The Wood Nymph, the Harp and the Wardobe

by Alexis Swerdloff / photographed by Annabel Mehran

Joanna Newsom floated onstage at the Bowery Ballroom on a snowy December evening in 2004, sat down at her harp, and flipped her long dirty-blond hair out of her face. The room fell silent. As she began to play songs off her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, which had come out earlier in the year, there was the feeling that something very, very different was happening.

Newsom's songs creak like an antique music box, and her trademark craggy mezzo-soprano, coupled with the ethereal, sometimes ominous twang of her harp has her music falling somewhere between 12th-century troubadour songs, 78-rpm pop and Alan-Lomax-style field recordings. As for the lyrics, her ballads are filled with tummies aching from eating bumblebees; irritable, caged canaries; inflammatory writs; cold compresses being laid on messes; and damnable bells. Her command of the English language is deft, eloquent without showing off. Like reading To the Lighthouse or seeing a Björk music video for the first time, beholding this warbling 22-year-old was like watching the system shake, delicately but firmly.

Joanna Newsom is a wood nymph clad in Sonia Rykiel. On the one hand, the harp virtuoso, singer-songwriter, and accidental indie-rock poster girl peppers her songs with the aforementioned, non-21st-century themes. "In high school, people used to refer to me as 'New to the World,'" she recalls, due to her overarched posture and propensity for toting a parasol, wearing costume-y outfits and carrying a backpack that her friend brought her back from Africa. "There goes New to the World," people in younger grades would say as the teenage harpist walked by. Before meeting her, I had a hard time imagining her, say, operating a microwave or watching a VH1 reality show. But throughout our interview, Newsom sprinkles the conversation with an Office reference one moment ("That's what she said," she mutters quickly, quietly and familiarly when I bite off a piece of chocolate that I determine to be too big for my mouth) and the fact that she's memorized Marc Jacobs's 2002 Spring and Fall collection the next. You should see her Christian Louboutin heels.

Joanna wears a dress by Rodarte and shoes by Christian Louboutin for Rodarte. Makeup: Lancôme. Fragrance: Vera Wang Princess.

The enigmatic Newsom was born in Nevada City, California. One of three children, Newsom comes from a musical family -- her sister plays the cello, her brother the drums, her father the guitar and her mother the piano -- and was drawn to the harp at a very young age. As the story goes (Newsom can't quite remember the details exactly), at the age of four she wouldn't stop talking about the harp and begged her parents to let her take lessons. So the Newsoms brought her to Lisa Stein, who told the four-year-old she was too young to play the harp. She should learn the piano, Stein said, and come back in two years, but "I was just so adamant about playing," Newsom says. So at six, she returned, and became Stein's student. Through high school, Newsom continued to play the harp, but at about 13 or 14, she realized that she didn't want to be a classical performer, but a composer. "I had been writing music since I was a little kid and at that point, I really started thinking that composing music was the official thing that I wanted to do," says Newsom. "And by the time I was done with high school, I wanted to focus completely on that."

So Newsom decided to attend Mills College in Oakland, California, known for its composition department. But amid "dudes with laptops," Newsom's ideas about melody and beauty were deemed outdated. "I had spent the past ten years focused on composition and I had felt so sure that I was so experimental and had never heard anything like this and was really excited about my own music," she recalls. "But there, it felt like what I was doing was so clichéd. Every idea I had, everything I was interested in, to everyone else seemed really passé. It was like, if I was interested in folk music and high-art music, I should have been studying in 1920 in Chicago." After a formative meeting with Pauline Oliveros, an accordion player influential in the Bay Area performance-art scene, in which they talked about what it means to be "a composer and to make music that's melodic, and the dignity in considering melody," Joanna says, "it made me decide to stop studying composition and confirmed for me that I didn't need to be in this program."

After a brief stint as an ethnomusicology major ("I wanted to study West African music") and a turn as a creative writing student ("I wrote these paragraph-long sentences. I really love Cormac McCarthy and Faulkner and Nabokov and you can really tell. It was embarrassingly derivative"), Newsom decided to drop out of Mills.

It was around that time that she began experimenting with her singing voice. And if you find her voice odd now, Newsom says back then it was even weirder. "My voice was absolutely unhinged at this point -- I'd sing and jump an interval and go for a note and I'd be scrambling for it before I would latch onto it. I was just so unfamiliar with the way my voice worked." She recorded a few rough songs she was working on -- not, she emphasizes, to make an album, but as a way to remember and document her finished works -- and passed a CD to her friend Adam, one of the few people she knew who appreciated her singing voice. Adam, without telling Newsom, handed said CD to Will Oldham, who was stopping through Nevada City for a gig. Oldham, alt-folk demi-god, who plays under the moniker Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, was taken with the home recordings -- so taken, in fact, that he emailed Newsom and invited her on his tour.

