Joanna Newsom talks about her excellent new triple album, the 'toxic' world of fashion, and 'passing' in the New York scene

Joanna-NewsomJoanna Newsom—the harp-plucking, polarizing critics’ darling—has been trying to shake off her shyness lately, dabbling in New York fashion and dating Andy Samberg (which she prefers not to discuss, thank you very much). She spoke with us about Have One On Me, her triple-disc album that comes out today, and how it was shaped by her increasingly high-profile lifestyle.

EW: The album has a lot of references to drinking and debauchery—is that autobiographical or just fiction?

JN: I think there is some of both, indirectly. A lot of the themes on the album have to do with traveling and being ungrounded in many ways, being sort of cast out and away from home, whatever that means. It kind of oversimplifies it in a way to talk about it. I’m trying to make a lyrical case rather than make the kind of case you would want to talk about at length in an interview. But I think that that’s part of the character of the record. For me I was thinking of it in terms of a 1920s expatriot version of decadence, that was the model of the kind of hedonism I wanted to write about.

EW: So this is your longest record. Did you intend for that, or did it just happen?

JN: It just kind of happened. Two thirds of the way through I already had enough material for a double album, but I weirdly felt it wasn’t done—I felt like I needed to get a better sense of what the themes were and I wanted to be able to tie them up. To introduce them, develop them and resolve them and I felt like I wasn’t there yet. So I tried to sequence it in a way that helped to locate that thread. Because I think there is a linear quality to the way that a lot of the ideas develop and revolve. It took me like three weeks to sequence it and I tried so many different permutations of songs. When it finally was sequenced I realized, to me at least, it made perfect sense as a triple album, and that’s what I decided to commit to.

EW: You used to live in Nevada City, Calif., but you seem to be in New York a lot. Are you living here now?

JN: I’m not. I do spend a fair amount of time there, but I’m still in Northern California. Not in Nevada City, but near where I grew up.

EW: You’ve been doing a fair amount of New York fashion stuff, like that shoot for W magazine. Has that affected how you approach music?

JN: I think in some ways. I did notice myself on this album either directly or indirectly writing about the city, sort of frantic dispatches from the city and trying to find a place there and figure out how to be creative and grounded in that world, which I still haven’t figured out, really. Yeah, I think it’s in there.

EW: I’ve read you wanted to play the harp and make music since you were a kid. Did you aspire to the fashion and fame thing as well, or is that more recent?

JN: Well, fashion is obviously a minefield of potentially toxic and horrible influences or forces at work, but fashion at its most simple, dreamy and pure form was something that interested me a lot. Like many people, I’m sure, I did the whole thing where you design clothes, hundreds and hundreds of pages of ideas that I wanted to make someday. And I really have always loved beautiful clothing, so there’s a side of that that’s exciting. I did sort of initially go through this phase of going to a lot of fashion-y things with that excitement, you know, being like, “Oooooo, this world! Fashion!” And then kind of getting deflated a little bit and realizing that in some cases—maybe I’m just not approaching it the right way—but in a lot of cases it just doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with the actual parts of fashion or the actual parts of design that are exciting to me.

EW: There’s a line in your record that goes, “Sure I can pass/particularly when I start to tip my glass.” Is that a somewhat autobiographical reference to doing the New York scene and the fashion thing?

JN: Yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily be that specific, but it’s certainly about the way it feels to move it that world. Yeah, definitely, you’ve got it. I think that that’s true, going undercover somehow.

EW: Are you doing a lot of that lately, or are those lyrics mostly fictitious?

JN: I think the second I walk out of my front door there’s a bit of that for me—I think any social act is a bit of passing for me. Going through the motions of… it’s always a little bit of a struggle. I’m a lot shyer that it would seem. I’ve really worked to try to meet people I don’t know and try to carry on a conversation with them. I would say New York or any city, basically being on tour, talking to people, being in that world, is a sort of passing.

EW: It’s hard not to use a front.

JN: Yeah, and I think there’s a way that people do it that is graceful, and they’re still authentic but they’re kind of protected, and I think I’m still learning that.

EW: On the new album, “81” is shorter and a bit poppier than some of your other stuff. In your future could you imagine doing more pop verse-chorus-verse stuff, or is what you do really just your style?

JN: You know, from the beginning, from the very first record, I’ve always loved great pop music, and I’ve always held that in my mind as something that would be fun to do, and maybe even something I thought I was doing sometimes, whatever my version of that is. The problem is I sort of feel like when I’m working on a song it becomes what it’s supposed to be, and there’s a lot of times where I have this agenda like I want to write a short, catchy little song, and it will turn into an 11-minute, insane, weird thing. And then sometimes when I just sit down and write it ends up being a two minute song, and I don’t know why, it just happens that that’s what that particular song wanted to be. So maybe that will change and maybe the next thing I do will be a practice in disciplining the song length, I have no idea, but when I started writing this record, I really thought they’d all be short songs. I don’t really know how that happened. It’s not completely involuntary or completely unconscious, because obviously the writing process is so deliberate and so careful, but at the same time for whatever reason I have an instinct about a song that it has to be that way. I think I would do a very bad job if I was really wanting to write a record of pop songs. I don’t know if I can approach writing that way.

