The Prince William Concert Grand harp stands over 74 inches tall, weighs 83 pounds and costs $89,000. According to Lyon & Healy, its manufacturer, the harp features not only a “clear and resonant” sound but also clusters of “23+ karat” gilded roses at its crown and pedestal, double rosewood inlay and a motif of ribbons and vines hand-drawn in gold leaf on its Sitka spruce soundboard. The instrument, in other words, is a lot like the music of Joanna Newsom, who plays one: elaborately, beautifully, preposterously well-wrought. Newsom has the unlikely distinction of being the best-known harpist in American indie music, and she’s probably the best-known harpist in America, period, selling hundreds of thousands of records and earning champions like Will Oldham, who gave Newsom her big break; Dave Eggers, who’s written rhapsodically about her; and Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast her in Inherent Vice and directed two of her videos. Newsom has acted on Portlandia and starred in an MGMT video, too, but music has been her obsession since she declared, around age 4, that she wanted to learn the harp.
A few years later, an impressed instructor taught her a revelatory new way to think about the instrument, derived from polymetric West African traditions, that stoked Newsom’s sense that harps were capable of more than just making pretty glissandi: “The idea is that the left hand” — which plays the bass part — “is very grounded, playing a steady one-two-three-four beat, and that’s the earth,” Newsom says. “But your right hand” — which plucks out the melodic line — “is doing a one-two-three that never grounds, never resolves, and that’s heaven.” Newsom drums her fingers to illustrate, creating a transfixing beat that undulates in and out of phase, then raises her hands to her temples to mime her pre-adolescent skull shattering. “It was mind-melting,” she says. “Heaven and earth come together every 12 beats.”
Newsom bought her Prince William a few years ago at a steep discount — “Lyon & Healy basically sponsored me” — and it squeezes just barely into the back of her Audi SUV, which she has parked, at the moment, in a comically tight space in Los Angeles. Newsom is a self-described insomniac and although it’s nearly 4 p.m. on a Monday, she only just ate breakfast, at an old-timey restaurant in Los Feliz. There’s a nearby bird sanctuary she’s curious to visit next. “I haven’t had a car since I was 16 that couldn’t fit a harp,” she says, tugging at her steering wheel and dislodging the Audi in fits and starts. In high school she drove a “1992 Plymouth Voyager in periwinkle,” and while her ride’s gotten sleeker since then, the principle stands: “I need a dumb, big car.” When Newsom isn’t schlepping the Prince William to rehearsal spaces or recording studios, it lives in her music room at home, near her piano and framed by windows facing pine trees, which are uncommon in Los Angeles and remind her of her birthplace.
Newsom comes from just outside Nevada City, a small, New Age–y mecca in Northern California; on the music room’s western wall is an oil portrait of her, painted by a hometown pal, which she used for the cover of her 2006 album, Ys, and which her husband, Andy Samberg — the Brooklyn Nine-Nine star, 2015 Emmys host and former Saturday Night Livewunderkind — bought from the painter last Christmas as a gift to Newsom. The Audi’s backseat is currently flat, ready to receive the harp at a moment’s notice, and the dashboard is beeping frantically because Newsom’s close to crunching the bumper behind her. “It took me a good two minutes to get into this spot,” she says. “I had a mortifying Austin Powersmoment.” Newsom realizes she just name-checked a gag from 1997 and adds, in a self-deprecating deadpan, “Which is a topical, timely reference.”
Newsom has just released Divers, her fourth studio album, which reaffirms her as an artist of wild ambition and even wilder ability. By the album’s lyrical standards, an Austin Powers reference sounds downright au courant. The single, “Sapokanikan,” poses pointed questions about who gets valorized by history and who gets paved over, taking its title from a Lenape Indian trading village that once occupied the site of present-day Washington Square Park. Newsom alludes in the lyrics to Titian, borrows lines from Percy Shelly’s “Ozymandias” and quotes a 1918 Times article about a fatal freak accident involving New York’s 95th mayor. Elsewhere, she sings about oyster harvesting, old stone mills and, for good measure, Einsteinian space-time. She is unafraid of big fat themes like mortality, love and memory. Her lyrical hyper-abundance matches her music, which draws from a range of unhip genres like Celtic folk, baroque classical, and Sixties orchestral pop.
