Exclusive Q&A: Joanna Newsom talks about feeling like an astronaut, Carole King and Kahla
Tue Mar 16 2010
Joanna Newsom plays the Town Hall on Thursday (March 18). Rejoice, lovers of imaginative, beautiful strange music! She'll be performing songs from her new opus, Have One On Me (read our review here); we were lucky enough to catch up with Ms. Newsom the day the record was released, for a cup of tea in a West Village cafe—read the full feature here. It rained furiously outside, while Newsom discussed Ys (making it felt like being in an astronaut suit), getting drunk on Kahla in seventh grade and Carole King ("a fucking genius"), among other things.
"I wanted the songs to be easier. Warmer. And a lot of that was intention and a lot of that was a product of the mood that I was in. It reminded me of when I was really little and I would go to church. I remember wearing my little sailor dress and zip collar and itchy wool tights and patent leather shoes. My hair was tied up into some really tight French braid and I would get home and tear it all off. Throw it in a pile in the corner and run around outside.... Sunday! Run around with my brother and my sister and the dog. Run through the sprinklers if it was summer. And that feeling. And there was something like that that pervaded the process of editing this record."
Click past the jump for the full Q&A
Time Out New York: How do you feel about the record coming out today? There's a lot of fuss around it...
Joanna Newsom: I'm actually telling the truth when I say I don't totally know what it is because I made a resolution in September to not look on the Internet about myself. But I still feel crazy because it's coming out today. And it's certainly not that I don't care what people think or like I'm avoiding it, because it doesn't matter to me—it's just that I started to realize that even good things that people would write would drive me crazy for some little reason; I would latch onto one comment and be like, "That's not true!" And it would really be maddening and not fair. I wouldn't be fair to the writer in reading it. I would just laugh off one or two things and not appreciate the nice things that were being said, and more often than not there's so much horrible stuff out there too...
What is it like having your stuff deconstructed everywhere?
There's a level on which I feel like I just need to be grateful, you know? That anyone is just willing to put that energy in. Every once in a while I can actually enjoy it. I remember a few months ago I was trying to practice a song for the tour and I couldn't remember the lyrics in one section, and I went on the Internet and I ended up on this website that has lyrics and then people discuss what the lyrics mean. It was really amazing. I read it and it was just such a reminder about like time spent on lyrics is not wasted on people. That people do catch weird double meanings, catch references, catch so much stuff. That type of hyperanalysis at that moment was really heartening. It was really, really encouraging, but I think in general it's best for me to avoid reading that stuff because it can get incredibly intimidating. It can also get very dissociating, you start getting very disoriented. I've had like a near panic attack or two under those circumstances; I think it's a lot better to not try to turn it into a conversation.
And there's this new book, Visions of Joanna Newsom. Have you read any of the essays in it?
I started to. I tried to. That an example of something that just was too bizarre for me. I felt like, maybe I need to wait 20 years. I feel like a person should be not aware of how another person is reading their work. It becomes a bunch of ideas swirling around in the same little vacuum. I think it's better to just do what you need to do musically and not become frozen up by hyperawareness of how it will be interpreted.
It includes an essay written by an old school friend that talks about a supposedly strict upbringing...
I have no recollection of having had a strict upbringing. I remember getting in trouble once in seventh grade for getting drunk. We had this massively stocked liquor cabinet that never was never used, because people would give them alcohol as a gift or whatever and they'd just put it in there, weird gift alcohol. Plum wine, something like that, that no one would ever touch. It never occurred to them to be worried that any of us would ever get into it. But my friend and I were like, "Let's get drunk!" and really not knowing what it meant. I don't think I had seen a real drunk person in real life. One thing I think I didn't understand was that you get drunk and then you can't make yourself undrunk. You know what I mean? I knew there was some relation between drinking alcohol and getting drunk, but I had no sense of what was required, anything, you know? So my friend and I started going through the alcohol methodically and taking about an inch of each thing, so it was like Kahla, Scotch, vodka, plum wine, sake, really nightmarish combinations.
Did you like how it tasted?
No. Except for the Kahla. I liked that. And now I cannot have that because I got sick. I went to bed and my friend proceeded to get sick all over the house and my poor mom came home to just like that scene of the Monty Python movie in the restaurant. Have you seen the one where that guy just pukes all over the restaurant? "Care for a mint, sir? It's wafer-thin!" [Laughs] I think it's from The Meaning of Life. [See below] Anyway, it was disgusting and I got in big trouble for that. I do remember that very well. I was grounded for like, a year, I think. I'd freak out if my kid ever did that.
I've always been struck by how "normal" you seem...
