A Conversation With Joanna Newsom
With Divers,’folk's biggest star proves agai’ she's free and thriving in a world without likes.
Since she began her closely watched career over 10 years ago, Joanna Newsom has remained independent in a way few other musicians have. She’s a stalwart for strange, specific folk in an era when even the most underground artists are flirting with pop. Her lyrics are winding and allegorical, her harp old-world, her voice piquant, her rhythms complex. Newsom’s albums—including Divers, her first in five years—move through time like an E.L. Doctorow novel, spinning grand inspirations from literature and history into music that feels personal even when there is uncertainty about what she is actually singing about. Written plainly on a piece of paper, her words read like a kind of Middle English that only she can translate.
In preparing to speak to her, I made the mistake of researching the endless annotations that fans have made for her lyrics online. “Baby Birch,” for example, an uncharacteristically sparse song from 2010’s Have One on Me, has been interpreted by close-readers as being about abortion. Newsom has never discussed it, and though the lyrics seem to point to that interpretation, they are just left of center enough that the bittersweet gift of ambiguity remains. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion, a smart Californian just like Newsom, once wrote. But what if, at least in music, the stories that give songs magic are the listener’s as much as the artist’s? If Newsom’s songs recall painful or happy memories from our own lives, isn’t that enough?
Newsom, who is 33 and married to comedian Andy Samberg, doesn’t always take herself as seriously as some of us do. She appeared on Portlandia in 2012, poking fun at the fact that she’s chosen to make her life’s work the harp, a ridiculously impractical instrument. She ventured further into acting this year, playing the burnout narrator of Paul Thomas Anderson’s hippie noir Inherent Vice. Late in the summer, we met in the lobby of the Gramercy Park Hotel, a stately stone hideaway in the middle of busy Manhattan. In conversation, she is light and funny and regular. She has never gone pop, never gone soft, never given up on being the cool, complicated weirdo she has been since the very beginning.
You seem to have a kind of independence that many people just do not.
Creatively, yes. I have plenty of limitations in other parts of my life. It’s just that there is one particular thing that is inviolable: I have a, if not religious, superstitious position when it comes to music and writing. It’s the one thing that is unscathed through all the shittiness. It was never a conscious choice to be free or uncompromising. It is, and was, the thing that’s worth doing for me. It’s worth my time.
You figured out how to only do the kind of music you wanted to do, and nothing else.
I got lucky. I’d be dead in the water if I hadn’t ended up on Drag City. It’s not like I spoke to 10 labels and picked the one that was the best fit for me. I ended up with this one label that in retrospect, 12 years down the line, is the only one I could’ve been with for so long. I made Milk-Eyed Mender [in 2004], and then they basically consented to fund this weird five-song record with full orchestra recorded with tape, which I think at that point had been their most expensive record, and they never questioned it. They never questioned me making a three-record album to follow that one. They never questioned how long it took me to make this record, how many steps, how many layers. And they don’t ever ask me to do anything that’s corny. No negativity to anyone who enjoys social media, but from a marketing strategy, a lot of people feel like they have to do it. Drag City doesn’t ask that of me, or to do anything that feels wrong.
Did you ever think about “selling out”?
No one was ever like, “Kid, we’re going to make you a star!” But there was a period of time when I was getting calls from major labels, and they were offering a number that they calculated to be impressive to someone like me. And they were right, it was impressive. But I also knew there was no reason they would offer that number unless they thought they could make it back off of me. I honestly think, if I had found myself on a label, especially in my early 20s, that was less supportive of my instincts and less principled, I totally might have ended up doing some corny shit. Because if someone in a position of authority and experience tells you, “This is what everyone does, this is how it’s done,” at that age, I would’ve believed them.
“Nothing ages more badly than being cool.”—Joanna Newsom
How do you account for your continued success?
By many standards, what I have is not success. I’m perfectly happy with it, but if it was a company going public, I’d be doing very poorly. When people start to do things arbitrarily to grow that audience, and those choices are compromises, there’s a stink that their audience can smell, and it’s really hard to get off. I was really unnerved at the beginning of my career, when people who weren’t the best fit for my music were being steered toward it because it was a pop-cultural moment when that kind of music was being talked about.
Are you talking about the freak folk scene that you were lumped in with in the 2000s?
Yes, this odd media construction. It wasn’t offensive, it was just so not accurate. That was a weird hot seat that I was in that I didn’t really like. There was this narrative about me in the first five years that was like, “You love her or you hate her.” That was this synthetic thing—people were being forced to have an opinion. I’m much more comfortable now: put it out, and the people who are going to like it like it. There’s no zeitgeist-y thing telling them what to do. It’s definitely a relief to not even be remotely burdened by coolness. Nothing ages more badly than being cool. For me, there’s nothing to maintain. I can just continue doing what I do.
Do you like contemporary music?
Of what’s popular, I think I like rap more than most indie, I’ll tell you that. I don’t have a problem with music that’s written with a synthetic or electronic instrument. But I do certainly hate the complete garbage that is most EDM music. Couldn’t be worse if it went out of its way to try.
Is your writing process serious or fun?
What is fun for me to do with language is deadly serious for me as well. I tend to start with melody and chords, which take a while to resolve into calcified arrangements. Basic melody, basic chords—those are born from some feeling or narrative idea or both. I have the prompt for the lyrics before I have the lyrics.
Some songs, I work with placeholder lyrics for months until I find the exact wording. With certain songs, there are requirements that the lyrics have to fit. For “Leaving the City,” on Divers, the choruses have three different patterns that are interlacing. Those lyrics are somewhat simple, but they took me a really long time. They had to tell a story, but they had to incorporate these syntactic parameters. There was a straight-up chart I drew. I had to have certain rhymes that were there because they emphasized the downbeat of a contrary meter that was overlaid on the primary dominant meter of the song. Then there were contrapuntal syllabic emphases. Then there were the basic rhymes at the end of each line, which were anchor rhymes. And I needed that to happen in a way that said what we wanted to say.
That sounds like a lot of work. Is the sheer labor of your music part of why people search for so much meaning within it?
People know I put a lot into it. And if I leave 8,000 bread crumbs around my door, I can’t blame anyone for knocking on it.
Does heavy interpretation do a disservice to the music?
I love that there are people who listen at that level. It helps slightly soften the blow of the existential horror—it’s an incredibly creatively validating thing. But there’s not a wrong or a right way. I’m not comfortable with the idea that anyone needs to “get” the songs to get the songs. I don’t want to clomp all over that with my heavy-booted definitive statement on what it was supposed to be.
What did you want to say on Divers?
If I could say it all the way, I wouldn’t have bothered making a record. I will say that there’s a thematic core of the album—every song on the record is asking some version of the same question.
The whole record is personal, but a lot of what is most personal is conveyed through pure fiction or, sometimes, even science fiction—literally sci-fi. With “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” I’m contrasting this British Isles sea shanty with a narrative in which I’m talking about colonizing alternate iterations of the terrestrial position in the multiverse. Colonizing time sideways, front and back, traveling in four directions through time. The subject matter is some of the heaviest and occasionally saddest I’ve ever explored. It’s linked to mortality and the idea of getting older. Time runs through every single song. But it was also the most fun to make. There’s no way to know someone except to know them.
Has building this entire aesthetic universe been a form of escapism from the modern world for you?
It’s not that contrarian. It hasn’t been that much work to not be on Twitter or Instagram. All you have to do is not do it. I’m not wearing a burlap sack, walking in the wilderness, talking to animals. I’m in the world. I just do everything real slow, and I don’t have enough hours in the day to do that stuff and still get anything done. It would’ve taken me ten years instead of five to get this album done.