Poetic justice

By JAMES PARKER  |  November 9, 2006

“Writing music has always been such a huge part of my life that I have a hard time being conscious of my own process. I forget to pay attention to what I feel like when I’m doing it. Writing words is more of that experience of just waiting for something to work.”

I suggest that writers often envy musicians the more generous creative economy in which they operate, their ability to splash through shapes and noises until something good pops out. “It’s so funny how the physicality of improvising produces these musical forms that can be useful. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a process that could be equivalent in writing words, but nothing has ever worked for me. I mean, what are you supposed to do, just shout out random words as fast as you can until you come up with the word that you want?”

There are complex, suggestive orchestral accompaniments on Ys — filigrees of strings and what not — that are scored and conducted by Van Dyke Parks, but to be honest I can do without them. For me it’s all about Joanna, steering the barge of her harp through these snickering side currents. How does she keep it all together, words and music, when performing live (which she’ll do this Tuesday, November 14, at the Somerville Theatre)?

“Well, I play best from a technical standpoint when I’m most — for lack of a less cheesy way to say it — emotionally present. With my hands and the harp and everything — it’s all a unified state of focus. Which means that I have good nights and bad nights. If I see a little red light dancing in the darkness and I know that somebody’s videotaping me, I’ll get distracted, and I might forget the words. Or people will hold up their cell phones, that’s funny too — you can see the glowing face of the cell phone. That totally trips me out. Knowing that people are videotaping me is the worst — it’s being taped and they’re gonna put it on the Internet, and I hate that.”

Ah yes, the dogs of fame. An oppressive hum of attention surrounds the release of Ys, as last-minute preparations are made for the media coronation of a neo-folk fairy queen, guardian of the feminine principle in pop culture, heiress to the throne of Björk and Kate Bush. Newsom is a most gracious and unaffected interviewee, going for honesty with every answer, and that’ll wear you out quick. “I think I really upset a woman who interviewed me yesterday. I just said, you know, could we maybe talk about something else? Because I’ve been asked that question many times in the last few months. I’ve started to feel like I need to be responsible for the comments that go out into the universe, and if people ask me over and over again about the same things, it produces these volumes of quotes, which in turn get read by the next interviewer who thinks, ‘Hmmm, I should ask about that, that seems like it’s something that’s interesting to her.’ When often it’s really not — it’s just me attempting to be a good sport. And for some reason I wasn’t feeling as . . . sportive yesterday, and this poor lady was really upset with me.”

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