EW: How do you feel when people describe your music as difficult or challenging?

JN: Hmm. I think I see where they’re coming from, but sometimes the extremity of the things that get said shock me a little. Like, even from the beginning when my voice was more rough—and I knew it was rough—but the things that would get written about it were so extreme. You know, people were like, “you may want to tear your eyeballs out and throw yourself off a building if you hear this.” Really? It’s just a voice, and there are so many weird voices out there. And similarly, there are a lot of things about my music where I’ll read something and think that seems almost a little patronizing. Reviews I read that seem patronizing of listeners in a weird way—do you think someone can’t handle a harp? It’s just an instrument with pitches. It’s not that weird.

EW: Some people do look at a song as a chore if it’s over 10 minutes. They might say, “This is good, but I have to warn you—it’s ten minutes long and has a harp.”

JN: [laughs] Yeah, I understand that, but of course when a person writes music—I guess this isn’t the case with some death metal music where the intention is slightly different—but in general I feel when someone’s writing something it’s because it sounds good to them. Their instinct is to do what sounds pretty, and sounds good, and to me that’s what I do. So obviously when I hear it I go, “good job, self, you’ve made a song that sounded the way you want it to sound.” And then of course there’s not that many people who feel the same way about it. But there’s enough.

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Comments (22 total) Add your comment
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  • Joan

    LUV HER!

  • Jenny

    People might comment that her voice is awful back in 2004, and her songs are way too long and has no chorus whatsoever. But i ADORE her. This album was her third consecutive 5 star album to me. She’s awesome and as a person too. She’s beautiful and is a terrific musician, how many of them can actually do that? She’s right there with the others: Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Rickie Lee Jones, PJ Harvey, Bjork, Carole King,Tori Amos and Kate Bush. Best singer/songwriter of this generation. Forget Regina Spektor or whoever is playing on Grey’s Anatomy or AC, this girl is the real thing since 2004!

    • Gary

      No, she is not up there with Joni Mitchell. I think she is good, but no way is she at Mitchell’s level.

      • Joan

        Sorry Gary, but she is! She sure is, she was last decade’s ultimate singer/songwriter. It wasn’t Bat For Lashes, Laura Marling or Regina Spektor, they’re good,but they are not Joanna. Newsom is as inventive as Mitchell in her heydays and her whole discography (huge Mitchell fan). She sure is!

  • Kevin

    I’ve tried. I WANT to like her music… she’s beautiful and charming and writes well. But her voice is like a sonic ice-pick through my brain (and I don’t mean that as a compliment).

    • john

      I do

  • Kyle

    It’s amazing to me how unapologetic, but modest she is…

  • Nick M.

    It must have been a horrible chore to sit through an interview filled with so many insipid questions. Yet, Joanna still managed to graciously answer them with wit and artistic insight. Forget the great job creating another brilliant album, she should be awarded for having to suffer this interviewer’s vapidity.

  • Oscar

    Nope, she really is up there with Joni, Gary. If you are talking about originality, musicianship, songwriting, lyricism then you won’t find people better. Just people who sound different.

  • anonymous

    i’m on the same side as gary, but i’m defending tori amos’s name. she is by no means up there with tori amos. she seems like a perfectly lovely chick but her music is just not on that level. and her voice is dreadful. her lyricisim and musicianship is NOWHERE near tori amos. sorry but its just not.

    • Lori

      Sorry she is! I’m a huge Tori Amos, and with the exception of her four first studio albums, Tori Amos discography has been a mess, especially the 2000s. Abnormally Attracted to Sin and all that filler, same with American Doll, and the Poppy Hawaiian Beekeeper. Scarlet’s was okay. Strange Little Girls, i had mixed feeling towards that one. Sorry Tori used to be good, but the 90’s were over, and she was done, i really hope finally gets in form again! And by the way Ys was much more critically acclaimed than Tori’s magnum opus Little Earthquakes, just search, just check and you’ll see. Joanna is the thing, she is the best singer/songwriter to come out since Polly Jean Harvey and Bjork, NOW these two are singers that are STILL releasing good albums. Tori is done, like Alanis and Liz Phair, we all know that. Newsom, just gets better, the last time i saw that, without counting Bjork or Harvey, was Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell. Tori had a 5 star debut, a 5 star follow up, a good experiment, an acessible personal 4 star effort. Tori used to be a great lyricist, but her last album just talked about the same thing: sex & god, she did that before and did it better. Tori can’t deliver a good 17 track these days, Joanna on other hand, is doing that right under our noses!

