Last modified on 5 August 2014, at 19:06

Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom (born 1982) is an American singer-songwriter. She plays the harp, as well as the piano and the harpischord.


  • I have a lot of interest in interior rhyming; not just rhyming at the end of the lines, but playing around with rhymes within the lines, playing with where the syllabic emphases in the sentences are, lining those up at strange moments in the line of the song. I’m not sure if that comes across or not.
    •, 19 April 2004
  • I'm not terribly interested in playing harp on other people's music right now. Partly because I feel like many people view the harp as this kind of gimmick. You know, like they have songs that are fully realized, complete songs, and then they think "How do we make this special? - Ooh, let's bring the harp in!" and they kind of want a harpist to play a glissando and play some heavenly noise in the background. I'm really interested in the harp as a fully actualized, self-contained way of presenting songs. That there is a bass in the harp - there is a way to create a rhythmic sense without drums - there's a way to have all sorts of textural variations and expressive variations.
    I also don't want to feel bound to the harp, I'd be interested in bringing other instruments in at some time. But I think the harp has been viewed in one particular way for so long, and has been limited for so long, that I feel like I am really interested in stretching the boundaries of what it's capable of doing and how it's perceived.
    • Sunday Service, 13 December 2004
  • My voice in combination with the harp - which, by the way, I use because I've played it my entire life, not to make some statement about the harp - somehow has ... coloured people's interpretations of the music and projected an idea of childlike or fairytale quality or innocence. Which sometimes prevents people from listening to the songs the way I would like them to be listened to.
    • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 October 2005

Interview with Pitchfork (2006)Edit

A conversation between Brian Howe and Joanna Newsom, about her album Ys (2006)
  • [The title] was the last thing that I chose, after all the songs and the cover art were finished. So none of the songs directly allude to that myth. But the main themes that emerge out of that myth are really close to the themes on the record -- mortality, decadence, an excess of water, isolation, rebirth. The myth is also significant to me because of the way that I encountered it, which relates to one of the huge events the record is about.
    I also liked the power of the word itself. I liked how violent and cryptic it felt; it's such a daunting word to encounter. I like how it contrasted this finely rendered, carefully composed front cover -- the painting is information-dense, formal, and stylized; it looks the way something looks when a painter spends a year on it, which is what Benjamin [Vierling] did. So it has all this detail and carefulness to it, which was really important to me and relates very closely to the record. But I also felt like it needed some sort of ballast, or balance, next to it, to reflect the other elements of the record; its innate violence. I wanted a word that was like throwing a brick at the visual on the front cover; I liked that whenever someone looked at that cover they also had to encounter this short, weird word.
  • I don't necessarily see the elements that I invoke on the cover and in the songs as being in binary opposition. I know certain binary tensions emerge between these elements, but a lot of times they're more like archetypal elements; these free-standing, huge forces. Mortality, standing alone, as a thing; as opposed to, "Over here's life; over here's death. Here's bad luck, but here's blessing and redemption. Here's water; here's fire." Certainly those things come up again and again in the songs, but it's not intentional, and probably has more to do with the fact that those things emerge in real life, without any effort on our part whatsoever, than they are derived from any classical tradition. I think classicism in general might reflect more closely the natural order of human life, while postmodernism is somehow removed from the natural order, more cerebral and sterile, removed from real life on some level. So what seems like classicism in some of these songs might be just what I view as an accurate reflection of real life on this planet.
  • I can't call them linear narratives, and I can't call them chronological in a traditional, classical sense; I'm sure there's plenty of stuff I borrow more from William Faulkner than William Shakespeare. I just find it funny that at this point, we see a collection of highly charged, highly potent symbols as referring back to a classical aesthetic, because to me they seem deeply connected to the pedestrian actuality of real life.

