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A Quietus Interview

A Vision Of Decadence: Joanna Newsom On Have One On Me
Jude Rogers , May 11th, 2010 09:01

Jude Rogers speaks to Joanna Newsom about the writing of her "physical and earthy" new album, Have One On Me

Last week, I interviewed Joanna Newsom for The Guardian just before she headed off to All Tomorrows Parties. Yesterday, the G2 piece generated plenty of traffic on the internet, especially given Newsom's comments about Lady Gaga and Madonna. You can read all the fuss about it here. But Joanna also went into the thought processes behind her new album itself, Have One On Me, in such extraordinary detail that the paper would have had to cut half its parliamentary coverage to accommodate it. Here, for the hardcore Newsom-maniacs, is an in-depth insight into the artist herself.

What is the most important thing to you, as an artist, when you're first thinking about making an album?

It's really important to me to make self-contained pieces of work that have a universe created around them. Although the record might in some ways be a projection or amplification or reflection of changes that are part of me, it's not necessarily that. In many ways it's just a different thing that I decided to work on, like a different project.

What was your concept for Have One On Me?

I didn't have a fully contained vision going in. I didn't have a concept - and it's not a concept record - but I had a mood and I had a set of things that were inspiring me at that particular time. And I had a sense…I mean, it's almost like if you were expecting a child or something and you had some sort of instinct about whether it would be a boy or a girl and you had some sort of vision of it hovering, it was kind of like that! It took a while for me to understand what it was going to be. But the environment of making, and of writing, the _Ys_ songs and then recording them and mixing them and doing everything surrounding that record… every step of the process was very formalised, and that was kind of a ballast to a lot of the brutal or unhinged emotional material that I was working with. A lot of those songs had a really intense sadness, and given the story I was trying to tell with that record, it was very natural to me to default to a very formal approach, almost like [I was] hyperconscious of every decision. You know, even the way a lyrical line was composed! it was very important to me that the distribution of the syllabic weight was just so and that the rhyme scheme was just so, and the ends of lines but also certain words contained within the lines worked together, and that there be certain relationships between words that was almost mathematical. I had some people interviewing me after that record who suggested there was a coldness to it because of that, which I didn't feel at all, but I do understand that it felt like it had gone through so many phases of editing that it was a little guarded, or it was a little distanced. That wasn't the perspective I was coming from, but I did understand that as a comment when it was made.

So I came out of that experience and musically I think I wanted to let some air into the room. I had been in this vacuum of just very charged, very arid, intense running-in-circles sorts of thinking and I just wanted to go outside and do something pitched differently.

Have One On Me feels like a much more direct record than Ys in many ways. That's not to say your lyrics have suddenly gone all "cat sat on the mat", or that your sentiments have suddenly become simple, but it seems you are talking more about situations that are rooted in a real world. As soon as the album starts for instance, with 'Easy, bang', there's a very human love song - not a love song transported to a different realm or to a different set of characters.

Yeah, I definitely agree. I think that that was a product of the sort of mood I was describing. In fact it was something that kind of scared me a little bit - discovering the fact that my writing was sort of taking on the qualities that you described!

And you hadn't really written like that before.

No. I hadn't. I think at the end of the day, I write for pleasure, I write music for pleasure, and although often it's very hard for me and drives me crazy and I get a lot of angst from it and unhappiness from the struggles I have with it, it does come from an impulse of joy. And so I think sometimes you just go where that impulse leads you, and that sort of dictates a very different lyrical style from the first record, second record and third record. And I think it relates, in part, to what I'm reading, or to other types of writing I'm doing. But it's true that there was a very distilled quality to the words. There weren't very complex or compacted strings of words sort of qualifying each other and amending each other and augmenting each other. They were just stripped down lines that were just sort of plain spoken in a way. [laughs] For me, plain spoken!

There seemed to be a shift in your music even before Have One On Me, though. After your grand, stately orchestral concerts for _Ys_, you played the Ys Street Band gigs [where Newsom played with a small group] where you seemed to be really opening up to the audience as a human being. Unlike the early days of your career, when you used to play alone and go and sing in front of your harp to conquer your fears, by the end of 2007, you were having conversations with the audience, letting your guard down a bit.

I think that that's true. And it connects, I think, a lot to the band that I was playing with and continue to play with the core of. I think my relationship with them opens up my connection with the people we're playing for. Somehow looking at my friends and being reminded of whatever we actually are, rather than this weird sort of abstraction that happens when you're all by yourself on the stage and a bunch of people are looking at you, it of brings me back again and again to a place that's more open and that is more about music just connecting. Also, Ryan [Francesconi, a guitarist in her band] reworked all of the _Ys_ scores and reduced them to band versions, and the process of going through that with him and the way it felt to play them…on some level that really sowed the seeds for the way the next album would sound and certainly it sealed in my mind the decision that I wanted Ryan to do the arrangements because he has such a close connection with the way I am! He knows the twists and turns of all the songs, he's also very adept at orchestration and has this huge classical background, but ultimately he's just a sort of kindred spirit, musically speaking.