I don't think I'm abnormal and I think that lets people down. I think a lot of times when people talk to me they're excited about the possibility that I will talk like those essays describe, and then like I think it's disappointing for people, because the music I make is sort of this vein of something else that runs through what I am, and that's where I work on that stuff, I guess. I don't even know how to say it. But yeah, I'm relatively normal.
Do you ever get starstruck?
Yeah. Mostly people I haven't met freak me out. If I ever met Dolly Parton for sure, I would just not be able to say anything. I love her. I think there are a few other examples. I got really starstruck when I met Neil Young. I don't even know if starstruck is the word, because it wasn't because he was a star—it was because he was Neil Young. There's a lot of people that I hope I never meet. There's people that, it's just so scary, these beings that you project so much magic on to, they're such incredible artists you kind of don't want them to do anything to like change the way you feel about their music. I'm kind of scared to meet Stevie Nicks ever. Not likely, mind you, not likely at all.
Not because I fear her doing anything to change my perception of her, but just because I feel like I'd say dumb shit, I'd walk away, I'd feel embarrassed. Her life is no different because she just met me, you know? There's a lot of people like that. I'd rather just listen to their music. She's the perfect example of that. You don't want to go too deep.
Tell us about the fashion designs you drew as a kid.
I drew clothes. The one theme that has run from a very early age right to present day is that I really like a puffy shoulder. I would always get super-outdated magazines from my parents' offices and cut up collages and go to the library, because they had Vogue at the library. Go look at Vogue at the library, periodicals, whatever. I really loved it. I think of my relationship with fashion or style in the same way that anyone is an enthusiast of everything else might think of it, like someone who knows everything about baseball, or someone who follows politics in sort of an armchair way, just checking Huffington Post every day. I've always been interested in style and fashion and clothing, usually vintage because that was kind of all that was available to me and that is still mostly what I'll wear.
How do you mean, available?
I couldn't afford most of the clothes I liked. I still can't afford most of the clothes I like. I can afford a little more. It's only been recent that whatever minimal involvement in that world I've done on sort of an official level has started to come about. Which, by the way, is extremely minimal. I keep getting asked about it but I'm like, first of all, since the first record came out I've always done photo shoots where I wear clothes, where I pick it out in advance and I'm wearing clothes. The only purely fashion thing I've ever done was something in Armani magazine last fall, and the only reason I said yes to that was that I just had finished my album and I was like, I need to start doing press again!
Every publication wants a story; like, Now she's a fashion lady!
It's funny, because a lot of the questions I've gotten in that department are usually delivered sort of apologetically, where I can always tell the person doesn't want to ask, it's not what they would ask if they were writing something for themselves. So I just guess that's what it is.
Or if you attend some kind of fashion function, and your picture is available...
That's true. I forgot I did that. I hosted a Rodarte party last year. Their pieces are amazing. I have one dress that they gave me for hosting and it's the most gorgeous thing I've ever seen.
What are their designs like?
It's hard to describe, because they run on such a vastly different track, such a completely different trajectory than anyone else in fashion, in their own completely self-contained creative world. They have a concept, I think for this spring, for which they did the show for last fall; I think their concept was like, they were thinking about a phoenix rising in the desert and they had all these other influences they were talking about but they subjected their fabrics to like being burned and buried and all these different things to try to get to treat them. They intricately overlay all these shredded and beaded, whatever...for spring, a lot of their clothes were things that I would have trouble wearing. Very black, postapocalyptic, like Mad Max...all the models arms were covered with these drawings, tribal tattoo things; it was something I very much admired and loved but would have trouble wearing. There were like one or two pieces that if I could afford it I would have loved, but you know, overall the collection was something I admired rather than related to. Last fall, their fall/winter collection I wanted every single thing they made. It was so, so beautiful, sea green and blue, I saw few people up close and it's like they took a week to make them, or a year, the most incredibly intricate beading. They're like pieces of art, completely different from talking about fashion in general. They really are like artisans, they have a tiny team of dyers and beaders and knitters.
How long did it take you to make this record?
I think technically in terms of calender years, I think three or four years. Since I finished Ys. And not all of that time was intense. There was a year of just songwriting that was intense and there was a year that followed it doing the arrangements (with Ryan Francesconi). It took two months just to write out drafts of his arrangements. There was a lot of back and forth. The recording process which happened all over the place and took five months or four months. It was spread apart. And the making took about two months or a month and a half.
Was Steve Albini involved this time around at all?
