YouTube Live: The Evolution of Joanna Newsom

There’s no in-between with Joanna Newsom, the harp-playing freak folk artist from Nevada City, California. With a divisive warbling voice that channels Kate Bush and the stigma of playing an unusual instrument, you either love her or you hate her. With two full-lengths under her belt, her progression as an artist is undeniable. Stripped down harp-heavy songs from 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender, where Newsom re-recorded songs from self-released singles and EP’s, vary differently from the intricate orchestral arrangements (courtesy of the legendary American composer Van Dyke Parks) on the songs from 2006’s critically-lauded Ys.

But her albums aren’t alone in this growth. Her live show has become more and more complex, chronicling the journey of an unknown, coffee-house performer to the highlighted attraction of a fully symphonic show. Playing solo early in her career, Newsom’s voice was uncontrolled and childlike. The live show was very intimate as she traveled to small venues with just her harp.

On wanting to play with a full band, Newsom states (in January of 2005): “Not right now. I’ll have to see how things go. I’m pretty interested in music that’s self contained, where I can just travel around with my harp. If I wrote a record with other instruments involved, it would change my writing style.” — The Wire 251

But all of that changed as she took on the challenge in 2006. Her voice became more restrained and mature, and the music took on a brand new life. No longer were there innocent, straight-forward songs of childhood pets like “Sadie”. Instead, there were fully encompassing orchestral pieces like the 12-minute fantastical yet autobiographical “Emily”, where she recollects times of skipping stones with her sister underneath a flying meteorite. Her lyrics are clever and imaginative, and the imagery is unexplainable as she draws influences from her favorite literary greats Vladimir Nabokov and William Faulkner.

Following the release of Ys, Newsom hit the road with a four-person band in November 2006. Long-gone were the days of performing solo, as Dan Cantrell performed most of the orchestral arrangements from the album with an accordion and a saw. I had the pleasure of seeing this front row in a small, 300 person club, and the performance left me completely awestruck.

But in 2007, and after Ys was showing up on every best-of-2006 records list, Newsom got even more ambitious. She announced the Ys Street Band, which included drummer Neal Morgan and banjoist/guitarist Kevin Barker, and released an EP with a stellar new track and a remake of the simplistic favorite “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” from the first album with new arrangements. They then embarked on a select-date tour with accompaniment from different cities’ symphony orchestras (Sydney, London, Milwaukee, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and more) in an effort to recreate the orchestral sound from the album. The end result was fascinating and beautiful, as I was engaged from start to finish on the October 27th, 2007 Austin date.

The following videos chronicle the journey Joanna Newsom has taken throughout her career. Initially, she was performing for small crowds in what looks like an intimately seated room as you’ll see in the first video, “En Gallop” from the first album. In the second video, she’s performing “Cosmia” on the grandiose stage of a Pennsylvania church, accompanied by her initial band. And finally, she thrills the crowd following a recent show with an emotional rendition of the old fan favorite “Sadie”, where the maturation and restraint of her voice is striking if your familiar with the original.

“Sadie” (12/19/06)


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