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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

Joanna Caroline Newsom (born January 18, 1982) is an American harpist and singer-songwriter, known for her distinctive voice and poetic lyrics. Her Mythpunk-ish music combines avant-garde Appalachian folk with an unconventional vocal style and highly intricate lyrics inspired by fairy tales.

Many of Newsom's song-poems feature complicated characters and fantasy worlds. Some are Beast Fable tales, others just describe nature, and some are classic folk. Her early work (The Milk-Eyed Mender, Ys, Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band) was close to Progressive Rock in its intricacy (particularly the latter two), whereas her later work (Have One On Me, Divers) has more pop and orchestral influences without completely abandoning the prog influence. Most critics call her an acquired taste, in many cases citing difficulties in getting used to her distinct singing (which is high, throaty, airy and different kinds of childlike across the years; notably, between Ys and Have One on Me, she had vocal cord nodules that required two months of complete vocal rest and also took singing lessons, resulting in a radical change in her voice).

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."

Apropos of nothing, she is a distant relative of California governor Gavin Newsom (lieutenant governor from 2011-2019, mayor of San Francisco from 2004-2011) and as of 2014 is married to (of all people) Andy Samberg.


Studio albums

Extended Plays

  • 2002 - Walnut Whales
  • 2003 - Yarn and Glue
  • 2007 - Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band

The meadowlark, the trope-choo-ree, and the sparrow:

