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Interview with Dave Lyzenga about Joanna Newsom

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Joanna Newsom is an artist who generates a polarizing effect. Her fans and detractors are like oil and water. Dave Lyzenga is a former Cultural Discerner and Student Activities Board member (and a major fan of Joanna Newsom). This is an interview with him in preparation for Joanna Newsom’s visit to Calvin College Chapel March 12.


When I first heard Joanna Newsom I thought immediately of a more organic sounding Björk. Just like with Björk, it took a few listens to align myself with Newsom’s quirky nature. When did you first hear Joanna Newsom and what was your reaction?

I first heard Joanna right after Ys was released in 2006. At first, I scoffed at the mere five tracks, and then scoffed again when I saw that these tracks averaged over ten minutes in length. Then I saw the overly ornate album artwork and decided that I already knew this artist was committing the primordial sin for music elitists everywhere: trying too hard.

Finally, I heard her voice. If there was any doubt in my mind that the album wasn’t contrived before, it was instantly removed on the first seemingly intentional screeching break in her voice in the opening song, “Emily.” To me, it was clear that this Joanna Newsom was manipulating her work to be as irritating and inaccessible as possible so that she would either get points for being “out there” and highbrow, or that she was alienating people in order to be left only with a rabid fan base and be crowned “not for everyone, but great for few.”

I was listening at work, and I begrudgingly let the album play through to completion so that I could say that “I had tried it” when asked by future Newsom evangelists. I was struck a few times by musical phrases or lyrics that caught my attention away from my CIT job long enough for me to give it a real listen, but I was mostly underwhelmed by the album that had received so much praise.

To this day, it’s still a slight mystery as to why I came back a second time. I want to say that I was clever enough to recognize that this album in particular would have a staggering amount of growing power for me, or that it would later be called “one of the year’s most rewarding albums” to re-listen to far and wide, or that she would go on to date Andy Samberg and that I would later find this merger of two worlds mildly hilarious—but I didn’t realize any of that.

I think what it was for me, and what it is for many other listeners out there, is that she captured me with a winning formula: just enough clearly distinguished lyrics, just enough orchestrated strings movements, and just enough accessibility to what it was that she was really saying to get me to listen just one more time, even though I wasn’t listening devotedly. From there on out, it was like she was on a campaign to build on those winning moments and slowly introduce me to new ones. I am still shocked to find that the process is continuing.

So that’s it. Three years later, I went from someone who was adamant in rebuking the devoted to someone who tells that exact musical redemption testimony. I was lost and now am found. I would disgust myself if I weren’t me.

It’s the elephant in the room in any conversation about the spritely Joanna Newsom: what do you say to the detractors of her Björk-child vocals? What are those people missing?

Like I said, I’ve become sort of a missionary of Newsomness, so I have experienced this hesitation from a lot of people to whom I recommend her. I still can’t listen to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and honestly claim to be enjoying myself for the very same vocal reason. It really might not be “for everyone.”

I think the only thing that really bothered me, specifically, about her voice is that I thought it was inauthentic—that she was attempting to sound ridiculous for the sake of being different. From what I have read and seen in interviews, however, she simply calls her voice “untrainable,” and is saddened when people refer to it as childlike, because she feels that her lyrics are anything but naive and innocent. I personally believed her (and how could I not with that naive and innocent child-like voice?), and it just wasn’t really much of an issue for me from then on out.

Her later work has sort of hammered out a lot of the vocal quirks that people were initially surprised by, but I think the biggest thing is just to try it. If you like it even a little, go back and start the process of really listening. In my mind, she is a poet before she is a vocalist, and if her singing doesn’t bring you back, hopefully the years of classical harp training, the dense lyrics, and the song craftsmanship will bring you back along with the quirks.

Others say that she is too silly or precious to be taken seriously. Why should we want to be listening to metaphorical story about a monkey and a bear?

This comes back to the previous issue of authenticity. Imagine reading Animal Farm without having had any recommendation from anyone or knowledge of its existence beforehand. It would likely appear to be a goofy story about talking animals that are oddly mean to each other and you’d hate it. You would, don’t lie to yourself.

Perhaps this is a bad example, because I’m not that big of a fan of the book, even having it explained (I blame high school), but I can appreciate the idea of it after I’ve been given some context. More importantly, after understanding what I’m reading and who wrote it, I’m not worried that this author is trying to fool me into thinking they are credible so they can pop out of a cake and shout, “Gotcha!” if I enjoy it and analyze it.

Joanna Newsom’s lyrics are cryptic, verbose, and full of allusions. I can see why some would view them as overwrought. However, they are also intricate, provocative, and, above all, they are sincere. In my mind, if an artist is sincere, silliness is irrelevant.

Newsom describes her works as being biographical, yet her lyrics seemed to be ripped straight from Ole English Literature. How do you think Newsom is able to reconcile those two themes in her work? Is it similar to the way that she reconciles folk and classicism? Is it the harp she plays?

I think some people simply have a draw toward communicating classicalism in the same way they might have a draw toward communicating through pop culture references or through recorded video or what have you. Olde English vocabulary and sensibilities seem to have stuck with Joanna Newsom, and it seems that she simply speaks that language. I think most artists are autobiographical in at least some way, but Joanna Newsom does make it abundantly clear that her songs are inspired by her life.

“Emily” is a song largely inspired by her sister, who is an astrophysicist and also sings background vocals on the track. “Cosmia” deals with the death of a close friend. “Sawdust & Diamonds” was at least partially based on the earliest memory Newsom has of dreaming as a child. While “Monkey & Bear” may not be as obviously based in reality, Newsom has said that each of the songs at least somewhat tells a story from her life, and in my mind, this is true for any artist. Something that the artist experienced inspired their piece, and it that way it is all autobiographical.

People have referenced Shakespeare to describe what it’s like to listen to Joanna Newsom. She is one of the few artists to seriously use ‘thee’ in a lyric and actually pull it off! Do you think that’s fair? Maybe Canterbury Tales, instead?

I might call it something more like early colonial, but the style changes from piece to piece. I can’t help but think that if there had been a woman with the mind of a modern feminist somehow placed in a puritan village and handed a harp, the result would sound very much like what Joanna Newsom produces. She sings about her love who has gone to the west, sea stories from passing ship captains, and the smell of stone fruit (which I personally had to Wikipedia to discover she is likely talking about a peach). Canterbury Tales would certainly be in the list of potential influences and time-period-speak.

Hmm… am I allowed to talk about both Björk and Joanna Newsom in the same sentence?

Only if there are an even number of negative qualifiers, I think.

As a former Student Activities Board member, you’re familiar with our mission here at the Student Activities Office. Why do you think that Joanna Newsom makes for a fit in the Calvin concert season?

Through all of this, I really can’t speak for anyone other than myself. For me, Joanna Newsom is one of the most thought-provoking and lyrically powerful artists who is currently making music. Her work is dense, overwhelming, and profound. From everything that I’ve learned from the Student Activities Office, this is that for which Calvin strives: a sincere artist who captures her or his perspective of the world and presents it in an intentional and artistic way.