Sailing the Seas of Ys

Joanna Newsom is nobody's pixie, sprite, bear, fairy, or folk freak.

So Bear and Monkey are locked up in a barn by this shysty farmer. But they escape one night and hightail it Bonnie and Clyde–like over the river and through the woods to a faraway town. And Monkey's like, "Bear, I'm into you. And I want you to be free and live like the bear you are, all lumbering around and showing off your teeth and eating people. But first, we must cobble together some scratch. So I'll play the organ and you dance around. It's humiliating, I know—you'd rather be eating those people than dancing for them. But just do it for a little bit and we'll stay fed. Oh, and I love you, did I mention that? Seriously. Look, I bought you a new bowling ball."

Well Bear, she plays along, even though Monkey continually reneges on his promise (they're in love, so it's confusing). But one night Bear cruises down to these seaside caves she frequents, which Monkey, the weenie, is afraid to explore. And when he finds out where Bear's gone, he haughtily proclaims, "When she gets back, I shall make her feel bad about herself!"

Meanwhile Bear's bathing herself in the cool ocean water, the salty, briny, foamy water in which she gnashes the bristles of her pelt, washes the fleas and the burrs out, etc. And on this night, here amid the whitewash and kelp, a speck beneath the heavens, Bear slips right out of herself—first the fur around her legs, then the business up around her shoulders, then the stuff that covers her belly, until her all-natural coat is just floating, dragging, wallowing. Wraithlike! Bear leaves it behind, and with it her hopes of someday roaming free, of sinking those teeth into something she was born to eat.

And that's "Monkey and Bear," the second song off Joanna Newsom's second record, Ys. That's Ys as in Eees. As in "I have no idea."

During a cool magic hour in Nevada City, Calif., seated beneath the vines of an outdoor patio, Joanna Newsom orders a rack of ribs and a beer. She's wearing blue jeans and two layers of frilly, cute shirts.

Newsom's friend is walking down the comically bucolic street, and spies us seated here. She sits down.

"Hi Dil," she says to Newsom.

"Hi Hil," Newsom replies.

Hil is on her way to Town Hall to speak to city officials about putting a sign up in front of her newly opened record store.

"What's a parapet?" she asks.

"You could use the dictionary," Newsom answers.

"Or I could ask Dil."

Words you may need to know to fully enjoy Dil's new record: hydrocephalitic, cur, inchoate, Pleiades, plough (that's the arcane British spelling that does not rhyme with slough), slough (aha!), diluvian (see her 2003 debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender), sorrel and roan (horses, not rhymed), sassafras and Sisyphus (rhymed), shoal, rushes (as a noun), yarrow, hollyhock.

Instruments employed: Lyon & Healy 11-pedal harp, electric bass, electric guitar, percussion, banjo and mandolin, accordion, marimba and cymbalum (??), violins, violas, cellos, basses, clarinets, flutes, oboe, bassoon, trumpet, French horn.

Voices: Newsom's, her sister's, her boyfriend Bill Callahan's (he of Smog).

Total songs: five.

Total length: 55.7 minutes.

Suggested title for college paper: "Joanna Newsom Is Planning a Party for Randy Newman: The Intertwined Influence of Virginia Woolf and Van Dyke Parks."

Merry men: Auxiliary Beach Boy and master musician Van Dyke Parks (arranger, co-producer with Newsom), indie auteur Steve Albini (engineer, recorder of harp and vocals), Sonic Youngster Jim O'Rourke (mixer), no-doubt-sweet-dude Nick Webb (masterer—at Abbey Road, no less).

Amount of money Drag City will recoup from this investment: Enough to buy one retail copy of the new Howling Hex record. Maybe.

Effort involved in soup-to-nuts production of record: Aqueducts are dug through the Yukon with this much sweat.

Mistakes made: Probably the oil painting on the cover.

