Joanna Newsom

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With my steely will compounded in a mighty mound that's hounded
By the snap my steel string sounded just before your snores unwound it
And in store are dreams so daring that the night can't stop from staring

I'll swim sweetly as a herring through the ether, not despairing
—"Cassiopeia"

Joanna Newsom is an American harpist and singer-songwriter, known for her distinctive voice and poetic lyrics. Combining "an avant-garde approach to appalachian folk music, with an unconventional vocal style" (to quote Amazon.com), she's usually classified as psych-folk, although she's not fond of the label.

Newsom's songs are highly intricate fairy tales, with difficult melodies and very poetic lyrics, but they're always less abstract and more coherent than they seem to be at first. Newsom is most easily compared to The Incredible String Band and Christina Rossetti, adding her own Cloudcuckoolander philosophy to her stories and telling them with compelling melodies. Many of her poems star complicated characters and feature separate fantasy worlds. Some are Beast Fable tales, others just describe nature, and some are classic folk. Most critics call her an acquired taste (or, more commonly, compare her voice to screeching tyres).

Her most recent album, Have One On Me, is decidedly more mainstream than her previous work. While still retaining much of her unique style, it's also somewhat reminiscent of Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos or Fairport Convention, and marked Newsom's breakthrough as a world famous singer.

For tropers looking to get used to her sound, great songs to start with include "Sprout and the Bean," "Good Intentions Paving Company", "In California", "Emily", "Colleen" and "Peach, Plum, Pear".


Discography:

Studio:

  • The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)
  • Ys (2006)
  • Have One On Me (2010)

Extended Plays:

  • Walnut Whales (2002)
  • Yarn and Glue (2003)
  • Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band (2007)

Joanna Newsom provides examples of the following tropes:
  • AcCENT Upon the Wrong SylLABle: Used to great effect in most songs.
  • Alliteration: The vast majority of her songs utilise this to some extent, and it is is a signature characteristic of her lyrics. In fact, it is a good reason half the lines from her songs are so memorable.
    • "Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie", "Peach, Plum, Pear", "Baby Birch", "Walnut Whales".
    • Combined with gorgeous rhyme in "Monkey & Bear":

And so, with the courage of a clown, or a cur, or a kite, jerking tight at its tether, bear would sway on her hind legs, the organ would grind dregs of song, for the pleasure of the children who'd shriek, throwing coins at her feet, then recoiling in terror...

    • And in "The Book Of Right-On":

Do you want to sit at my table? My fighting fame is fabled, and fortune finds me fit, and able.

  • An Aesop: "Monkey & Bear" seems to have the structure of one, animals and everything. It also resembles Animal Farm: after Monkey and Bear escape from the humans masters, Monkey starts treating Bear like a slave, telling her that they need her dancing to make money. Monkey slowly becomes more and more human-like in behavior, and Bear doesn't stand up to him... instead, she chooses to cast off her body, limb by limb, and vanish from Monkey's life.
  • The Bluebeard: "Go Long", complete with a visit to "a terrible room / Gilded with the gold teeth of the women who loved you".
    • Explicitly referred to in-song: "Run away from home, your beard is still blue".
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Her reputation tends toward this impression, but if you actually listen to or read one of her interviews, you'll see that this is definitely not the case:
    • "The big myth about Joanna Newsom is that she is fragile. An extraordinary idea when you think how radical, how ballsy, her choices have been. Her albums conform to no prescribed ideas about how many songs they should contain (the last one had five, this one has 18, songs vary hugely in length — and let’s not forget they’re written on a harp). Does anybody else put superglue on their fingers to make sure the callouses don’t grow soft? Schlep around the world to lead a different symphonic orchestra in playing her songs every night with barely any rehearsal time, everywhere from the London Barbican to the Sydney Opera House? Playing a huge 7-pedalled harp is tough stuff. And who else, aged 18, would go alone to a wild place down by the river, arrange some stones into a circle, and then sit inside that circle and stay there for three days, fasting. (Her friends camped a few miles away and left her small amounts of rice and water while she slept.) It’s a determination like none I’ve ever encountered. "
  • Common Time
  • Concept Album: Ys is loosely based upon the story of the mythological city of the same name.
    • Actually, the name of the album was among the last things Joanna decided on. However, it is clear that there are some strong connections between all the songs and the title, particularly relating to imagery of water in excess. This said, it is still not a concept album in the traditional sense.
    • Have One On Me can also be argued to be a concept album, with some sense of continuous narrative, telling the tale of a woman entering a relationship under false pretenses, following the relationship and the narrator's emotional turmoil, and ending with a breakup; all the relations to fictional and historical tales, such as those of Bluebeard, Dick Turpin, and Lola Montez, can be seen as allegorical in this sense, especially since a great deal of their respective songs are somewhat fictionalised or invented by Newsom.
      • It could be seen as Joanna's account of her relationship with Bill Callahan - especially considering all the references to song titles of Callahan's in 'Go Long'
  • Crowning Moment of Heartwarming: "Emily" is a touching affirmation of sisterly love.
  • Dark Reprise: Arguably, "Does Not Suffice" to "In California" on Have One On Me
  • Did Not Do the Research: Apparently the astronomical definitions in "Emily" are wrong.
    • Given that the line which precedes them is "I promised you I‘d set them to verse so I'd always remember", the error was probably intentional.
      • Especially given the structure of the meteoroid verse and its repetition later - the first is serene and comforting, the second ends the song and is frantic and higher-pitched as the narrator understands its falsity and desperately attempts to recollect.
      • The Aesop being that it doesn't matter how much you care for someone, you will forget the once important details of your relationship given enough time.
  • Epic Song: "Only Skin"
  • Everything's Worse with Bears: Subverted in "Monkey and Bear", where the bear is the more agreeable character...
  • Fan Nickname: Before "Colleen" was released, fans defaulted to calling it "The Yelping Song".
  • Flower Motifs
  • Fractured Fairy Tale: Yes. "Monkey & Bear" and "Colleen" are probably the best examples.
  • Fridge Brilliance: Once you figure out that "Colleen" is about a young mermaid or sea-nymph who doesn't remember who she is, every word in the song makes sense.
    • Why would Monkey even care what the villagers would say about Bear if they saw her bathing? Because in treating Bear like his slave, Monkey is slowly becoming like a human himself.
  • Grief Song: "Cosmia"
  • Historical Domain Character: Lola Montez in "Have One on Me"
  • Meaningful Name: Bear's name is Ursula, from "Ursus": "Bear".
  • Modulation
  • Never My Fault: Monkey, to Bear.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: One line from "Emily" mentions "hydrocephalitic listlessness"
  • Small Girl Big Instrument: the Waif-like Joanna is dwarfed by her signature instrument.
  • Uncommon Time
  • Unreliable Narrator: Colleen.
  • "What?" Cliffhanger: "Colleen" culminates very vaguely, with the idea that there's a twist somewhere in there (careful examination of the lyrics certainly seems to support this), and then it sort of... just ends.