Joanna Newsom is like Marmite. She’s made from the leftovers of the brewing process in Burton-On-Trent, England. Wait a second, I’ve got that wrong. What I meant to say is that you either love her, or you can’t stand the very sight of her.
And round these parts, we’re big fans of Joanna. I’d never heard of her before seeing her supporting (Smog)1 at the Conway Hall, back in 2004. When a harp was brought on stage we though “Uh-oh”, and when a fey-looking, if rather beautiful woman took the stage in full baroque gear, I really did think “Oh God, this is going to be awful”. But as soon as she started playing it was like someone had cast a spell over the audience. Then she started singing. At that point, about half the audience went “What the bloody hell is this?”, and the rest were amazed. For, it must be said, Joanna has a challenging voice. Bjork is the closest reference point; or possibly a drunken lady elf on helium.
And the words were astonishing: “We sailed away on a winter’s day\With fate as malleable as clay\But ships are fallable, I say\And the nautical, like all things, fades\
And I can recall our caravel\A little wicker beetle-shell\With four fine masts and lateen sails\Its bearings on Cair Paravel”. Of course, I didn’t catch all that the first time. But it was obvious that here was an astonishing new talent.
Since then, I’ve seen her a couple more times – once at the Royal Albert Hall, where she fitted beautifully with her band (the Ys Street Band – please don’t make me explain that to you) and finally her last live show last year, at Somerset House in London. At that show she played some new, mostly untitled material, and she played live a couple of days ago in Big Sur, as seen by Naturalismo.
The show was performed under the moniker The Beatles’s, playing with Mariee Sioux (who I must confess to never having heard before), and the setlist was made up of almost entirely new songs. According to Devin Woolf (alerted to the show by two sisters who’d casually asked at the venue who was playing that night), around 2/3 of the songs were harp-based, with the rest of the songs played on piano. Now, I’ve always preferred her harp songs, as Joanna’s piano technique is certainly weaker than her harp skills, but at Somerset House it was clear that her piano has come on in leaps and bounds.
It sounded like an amazing evening – one of those rare instances where you see a great musician trying out new material, without the pressures that usually attend the dreaded “Here’s one from our new album” scenario. There’s a full review at the Naturalismo site.
I’ve got to say, I’m thrilled that there is a new album on the way (at some point). Both Milk-Eyed Mender and Ys were favourites of mine, and both hit the tops of “Best Album of the Year” lists – could Joanna Newsom make it three in a row?
1 As he was at that time; now of course he’s recording as Bill Callahan. And yes, I know they’ve broken up now.
EDIT: When making additions to a blog, like the nice little buttons below, always make sure they work in both Firefox and IE7. I guess that’s why I’ll never be a developer…