Joanna Newsom talks about her excellent new triple album, the 'toxic' world of fashion, and 'passing' in the New York scene
Joanna Newsom—the harp-plucking, polarizing critics’ darling—has been trying to shake off her shyness lately, dabbling in New York fashion and dating Andy Samberg (which she prefers not to discuss, thank you very much). She spoke with us about Have One On Me, her triple-disc album that comes out today, and how it was shaped by her increasingly high-profile lifestyle.
EW: The album has a lot of references to drinking and debauchery—is that autobiographical or just fiction?
JN: I think there is some of both, indirectly. A lot of the themes on the album have to do with traveling and being ungrounded in many ways, being sort of cast out and away from home, whatever that means. It kind of oversimplifies it in a way to talk about it. I’m trying to make a lyrical case rather than make the kind of case you would want to talk about at length in an interview. But I think that that’s part of the character of the record. For me I was thinking of it in terms of a 1920s expatriot version of decadence, that was the model of the kind of hedonism I wanted to write about.
EW: So this is your longest record. Did you intend for that, or did it just happen?
JN: It just kind of happened. Two thirds of the way through I already had enough material for a double album, but I weirdly felt it wasn’t done—I felt like I needed to get a better sense of what the themes were and I wanted to be able to tie them up. To introduce them, develop them and resolve them and I felt like I wasn’t there yet. So I tried to sequence it in a way that helped to locate that thread. Because I think there is a linear quality to the way that a lot of the ideas develop and revolve. It took me like three weeks to sequence it and I tried so many different permutations of songs. When it finally was sequenced I realized, to me at least, it made perfect sense as a triple album, and that’s what I decided to commit to.
EW: You used to live in Nevada City, Calif., but you seem to be in New York a lot. Are you living here now?
JN: I’m not. I do spend a fair amount of time there, but I’m still in Northern California. Not in Nevada City, but near where I grew up.
EW: You’ve been doing a fair amount of New York fashion stuff, like that shoot for W magazine. Has that affected how you approach music?
JN: I think in some ways. I did notice myself on this album either directly or indirectly writing about the city, sort of frantic dispatches from the city and trying to find a place there and figure out how to be creative and grounded in that world, which I still haven’t figured out, really. Yeah, I think it’s in there.
EW: I’ve read you wanted to play the harp and make music since you were a kid. Did you aspire to the fashion and fame thing as well, or is that more recent?
JN: Well, fashion is obviously a minefield of potentially toxic and horrible influences or forces at work, but fashion at its most simple, dreamy and pure form was something that interested me a lot. Like many people, I’m sure, I did the whole thing where you design clothes, hundreds and hundreds of pages of ideas that I wanted to make someday. And I really have always loved beautiful clothing, so there’s a side of that that’s exciting. I did sort of initially go through this phase of going to a lot of fashion-y things with that excitement, you know, being like, “Oooooo, this world! Fashion!” And then kind of getting deflated a little bit and realizing that in some cases—maybe I’m just not approaching it the right way—but in a lot of cases it just doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with the actual parts of fashion or the actual parts of design that are exciting to me.
EW: There’s a line in your record that goes, “Sure I can pass/particularly when I start to tip my glass.” Is that a somewhat autobiographical reference to doing the New York scene and the fashion thing?
JN: Yeah, I wouldn’t necessarily be that specific, but it’s certainly about the way it feels to move it that world. Yeah, definitely, you’ve got it. I think that that’s true, going undercover somehow.
EW: Are you doing a lot of that lately, or are those lyrics mostly fictitious?
JN: I think the second I walk out of my front door there’s a bit of that for me—I think any social act is a bit of passing for me. Going through the motions of… it’s always a little bit of a struggle. I’m a lot shyer that it would seem. I’ve really worked to try to meet people I don’t know and try to carry on a conversation with them. I would say New York or any city, basically being on tour, talking to people, being in that world, is a sort of passing.
EW: It’s hard not to use a front.
JN: Yeah, and I think there’s a way that people do it that is graceful, and they’re still authentic but they’re kind of protected, and I think I’m still learning that.
EW: On the new album, “81” is shorter and a bit poppier than some of your other stuff. In your future could you imagine doing more pop verse-chorus-verse stuff, or is what you do really just your style?
JN: You know, from the beginning, from the very first record, I’ve always loved great pop music, and I’ve always held that in my mind as something that would be fun to do, and maybe even something I thought I was doing sometimes, whatever my version of that is. The problem is I sort of feel like when I’m working on a song it becomes what it’s supposed to be, and there’s a lot of times where I have this agenda like I want to write a short, catchy little song, and it will turn into an 11-minute, insane, weird thing. And then sometimes when I just sit down and write it ends up being a two minute song, and I don’t know why, it just happens that that’s what that particular song wanted to be. So maybe that will change and maybe the next thing I do will be a practice in disciplining the song length, I have no idea, but when I started writing this record, I really thought they’d all be short songs. I don’t really know how that happened. It’s not completely involuntary or completely unconscious, because obviously the writing process is so deliberate and so careful, but at the same time for whatever reason I have an instinct about a song that it has to be that way. I think I would do a very bad job if I was really wanting to write a record of pop songs. I don’t know if I can approach writing that way.
EW: How do you feel when people describe your music as difficult or challenging?
JN: Hmm. I think I see where they’re coming from, but sometimes the extremity of the things that get said shock me a little. Like, even from the beginning when my voice was more rough—and I knew it was rough—but the things that would get written about it were so extreme. You know, people were like, “you may want to tear your eyeballs out and throw yourself off a building if you hear this.” Really? It’s just a voice, and there are so many weird voices out there. And similarly, there are a lot of things about my music where I’ll read something and think that seems almost a little patronizing. Reviews I read that seem patronizing of listeners in a weird way—do you think someone can’t handle a harp? It’s just an instrument with pitches. It’s not that weird.
EW: Some people do look at a song as a chore if it’s over 10 minutes. They might say, “This is good, but I have to warn you—it’s ten minutes long and has a harp.”
JN: [laughs] Yeah, I understand that, but of course when a person writes music—I guess this isn’t the case with some death metal music where the intention is slightly different—but in general I feel when someone’s writing something it’s because it sounds good to them. Their instinct is to do what sounds pretty, and sounds good, and to me that’s what I do. So obviously when I hear it I go, “good job, self, you’ve made a song that sounded the way you want it to sound.” And then of course there’s not that many people who feel the same way about it. But there’s enough.
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