Joanna Newsom: Musician or Poet?


I first heard the musician, Joanna Newsom, in the early spring of 2010, just before graduating from college with an English degree from the University of Utah. My friend, Sam, and I were reconnecting after a year-ish of quietly ignoring each other—something you could do in Salt Lake City (SLC), partly because nobody could afford a scene amid that little bit of blue awash in all that red, and partly because a sort-of unsaid kindness was operating principle for us both.

Sam, an adopted Korean queer kid of 19, was notably different from the SLC usual, yes for being gay and Asian, but equally as much for being non-Mormon. His lazy unconcern for the whole business of religion (despite having been raised by a white Latter-day Saint family) was ridiculously thrilling to me. When we’d met that previous year, me at 25, positively entranced by his shoulder-cropped hair and devil-may-care demeanor, I was smitten and distressingly obvious about my crush: any sane person would have run, and Sam was sane enough. A year later, we became friends. To be frank, reconnecting at all was a surprise to me. The fact that we kept falling into bed together, well, I blame Joanna Newsom.

Sam had always been musical. Piano, violin—in 2010, Sam had added singing as well. One evening that spring, we were sitting in my hallway of a basement bedroom, backs against opposing walls, thumbing through mp3’s on Sam’s iPod Shuffle. He sold Joanna to me by referencing her socially-progressive uncle, Gavin Newsom—the mayor of San Francisco who had made headlines by illegally marrying gay couples on the steps of City Hall, during the height of the Bush Administration’s campaign for a constitutional amendment that banned such marriages across the country—and by claiming, plainly, that Johanna was the closest thing to a poet a musician could be. Sam picked “Emily” off the 2006 album, Ys, and hit PLAY.

Sam, 2012

Joanna herself is, according to a 2010 New York Times bio piece entitled “The Changeling,” a “willowy girl strumming a harp in the forest gloaming” with “great imagination, and a beautiful lyrical sense.” The Times journalist, Jody Rosen, maybe a little bemused and spellbound as well, felt to ask: “Was she a wood sprite? Or was she woodshedding: a serious musician, diligently, obsessively, honing her skills?” I’d say a bit of both. Notoriously private, Newsom lives in rural central California in the bucolic counter-culture bastion, Nevada City. Her teachers, her friends, all note how feverishly she works.

Newsom made her studio debut in 2004 with The Milk-Eyed Mender, after two self-produced albums from the two years previous, and has since released several singles and two other albums (Ys in 2006, and Have One on Me in 2010). Her voice is, according to NPR writer, Bob Boilen, “polarizing.” NPR’s show, first listen, noted a “richer, more restrained and relaxed” sound in Have One on Me, which Boilen called “a journey worth taking,” and perhaps oddly attributed Newsom’s vocal maturity to “adjustments she’s made after developing vocal-cord nodules in early 2009.” In an album filled with love and loss, perhaps, what she has damaged is all the more important.

Eventually, “In California” would become a kind of background noise to my early explorations after entering grad school in 2010 in San Francisco, punctuated by the bright spike of the new, and tinged with the casual and aimless loss that followed me in my mid-twenties. After graduation, after a scholarship to the MFA in Writing program at University of San Francisco—where my poems were championed, not by the poet faculty, but by fiction writer, David Vann. After fussing over my hair in the wind and fog of the Inner Richmond before finally giving up and letting it just be messy. I remember, at 27, being terrified of turning 30; and then to my surprise not minding when I did. What’s strange is how completely her music resonated especially after leaving Sam for good; it was maybe four or six months after I moved to San Francisco that he told me he, not only loved, but wanted me—and classic, in a way, that he waited till it was impossible before saying anything at all. As the song goes: