In the first installment of the garrulous and altogether decent “Andy & Rob Talk…”, your two music editors discuss, ad neauseam, Joanna Newsom’s impact on modern film, art, and record making. We hope you enjoy, and if you don’t, please feel free to launch vegetables at us in the form of spammy comments.
Rob Patrick: Last year, Joanna Newsom told The Los Angeles times that “Spotify is like a villainous cabal of major labels” – man, they got some mileage out of that interview. Having had heard similar things from other musicians, I cant dismiss the hilarious venom here. What’s your take on her very vocal anger over this company?
Andy Ferguson: It’s really kind of remarkable when you dig a little deeper to take a look at how many artists have been outspoken over a variety of streaming services. Obviously, Spotify has been the biggest target, and I suppose there are many perspectives to take into consideration when weighing the positives and negatives. When it comes to Joanna, it’s really a shared outrage with her label, Drag City, who as a whole do not offer any of their artist’s music to Spotify. To the casual appreciator, it is a bummer to not be able to access her stuff so easily, and some of my other favorite songwriters have long been signed to that label. I think it’s also important to see stances like hers and other artists such as Thom Yorke’s as more of a problem with disrespect to the music community as a whole and not just a direct selfish beef with Spotify. There are thousands of musicians who would greatly benefit from receiving the proper payment from offering their work to the site. So, short story long, I have found it easier as time goes on to not see the outrage as comical from the artist’s side of this debacle. Get as mad as you want, Joanna.
Rob: I had no idea Joanna narrated P.T. Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’. Apparently he is a big fan of her work, going so far as to direct two of her music videos and subsequently say Newsom has “one foot in another dimension.” What’s up with this partnership? What else can we expect from them?
Andy: As if there wasn’t already a dozen or more reasons to identify P.T. as one of the greatest cinematic auteurs of our time, he adds all of these incredible collaborators in music to his resume. He’s no stranger to being closely involved with a lot of exceptionally talented and unique musicians. From what I can recall, it goes as far back as the 90s when his personal relationship Fiona Apple blossomed into a fruitful body of collaboration work that has continued on to this day. Since that time he has been known to regularly work with the likes of Aimee Mann, Jonny Greenwood and the rest of the Radiohead crew, and most recently Newsom. My guess is that we’ll be seeing more from this duo of like-minded artists again in the future. The way he literally portrays her as a work of art in the video for “Divers” is a thing of beauty. There’s an understated quality to the calmness and patience of the work they have produced together so far with her music, and in a modern world of videos where almost all seem to be produced in a flurry of rushed editing techniques to keep our attention, these two are an ideal fit to collaborate for the team on the other side of the coin.
Rob: Joanna has performed on tons of late night shows, and yet she hasn’t found that huge audience that some of her contemporaries have found when given the same spotlight. What’s her bugaboo here? Is she ever going to be widespread famous? Do I ever have to say “bugaboo” again?
Andy: Her bugaboo here (and yes, please find a way to incorporate “bugaboo” into everything you write about or talk about in everyday conversation from this point forward, until death) is a combination of a few different things, in my opinion. The one thing that will always follow her around and prevent a more widespread fan base from blossoming, is her polarizing vocals. It’s just a sad fact that a good amount of people simply see her voice as “piercing” or “whiny”. These are words I have heard first hand from dozens of people I have tried to turn on to her music over the last decade-plus. Even when you try to encourage them to listen into the stories of the songs more and indulge in the orchestral arrangements, it fails more often than not. It’s unfortunate that a vast amount of audiences today aren’t willing to spend appropriate time with certain artists or albums. Not every musician’s work is supposed to be judged by one specific single or written off based on the opening track of an album the first time you listen to them. She’s also not concerned with writing a mainstream-style “hit”, if you will. Not to say it could never happen, because no one could have predicted that Isaac Brock and Modest Mouse would have seen a significant splash of stardom after penning “Float On”. There’s a songwriter whose vocals were heralded by many but equally loathed by others. It would be awesome if Newsom could break through one day, but I doubt she cares and it seems like she is doing just fine and getting complete freedom with her work.
Rob: What is her best song in your opinion? Because I’m partial to the way she stings the verses in “Sadie” with her unorthodox vocals – it feels like a perfect culmination of her powers. This track is like her superhero origin story. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say here.
Andy: Oh, man, fantastic choice with “Sadie” and one that’s hard to argue against. That’s among my five favorites from her, but if I had to choose a single one to top my personal list, it would be “En Gallop”. Listening to that song takes me back not only to a time in my life, but a very specific day when I first heard it. A local favorite record store, Luna Music, was playing The Milk-Eyed Mender in its entirety, and when I entered the store that was the song that was fading in. It was the first time I had ever heard her voice, and I was completely captivated, and have been ever since. I think when you think about favorite single tracks from Newsom, Milk-Eyed is the album that features so many of my favorites. I think that’s because all of the subsequent offerings have been so big and bold and “albums as one” that I hardly see specific tracks as separations. That’s a special debut. Honorable mention must go to “Does Not Suffice”, though. One of the most powerful accounts of the dissolution of a relationship I have ever heard. It raises the hairs on my arms just thinking about it.
Rob: Larry King – my sundial to everything music related – made me upset when he tweeted out, “let us know if you want Joanna Newsom and Kenderick Lamar to make a song together!” I feel like this would be a terrible combination of forces. This is giving me bad flashbacks of Jay-Z’s mashup album with Linkin Park. Just, everybody calm down.