The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004)Edit

  • We sailed away on a winter's day
    With fate as malleable as clay
    But ships are fallible, I say
    And the nautical, as all things, fades.
    • Bridges & Balloons
  • And a thimble's worth of milky moon
    Can touch hearts larger than a thimble.
    • Bridges & Balloons
  • And all that we built, and all that we breathed
    And all that we spilled or pulled up like weeds
    Is piled up in back and it burns irrevocably
    And we spoke up in turns 'til the silence crept over me.
    • Sadie
  • Go to sleep, you stunning sky, gently creep, cunning by
    A quiet hum is amplified by your thumb that you suck dry
    A hundred raging waters snare the lonely sigh
    Hold your breath and clasp at Cassiopeia.
    • Cassiopeia
  • I killed my dinner
    with karate
    kicked him in the face,taste the body, shallow work is the work that I do.
    • The Book of Right-On

Ys (2006)Edit

  • Emily, I saw you last night by the river
    I dreamed you were skipping little stones across the surface of the water
    Frowning at the angle where they were lost, and slipped under forever
    In a mud cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror.
    • Emily
  • Then the slow lip of fire moves across the prairie with precision
    While, somewhere, with your pliers and glue, you make your first incision
    And, in a moment of almost-unbearable vision, doubled over with the hunger of lions
    'Hold me close', cooed the dove, who was stuffed now with sawdust and diamonds.
    • Sawdust & Diamonds

Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band (2007)Edit

  • I'll tell it as I best know how,
    And that's the way it was told to me: I
    Must have been a thief or a whore,
    Then surely was thrown overboard,
    Where, they say,
    I came this way from the deep blue sea.

    It picked me up and tossed me round.
    I lost my shoes and tore my gown,
    I forgot my name,
    And drowned.

    Then woke up with the surf a - pounding;
    It seemed I had been run aground.

    Well they took me in and shod my feet
    And taught me prayers for chastity
    And said my name would be Colleen, and
    I was blessed among all women,
    To have forgotten everything.

    And as the weeks and months ensued
    I tried to make myself of use.
    I tilled and planted, but could not produce -
    not root, nor leaf, nor flower, nor bean; Lord!
    It seemed I overwatered everything.

    And I hate the sight of that empty air,
    like stepping for a missing stair
    and falling forth forever blindly:
    cannot grab hold of anything! No,
    Not I, most blessed among Colleens.


    I dream some nights of a funny sea,
    as soft as a newly born baby.

    It cries for me pitifully!
    And I dive for my child with a wildness in me,
    and am so sweetly there received.

    But last night came a different dream;
    a gray and sloping-shouldered thing
    said "What's cinched 'round your waist, Colleen?
    is that my very own baleen?
    No! Have you forgotten everything?"

    This morning, 'round the cape at dawn,
    some travellers sailed into town
    with scraps for sale and the saddest songs
    and a book of pictures, leather-bound, that
    showed a whale with a tusk a meter long.

    Well, I asked the man who showed it me,
    "What is the name of that strange beast?"
    He said its name translated roughly to

    And I am without words.
    He said, "My lady looks perturbed.
    (the light is in your eyes, Colleen.)"
    I said, "Whatever can you mean?"
    He leaned in and said,
    "You ain't forgotten everything."


    "You dare to speak a lady's name?"
    He said, "My lady is mistaken.
    I would not speak your name in this place;
    and if I were to try then the wind - I swear -
    would rise, to tear you clean from me without a

    "Have you come, then, to rescue me?"
    He laughed and said, "from what, 'colleen'?"
    You dried and dressed most willingly.
    you corseted, and caught the dread disease
    by which one comes to know such peace."

    Well, it's true that I came to know such things as
    the laws which govern property
    and herbs to feed the babes that wean,
    and the welting weight for every season;
    but still
    I don't know any goddamned "Colleen."


    Then dive down there with the lights to lead
    that seem to shine from everything -
    down to the bottom of the deep blue sea;
    down where your heart beats so slow,
    and you never in your life have felt so free.
    Will you come down there with me?
    Down were our bodies start to seem like
    artifacts of some strange dream,
    which afterwards you can't decipher,
    and so, soon, have forgotten

    • Colleen

Have One On Me (2010)Edit

  • We are blessed and sustained by what is not said
    • Easy
  • A feather of a hawk was bound
    Bound around my neck
    A poultice made of fig
    The eager little vultures pecked
    • Jackrabbits

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