The result is both dazzling and daunting. The complex rhythmic interplay on the album’s (relatively) hardest-rocking moment, “Leaving the City,” actually required Newsom to create her own notational language — “like, these crescent moons and squares and triangles” — to map its moving parts, and the deliberateness with which Divers was fashioned screams from every bar. In a clever, concept-album-ish touch, the very last word is a perplexing fragment (“tran—”) that the very first word (“sending”) completes, turning the record into a time-bending loop. Which is apt, since one of Divers‘ headier concerns, as Newsom puts it, is “the question of what’s available to us as part of the human experience that isn’t subject to the sovereignty of time” — a theme she was intrigued to see dramatized in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, which she really liked, and which came out when she’d already finished writing the album, but before she’d finished recording it. “I was like, ‘Damn you, Nolan!'” she mock-bellows.
Free from the parking spot, Newsom makes for the sanctuary, her stereo tuned to the Willie Nelson satellite-radio station. “I listen to Willie’s Roadhouse, a fair amount of Symphony Hall and a little bit of Bluegrass Junction,” she says. “Those are my presets.” As a kid, she and some friends choreographed dance routines to Paula Abdul songs, dubbing their squad “P.A. Patrol,” but that was more about social bonding than a love of pop, which hasn’t ever figured much into her diet. “You have to have such patience to get through the things that aren’t good to the things that are.” One of her recent radio favorites was “King Kunta,” by Kendrick Lamar, whom Newsom adores and in whose advanced wordplay and conceptual songwriting she has a kindred spirit. “I was driving and it came on and it’s great — it’s weird. It doesn’t exist in the same space throughout. He’s amazing. His last record was my favorite album that year.”
Newsom passes the Greek Theatre, where a sign announces that Lauryn Hill is performing tonight. “Awww shiiiiit,” she says. Soon we stow the SUV and hoof it through a cyclone fence into the bird sanctuary. The terrain is scorched and crumbly and for minutes the only creature in sight is an acorn woodpecker thwacking a dead trunk. Newsom wears cat-eye Miu Miu shades and a sundress whose muted earth-tones and subtle Navajo print suggest a very chicly tailored tablecloth. “Those are house finches over there,” she says, pointing them out on some chaparral. “And up there are starlings. But it’s so dry here. If there was more agave, we’d see way more ravens. You’ve got to go a tiny bit west for that. We should be seeing a lot of peregrine falcons, too, but I haven’t seen one. And if there were more flowers blooming, we’d see a shit-ton of hummingbirds.”
Newsom absorbed her ornithological know-how from her parents, who taught her to identify species on long childhood walks. Birds are a recurring theme on Divers, whose title refers, among other things, to their soaring and swooping trajectories. One of Newsom’s most impressive feats is how she balances rigorous, precise artistry with what, in lesser hands, could come off as hot-air, hippie-dippy mysticism. She tells me that one of Divers‘ inspirations was the simple, liberatory experience of “just watching birds fly, especially these loose-bodied, inefficiently flapping, joyful birds that just fling themselves at the sky, like the swallows you’ll see a lot around this town. You watch birds and you glimpse something, like a defiance of certain laws that otherwise seem un-defiable. Laws that seem to govern and define our lives in a way that’s impossible to transcend.” A falcon finally appears, strafing some dusty hills high above us. “Is un-defiable a word?” Newsom asks.
Related: Divers Reviewed
Growing up, Newsom was a precocious kid whose parents encouraged her idiosyncrasies. Her father, an oncologist, constantly read up on a variety of subjects, sharing facts about science, history and assorted esoterica; her mother, an internist, was devoted to environmental and feminist causes as well as meetings of her African-drum group, which gathered above the family garage. “We used to have these ‘poem races’ in the front yard,” Newsom recalls, in which her dad wrote words on pieces of paper and stuck them to trees, at which point Joanna, her brother and sister had to come up with poems for each word on the spot. (Today Newsom’s brother is a musician and her sister is an astrophysicist turned geophysicist.)