Andy: If we put Larry King in charge of all collaborations across any and every profession in the country, then a Newsom/Lamar combo would be the least of our worries. The dude would demand that Thomas Jane play Frederick Douglass in a biopic helmed by McG, or something like that. I mean, Joanna and Kendrick are immensely cool, but they have no business collaborating on music. Loosen those suspenders, buddy.
Rob: What’s Joanna’s lasting musical impact on you and our dumb, aging generation?
Andy: Her impact is that she will be seen as one of the very few artists of our generation whose body of work is completely devoid of that feeling of being released in a time of “being raised online” and “instant gratification”. Those who get incredible value out of her work understand that if you ever need to hit the pause button (or even rewind) for a few minutes in this world, then you spin one of her records.
Rob: I Can absolutely agree with that.
Andy: I had the opportunity to see Joanna live on the tour for Have One On Me, and it still stands as one of the most captivating performances I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve seen plenty of shows over the last 15+ years, but I’m sure it’s not even close to the amount that you’ve attended. Have you had the chance to see Newsom yet? If so, I’m curious where the show would stand for you.
Rob: You may have, honestly, seen about as many shows as I have. I’m just cheating because I’ve been to Coachella three times, seen Sparta twice, and almost got kicked in the face by The Cult’s Ian Astbury while he performed at a casino in Alpine. From what I’ve seen of Joanna – and I know online footage is the most monochrome representation of what she is capable of in a live venue – she would be fantastic to see in person. I would imagine that it is a complete experience.
Andy: Joanna recently told Dave Eggers that when she’s making music, she doesn’t imagine anyone ever hearing her songs. Instead, she works from the mindset of living in a post-apocalyptic world and recording from a bomb shelter. I find this extremely fascinating to hear from an artist in 2016 for some reason. Thoughts?
Rob: Well, this is much more fascinating than Justin Vernon talking about cabins or Tennis talking about being inspired by boats (I may be just imagining the last one). Kane Strang literally recorded in a World War II bomb shelter, which I found to be unsettling. All of that being said, Joanna has one of the most brilliant vocabularies of any musician – or flat out person – that I have ever heard. She understands fear, mortality, beauty, and kindness. And because of her immersion in all of those worlds and feelings, I can see why she envelopes herself in atmospheric ideas and gossamer places. It’s part of her lore, what makes her an unmistakably literary and authentic artist. I’m thankful that she challenges herself, and in turn her listeners, by placing storm clouds over the proceedings at times.
Andy: Upon looking into her album sales, I was pleasantly surprised to see that The Milk-Eyed Mender has sold 200,000+ and Ys has reached past 250,000 units since its release. I couldn’t find a specific number for Have One On Me, but it seems as though it is a trend that her albums reach a steady and new audience with each passing year. Do you think that with a little more time and a potential continuing surge of desire for consumer’s to purchase physical media, that we’ll see her numbers rise?
Rob: As much as I want her catalog to find a wide, eclectic, and excited audience, I think that she is possibly at the peak of her popularity in regards to selling physical media. And the resolute position she has taken with Spotify has cemented her very real worry in that respect. I’m hoping to be wrong, though, and I usually am around 80% of the time, so we’ll see what happens as she continues to tour without the addition of streaming services pulling the chariot. Like you mentioned earlier, her live performances are a vital part of her resume, and that may be her lasting legacy on music.
Andy: In the early days of her career, before I knew anything specific about Newsom, I found it almost impossible to pin down where she came from based off listening to the music alone. Her voice, orchestral arrangements, and even appearance often make me believe that she could have come from any corner of the world, or all corners at once. I’ve never looked into her popularity outside of the US, but my guess would be that the following is somewhat significant. I’m hoping you could fill me in on this pressing topic inside my head at this very moment.
Rob: I think the intentionally ambiguous geography behind her music, style, and presentation is an orchestra in its own right. She presents history, power, fragility, and uncompromising artistry behind the waves of a lost world. The Decemberists have always wanted to be idiosyncratic and moving poets, but they lack the conviction and internal struggle that Newsom lays down on every track. The magic of her – like P.T. Anderson said – “otherworldly” contributions to music will never be questioned. And the fact that we’re still guessing about the topography of her art, all of these years later, proves that she is a wonderfully complex and interesting person that has much more to say in the coming years.
Andy: Do you remember exactly where you were when you first listened to Have One On Me? Better yet: do you remember exactly where you were and what look you had on your face when you listened to the gargantuan album for the 22nd time and realized its greatness?
Rob: You know, I was probably swiveling in a computer chair while eating a macaroon, to be honest. But that’s how I usually discover most albums. It’s definitely an accomplishment that deserves, requires, and demands 22 listens. She turned the world on its head with that release. How is she not perpetually exhausted where does she get this energy?
Andy: She’s been romantically involved with the songwriter who wrote “Cold Blooded Old Times” (Bill Callahan) and, on another end of the spectrum, is now married to the person who co-wrote “Diaper Money” (Andy Samberg). Where does this put Newsom on the endlessly cool list? Is it fair for someone to have this many genius-level talents, to collaborate with people like P.T. Anderson at the drop of a hat, AND to be be funny enough to play a goth-like nurse who revive’s a flat-lining roadie played by Bill Hader in the recent Lonely Island flick, “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”?
Rob: Honestly, Joanna is on the highest tier of coolness. She balances art, humor, and pain in a way that is almost all encompassing. It’s hard not to be moved by her sincerity in interviews, performances, and in song. She even makes music’s version of Russell Brand, Devendra Banhart, look boring. We need like fifteen more albums, two documentaries, and seventeen more voiceovers – just give her everything that Morgan Freeman is doing.