- Baby Birch
Joanna Caroline Newsom (born January 18, 1982) is an American harpist, keyboardist, vocalist, songwriter and actress.
Newsom was born and raised in the small town of Nevada City, California. Her mother, Christine (née Mueller), is an internist, and her father, William Newsom, is also a doctor. Her parents were “progressive-minded professionals” who previously lived in the Bay Area. Newsom’s family includes her brother, Pete, a fellow musician, and sister, Emily, who inspired her song “Emily” (and contributed backing vocals). She is the second cousin, twice removed, of Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom of California.
As a child, Newsom was not allowed to watch television or listen to the radio because she was raised by parents whom she described as, “kind of idealists when it came to hoping they could protect us from bad influences, like violent movies, or stupid stuff”. She was exposed to music from a young age. Her father played the guitar and her mother was a classically trained pianist who played the hammered dulcimer, the autoharp and conga drums. Newsom attended a Waldorf school where she studied theater and learned to memorize and recite long poems. This skill helps her to remember lyrics while on tour.
At the age of five, Newsom asked her parents if she could play the harp. Her parents eventually agreed to sign her up for harp lessons, but the local harp instructor did not want to take on such a young student and suggested she learn to play the piano first. Starting at the age of four she began playing the piano. Only later did she move on to the harp, which she “loved from the first lesson onward.” From her instructor, Joanna learned composition and improvisation. She first played on a smaller Celtic harps until her parents bought her a full-size pedal harp in the seventh grade. During her teens, she and the instrument became inseparable, and she describes her relationship with the harp as similar to “an artificial limb or a wheelchair. It’s almost part of me, but more to the point, it serves a purpose, and if it wasn’t there I would wonder what was supposed to fit in its place.”
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. Describing her experience, Newsom stated, “I hesitate to speak about it because it sounds so corny, but one of my goals out there was to find a spirit-animal. 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.”
After high school Newsom studied composition and creative writing at Mills College in Oakland, California. While at Mills, she played keyboards in The Pleased. She dropped out of the school in order to focus on her music.
In 2002 and 2003, Newsom recorded two EPs, Walnut Whales and Yarn and Glue. These homemade recordings were intended to serve as a document of her early work; she recorded them on a Fisher-Price tape recorder. These EPs were not intended for public distribution. At the suggestion of Noah Georgeson, her then-boyfriend and recording engineer of the EP, she burned several copies to sell at her early shows. Jon Fellman, co-producer of Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival, claims that Neil Martinson was the first to have booked a show for her at his club, SMiLE!.
A friend of Newsom’s passed one of these CDs on to Will Oldham at a show in Nevada City. Oldham was impressed with Newsom’s music and asked her to tour with him. He also gave a copy of the CD to the owner of Drag City, his record label. Drag City signed Newsom and released her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender in 2004. Shortly thereafter, Newsom toured with Devendra Banhart and Vetiver and made an early UK appearance at the Green Man Festival in Wales, returning to headline in 2004, 2007 and 2010.
Her second album Ys was released in November 2006. The album features orchestrations and arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, engineering from Steve Albini and mixing by Drag City label-mate Jim O’Rourke. On a road trip, Bill Callahan recommended she listen to the album Song Cycle by Parks, which led to his being chosen to arrange her work on Ys.
Several of the songs on The Milk-Eyed Mender have been covered by her peers. “Bridges and Balloons” was covered by The Decemberists on their 2005 EP Picaresqueties. “Sprout and the Bean” has been covered by The Moscow Coup Attempt and Sholi. “Peach, Plum, Pear” has been covered by Final Fantasy (Owen Pallett) on the 2006 EP Young Canadian Mothers, as well as by Straylight Run. M Ward has played “Sadie” at some of his live shows.
On January 12, 2010, an entry cryptically entitled “@!?*(%$#!!” was posted on the Drag City website. It contained a link which led to a short comic strip titled “Joanna Newsom ‘Have One on Me'” with a date of February 23, 2010. Later that day, it was confirmed by Spunk, Newsom’s Australian label, that the title and date represented the title of Newsom’s upcoming album and its release date. P-Vine Records in Japan announced that Have One on Me, which was recorded in Tokyo in 2009, would be released in Japan on March 3, 2010, as a three-disc CD set, with a total of approximately three hours of new recordings. Newsom was chosen by Matt Groening to perform at the edition of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival he curated in May 2010 in Minehead, England.
On February 11, 2010, Pitchfork Media reported that Newsom would be the subject of a tribute book titled Visions of Joanna Newsom which has now been published by Roan Press.
Newsom began 2012 with television appearances on Austin City Limits (on January 21) and Portlandia (on February 7). On June 25, 2012, Newsom performed at the Warfield Theatre in San Francisco with Philip Glass and Tim Fain as part of a benefit for the Henry Miller Memorial Library. She performed a new song at the concert tentatively titled “The Diver’s Wife”, a love story concerning pearl hunting. On October 14, she performed another new song tentatively called “Look and Despair” at the Treasure Island Festival.
She appeared in, and narrated, the 2014 film Inherent Vice.