Though it’s unfair to reduce an artist to a few superficial descriptors, Joanna Newsom has undeniably emerged as a candidate for such caricature. A classically trained harpist with long red hair and a little girl’s voice, dressed like a character from a medieval-themed restaurant, Newsom is all but asking you with her otherworldly performances and allegorical songwriting to label her a pixie prodigy. And yet, as evidenced by 2004’s breakthrough, The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom is a serious artist of deep and penetrating vision, one whose quirks inform every shift in time signature and whimsical turn of phrase, one who—with the definitive statement of her epic, newly released orchestral fable, Ys—is fast becoming one of her generation’s most engaging characters. Newsom’s fourth full-length (pronounced “eees,”) is a sprawling tale enriched by the strings of legendary arranger Van Dyke Parks, with five elaborately imagined songs unspooling through 50 minutes of chattering runaway farm animals and asteroid-lit skies. But as fantastical and exotic as the songwriting appears, Newsom contends that the compositions are firmly rooted in her personal experiences. She believes that the seamless amalgam of her musical and thematic conceptions was guided by an innate, even supernatural, process.
“These are true stories,” she says. “That’s what makes my hair stand on end; that’s what makes me not sleep for a year as I work these things out. I was trying to write true stories, and they ended up ringing with [this] sort of allegorical, axiomatic resonance; and they all involved the same elements, and resolved in similar ways—it’s actually really hard to explain without sounding idiotic.”
This otherworldly, ethereal feel saturates every track on Ys, which was built from a series of sonic drafts that bounced back and forth between Newsom and Parks over the ensuing months. The young songwriter, admittedly nervous about suggesting changes in the veteran arranger’s work, remained confident that her intensely hands-on, bar-by-bar editing process was necessary to realize her original vision. Most distinctively, this vision included songs with narratives so meticulous they each required approximately 10 minutes to complete their vivid arcs.
“These forms are closer to what I was exploring in school, back when I thought I was going to be, like, a ‘composer,’” she explains, referencing her days as a traditional musician in the classical mold. “In those times, I certainly thought there were particular music-making conventions and parameters which differed between ‘compositions’ and ‘songs.’ And when I was studying composition, formally, I really expanded my songs to Wt what I thought was a permissible shape and size. And when I decided to work more on ‘songs,’ I cut and cut and cut. People who have the earliest versions of some of the songs that later made it onto my first Drag City release can attest: they started out longer than they ended up,” she says of the more condensed tracks comprising The Milk-Eyed Mender.
“But in the last few years I really started longing to be able to work within a longer song form again, to let melodies range and keys modulate and ideas develop within a space longer than three minutes, especially because I felt encumbered by the stories I wanted to tell with this record. I felt it would be an awful, embarrassing, messy mistreatment, to confine these stories within the prescribed three minutes. And I also felt like my only responsibility in the whole world was to tell these stories properly.”
The final product, despite being deeply engaging and endlessly mysterious, is an album that breaks nearly every taboo in this singles-oriented, iPod world. It goes far beyond caricature and into the realm of high art. “I’m not asking anybody to enjoy or even listen to this record,” she notes. “I will be very happy if anybody does, but if they have no use for it or taste for it or interest in it, you know, why would I ever want to foist it on them? At the same time, I don’t think anybody would suggest that it’s my job to make people comfortable, or feel included or safe within an idea. My major responsibility, as I see it, is to be truthful within the parameters of the ideas and stories I’ve chosen to score and narrate. Honestly, when I was done with this record, I felt so much as though I’d followed a particular idea—one that is central to my entire life and heart—so wholly through to its completion that I was immediately going to be, like, struck dead any minute. I’m still nervous about that.”
As endearingly sincere in conversation as her wide-eyed stage persona would indicate, Newsom disarmingly admits she didn’t even mention to friends that she was working with Van Dyke Parks for fear that the singer/songwriter and Brian Wilson collaborator wouldn’t deem her work worthy of his attention.
“I didn’t know he’d be doing the arrangements, but I knew I wanted an orchestra,” she says of the pre-album planning that led to Parks bringing in some 40 musicians to create brilliantly swirling and elaborately nuanced arrangements around Newsom’s delicate harp playing. ”I had been listening quite a bit to Song Cycle [Parks’ iconic 1968 solo release], and I thought, I want to work with an arranger who writes like Van Dyke Parks. And then I thought, ‘what the hell,’ and I wrote him—well, I think I wrote him a little fan letter. … But after the exchange of a few emails, it was decided that he and his sweet wife Sally would come listen to me play a few songs in my hotel room in L.A. I was so nervous. And I will never forget that afternoon. Van Dyke was so lovely, and Sally was so lovely, and I sort of thought I’d been hallucinating afterwards.”