No. A lot people worked on the engineering, and a lot of it was Noah Georgeson in L.A. who actually engineered the first record as well. He recorded all the vocals as well as some harp. The longest time spent recording was with Noah, for like several weeks of doing vocals. The arranger for this record, Ryan, is a close friend and is trusted. So there is a sense of familiarity everywhere and definitely that is the case for Noah. I would also say the best thing about working with him is that he's incredibly talented.
It's been called a pop record.
I guess it's almost like I'm saying the same thing [as on Ys], but the intention is a little different for me. For some reason I was in the mood to make something very direct. I felt like I had been so abstract in some ways and kind of ungrounded, there were a lot of frenetic, hypercomplicated musical or harmonic transitions, an extremely compacted, compounded density of lyrics as well as a hyperawareness of the structure of the lyric, the syllabic emphases and the interior rhyme structure. Just a bunch of stuff like that. I had felt like I had been in that very constricted space. Sort of outfitted in this specialized writing gear. I felt like an astronaut or something in my crazy suit walking around in space doing this specialized, technical thing. For me, for whatever reason, that was what I need to do at the time to make what was ultimately a very emotional and intense at times record.
It is a sad record, isn't it?
For me, it was. But I think for whatever reason when I started work on this record I zipped off the astronaut suit and wanted to be grounded on earth and very earthy, very bodily, physical. I wanted the songs to be easier. Warmer; and a lot of that was intention and a lot of that was a product of the mood that I was in. I did a German interview the other day, where I said that it reminded me of when I was really little and I would go to church. I was five or something. I remember wearing my little sailor dress and zip collar and itchy wool tights and patent leather shoes. My hair was tied up into some really tight French braid and I would get home and tear it all off. Throw it in a pile in the corner and run around outside...Sunday! Run around with my brother and my sister and the dog. Run through the sprinklers if it was summer. And that feeling. And there was something like that that pervaded the process of editing this record. I'm unburdening and setting off to work in a way. I think that it lends a directness probably to the record which might be what some people call a "pop feel." Because it's certainly not a pop record.
Musical touchstones for this one? Obviously, everyone's going to say 'Oh, Joni Mitchell'...
I love her. I just don't know everything by her. I have For the Roses. I've had For the Roses for years now. A lot of California records, I think. I would say that on some level Joni Mitchell had peripherally affected me. If everyone hears it then it has to be there, because I love her music. But I would think for me the central ones would be Graham Nash, Song for Beginners. That's one of my favorites. Wild Tales is also amazing. I so highly recommend that you listen to Graham Nash. And you know, Harry Nilsson. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Joni Mitchell. Sure, I like her. I think I used to be really scared of acknowledging that I was influenceable, but I don't think that's fair to anybody. I think I was feeling 1970s California a lot on this record. I was relating it to this period in time.
And Carole King...
Yes! She is a genius. I fucking love her. I believe it in my heart that Carole King is a good person. Just know it. Just know it.
Do you still live in California?
Do you think you could ever not?
I hope so. I mean, I'm going to have to go at some point. I mean, if I'm going to keep moving with my life. By which I don't mean professional life. Just life. There was a period of time where just living where I lived was a necessary act and in many ways it still is. But I don't want to fight the universe. I want to try to move if I can, and I've kind of reached the point where I'm fighting it a little bit.
But for you sorts of people who were brought up with space, it can be hard.
It's a nice way of putting it. It's a nice, easy summation that I think is true. If you grew up with space, it's really hard. Space and quiet and relative safety. Knowing everyone around you, smiling when you pass someone in the street and saying hello.
Do you notice that kind of thing here in NYC?
I'm used to it at this point. I have lived in cities before. When it was really hard for me was years ago, when I lived in San Francisco. That was when I would look up to greet someone as they passed and they would just look at their e-mail and be like, "Oh yeah. I'm the crazy person talking to strangers." That was a hard thing. But I'm used to it now.
Does music ever get harder or easier—or it's like you were saying earlier, like breathing?
I think it gets a little harder. I think the more you let in as you get older the harder it is. There's too much noise. That's why last September I stopped the Internet thing. Just too much noise. You know, my friend I'm staying with here listens to music constantly and I never do. So, I know great music. And I'll have a song stuck in my head. But it's stuck in my head. And what are the implications of that? It gets a little harder. It took me four years to do this one. Hopefully it won't take me eight years to do the next one. Something's got to move in a new direction, I'm sure. I've got to challenge myself in a new way. Maybe economy is the new challenge. Brevity.
But do you trust that it will just come?
I do. I might be stupid to trust but I do have faith. I have faith that if you do what you love, and you try to work at it gratefully and with a sense of your own duty. By which I don't mean duty to present music to the world but a duty to do what you're supposed to on this earth, meaning what you love and not waste it. It comes, eventually. Sometimes it takes a long time.