I saw a Later With Jools Holland session back in November on
BBC2, and was introduced to the
delights of psych-folk harpist Joanna Newsom, although she eschews any such categorisation. Without a doubt she was the star
of the show. She played a track from her new album (Divers, 2015) called Leaving
This prompted me to do a bit of research on the woman behind the bewitching voice. Probably the most interesting source was a 2010 NY Times Interview entitled Joanna Newsom, the Changeling. I quote:
"Newsom told me she was a “dreamy but melancholy” child, whose parents encouraged her ambitions and nurtured her iconoclasm. She doesn’t remember what drew her to the harp, but she started begging her parents for lessons at age 4 and began her studies a few years later. She also had a spiritual streak, which her parents likewise indulged. When she was 18, in the middle of her senior year of high school, she decided that she needed “some sort of ritual marker of the end of childhood.” Her plan was to camp in the open air for three days and nights, eating little, seeing no one, communing with the great outdoors. Newsom’s mother sanctioned her missing school and helped her daughter scout out a place by the Yuba, in the middle of 35 wild acres owned by family friends...
"I hesitate to speak about it because it sounds so corny, but one of my goals out there was to find a spirit-animal,” Newsom told me. “On the third day, I was kind of delirious. I’d only eaten a little rice. I’d just slept and looked at a river for three days. I was prepared to be visited by my spirit animal — I was just sitting there, saying some sort of prayer, inviting that presence into my life. And then I saw three white wolves charging down at me. I thought maybe I was hallucinating; but I was also prepared to die. But the wolves ran up and started licking my face. Then I remembered that the daughter of the woman who owned the property kept domesticated wolves.”
Newsom went to a Waldorf school known for their creative and holistic approach to education. Her shamanic experience was acutely interesting to me because I had a similar one, albeit less organised and without parental permission. In my early 20's floating round after my graduation, I packed a giant bowl of brown rice & chickpeas and took off to the mountains of North Wales, where I roamed about wild camping for 3 days, bearded and dressed in a full length wool coat, army boots and wool beanie hat (not very rain proof, it transpires). I must've cut a way out picture, but I didn't see a soul for all that time, except sheep munching at my tent guide ropes. I visited the Druid Circle at Penmaenmawr. On approach to the Druid Circle, I discovered thousands of very large Psilocybe Liberty Cap magic mushrooms. I do mean thousands. There were far more than I could pick. In fact, I had armfuls of them at one point and realised there was no way of carting them about, or getting them home without rotting. I have never seen such a haul of mushrooms before or since. I took many of them up to the stone circle and left them on the altar stone. A good sacrifice! OK, so my shamanic experience was not with wolves. There are some small advantages to working with the vegetation gods. Liberty Caps are no less dangerous however.
This brings me to my 2nd quote from the NY Times article:
"Critics branded her music “freak folk,” lumping her with Banhart and other upstarts whose psychedelic leanings and flowing tresses harked back to the woollier folk rock of the late 1960s. Newsom was called an “elfin princess,” a “faerie queen,” a “weird waif,” an “innocent flower,” a “childlike chanteuse.” There was a time when the media chatter drove Newsom to distraction. In a 2006 interview with the arts-and-culture magazine Stop Smiling, she said, “I have friends in my hometown, and a few in other places, but I’m not part of some epic, bracelet-clanking, eyes-rolled-back, blasé, nihilistic scenester cult.”
Really? I'd have thought such comparisons as fairie queen or elfin princess were quite flattering. The willowy weirdness of Joanna Newsom's voice is her strength in my opinion. She should boldly embrace the strange and reveal her otherworldliness as a gift to a world too full of beer- swilling, pasty- guzzling troglodytes and ignoramii.