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Joanna Newsom

Originating from a rich musical background (her father a guitarist, her mother a concert pianist), Joanna played piano, then Celtic harp from a very age; her neighbour was avant-garde composer TERRY RILEY. Born January 18, 1982, in Nevada City, California, her surrounding influences were Appalachian old-timey folk music (KAREN DALTON and TEXAS GLADDEN), Venezuelan/West African rhythms, new wave (BLONDIE, TELEVISION, PATTI SMITH, et al) plus jazz (Billie Holiday).
During the early part of the 00s, Joanna was a member of two alt-rock outfits, The Pleased (alongside likeminded guitarist-turned-folk producer, NOAH GEORGESON) and indie supergroup, Nervous Cop (featuring Greg Saunier of Deerhoof and Zach Hill of Hella). Issued around the same time as her self-released solo work (“Walnut Whales” and “Yarn And Glue”), these bands delivered a handful of sets featuring the classically-trained NEWSOM, the former with `One Piece In The Middle’ (2002) and `Don’t Make Things’ (2003), the latter by way of an eponymous effort in 2003. With support slots to WILL OLDHAM and indie chanteuse, CAT POWER, NEWSOM found her way on to the Drag City roster, whom almost immediately released her debut album proper, the Noah Georgeson-produced THE MILK-EYED MENDER (2004) {*7}.
One thing that hits you, apart from her graceful harp playing and songwriting, is her squeaky, innocent vocals (can’t help thinking pre-WWII child-actress, Shirley Temple or RICKIE LEE JONES). Integrating Appalachian and bluegrass folk music with quirky, light-hearted ballads and fairytales, the album is in parts endearing, others nauseating. `Bridges And Balloons’, `Sprout And The Bean’, the 6-minute `Sadie’, the harpsichord-infused `Peach, Plum, Pear’ and sole trad “Dirty Old Town”-like rendition: `Three Little Babes’. To promote the set, she subsequently toured the country supporting DEVENDRA BANHART, while session work included a stint on Bill Callahan/SMOG’s “A River Ain’t Too Much To Love”.
Towards the fall of 2006, a second album proper, YS {*8} – featuring guitarist Grant Geissman, percussionist Don Heffington, bassist Lee Sklar and an orchestra arranged and conducted by co-producer VAN DYKE PARKS – was released. Mixed by JIM O’ROURKE, recorded in part (harp and vocals) by legendary engineer Steve Albini and consisting of five lengthy tracks spanning nearly an hour. More ambitious than its predecessor, the UK Top 50 set weaves its magic through fairy-tales of mythical imagery on a transfiguration, rather Hollywood musical concept/base. The complex arrangements and plot twists are at first hard to grab hold of, but when lilting songs such as `Emily’, `Monkey & Bear’ and the 17-minute, `Only Skin’ ease (the YS pronunciation) out after consecutive listens, the album unfolds like nature itself. As an addendum to this organic and elegant set, she released a tour souvenir EP, `Joanna Newsom & The Ys Street Band’, a fleeting nod to the boss himself, SPRINGSTEEN. However, apart from fresh cut, `Colleen’, the record featured two past cues, `Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie’ (from her debut) and the 13-minute `Cosmia’ (from her 2nd).
Back from an extended three-year hiatus, Joanna made amends for her escapades by delivering a 2-hour-long, 3-disc recording HAVE ONE ON ME (2010) {*6}. However, it took on the role of detached Laurel Canyon-meets-chamber-pop saviour rather than unfurling her deepest and darkest tales of the unexpected. The Top 75 (UK Top 30) album certainly had its moments, but all ’n’ all most tracks were stretched long past their sell by date (best 8-minute+ examples fell to `Kingfisher’, `Baby Birch’, `In California’, `Autumn’ and the title track) – worth a few further listens if you’ve time on your hands.
Thankfully reclaiming her freak-folk/cosmic crown – albeit with a mystical, KATE BUSH/BJORK-like bent – the nimbus NEWSOM eradicated the missing five years in one fell swoop, as of 2015’s DIVERS {*8} – a contender for album of the year. Drag City Records, deserving of an award for patience and understanding, the monumental double-set entered the Top 10 (at least in Britain). Baroque’n’roll augmented by DIRTY PROJECTORS’ Nico Muhly and Dave Longstreth, plus Ryan Francesci, the rainbows and sunny showers arrived in the cumulus shapes of the 7-minute title track (check out the must-see video), `Leaving The City’ and `Sapokanikan’; the latter concerning the tragic tale of a NY mayor via a potted Native American history of Greenwich Village. Indeed, “The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter” Joanna, relayed an innocence not heard since the halcyon days of Rose and Licorice in The INCREDIBLE STRING BAND.
© MC Strong 2011/GFD2 / rev-up MCS Aug2013-Oct2015

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