Worth it? Ahem. A story:

The drive up from San Francisco to Nevada City takes only three hours, but the manner in which urban melts into suburban melts into exurban melts into zilch is disarming. First you pass about 75 big-box stores: Best Buy, Home Depot, Best Buy, Office Space, Best Buy (WTF?). But eventually you pull into a town advertising a Craft Faire, where one fella running for City Council is named Chauncey Poston. And on the radio, on NPR, is a story about deaf folks who, through some miracle technology, have had their hearing switched on, and the person they're interviewing, this formerly deaf girl, says that what she wanted to hear most as a person hearing the world for the very first time was the sound of a saw cutting through a tree. Shortly after that, you interview Joanna Newsom.

Joanna Newsom's first interview? February 2003. With? Yours truly. Where? A park in Oakland called Children's Fairyland. Seriously? Seriously. Whose choice was that? Hers. Statements uttered? "I guess when I write songs, I'm trying to write them from the place in myself that's childlike." Regrets about said utterance? Evidently, since statements like that, made at the outset of her career, produced a chorus of condescending press so loud Newsom felt compelled to recently instruct her PR flack not to (in the words of said flack) "use the words fairy tale or childhood or innocent, etc., in conjunction with her music."

Regardless, post-Fairyland, Newsom went and got famous on account of The Milk-Eyed Mender, which everyone from Dave Eggers to Dave Bowie (probably) spat milk through their nose to, because of its courage, really. This was before kids got famous playing lutes and zithers, remember. Before Mender, Newsom played harp at weddings ("Brick House," meet Lyon & Healy). At those first S.F. shows, she took the stage like she was auditioning, which she was. And she didn't have Devendra Banhart's fuck-it-I'm-crazy attitude, either. What she wanted to say needed to be said directly, and in as naked a way as possible. And so she said it while playing this harp of hers, and for that she got relatively famous, or at least a long way from playing weddings.

But as famous people know, the new life you cultivate as a public figure doesn't care all that much about the life you must simultaneously continue to live in private: your Real Life. In that life, as everyone was calling her a child prodigy, as The New York Times declared her "maybe one of the country's greatest young singer-songwriters," as critics and fans were continuing to call her a pixie, a fairy and a sprite, as they were talking about freak-folk and Banhart and the New Weird America and all that other junk—in that Real Life, clouds were beginning to form.

So here's the story behind the record: Somewhere around '04, Newsom broke up with her boyfriend of six years, a good man and talented producer named Noah G. who's currently working with Banhart and the rest of the freak squad. She'd lived with Noah for five of those six years, had moved from Nevada City to San Francisco with him, had basically learned much of what she knows about playing music for a living from him. And the relationship eventually buckled under what I assume to be the pressures of her emerging career, although I really don't know, and don't feel like asking, and what I've just told you is pretty much all I feel like knowing or relating on the subject.

Same goes for her other personal travails from '03 to '05, wherein that dark cloud descended over her family and friends. It was not easy. But somewhere in there, she met the Smog guy, Callahan, and they're in love now. Also somewhere in there, she heard Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, and she got tired of the freak-whatever scene and tried to distance herself from it (no hard feelings). And when it all quieted down, she decided it was time to start dealing with that intersection of her Real Life and her Public Life, which meant sitting down to write songs about those lovers and these friends and that family and this world her head is all but sewn to: Nevada City, a place that truly does operate at about .03 mph, a place where she says most of her friends don't really register what she does for a living. And these songs she was writing, well, she knew they'd have to be long because, simply, "It would be extremely vulgar to make them short."

Like many hotel rooms in Los Angeles, the one in the Roosevelt where she and Van Dyke Parks first met should probably be cast in bronze. Parks was not familiar with Newsom or her music. Newsom really dug Song Cycle. Someone placed a phone call. Parks and his wife graciously landed on a bed in a room as a girl with a harp sat down and played her songs. Parks said, "Y'up." Newsom gave him a long list of particulars: During this moment, the music should feel orange, stuff like that. Parks put together arrangements, they went back and forth, he ordered her harp 'n' voice parts recorded separate from the orchestra. Albini did so. More back and forth. Then O'Rourke came in and mixed the whole thing as if the myriad instruments were a bunch of strangers scuttling through a downtown lobby. Then it was off to Abbey Road. Roughly a year later, they had an album.

It's stupid to even begin to talk about the album. You wanna know what it sounds like? It sounds like a saw cutting through a tree.

info@seattleweekly.com

 
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