Joanna Newsom has come a long way since her 2004 debut The Milk Eyed Mender: a collection of short heartfelt songs, almost nursery rhymes telling of mollusc weddings and dragons. Written by an Elfin-like creature who appears to be a modern incarnation of Pre-Raphaelite painting The Lady of Shallot, she sings in a shrill accapella voice, commonly likened to that of a child, much to our singer’s dislike. All in conversation with her harp and harpsichord she sounds as though she has stepped out of a Baroque court.
People often don’t understand the pleasant challenge that lies in digesting and interpreting the intricacies of notes and nuances in her songs. In this way she is like turning the final page of a Dostoyevsky novel satisfied that you have completed the journey: feeling a little more whole, albeit exhausted, at the close. It seems to be this feeling that she strives for each time she records. No matter how grand a scale or instrumentally luscious a backdrop, there is something universal and altogether simplistic about her songs’ messages, it just takes a while for us to peel back the layers and reach their centre.
With TMEM the only conventional element was the four minute length of the dozen tracks: her Marmite quirkiness spoon-fed in small doses; her voice at its piercing peak. Two years later Ys was a wholly different concept. An album steeped in pastoral imagery whose orchestral arrangements were composed by the legendary Van Dyke Parks, it was punctuated only 4 times throughout its hour long length. In this guise it was more of a folklore opera than a leftfield pop album.
Fast forward through world tours with symphony orchestras and a live EP, all while in her twenties, to March of this year, where at still only 28, she released her third LP Have One on Me. She must have a thing for the number three for it was not one disc, but a triplet that was enough to suffice in damming her overflowing creativity. While with 18 tracks it is a little overwhelming on first listen; it finds a balance between the shorter songs of her debut and the lengthy story songs of its follow up. In addition the accompanying guitar, drums, trombone and strings, though richly ambitious and often stately are never so grandeur that they steal the show from the softening vocals they cocoon.
Looking at this back catalogue then it is a wonder how such an instrument and such a voice, juxtaposed in the one’s lullabying calm against the often grating refrain of Newsom’s unpolished pipes, sell out venues the world over. What is further surprising is how she conquered us in a time when success and word of mouth is achieved through the virtual realms of the internet: Myspace, blogs, Tweets. Recently speaking to The Guardian she states that success in the music industry is much more about exploitation of the “overwhelming and ineffective” use of these mediums rather than musicianship: Lady Gaga being her prime example of a guilty party.
So despite no official website, tracks on Spotify or a Myspace page by which we can discover her or track her whereabouts our harpist still plays two dates at the 3,000 capacity Royal Festival Hall in London. In selling out both shows within hours of them being announced she proves that true talent doesn’t rely on entrepreneurial marketing or flamboyant fashion statements in order to win acclaim. Her fans span the young 20-something hipsters drinking in the foyer bar before the show, up to those easily old enough to be their grandparents. It’s a pleasure to be part of such a diverse audience so eagerly anticipating this shared experience.
Supported by Roy Harper, one of Newsom’s favourite musicians, he shares the same sentiment towards her, describing her on Tuesday as “one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen, performing some of the best music you’re likely to hear on this planet”, and from the moment she begins Have One on Me track “’81” we know we cannot dispute.
With an excitable energy Newsom seems to have grown used to the stage, joking with her band and conducting a Q&A with the audience while her harp is tuned. Given the political outcome of the day someone’s question ‘Who do you think should be chancellor of the exchequer?’ received audience applause and laughter while Newsom giggled, perhaps slightly bemused.
This familiar rapport with the crowd and her childish laughter, filling silences between songs, never intrudes upon the focused effort herself and band employ when performing the Have One on Me heavy set. She is one of a rare few musicians who benefit from playing things exactly as they are; the mere fact that her and her five-piece band can recreate the instrumental intensity achieved on record is utterly compelling. Neil Morgan, long time drummer, arranger and collaborator is astounding and with painstaking precision his shadowy figure seems almost multi limbed, so sharply and pointedly does he grasp and grab at symbols and tambourines, switching from drumsticks to brushes seamlessly. It is on lengthy tracks such as “Have One on Me” and “Soft as Chalk” that his punctuation is so necessary and we are aware that in these 10 minute long chorus devoid pieces his talent is as crucial as the impassioned vocals he halts and hastens.
“Good Intentions Paving Company”, is certainly a crowd-pleaser, getting whoops of recognition as her voice bounces over the piano like the bumpy road trip she sings of, with echoes of Joni Mitchell in her annunciations. “Jackrabbits” is quietly intimate with just harp and vocals, while earlier tracks like “Inflammatory Writ” are given a countrified makeover with violin accompaniments. Closing Wednesday evening with “Peach, Plum, Pear” its abrasive harpsichord switched for the harp; we are transported back to a Renaissance night of entertainment.
Momentarily leaving the stage the six return to standing ovations to perform “Baby Birch”, possibly the furthest removed stylistically from Newsom’s other work. Its funeral dirge tempo brings to mind Cat Power, while the noisy reverb and sporadic interjections from multi instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi’s guitar, make it intensely atmospheric and, if we are to believe speculation on its subject matter, deeply personal.
Each night ends with no doubt in the majority’s mind that Joanna had, for those few hours, turned the Royal Festival Hall into a “garden of Eden” with her talent in full bloom…and the roses thrown to her as she took her leave from the stage on Wednesday, some kind of symbol of the flourishing musician she continues to grow into.
Above photos were used under a creative commons license from flickr and are by grange85