Do you feel you have to defend the intellectually adventurous nature of your music sometimes?

It's funny, the perception of the music as coming from quite an intellectual place always surprises me, because for me it actually feels very comfortable and very natural. Certainly it's true that I've always found joy in seeking out musically challenging things. Challenging in a way that music allows you in through the act of trying to crack it open, that allows you to transcend what you thought you understood about music in a way that is joy-giving - in a very natural physical way. You know, like learning to do something new, or cracking some new metric pattern open, just floods your whole body with happy chemicals. It's very physical, it's adrenaline and serotonin when that happens, it's as if you could just click over to speaking a new language or something like that. That experience within music making has always been very exciting to me to a point of almost being addictive. And it's also very private. I'm not talking about performing, I'm not talking about recording or even necessarily writing right now, I'm just talking about playing, improvising, being at home. For me, there has to always be something fundamentally new there, I think, in order to fuel that constantly moving living creature that is your relationship with music.

What challenging music inspires you?

Anything that inspires awe on any level is challenging to me. So sometimes this can be something very, very simple. There are certain songwriters like Kris Kristofferson or Mickey Newbury or Sandy Denny who have - who had, in some cases - the ability to compose a lyrical line that is so perfect, so distilled and clean and pure. That they just can write a set of two lines that just over the course of two sentences can set up a point, make you expect one thing, then hit you with something else, some little turn of phrase that has a double meaning, and then ground it all in something so universal that everyone has always felt it but no one has expressed it in that particular way before. That inspires awe in me. Everything I love has to have something of that to it. I mean, I love a lot of pop music for the same reason.

Do you follow the music press stories about you?

When I was working on this last record there were a lot of times where I realised it would give me a kind of panic attack to read any music news at all. Any reminder of the fact that the thing I was working on at that time would eventually go into a world of conversation and interaction and critique… that was really scary to me. That it would be compared to things and weighed against other things, argh!

You obviously wanted people to hear Have One On Me, though, and you want people to listen to it, enjoy it and interpret it.

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, for sure. It's just that from the point of view of working on it, it would kind of clamp me up. Until something's done it's hard to imagine it being out in the world.

Would you say this is a more personal record as well as a more direct record?

Well, first of all, I guess I can't totally resist pointing out that there's a difference between something being direct and something being personal...

Of course. But the world of this album doesn't feel so contained, or mannered - it feels more porous, easier to get into, and that also makes it feel more personal.

Yeah. It's in less of a vacuum but I would say that all three of my records have been equally personal; it's just that this record isn't so abstracted - it's just more physical and earthy. Because of that, I also think that you feel the presence of the narrator as a woman as opposed to some weird genderless ether being!

The title of the album is so immediate, but you can read it in lots of different ways. Was that intentional? And if so, what are you trying to say with that title?

Well, on one level there was a tonal decision to choosing the title that has a relationship with the tone of the record. There is a directness to it and an earthiness to it - it's something that's said in a bar! There is a decadence to the phrase, and a thread of that runs through the whole record, from decisions surrounding the arrangements to the visuals and the lyrics. Decadence is just like intense physicality, so that phrase underscored that quality of the record. And then the title is meant to point at the title track as the sort of central thematic message of the record. I also like the fact that that track is a story. So rather than me saying, 'This is the thing I want to say about me and my life right now', I'm pointing at that song to say, 'There is all the information you need with which to approach the rest of the record'.

It also refers to a kind of self-sacrifice that is a theme in a lot of the songs. It's a very feminine thing as well. It's the giving of yourself in those drinking terms, like pouring something from a bottle, and the level of the wine goes down and down and down with each glass that you pour and hand out. And it relates to the title track because that's sort of essentially what I saw in Lola Montez's life [Lola being the dancer who was the mistress of the King Of Bavaria, who ultimately lived and died an outcast in America, who is the subject of your title track and Newsom seems to be referring to in the album inlay photographs.] This constant wandering and diminishment of the self through the giving of the self, through performing, and just as the myth grew, the self shrunk until she just died poverty stricken and alone with pneumonia, being cared for by Jesuit priests that she hated. And having these affairs with these incredibly important powerful men, none of who took care of her. The way women were, and the way women are in that sense, is fundamental.

Did Have One On Me finish up differently to what you thought it would be?

Yeah, it did. The funny thing is, before I had written a note of this record, if someone had asked me what it was going to be I would say, like, oh yeah, it will be just harp and voice and every song will be three minutes.

And would you ever be open to that?

Yeah, seriously. Yeah, I'd be open to that. It's funny, you just have to…[laughs] I don't know if this is true for everyone, but for me I just have to wait - wait around like a spare prick until the thing that I'm going to do is presented to me!