All the Things Joanna Newsom Revealed to Dave Eggers Last Night

Joanna melting all the hearts, alongside Dave Eggers. Photo: JP Barbagelata

There are certain things I think I know everything about: Gilmore Girls, Winona Ryder, Abe Lincoln, the Spice Girls, and Joanna Newsom. Last night, at a City Arts and Lectures event hosted by Dave Eggers, I found out that I had more to learn about the latter. Here are all the new things I discovered about Joanna Newsom and her music:

  • Her most interesting fan interaction: A woman approached Joanna, presented her tween daughter and said she gave birth to her while listening to Joanna's music.
  • The event took place on Hayes Street at the Nourse Theater, which reminded Joanna of her time working in retail on that very street years ago. She said she was awful at it. When women would try garments on and fish for permission to buy something expensive by saying things like "It's so beautiful, but I should probably pay rent," Joanna would say "That sounds important! You should pay rent!" instead of the shop girl refrain, "Oh, forget that! You deserve it!"
  • Joanna said she was a flaky kid, but that music was "the thing I never flaked on." She learned how to play the piano at the age of four and went on to learn how to play the harp at the age of eight. A childhood teacher recently sent Joanna sheet music of her first ever composition. It was about a camel.
  • Her very first song was titled "Flying a Kite."
  • When Joanna was at Mills College, she started out as a composition major, but soon switched over to a self study in West African music and then later to creative writing. She claims her poems were terrible, until she realized that they were actually songs.
  • Joanna is a huge Nabokov fan. She went as far as writing a paper in college on the color mauve's role in Lolita, one of her all-time favorite pieces of literature.
  • Joanna says she's "kind of a jock about songwriting." When she gets it right, she bro-yells "YEAH!" and goes around kicking things.
  • She sang all the harmonies on her last album Divers to keep up the theme of time folding onto itself. She wanted the layered vocals to symbolize different versions of herself traveling from parallel universes to sing in harmony with each other.
  • When asked to explain the concept behind Divers, Joanna shared that she wanted it to evoke the questions: "What's the point? Why are we all doing [this] if it all gets extinguished in the end?" She also intended for the album to represent someone who has just realized that we all die and the journey it takes to process that information.
  • On the last record, Joanna had a rule that no collaborator would be in the room for more than one purpose to ensure clarity of purpose.
  • Before recording Have One on Me, Joanna tried to sing one day and heard a pop and a hiss emanate from her throat, like opening a soda can. Turns out she had developed nodes on her vocal chords from extensive touring without proper vocal training. Surgery was encouraged, but because of horror stories Joanna had heard about how some who undergo the process lose their ability to sing, she decided to go on a two-month vocal rest instead.
  • She would walk around with a button that explained that she wasn't speaking and a dry-erase board to communicate. Because her hometown of Nevada City is also home to a lot of performance artists and buskers, many thought it was an art project. So she changed the language, only to then have people assume she had a "horrible disease" or that she was dying. She eventually figured out the right message to get the point across.
  • After her vocal rest, she gained 5 notes at the top of her register and 6 notes at the bottom. She now practices "the same hygiene" on her voice as she does with her harp, by doing vocal exercises for 30 minutes before every sound check, rehearsal and performance.
  • The way she found out Paul Thomas Anderson wanted her to be in the film adaptation of Inherent Vice: Warner Bros. called out of the blue asking for measurements.
  • Like the rest of us, Joanna also procrastinates. Her poison: shopping for antiques online.
  • Joanna loves Kate Bush, but did not fall in love with her until after she had debuted on the musical scene, despite many critics claiming Bush must have been a strong influence early on.
  • Her favorite methods of self-care and healing: going on walks and cooking for others. "I love the slowness of it."
  • When she's making music, Joanna 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.

Want to keep your Joanna Newsom education going, check out all these big words from Divers:

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