Newsom doesn’t remember exactly why she decided she wanted to be a harpist as a kid, but the instrument’s steep formal challenges clearly suited her hungry mind. “The strings resonate almost indefinitely until they’re dampened — a note will sustain I don’t know how long,” she explains. “I love that never-ending resonance, because it creates something 3D about the music, but you constantly have to manage all these frequencies and how they interact with each other.” The moment Newsom creates a note, that is, she needs to start thinking about when she will kill it. In her teens, Newsom developed a heavily rhythmic take on the harp, indebted in large portion to that influential instructor and the world-music LPs her mother constantly played throughout her youth. “Classical harp is a relatively young instrument, and when it was invented it was commonly relegated to the parlor — it was something young women of wealth and class would learn to become more marriageable,” Newsom says. “So there’s not much repertoire for it that’s serious. But the folk harp is ancient, and runs through a lot of cultures: the Celtic and British Isles, West Africa, South America …” Newsom’s approach was to scramble these genealogies.
At Oakland’s Mills College, Newsom initially studied composition, then — put off by a vogue among her classmates for dissonance over melody — shifted to a creative-writing concentration, influenced by Nabokov and Faulkner. Writing songs with words was a perfect way to marry these interests, but first, Newsom says, she had to accept the sound of her own voice. The unusual tremors, curls and squeaks that can mark her phrasing are regularly touted among fans and haters alike as her music’s most singular trait. Her voice has been described in language — “bracing,” “shrill,” “elfin” — that rankles Newsom. “If it’s Bob Dylan — if it’s a dude and his voice has a certain character, people might still classify it as a conventionally ‘challenging’ or ‘unique’ voice. But the adjectives they use are coded differently if it’s a woman.” As a kid, in school musicals, Newsom was routinely cast in roles like the little child or “wicked witch” — a discouraging signal that her voice wasn’t thought beautiful. At Mills, though, she discovered the songs of Texas Gladden, a Thirties-era Appalachian-folk balladeer whose untrained, imperfect clarion emboldened Newsom to go all-out with her own singing, embracing the quirks that made it distinct.
“If it’s a dude and his voice has a certain character, people might still classify it as a conventionally ‘challenging’ or ‘unique’ voice. But the adjectives they use are coded differently if it’s a woman.”
She recorded some rough songs, which a friend got to the respected indie-folk artist Will Oldham. Impressed, Oldham helped Newsom get signed; gigs supporting Devendra Banhart, Cat Power and Neil Young followed. Her entrancing debut album, 2004’s Milk Eyed Mender, sounded like nothing before it, at once delicate, dexterous and swaggering. For Ys, its follow-up, Newsom kicked into overdrive, convincing Van Dyke Parks — the legendary Randy Newman and Brian Wilson collaborator — to arrange lush orchestral accompaniment for songs featuring jarring harmonic shifts and densely allusive, endlessly twisting verses. The lyrics on Ys, which consisted of odd pastoral fables and archaism-steeped allegories, drew on major events in Newsom’s personal life, including the death of a childhood friend, and the album helped her process their fallout. 2010’s Have One on Me may be her masterpiece: It comprises three discs and yet maintains a smoldering focus throughout, putting Newsom’s maximalist tendencies into play with sparser songwriting and words more haltingly direct than she’d written before.
Many fans treat Newsom’s lyrics as ciphers to be decoded, teasing out connections, double meanings and other seeming clues to her intentions. But when she’s prompted to discuss the significance of particular lines, she demurs. “It’s a lesson that took me a while to learn, but years ago I explained in some interview that ‘Sadie'” — from her debut — “was the name of our family dog, and I think a lot of people were let down, because it robbed them of what that song meant for them,” she says. “I don’t want to solve the mystery, because it’s like explaining why a joke is funny: I can clumsily explain a song, but if I could perfectly explain it, it wouldn’t be a song.”
