The enigmatic genius of Joanna Newsom

To call her quirky and eclectic would be an understatement. And yet her live show proves her long-lasting appeal

By Kenneth Womack

Contributing Writer

Published September 13, 2019 6:59PM (EDT)

Joanna Newsom (Annabel Mehran)
Joanna Newsom (Annabel Mehran)

It’s difficult to imagine a successful career trajectory for Joanna Newsom in the pre-internet world. To describe her work as quirky and enigmatic would be an understatement. With her childlike soprano voice, Newsom zealously works her harp, trafficking in a strange admixture of Baroque Appalachia—yup, you read that last bit right. So she’s a niche artist if ever there were one.

But thanks to the internet, Newsom has been able to develop and sustain an audience fueled by a spate of adoring indie review websites. Take her 2005 debut album "The Milk-Eyed Mender," which racked up sales of more than 200,000 copies despite failing to crack Billboard’s Top 200 LP charts. Yet the blogosphere didn’t care, lavishing praise and high marks for Newsom on dozens of year-end lists across the web.

Newsom is currently ensconced in the midst of a seven-date residency at New York City’s El Museo del Barrio theater, with similar extended jaunts in the offing in Chicago and LA. With its theater’s fairytale paintings and ornate, castle-themed chandeliers, El Museo del Barrio serves as the perfect venue for Newsom’s peculiar artistry.

And the singer-songwriter’s fans were out this week en masse, cheering Newsom on as she shifted from one well-crafted poetic gem to the next. At one point, she paused to tune her harp. Taking advantage of the moment, her fans began to pepper her with questions. In one memorable instance, a woman asked if Newsom would read her thesis, adding that Newsom’s music was the subject of her graduate work. “Tell me more,” Newsom slyly replied.

But it was Newsom’s music that left her fans enthralled. In the crowd favorite “Peach, Plum, and Pear,” her unique brand of poetry is on full display, by turns working in the vein of Lewis Carroll and e.e. cummings: “And I have read the right book / To interpret your look /You were knocking me down / With the palm of your eye.”

Shifting easily between her harp and a baby grand piano, Newsom revealed her skillful mergence of her unique brand of poetry with a master craftswoman’s gift for melody. While Newsom’s more knowledgeable fans revealed gasps of delight as “Time, as a Symptom” morphed into “Anecdotes,” the lead track from her most recent album Divers (2015), there was still plenty to enjoy for the novice concertgoer as much as the die-hard Newsom aficionado.

Enter “Good Intentions Paving Co.,” a regular staple among Newsom’s setlists. Plying the baby grand, she dispensed with the elliptical imagery of her poetry, if only for a moment, to cut to the chase about life, the universe, and everything. Wrestling with the enduring matter of our mortality in the face of enduring love, she sings, “For the time being, all is well, / Won't you love me a spell?” Recognizing that the concept of romance “is blindness beyond all conceiving,” she settles on the specter of death, whose “road” is always “leaving and falling back / like a rope gone slack.”

As with the likes of Carroll and cummings, Newsom’s playful wordplay is imbued with the wisdom and a rage for transcendence. And as long as she determinedly works her harp, we might just stand a chance of beating back death’s road, or at least delaying it a little.

By Kenneth Womack

Kenneth Womack is the author of a two-volume biography of the life and work of Beatles producer George Martin and the host of "Everything Fab Four," a podcast about the Beatles distributed by Salon. He is also the author of "Solid State: The Story of Abbey Road and the End of the Beatles," published in 2019 in celebration of the album’s 50th anniversary, "John Lennon, 1980: The Last Days in the Life" and the authorized biography "Living the Beatles Legend: The Untold Story of Mal Evans" (November 2023).  Womack is Professor of English and Popular Music at Monmouth University.

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