  • A Cappella: The first two lines of "Monkey and Bear" are sung a cappella.
  • 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 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".
      • The tracklist of Joanna Newsom & the Ys Street Band contains only words/names that start with the letter C: "Colleen," "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie," "Cosmia".
    • 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.
  • Album Title Drop: On "Sadie:"
    And down where I darn with the milk-eyed mender
    You and I, and a love so tender
    Stretched on a hoop where I stitch - this adage:
    "Bless our house and its heart so savage"
  • Ambiguously Human: The narrator of "Colleen" and the traveler she encounters midway through the song who awakens her memory both qualify at first. Careful examination of the lyrics suggests that the narrator is almost certainly not human; there isn't enough context to say for sure regarding the traveler.
  • 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.
    • "Colleen" has perhaps one of the subtlest examples ever; one of its last lines has its narrator explicitly inviting listeners to join her in the ocean (presumably metaphorically). In the context of the song, this means questioning the unstated assumptions we've grown up with, since many may be detrimental to our happiness, and discarding the ones that don't fit. The narrator can be taken as asking whether we, like her, are selkies (again, metaphorically speaking) in a society that is not constructed to serve our emotional needs; and whether we've been taught things about ourselves that aren't true.
  • Animal Motifs:
    • The dove on "Sawdust & Diamonds." Doves are usually used as symbols for peace and innocence, and Newsom describes the dove to be "stuffed now with sawdust and diamonds," or taxidermied.
    • Moths represent grief on "Cosmia," and she holds a framed moth on the cover.
    • Birds (especially nightjars) show up in the first and last songs on Divers. Many of her songs mention horses.
    • Spiders in "Have One On Me." The song is based on Lola Montez, who was famed for her erotic "spider dance" and there's several lyrics references to spiders, tarantulas, and daddy-long-legs.
  • 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:
    • Have One On Me opens with "Easy," a song about how she is "easy to love." The album's closer "Does Not Suffice" calls back to that with these lyrics:
    And everything that could remind you
    Of how easy I was not
    • 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.
  • Break Up Song: "Does Not Suffice" paints a dreary picture of a relationship in its final stage, with the lyrics describing her packing her things to move out of her ex-lover's house.
  • Call-Back: At the end of "Does Not Suffice," she sings some la-la-la's in a melody previously heard on "In California."
  • 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. The song ultimately ends with the narrator abandoning civilisation and returning to the ocean, where "never in your life have you felt so free"; she also explicitly invites the listener to join her. 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."
    • Joanna is known to hate being thought of as a cloudcuckoolander, saying that people calling her fey, elfin, childlike or otherworldly is hurtful and dismissive considering the amount of strict musicianship she puts into her craft.
    • 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.
  • Cool Crown: Wears a flower crown on the cover of Ys. She also wore a gold and opal tiara to the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in 2020, the same one she wore at her wedding in 2013.
  • 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.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: Midway through "Colleen," the narrator dreams of returning to the ocean and being warmly received. At the end of the song, she does this for real.
  • Epic Rocking:
    • 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," written about a childhood friend of hers who perished in a car crash while Joanna was on tour.
    • "Baby Birch" is a song mourning a baby lost either to miscarriage or abortion.
    • "Sadie" is about Joanna's grief over the deaths of her dog (who was in fact named Sadie) and a friend who was dying of cancer, as well as the metaphorical death of another friendship.
  • Historical Domain Character: Lola Montez in "Have One on Me."
  • Humans Are Flawed: "Colleen" seems to take this stance. The humans on the shore assume that the narrator is "a thief or a whore" and teach her "prayers for chastity" and "the laws that govern property," amongst other things. Throughout the song, she feels a great unease in human society, probably because she isn't human; she's most likely a selkie. Midway through the song, she dreams of returning to the ocean and being "so sweetly there received", and at the end of the song, when this occurs for real, she remarks of the experience, "you never in your life have felt so free." However, she also explicitly invites us to join her, which suggests she possesses a strong belief in Nurture over Nature: in other words, the flaw is in our society, not our biology. It should be noted that the song also features a well-intentioned traveler midway through the story who awakens the narrator's memory, though he's Ambiguously Human; it's possible that he's also a selkie.
  • 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.
  • Intercourse with You: Portions of "Only Skin," though in typical Newsom fashion, it is a much more oblique example than usual for this trope. This blog entry has an analysis of the sexual imagery in the song.
  • 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 or selkie who got mistaken for a human. She doesn't cope well.
  • Never My Fault: Monkey, to Bear.
  • New Sound Album: Unlike The Milk Eyed Mender which is defined mostly by just the harp (with an occasional piano, harpsichord, and steel guitar), Ys brings in a full orchestra on nearly song (except for ''Sawdust & Diamonds).
  • No Name Given: Colleen is not the real name of the song's narrator; she's given that name by the people who find her washed up ashore. We never learn her real name; however, a traveller tells her that if he were to speak it, "the wind... would rise to tear you clean from me without a trace."
  • One-Woman Song:
    • "Emily" is named in honour of her sister.
    • "Esme" was written for a newborn child.
    • "Erin" is about one of her childhood friends.
    • "Colleen" is the name given to the narrator of the song, but is not her real name; in fact, we never learn her real name, and she is almost certainly not human.
    • "Sadie" would seem to be one from the title, but the eponymous Sadie was actually a dog.
    • "Cassiopeia" is named after a mythical queen and a constellation.
    • Painting the Medium: Arguably, the fact that we never learn Colleen's real name qualifies as a subtle example of this trope: perhaps, if we actually heard it, something similar would happen to us.
  • Parental Love Song: "Baby Birch" is a tragic version of this, being an ode to a child that didn't make it to birth.
  • Perfectly Cromulent Word: There's a few examples of made-up words across her discography:
    • "chim-choo-ree" - a nickname for an unspecified bird; sung in the first line of "Emily."
    • "eastering" - likely meant as an antonym to "westering;" sung in "Good Intentions Paving Co."
    • "neverdoneing" - likely means "unending" or "perpetual;" sung in "Soft as Chalk."
  • 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.
  • Religion Is Wrong: "Colleen" is a literal, albeit subtle example. The amnesiac narrator is assumed to be "a thief or a whore," renamed Colleen (which literally means "girl"), taught "prayers for chastity," and told she is "blessed among all women to have forgotten everything." She does not fit in with society and is tormented throughout the song by the sense that something is wrong. A traveler ultimately awakens her memory; she ends the song by saying "I don't know any goddamned Colleen," returning to the ocean, and explicitly inviting the listener to join her. May also qualify as a Religion Rant Song, depending upon one's criteria; it might be too gentle, too subtle, and/or too much of a Fractured Fairy Tale to qualify for some people.
  • Sarcasm Mode: The opening of "Colleen" might qualify: "I'll tell it as I best know how, and that's the way it was told to me." Essentially everything she was told about her past was wrong. She probably isn't even human.
  • Self-Backing Vocalist: Sometimes, such as on "Peach Plum Pear."
  • 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...
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Several lines of "Only Skin" suggest that the narrator's lover is one.
  • Shout-Out: "This Side of the Blue" mentions Albert Camus.
  • Signature Style: Dense, winding, instrumentally lush songs, often but not always based around the harp, with her fae voice delivering erudite, intricate fairy tales on top. It's impossible to mistake her for anyone else.
  • Small Girl Big Instrument: 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." This arguably qualifies as a mild Precision F-Strike in the context of her discography as well.
    • Joanna herself is often this, being incredibly articulate and intelligent to the point of being confusing to talk to, but not above "cussin' and kicking things" when she's excited.
  • 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.
  • Title Track: "Have One On Me" and "Divers."
  • 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. To be clear, she initially has no memory of her past until the climax of the song, and before then she's simply going off of the inaccurate information she's been told. However, one could read her entire narrative as a much later recounting of the events she's describing, in which case she's very deliberately giving us a lot of inaccurate background information in order to heighten the emotional impact of her discoveries midway through the song.
  • 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 and explicitly inviting the listener to join her. This is all done quite subtly, though.)
  • 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.