The Mysterious Diva of Folk Music

Photo: Courtesy of Motormouth Media

J oanna Newsom’s second album, Ys, marks a striking departure from her delicate, folk-driven debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, which was mostly just her singing and gently plucking her harp. The gorgeous lilting vocals and intricate harp melodies are still there, but they’re buttressed by intense orchestral arrangements by the legendary Van Dyke Parks, best known for his orchestration of Brian Wilson’s lost classic, Smile, as well as his own fêted 1968 album, Song Cycle. Recorded and mixed by indie Über-producers Steve Albini and Jim O’Rourke, Ys comprises five epic songs averaging eleven minutes each, in which Newsom free-associates, apparently about a year in her life, using all manner of symbolism: sparrows and meadowlarks, tugboats and rivers and Sisyphus. The 24-year-old Newsom spoke to New York about her elusive narratives and the consuming process of working with one of rock’s most influential collaborators.

How did you hook up with a living legend like Van Dyke Parks?
I knew and loved Song Cycle, but I didn’t understand what a big deal it was to approach him to do this. He had the grace to not unburden me of that ignorance. When I met with him, I thought I was hallucinating. I felt like I was in a Lewis Carroll book or something. The business card he gives you is a truly classic piece of Van Dyke methodology. It’s in beautiful Edwardian script and reads something like, “Van Dyke Parks sincerely apologizes for any offense he might have caused on the date of …” I played the five songs that would end up on the record for him and his wife. When I was done, he said, “Okay, that sounds great. I’ll do it.”

Was there champagne?
No, but when we did start working, there were Bloody Marys aplenty. He’s a southern gentleman, so he managed to offer me a Bloody Mary whenever we had a break. It was really a joy. It will be among the things that I will tell my kids about when I have them. I think he’s a national treasure. He represents everything that is rad about being American.

How did the collaboration with him go?
We started out with me giving him a 30-page-long manifesto about what I wanted this record to sound like. My notes were full of adjectives, which revealed themselves over time to be tricky adjectives. There was one passage, I remember, I wanted to sound sinister.

How did he respond to all this? Would he always know what you meant?
There’s so much technical language that he would rely on. For me, it’s a lot of fumbling for the right word and being like, “I like to feel this way.”

Let’s talk about the lyrics. What does the title Ys refer to? It’s pronounced ees, and it’s a reference to an island in Breton mythology. There was a city built on this island, surrounded by a wall, and it flooded and went beneath the ocean.

Why are the songs so long?
They’re an attempt to respond to a year in my life, to organize four events, all of which were pretty massive and after which I was never the same again. There was a death, and it was a very, very huge one for me. I am exploring a whole collection of human tendencies that creep up in reaction to mortality and loss, among which are decadence. There is a lot of use of animals, a specific invocation of animal life relating to agriculture and the production of food, security and fecundity and rot and an excess of water. Water is extremely important on the record. Drowning and flooding are important.

The first song is called “Emily,” about a girl who “taught me the names of the stars overhead.” Is she a real person?
Emily is my little sister. She’s an astrophysicist, and also a traveler. She’ll go to a crazy foreign country with no money and ride around with chickens on her lap and scale down cliffs. She’s different from most astrophysicists. She likes to feel the sunlight on her face.

You have been associated with female singer-songwriters like Tori Amos, Cat Power, and particularly Björk.
It’s a little strange when they say I sound like those people.

So you think you don’t sound like Björk?
I think I do not. But it’s been said enough times that there must be something that I’m not hearing. She’s coming from a really pure place, I imagine. She has an old-fashioned perspective on culture, whereby it’s all one thing: that you become part of the music that people are receiving.

Who is your audience?
The most honest answer to that would be I have no idea. There were times in my life when I would Google myself and stumble across things that would leave me in a complete daze. There was someone who talked about the infantilization of women. My first thought was, If you’d give me an opportunity, I could rip their head off with fury and opinion that is so far removed from what they think I am.

How do you feel about being called a woodland creature by Pitchfork?
I don’t feel great about it. I was really unguarded in the beginning and would be subject to quotes about my ideas that might have been kooky, and I realize now there was a character they wanted me to create. There is a part of that in my personality, but it has become a character quite separate from me.

The Mysterious Diva of Folk Music