Joanna Newsom Is Bigger Than Indie Rock

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In 2006, I found myself in a sweaty rock club in the middle of Ohio, bound on all sides by messy, sweaty college kids. It was a rock club I’d been to dozens of times — I’d seen Xiu Xiu and Bright Eyes and Blood Brothers and Rilo Kiley and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah there. But on this night, when the air conditioner was surely broken, the trappings of rock ‘n roll as I knew it were absent. Onstage, there was no drum kit, no synths, no guitars. Just some sparse, medieval looking instruments, and one huge, golden harp rising from the crusty, dim-lit stage. I shifted nervously from foot to foot, and then I saw her – an impish woman in a patchwork dress covering her petite frame. She took a seat behind the harp, nearly dwarfed by it, and began to play “Emily,” from her just-released, completely astonishing new record Ys. I was seeing Joanna Newsom for the first time.

It was more than a bit awkward; on that Ys tour Newsom started each set by playing the album in its entirety before playing some favorites from her acclaimed debut, 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender. That’s already a somewhat unusual thing for an artist to do, but even moreso when you take into account the nature of Ys: A five track LP on which every song is at least seven minutes long, one of them more than doubling that length and then some. Arranged by Newsom and the composer Van Dyke Parks, who’d previously worked with the Beach Boys, Donovan, Tim Buckley, Arlo Guthrie, The Byrds, and more, its grandiose orchestration and novella-length poetics spooled unendingly from one metaphor the next, detailing Newsom’s relationship with then-boyfriend Bill Callahan, the unexpected death of her best friend, and her own ill health. It wasn’t only the broken cooling system in that claustrophobic venue that made the performance uncomfortable – Newsom, petite as she was, had invented a sound too big for its stage.

I thought of that first show last week, when a friend told me he couldn’t justify spending upwards of $70 on tickets to see Newsom’s recent performances in NYC, because she was “just an indie artist.” I stifled the urge to interrogate his definition of “indie” today, especially in a landscape where bands like My Morning Jacket’s run at Beacon Theatre and Belle & Sebastian shows at Radio City Music Hall cost just as much as this one did. But what felt more important than that was placing Newsom in the correct context. Though she’s had plenty of success in the indie rock sphere, that loosely-defined genre does not even begin to contain her. She’s a singular miracle, an artist with a talent so incomprehensible we’re lucky it exists it all. With her classical training in harp and piano, her ability to write lyrics that could win the Pulitzer in poetry, and a flair for fanciful storytelling, she’s more of the caliber of musician you’d see playing at Carnegie Hall. (Indeed, the night after her performance at The Apollo she played Pittsburgh’s Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall). In fact, her performances last week at the historic Apollo Theater and the newly-restored Kings Theatre both provided optimal opulence for the majesty of her work. To write her off as “just an indie artist” is egregious.

But Newsom (and let’s face it, lots of female-identified musicians), are constantly being written off in this manner. Though The Milk-Eyed Mender made her an almost instant success, she was regarded as this perpetually ethereal woodland faery nymph rather than the actual human genius that she is. I adored the quirkiness and baroque pop sensibility of The Milk-Eyed Mender, but Ys automatically felt more serious than its predecessor, as if she were actively trying to prove her own worth. For the follow-up to Ys, she doubled-down on that, releasing a three-disc epic in 2010 called Have One On Me. By then, she’d started taking herself more seriously, too. Gone were the dirigibles and patchwork dresses and Appalachian folksong covers. She experimented with jazz, she brought in a tanpura, and she ended up needing to reinvent her formerly witch-like vocal due to chronic laryngitis that plagued her recording sessions. She landed a part in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, narrating plot points in her Cali-native drawl. She married SNL-vetted comedian Andy Samberg and then wrote an astonishingly beautiful album about how crushing her love for him felt, knowing they both would eventually die. That record, Divers, combines all the sonic elements that made her previous records so mesmerizing – the dizzying arrangements, her fluid ability to transition between harp and piano, her sprawling, mythic-level lyricism.

This is Joanna Newsom in 2015: earnestly tuning her harp’s newest C-string, but making subtle jokes about it (“Let’s ‘C’ how my new string is doing,” she quipped), before deftly launching into stunning numbers from the latest record, chief among them its title track, “Leaving the City,” and “Time as A Symptom.” A Kim Keever-painted backdrop rustles slightly behind her backing band, which includes her brother Pete (who helped compose arrangements for Divers) rotating between drums and keyboards, Mirabai Peart handling various strings and backing vocals, and Ryan Francesconi (who, in a collaboration with Alela Diane, opened Newsom’s shows at both Kings and the Apollo) playing pretty much every type of guitar imaginable. His well-timed, ghostly feedback on heady show closer “Baby Birch” was particularly arresting. There were, of course, old favorites – she opened with “Bridges and Balloons,” and later played “Peach, Plum, Pear,” both from Mender, and “Cosmia” and “Monkey & Bear” figured in from Ys.

Newsom is wholly present at her shows, as tuned in as that C-string, but watching her play, it’s so easy to get lost. Her soaring voice, the movement of her hands on the strings, her vivid communion with the instrument itself, moved me to tears more than once. She still wore a patchwork dress, but this time, the lush setting of the Apollo felt so much more appropriate than the grimy indie rock club where I first saw her nine years ago. Newsom is an absolute treasure, and though she shines in any context, it takes an awe-inspiring venue to truly contain such elegant power.

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