From the moment she emerged in the early 2000s, Joanna Newsom seemed a singular kind of artist: a harp player working in an indie-rock idiom, whose unique voice could as easily soothe or jolt. A decade after her breakout debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, she unvelied her fourth album, Divers, this week.
Newsom joined NPR’s Scott Simon to talk about falling for her instrument as a kid, the reductive nature of music journalism, and why Vladimir Nabokov is her lyrical inspiration. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
Scott Simon: The harp wouldn’t seem to be the most obvious instrument on which to build a career in indie music.
Joanna Newsom: Right. I wasn’t really focused on a career in indie music when I started playing the harp as a small child.
How did you meet the harp, if I might put it that way?
I saw the harpist who ended up being my first teacher performing somewhere in our town. I was, I think, 4, and just started harassing my mom on a daily basis about wanting harp lessons — and she finally took me in to see the teacher, Lisa Stein.
Lisa said the youngest she would go for a student was 8 years old, so she wanted me to take piano lessons for a few years. And I did take piano lessons, maybe one year, and just continued to bother my parents about wanting to learn the harp. So, they took me back to Lisa and she finally agreed to teach me.
Let me ask you about the title track from Divers, and the lines, “A diver is my love / And I am his, if I am not deceived.” What do you take from the image of a diver? What do you want us to take from it?
It’s a little simplistic for me to say that I write down the images that are in my mind, because it’s not like I just have a frozen image that I’m illustrating with the language. But it’s maybe a set of, sort of, visual imperatives and feelings and ideas that feel connected to me, and feel like they’re waiting to be connected. The diving imagery is the most literal in this song, but there are incidents of diving in various forms throughout the record: falling, or crashing an airplane, or dive-bombing, or being a bird diving for prey.
Your lyrics are quite dense. They’re really packed in there.
They are, they are. I’m sorry. [Laughs]
Is there another writer — a lyricist, a novelist — who’s been a real influence on you?
I think, probably, Nabokov has been the biggest influence on me as a writer. There’s something interesting that happens in the novels that he translated himself from Russian into English, rather than the novels that were translated by someone else. I’m interested in the process of a brain as incredibly gifted as his brain was linguistically, writing in what was essentially his second language.
Yes — because, for example, I seem to recall he wrote Lolita in English.
Yes, he did. But in a way, I think of it as a translation — because there’s a brief moment of translation that happens anytime you speak in a second language, even if it’s an unconscious translation. There’s some phase that your brain passes through, that I like to imagine lent a sort of extra level of consideration to each choice of words.
I liken it, somehow, to the process that a native speaker of English might apply when writing a line of prose that has a secondary imperative to be musical in some way: not only to rhyme, but to have an internal rhythmic structure that acts either contrapuntally or polyrhythmically or polymetrically with the line of music underneath it.
If you kind of trace back the way in which your career has been written about over the years, early on you were often characterized as sort of an ethereal, whimsical girl of the woods. How do you feel about that now?
Well, I do think that pretty much every person that makes music has some thing that he or she cannot shake, and doesn’t really relate to, and this is mine. So, I can’t complain too much. I do think that most of the people who actually like my music, and listen to it in any way other than a passing, casual listen — I think very few of those people are quite that reductive about me.
It does still bother me. It also is funny to me, because it takes enormous effort at this point to maintain that interpretation of the music. You have to ignore 90 percent of the lyrics!
I think you’re absolutely right, which is why I’m struck by your usage of the phrase “casual listener.” I wonder if it’s possible to really be a casual listener to your music.
I hope that it’s possible, in the sense that the thing that is most important to me, truly, is that the melodies be good and pleasing and beautiful. And I know beautiful is a very loaded and sometimes problematic word. But I want songs to be substantial and have a strong core of well-written melody and exciting, interesting chord progressions — these things that are very immediate, and don’t require digging or analyzing in order to “get,” whatever that means.
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