Joannna Newsom, Thank You, Will Oldham

Thank you, Will Oldham, for mentoring art "Ys" 2006 Full-Length Sophomore Release
When I first heard JOANNA NEWSOM, I really couldn't verbalize what it was about her voice and sound that pulled me in. It was very foreign to me, but I liked it. Will Herme an astute music reviewer on NPR expressed it so well. He made me think about it in a new way. He said; ”first things first, Joanna Newsom has a very strange singing voice, but this is understandable. When your instrument is a harp you need to create some contrast so that your music doesn’t sound like a made-for-TV movie about guardian angels.

In 2004 Joanna Newsom, just 22, released her freshman CD “The Milk-Eyed Mender” on the independent label Drag City with the help and encouragement of Will Oldham. He heard her play and decided to take her on tour with him as an opening act. I am grateful that he offered his support to a groundbreaking new talent.

The early success and critically acclaimed effort of her first release gave her the capital to collaborate with members of the music community that she could only dream of working with. Orchestration and arrangements by Van Dyke Park, production by Steve Albini (Nirvana “In Utero” ), and mixing by Jim O’Rourke (Wilco / “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot“). The "Ys" CD is the magnificent result of that endeavor.

This CD appeals to my pleasure in taking in the gestalt of music. There are five separate movements, and each clock lasts ten minutes or longer. This dreamlike symphony of sound is not for the casual listener. Harp Interludes, sweeping orchestral sessions, and long lyrical dialogues. In track one, “Emily,” Joanna sings, “the meteorite is the source of the light, and the meteor is just what we see” as the orchestra and harp play in the background like stars twinkling in the celestial heavens. Her voice is so alive. It has an urgency and live feel, while the orchestration and production is lush and fine-tuned, again contrasts work here.

Her voice is prominent and the most notable instrument in all five pieces. Her voice shows a diverse quality and range. Sometimes squeaky and hoarse, frenzied and quiet, it can gently or violently roll to higher octaves and softly flutter like butterfly wings. The nature of her voice can create visual pictures that often coincide with the lyrics. Because she is playing a harp and singing, it sounds like she is plucking her voice. This tends to shorten vowels and consonants. Like in track two, “Monkey and Bear,” she says in a four-note pluck / Oh my darling / there’s a place for us./

Newsom writes captivating narratives referencing the natural world of physical science. Unlike nature writers who write about personal observations, Newsom uses her natural references to create allegoric passages. Every lyrical sequence awakens the imagination of the listener to pay attention. She combines words in a delightful and unexpected way, such as: like the water was kneading so neatly / or / the sky is gaping and yawning / and / here is my hand, where is your paw. This creative approach allows her to create broad and sweeping metaphors about love, pain, and passion.

I love every track, but the stand out for me is “Only Skin”. This is the longest movement and the most diverse. The music builds to an exhilarating frenzied pace and culminates with additional voice tracks of Bill Callahan’s (Smog) deep talking, woven into Joanna’s three-part harmonies. Again the contrast of the voices is so effective, unusual, and satisfying.

Yes, I have listened obsessively. Hearing “Ys,” I felt like the wind blew and brought a whirlwind of sound to my ears that I had never heard before. I am thankful for her music and ability to take chances so art can flourish and evolve. Thank you, Joanna, and thank you, Will Oldham.

"Ys" Joanna Newsom 2006 Full Length
29-page liner notes / beautiful painting by Benjamin A. Vierling