Lots of pluck

Possessing a fantastical vocal and instrumental talent – not to mention elfin good looks – 28 year-old Joanna Newsom is making harp-playing cool.

September 28, 2010 21:17
3 minute read.
Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Amid all the hoopla surrounding the first-time arrival of the Prince of Darkness – Ozzy Osbourne – to our Mediterranean shores, another Israeli debut taking place has been sorely overlooked.

Indie rock’s most famous harpist, Joanna Newsom is bringing her avant-garde Americana folk music and distinctive highpitched warbly voice to the Tel Aviv Opera House on Thursday night.

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The 28-year-old Newsom has been identified with a virtual who’s who on the alternative music landscape since she debuted in 2004 with The Milk-Eyed Mender: Will Oldham, Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, Cat Power, Devendra Banhart, Deerhoof, Jim O’Rourke, Bill Callahan and 60s icon Van Dyke Parks have all collaborated with her musically or toured with the native Californian.

Newsom started out on piano when she was young, but switched to harp when she was seven. According to the All Music Guide, her approach to the Celtic harp – from the percussive aspects of her playing to her chord changes – was influenced by West African and Venezuelan harp music, which she began studying at a folk music camp she attended in her early teens. At the same time, she also listened to more vocal-based folk, punk, and jazz like Karen Dalton, Texas Gladden, Patti Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Concentrating on composing, Newsom only turned attention to her vocals years later and discovered that her untrained, Appalachian-sounding voice provided an inspiring accompaniment to her intricate, ambitious music. After her songs fell into the hands of like-minded musicians like Oldham and Cat Power, they asked her to open shows for them in 2002, which led to her 2004 debut.

Newsom’s 2006 second album, Ys, featuring Parks’s orchestration arrangements, broke her out of the pack, boosted by highprofile appearances on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show. The album ranked third in indie bible Pitchfork’s Top Albums of 2006.

“The experience of making Ys was quite intense and formal for me. I paid such close attention to every tiny little detail – the syntax, the lyrics, the distribution of syllabic entropies, the interior and exterior rhyme patterns – there was a lot of activity and it felt a little frenetic,” the classically trained musician told TIME magazine earlier this year, upon the release of her latest album, the sprawling three-disc Have One on Me.

“When making this record, I had the feeling of being a little kid coming home from church. I was in my tight, scratchy sailor dress and my tight, scratchy patent-leather shoes. It was the feeling of tearing it all off and running around outside in my underwear,” she described the process of making Have One on Me.

Arriving in Israel amid a European tour, Newsom has declined to be interviewed, preferring to let her music do the talking. A review last week in the Scotland Herald of a Glasgow show reported that “Newsom performed an accomplished set that drew heavily on her third long-player, Have One On Me. In command of a giant harp (and, on occasion, a grand piano), and distinguished by bluesy, reedy vocals, Newsom was flanked by an unconventional backing band – strings, percussion, banjo and an understated yet outstanding trombone – and they tackled each thorny arrangement with ease.”

It may not be for the crowd who attended Ozzfest, but for a touch of musical magic from the margins, Joanna Newsom is as sublime as it gets.

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