Design & Living / Behind the Pages

Joanna Newsom's Ode to the Harp

As the inimitable musician announces her first new album in five years, we revisit her personal essay in the S/S06 edition of AnOther

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Joanna Newsom for AnOther Magazine S/S06Photography by Maurits Sillem

"I drive my harp around in a station wagon back in San Francisco where I live now. It's a Lyon & Healy style 15 which is the kind of harp you get rid of as soon as you can afford a better one. But I doubt I'll have a spare $30,000 anytime soon. Since I was eight and I started playing, I've been in love with the harp as an instrument. People think it's a novelty, gimmicky thing, like my 'unconventional' voice, but it's just what I happen to use to convey my music. To be honest, I'm not really influenced by harp players, apart from the rhythms of West African chora music. My real heroine is the American dissonant composer Ruth Crawford Seeger. She was this pioneer of American modernism. She worked with the Lomax brothers, transcribing all their folk songs, so she's really a seminal figure in the folk revival. When she married the composer Charles Seeger, she became the matriarch of one of the most important families in American folk music. She's such an inspiration. She 's why I'm sitting here playing for eight hours a day with all these blood blisters on my fingers."

"People think it's a novelty, gimmicky thing, like my 'unconventional' voice, but it's just what I happen to use to convey my music."

Joanna Newsom released the eccentric EP "Walnut Whales" when she was just 21. Her childlike, untrained voice and unlikely choice of instrument aroused curiosity and she became a slow-burning underground success on the San Francisco music scene. Strange progressions and fairytale lyrics give Newsom an ethereal quality that seems to plug directly into the roots of old American folk - like a feral child descended straight from the Appalachian mountains into a record deal with Drag City, in fact, she was born in Nevada City. lt was thanks to Will Oldham playing his label some of her music, that the 23-year-old secured the deal for her esoteric debut The Milk-Eyed Mender. 


This feature originally ran in the Spring/Summer 2006 issue of AnOther Magazine.


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