Two days after our birding expedition, Newsom meets me at a cafe near her home. She and Samberg reportedly bought an insanely ornate 1920s mansion that includes, among other head-spinning details, a vaulted glass atrium, painted ceilings, tiled walls, stained glass and curving Moorish archways. It seems like exactly the kind of place Newsom would adore, but she emphasizes to me that all those reports remain unconfirmed, and she declines to discuss where she does or doesn’t live on the record. This is basically because of crazy fans, she explains, who confuse their investment in her music for actual intimacy. “I’ve had a horrible experience of people coming to my house, mostly back in Nevada City, and I don’t want it to happen again here. It’s really unpleasant,” she says. “The first step in showing up at my home is not being fully there. There’s a delusion and emotional instability that maybe I should have more compassion for, but my response is pure rage. I am not nice when that happens.”
Newsom and Samberg have been together seven years. She was a fan of his comedy “before I ever met him. I remember being on tour, watching his old, pre-SNL stuff with my band, forwarding it to friends.” Newsom befriended Fred Armisen through her label boss, and in 2008 Armisen brought Samberg to a Newsom concert, which is how they got together. After Samberg left Saturday Night Live they moved from Manhattan to L.A., marrying in Big Sur in 2013. Samberg, a Bay Area native whose comedy relies heavily on music, put Newsom onto some of his favorite genres. “He knows a ton about reggae; that was kind of his first love in high school,” Newsom says. (She sang backup on his 2009 white-boy-reggae parody song, “Ras Trent.”) “He knows a lot more than I do about soul, too, and obviously rap. All through high school he’d go to Amoeba in Berkeley and spend whatever money he had on records.” When listening to music at home, the couple observe a no-digital-sounds policy: “Andy has an iPad, or iPod, whatever it’s called, but we don’t have a sound-system that’s not analog — we have a beautiful turntable, nice speakers, a tube amp.” They talk about art-making together, even if their art is extremely different. “We both do something that relies a lot on dark magic. Something you can’t over-explain or it’ll get killed,” she says.
Newsom’s friends in L.A. include Samberg’s old SNL colleague Maya Rudolph and Rudolph’s husband, Paul Thomas Anderson. That friendship led to Newsom’s work in Inherent Vice as narrator and ensemble player. “He has such a light touch — I don’t know how he does it, because he’s obviously directing the shit out of every scene, but in such a gentle, quiet way: He’ll come sit beside you, say one or two things about the scene,” Newsom says. “With the voice-over stuff, if something was off about the way I was doing it, he’d almost hum a melody, and I’d do that melody. I was kind of scoring the scenes.” Several months ago, the director agreed to shoot a music video for Newsom while they were both in New York. They envisioned a clip for Divers‘ title track that would incorporate the artwork of photographer Kim Keever, whose pictures adorn the album’s cover and liner notes. Keever’s technique is to construct miniature clay landscapes within aquariums, light them, then drop dye into the water; the resulting images have a striking, sci-fi–J.M.W. Turner quality. For the video, Anderson shot Newsom through an aquarium while Keever did his thing.
In the downtime between setups, they ventured out into the city streets, where Anderson decided to squeeze in a second video for “Sapokanikan,” made on the fly while Newsom walked around aimlessly. At one point, strolling and singing, she found herself approaching the West Village home she once shared with Samberg. This unplanned moment would become the video’s closing shot, with Anderson’s camera lingering near Sheridan Square as Newsom disappears from sight. “We did a series of long one-takes, and that was the one where we were like, ‘We’re done, time to get a drink,'” she says. “It was the last one of the night, and it was magic: When I walk out of frame, I’m ending up on the front door of the apartment we lived in for four years — specifically, the apartment where I wrote that song. I got goosebumps.” For Newsom, who’d just completed an album preoccupied with the peculiar workings of time, it felt irreducibly significant. Just as the song ended, something — fate? art? dumb luck? — returned her to where it began.
Adapted from an article in issue #769 (December, 2015), available November 5th.