Artist Spotlight

Joanna Newsom: Medieval Chamber Folk Star

I can still picture my wife twirling and singing to Joanna Newsom in our small apartment. We had just started dating but I already knew she was the one, in part because of her music taste. Instead of listening to pop music that everyone knew, she listened to indie music that was unique and often psychedelic. She introduced me to many artists but one that always stands out is Joanna Newsom because of her unique style and voice, long poetic songs and psychedelic harp instrumentals.

Photo by Tristan Lope

Joanna Newsom was raised in Nevada City, California by two doctors who didn’t allow her to watch television and instead stressed academics and music. She began playing the piano at a young age and once she was old enough began to take harp lessons. After high school, she attended Mills College, studying composition and creative writing. She played keyboards for the band The Pleased but dropped out of college and returned home to live with her parents in Nevada City. From there, she began her solo career and flourished in the local Bay Area indie folk scene and later reached a much wider audience with the success of her albums. 

Joanna Newsom has released four studio albums starting with The Milk-Eyed Mender in 2004. This first album helped her gain an underground following. Music historian John Morrish in 2007 called the album a “neo-folk benchmark”. Her next album, Ys was released in 2006. This album gathered a larger audience and landed at number 134 on the Billboard 200. Her third album, Have One on Me was released in 2010. It is a massive album with over two hours of songs but it is a remarkable piece of work that deals with complex issues such as womanhood and fertility. Her fourth studio album, Divers was released in 2015 and peaked at number one on the Billboard alternative albums chart. 

Joanna Newsom is completely unique in her delivery and style but lands in a few musical genres including folk, chamber folk, baroque pop and psychedelic folk. Her songs are often very long and complex, shifting from slow to fast and taking the listener into different realms of sound. She is a poet and beautifully weaves her poetry throughout her songs. Her lyrics are heavily influenced by literature and the writers Vladimir Nabokov and Ernest Hemingway. She relies heavily on the harp and piano and uses her distinct soprano voice to create a wonderful sound. She reminds me a little of Joni Mitchell in the way she sings, which is a reason I love her sound. I grew up listening to Joni Mitchell as my mom listened to her constantly, so I have a sentimental appreciation for any singer that mimics that voice. 

Joanna Newsom is an indie folk treasure. She creates music you will never hear anywhere else. She has a completely trippy and psychedelic persona that is straight from the Middle Ages. Her album cover art on Ys with a fair maiden sitting by a window is a perfect example of her medieval inspiration. I really enjoy Joanna Newsom’s music because of its originality and because it reminds me of my mother and her love for Joni Mitchell. Most of all, Newsom’s music reminds me of my wife and when we met and fell in love dancing and twirling to her gentle harp plucking and high soprano voice. 

Genres: folk, chamber folk, baroque pop, psychedelic folk, experimental, freak folk

Favorite songs: 81.0, Good Intentions Paving Company, No Provenance, Baby Birch, Soft As Chalk, Divers

9/10: Brilliant and unique but probably wouldn’t want to listen to her every day. One of my wife’s favorite artists and she has great taste. 

Written by Adam

By Adam

I am a musician and writer. I love discovering new indie artists and music and writing about my findings.

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