticated as Hell: Even after a long time of learning prayers and being told to live as a chaste woman, Colleen can't shake her discomfort: "but still... I don't know any goddamn Colleen."
  • Take That!: In the Salt Lake City show mentioned above, Joanna makes a (possibly somewhat affectionate) joke at Justin Bieber's expense after her string breaks and also, in response to an audience question, says that she doesn't care as much who wins the Democratic primary or what kind of dirty secrets they have in their past as she does whether the winner can beat Donald Trump.
  • Uncommon Time
    • Her penchant for polyrhythms on her earlier recordings ("Peach, Plum, Pear" is definitely a prime example) can be considered a variant of this trope.
    • She's also fond of throwing time signature changes into otherwise Common Time passages if it suits the lyrics. For example, the verse of "Monkey and Bear" throws a couple of 3/4 measures into an otherwise 4/4 section.
    • While some parts of the song are consistently in 4/4, other parts of "Colleen" switch meter signatures frequently. In particular, a few measures of the verses are in 5/4.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Colleen.
  • Vocal Evolution: Newsom underwent surgery for vocal cord nodules in early 2009, with the side-effect that her voice and singing style changed considerably. This was furthered by her undergoing some vocal training, resulting in a softer and cleaner singing style (compare her exuberant yet untrained style on The Milk-Eyed Mender's "Peach, Plum, Pear" to the considerably more laid-back and arguably more refined style on Have One on Me's "Kingfisher").
  • What Cliffhanger: "Colleen" culminates very vaguely, with the idea that there's a twist somewhere in there (careful examination of the lyrics certainly seems to support this), and then it sort of... just ends. (One possible interpretation with wide support is that Colleen is an amnesiac water nymph or selkie who has been convinced that she is human; the song ends with her going back into the ocean).
  • Whole Plot Reference: As noted in Fridge Brilliance on the YMMV page and above under An Aesop, Monkey is becoming more human-like throughout the events of "Monkey & Bear". Given Joanna’s history of making literary allusions, this is very likely a deliberate allusion to George Orwell's Animal Farm, in which the pigs do the same thing.
  • World of Symbolism: Some of her songs arguably reach this level. "Colleen" makes no sense whatsoever if you don't understand the mythology and symbolism behind it. If you do understand it, every word in the song makes perfect sense.
  • World War Whatever: "Waltz of the 101st Lightborne" opens "on the eve of the last of the great wars/ after three we had narrowly won". It seems this version of World War IV involves time travel.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Music/JoannaNewsom