One of the first things that one notices when they hear singer, composer, harpist, painist and producer, Joanna Newsom sing is her impish delivery. Innocent in tone, the sounds produced are otherworldly. Raised by, in her own words, “idealists when it came to hoping they could protect us from bad influences, like violent movies, or stupid stuff,” Joanna sings about her sister, honey, “Bridges and Balloons” and “Goose eggs.” This, of course, is done with the utmost of emotion and care. Elegantly plucking her harp while she effortlessly croons. Joanna Newsom’s sound is delicate, but her influence as a musician is expansive.
Frequently labeled as a prominent member of the psych folk movement (Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens, St. Vincent, Grizzly Bear, Grouper, Animal Collective, The Decemberists, Tune-Yards, Dirty Projectors) Joanna shy’s away from any labels or distinctions. While her early work was strongly influenced by poly-rhythms, Newsom has said that she has lost interest in the technique, saying they “stopped being fascinating to me and started feeling wanky.” However, her entire career she has always incorporated elements of Appalachian music and avant-garde modernism while displaying detailed mastery of her own sound.
This craftsmanship shined through last week when Joanna released her fourth studio album, Divers, via Drag City records. According to Joanna she had “…spent a year or two on the instrumental arrangements and overdubs. I wanted the character and colors of the instrumentation to shift definitively, from song to song, which entailed a wide pool of collaborators and a lengthy collaborative process with each person.” Layers are packed tightly on each song on this records and diving deeper into it only reveals more and more secrets. An emotional and vivid exploration of life, death and regrets, Newsom can use any amount of instrumentation to bring the point across. Be it the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra or just sitting back and accompanying herself on piano, she seems comfortable in any setting.
When it comes down to it, Newsom is absolutely done with hearing minimizing language when it comes to describing her work: childlike, nymph-like, etc.. are adjectives that have followed her since her debut in 2004. Her music, lyrics, tone and style is deep in complexity and engaged and casual listeners alike need time to understand the depth and influence of her music.