"I said yes because I felt like it would have been insane to say no, but it freaked me out because I had never performed live and had never even remotely conceived of performing live," says Newsom. "You have to understand, I thought I had sabotaged the system. I couldn't believe that I'd be getting up in front of people and playing my harp and singing my weird fucking songs." At that point, she began looking for opportunities to play in front of an audience, which led her to friend Devendra Banhart, with whom she played two shows in San Francisco (right when he was beginning to develop a following) before heading with Oldham on a tour through the Southwest. Post-tour, she was signed to Oldham's label Drag City (home to the Silver Jews, Weird War and Smog), who released her debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, to acclaim in early 2004. Due to her Oldham/Banhart ties, Newsom was stamped with the all-purpose "freak folk" label. "At the time," Newsom recalls, "this drove me insane -- that phrase doesn't mean anything." Now, she says, people use that term less, "and in a weird way it's sad. In a way, it's a weird metaphor for all the people I used to know who I hardly ever see anymore because we're so busy and touring."

For her second album, Ys, released in 2006, Newsom decided to go epic. She teamed up with composer Van Dyke Parks (of the Beach Boys' Smile fame), who created a lush, orchestral, violin-heavy score to capture the emotional intensity of the album. Ys, much darker than her first, deals directly with loss and pain -- her voice is stronger and more emotive than before, and the album is composed of five songs, each one averaging about 10 minutes long.

The intensity and complexity of Ys has led to numerous analyses by music journalists that practically require PhDs to unravel. Phrases like "metaphysical transformations" very often arise. Ultimately, it's hard for her fans not to take her seriously. At a recent concert, Newsom says, her bandmate Neal challenged her to drop as many Arnold Schwarzenegger references on stage as she possibly could. So, before introducing "Colleen," Newsom said, "this song is about lies -- true lies." Of course, she says, "afterwards, people were like, 'lies, true lies? That song is about true lies?'"

Her followers are indeed of the rabid variety. Case in point: A few years ago, when she was touring her first album, Newsom was having a "Gunne Sax moment" -- you know, wearing a lot of those lacy, prairie-style numbers donned by Melissa Gilbert in Little House on the Prairie. Soon after, she says, "I found out that people were selling them on eBay under the heading 'Joanna Newsom Gunne Sax Dress.' One time I was at a vintage store, and there was a Gunne Sax on the wall labeled 'Joanna Newsom Dress.' And my friend sent me pictures she found on the Internet of people dressed up as me for Halloween, wearing Gunne Sax dresses." Another example: Last summer Newsom decided to throw a small, informal concert for the folks in her hometown of Nevada City in Grass Valley, a neighboring town. She's not sure how word spread, but within a day of announcing the show, the concert was completely sold out and fans had bought plane tickets from around the country in order to attend. It was surreal for Newsom -- and, no doubt, the fine citizens of Nevada City -- to observe the Newsomaniacs skulking around the tiny town. They'd embarked on a Joanna Newsom reality tour... wearing Joanna Newsom T-shirts.

These days, she's been hanging out in New York after her two-night sold-out run at Brooklyn Academy of Music, in which she played the entirety of Ys, accompanied by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, to an enraptured audience. Newsom's Manhattan break (rumor is she's spending time with her boyfriend SNL-ster Andy Samberg) is a prelude before heading back to her home in Northern California, where she plans on taking a good chunk of time off after two straight years of touring. In the meantime, she's staying up until all hours of the early morning (Newsom's sleeping patterns have always been off-kilter, she explains), making like a flaneur through the empty cobblestone streets of the West Village, getting 9 a.m. mani-pedis and eating berries with cream for breakfast at Cafe Cluny, while flipping through copies of French Vogue.

Now that her Ys farewell tour is finished (the second BAM show, Newsom says, was the last time she'll play the album), there's the sense that Newsom is somehow liberated. She's been playing two new remarkable songs live, both of which sound more like the songs off Ys than her earlier ditties, but they are markedly less tinged with melancholy. Newsom is being superstitiously circumspect in terms of giving specifics. All she will say is, "I am anxious to write, all the time. I have all these ideas about recording techniques and arrangement and production, and I can't even begin to play around and experiment with that stuff till the songs themselves are finished and I'm happy with them."

The sense of being free from one album and moving to the next was evident in Newsom's costume change at the BAM concert. For the first act of the show, while playing Ys with the Philharmonic, she was clad in a black Gucci evening gown; when she came out for the second act, to play her older songs and two new ones with her touring band, she was wearing a neon hot-pink Christopher Kane mini-dress. "The last album was definitely overcast by a sort of morbid feeling," she says, "and the process of working on it was very intense and often kind of dark. Musically speaking, the whole process left me with a sort of restlessness, and after inhabiting that intense space for such a concentrated time, I felt confined by the parameters I'd set down for myself, for that album. It had to be the way it was, to make that album, but I am anxious to work in a different way and think about different things for a little while now."

With that, Newsom, new to some new world, put on her elaborate black cape (from The Good The Bad & The Ugly, of course) and flitted off into the night.

Hair by Jenna Brauer * Makeup by Jillian Chaitin * Set design by Max Bellhouse/Magnet * Photography assistant: Doane Cooper

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