      • Lori

        Some mistakes:

        *I’m a huge Tori Amos fan
        *17 track album

        Like my girl Joan said, sorry she is! Go to metacritic, and search Tori+Amos, and Joanna Newsom, you’ll see what i’m talking, these days Newsom is miles ahead of her. I’m a huge Tori fan, but i know when my artists mess things up. Joanna didn’t, Tori did. When Joanna make a misstep, i will say “she did”, but right now she made a third straight masterpiece. Still what makes me most sad about Tori, is that she still puts a hell of a show, that’s why everytime she comes to my city, i go. Her voice might sound different on record, but she still has that same emotional glory pipes singing live! I just love to watch Tori live, she can play like 2 pianos, i just wish she did something like that on record, instead of wings and concepts. That’s why Joanna is better, in my opinion, than her these days. She puts a hell of a live show and a triple album, and still got the critics acclaiming what she does! Tori these days looks like a satire of herself: the voice, the concepts, the albums full of filler, the songwriting (which used to be her greatest strength), the production, everything, she’s just not her anymore. And that christmas album… what a mistake… although the production was better. Joanna’s Have One On Me has been compared to Bob Dylan cause of this album, don’t ask me why, i just know that not every fame singer/songwriter (with the exception of miss Mitchell of course) has been able to do that!

  • Lori

    Another mistake, sorry:

    *Joanna has been compared to Bob Dylan cause of Have One On Me, don’t ask me why, i just know that not every female singer/songwriter (with the notable exception of miss Joni Mitchell of course) has been able to do that!

  • Papageno

    Music for masochists. If this chick was fat with a cleft palate we would not be here right now. Most appropriate name for a record label EVER. To compare this to Joni Mitchell is beyond insulting to Joni. Joni wrote SONGS. This chick writes repetetive over-over–overlong bad poetry and sings it obnoxiously over three chords BUT ON A HARP OMG!!!!!!!!!

    • Jenny

      Weird you say that, cause Joni actually used very simple chords to make her songs, but only the alternative tunings and a highly rhythmic picking/strumming style creates a rich and unique guitar sound. And Joni wrote songs, but if you listen to The Hissing Of Summer Lawns, it’s much more poetry, so badly that it was the reason why the album received mixed reviews at the time it came out. Joni’s album: Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, also had its share of songs that surpassed the 6 minutes, including one of 16 minutes. Same as Joanna, she write songs that are usually longer, but then they’re songs they have an structure, they are not formless, unless you’re saying the Joni’s is too. It’s weird cause Joanna and Joni have a lot more in common then differences, as a fan of both i know that. And Joni used to be beautiful too, what if she was fat too? She wasn’t, and she was STILL a genius, Joanna is like that too. You people should listen to the album, instead of judging via previews or old records, this new one is the one that is making people compare her to Joni. They both are groundbreaking!

  • Justin

    Even though she says that she’s shy she bares her soul sweetly, intelligently, and imaginatively for the deep enjoyment of whoever will listen. She is honest with herself, whereas most people are not honest with themselves (especially in matters of the heart). I’ve listened to this super ‘hat trick’ 2wice through, and my next mission is to look up all of the words and allusions she used that are not currently in my vocabulary. I am not afraid to admit that I am madly in love with her as many of us probably are! (especially since nobody knows me)

  • Tere

    Hello new genius!! Joanna Newsom has obviously worked so hard at her music and although I already thought she was amazing she has pushed herself somewhere transcendent with this project. Thank goodness the songs are long- they should be! It does remind one of Queen Joni, but also of Laura Nyro, Kate Bush ,Aaron Copeland, madrigals and much, more more. It is not their style she emulates but the ability of these artists to assert their vision with a complexity that says no to commercialism and places them in un-categorizable field. There is a subtle critique of our culture embedded in this work yet never stated. It tells us to take our time and listen to the utterances coming from behind the facade. The writing is amazing. You could just read it as poetry and it would be profound enough but add the glorious musical weather she has spun around it and ….
    This is one of the most nuanced artworks I have experienced in a long time. Thank you Joanna Newsom I will listen to this for a very long time and make everyone I know buy it.

  • bob

    i didn’t know JN was pretty or anything else about her (didn’t even know she played harp!)when i first heard Milk Eyed Mender and recognised something beyond the ordinary. stop droning on about these dreary others (okay i’ll let Joni M off for a couple of efforts). It’s all great, though MEM still the best for me. she’s the real thing, never trying to impress anybody but herself. saw her live lately…best gig i’ve seen!

  • Sachi

    Tori is a sweet name! I think it suits her. And you know what? I’ll tell you a secret – aoluthgh Hsin-Yi is my favouritest human in the world and I would always rather be with her than with anyone else – but – I also only wag my tail for Paul sometimes! Like, when Hsin-Yi comes home from being out, I don’t really bother to acknowledge her much. But when Paul comes home, I always jump up to greet him really excitedly. Also sometimes if I’m sleeping on my bed, and Paul comes home – I start wagging the tip of my tale madly. My humans always laugh because the rest of me is perfectly still except for the tip of my tail which is wagging like crazy. They say I’m so lazy that I can only be bothered to say hello with the tip of my tail – ha ha! It’s such a funny thing to see. But I only ever do this for Paul. I never do it for Hsin-Yi. So I think us doggies have different special people in our lives.Can’t wait to hear more about Tory – and see more photos! Slobbers,Honey the Great Dane

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  • phan mem dang tin

    You can definitely see your skills within the work you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers like you who are not afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

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