If poetry is an art then songwriting is a craft. Verbal phrases and musical phrases each have their own modes of logic and the trick is to match them up in a way that sounds natural. All songwriters try to do that to a certain extent, but Joanna Newsom seems more conscious of the actual work involved than many other tunesmiths do. And she doesn’t forget that she has to convey something.
“Never get so attached to a poem,” she sings in her song “En Gallop.” “You forget truth that lacks lyricism.” Lyricism overflows on her 2004 debut, “The Milk-Eyed Mender,” but there’s a hard nut of truth at the core of every song.
“I choose words specifically because of their inherent musical properties,” the 23-year-old singer writes via e-mail from her boyfriend’s house in Texas. “But the meaning of the lyrics is the most important thing of all — I don’t choose words arbitrarily, just based on how they sound. But I believe any idea or thought can be conveyed with an infinite number of word combinations, so it’s really important to me that the lyrics behave as another contrapuntal instrumental line.”
If Newsom’s process sounds overly theoretical, it should be noted that she did study theory and composition when she attended Mills College in California, under people like the famous avant-garde composer and guitarist Fred Frith. Before that she had a wealth of constructive opportunities to channel her enthusiasm for music and poetry. Her parents and siblings are all musicians, and she studied piano as a child before settling on the instrument that would give her songs their unique flavor.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I loved the harp,” she writes. “And for years I used to beg my parents to let me learn it. I was lucky that there was a local harp teacher in my little town [Nevada City, Calif.]. I was also lucky that she happened to have a very unconventional approach to music teaching. She emphasized improvisation and composition almost as much as she emphasized repertoire and technique. So I was able to discover at a pretty early age that I loved to write music.”
Newsom also attended folk music camp every summer with her mother. There she was introduced to music from Africa and the Balkans, bluegrass and Celtic folk, all of which are evident to a certain extent in her compositions, though what one first notices is what can only be described as the novelty factor: the harp, which is more or less filling in for the usual acoustic guitar, and Newsom’s artless singing.
Some have described her voice as childlike (a description she doesn’t like). Others call it “fey” or “mystical” and compare it to Bjork’s, but the only honest thing you can say about Newsom’s singing is that it is clear and forceful. There is nothing contrived about it, which is probably why it is so affecting — and polarizing. It’s a voice that people tend to take or leave, but once you take it, she’s yours.
“My singing has changed a lot” since the album was released, she says. Until she started seriously putting words to music a few years ago she never sang, which explains the artlessness. “Just from using it every day it’s sunk a little deeper in my throat, and now I have a wider range. And the color is different.”
Part of the change is natural, but part of it may also have to do with the company she keeps. She has been touring extensively for a year, and mostly with other artists who admire her work: Will Oldham, Devendra Banhart, Neil Young. She’ll soon leave on a tour of Australia and Japan with glum singer-songwriter Bill Callahan, who works under the appropriate moniker Smog. What characterizes these admirers is a rustic artistic temperament that Newsom understands.
“Nevada City is a little town, about 2,000 people officially,” she explains. “There’s a lot of music and art . . . a lot of hippies moved there in the ’60s and ’70s, and they just kind of stayed.”
Newsom’s songs, however, while suffused with the smoky ambience of rural American folk music, are much more cosmopolitan than they seem on the surface. There’s a lot of book-learning in her music, as well as books themselves.
The brilliantly funny “Inflammatory Writ” is both an ode to the task of writing and a send-up of the kind of tortured syntax that usually results from such intellectual exertions. “And all at once it came to me, and I wrote and hunched till 4:30,” she wails in front of a simple piano vamp, “In spite of all the time that we spent on it — one bedraggled ghost of a sonnet!”
Though she says that her father used to get her to memorize William Carlos William poems, she admits that “poetry hasn’t been a big part of my life for some time now. When I started getting into writing seriously, in college, I was more interested in short stories.”
In fact, the songs she has written in the past year, and which she will start to record for her second album early next year, will be more expansive.
“I’ve begun experimenting with longer forms, trying to incorporate a tendency toward ‘movements’ in a symphonic sense instead of verse-chorus-verse,” she says.
Newsom adds that this is “not some sort of manifesto,” and one certainly hopes that whatever new directions her music follows it doesn’t leave behind those qualities that make her a singular composer and performer. Though lyrical and often whimsical, Newsom never loses sight of what’s important in everyday life, and she has the rare ability to express it in terms that make you believe her wisdom is deeper than she realizes. “Never draw so close to the heat,” she again admonishes in “En Gallop,” “that you forget you must eat.”