A Decade With Joanna

I have loved Joanna Newsom since the very first time I heard her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender in 2005, a year after it came out. I was a college freshman training to become a DJ at the campus radio station. I picked the album out of the stacks because I think the handwritten description on the CD cover said something about how she played the harp and was associated with “freak folk,” a genre I found I liked, even if hearing those two words together made me cringe. Little did I know that when I previewed the CD at our listening station, headphones placed snugly over my ears, I would hear the voice that would move me more than any other before or since. 

I must have listened to “Bridges and Balloons” first. It’s the first song on the album. But I know it wasn’t the song that made me fall in love with Joanna and her voice and, especially, her harp. That was “Peach, Plum, Pear,” which had an urgency and a sense of honesty that I found comforting in the loneliness of my first year away from home. I played it constantly. After a while, my roommate made fun of me for playing it so often, telling me that she thought the song was weird. I remember my stomach burning, feeling angry and exposed for loving this song that someone else could not – even after hearing it many times – understand the way that I did. I felt this way often during high school and college, when friends and family would dismiss music about which I felt passionately. It was hard for me to accept that others could have different taste; I thought, during this time, that they just weren’t trying hard enough to like something that I knew was great.

I kept listening to “Peach, Plum, Pear” anyway. And, as has happened with each Joanna Newsom album that has followed The Milk-Eyed Mender, the album unfolded itself for me. With persistent listening, I would find that suddenly, a song would click. This happened with “Inflammatory Writ,” which at first I thought abrasive and now I love for its exuberant piano and playfully clever lyrics. Other songs I liked straight away and they simply have gathered more meaning – layers of meaning – over time.

I remember listening to “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” in my dorm room as I was getting ready to fly home to New York for the summer. It was early June in Chicago and the heat was unbearable. My curtains were open to let the light in. “There are some mornings where the sky looks like a road,” Joanna sang. The song seemed perfect in that moment. I still think of it before I go on plane journeys of any significance.

Months later, in November 2006, she released her second album, Ys. I didn’t know what to do with it at first. It was so different from The Milk-Eyed Mender. So much more lush and serious and complicated, yet only five songs. (At over 55 minutes, Ys is actually slightly longer.) I got to work on it immediately, by which I mean, I started listening to it during every spare moment I had. “Emily,” the album’s opener, quickly became my favorite. It eased my entry back into Joanna Newsom’s world, which suddenly felt much darker and less playful, though still full of magic and mysticism. The songs of Ys illuminated feelings about exploitation and romantic pain and death with words and music that twisted themselves around my insides.

That year, I fell in love with someone who lived far away. He was not someone I should have had feelings for, yet I found that I did. He was sad and unstable and difficult to communicate with.. There were good parts to our relationship. He was clever and funny and interesting and we were attracted to each other. But the distance and our particular states of being – he would cyclically ignore me and then seek me out, while I constantly needed to be needed – led me to some dark, questioning moments. For years. We continued to come back to one another, with no real promise of commitment, until after I graduated from college.

Also during this time, I was grappling with the deaths of two of my mother’s brothers during the previous three years. Jim, the first, died suddenly at the end of 2003, when I was sixteen. Bobby, the second, died in early 2006 after being sick with esophageal cancer for two years. I was close with both of them. I had, up until about a week before Bobby’s death, held out hope that he would “beat cancer” because of a belief that, even though bad things were bound to happen to me and the people I loved, not too many bad things could happen. There must be some kind of balance, I thought. I was wrong. And two years later, another one of my mom’s brothers, Tony, also succumbed to esophageal cancer after only a year of illness.

For years, listening to Ys became a regular practice when I was overwhelmed by emotion. I projected my personal struggles onto the lyrics. I cried when the string arrangements expressed something that I felt, but couldn’t put into words. Joanna Newsom helped me feel my feelings when I had a hard time doing so without judgment or fear.

I was out of school but had not quite graduated to adulthood when Newsom released Have One On Me in 2010. Though I had a real job in Manhattan, I still lived with my parents in the suburbs of New York, where I slept each night in a twin bed with my stuffed animals. The long-distance, on-again-off-again (but mostly-off) relationship I’d had during college had just switched off for good when he started dating someone else seriously. I was shocked and devastated when I found out, which I don’t think any of our mutual friends understood. He had objectively treated me badly and too many things had gone wrong for anything to ever work out between us. But I think, at the time and certainly in the context of this relationship, I got off on playing the victim and I really needed to turn in one final, fantastically dramatic performance. I didn’t understand why, for someone who had always been good at everything I did, I wasn’t good enough for him. I wallowed for weeks, drinking excessively, acting like a zombie during the day, and spending entire nights writing terrible short stories while listening to Joanna Newsom. Drag City streamed three tracks before the album came out and one of them could not have hit at a better time. “Good Intentions Paving Company” was released the week my breakdown began, in early February. It’s a love song, but it’s also a song about confusion and fighting with oneself and eventual endings. It felt serendipitous.

By the time the album actually came out a few weeks later, my heart and mental state were a bit better, though I still had a hard time getting anyone to understand just how I was feeling. Have One On Me traced a relationship from beginning to end, in eighteen songs and over two hours. I spent months – really, eventually, years – living inside of it, letting it heal me. I saw myself in Newsom’s stories about the thrill of recognizing someone to love, hopefulness for the future, loyalty and friendship, isolationism and disappointment, and acceptance that all things end. On weekend mornings I would get in my car, drive to town to get coffee, and then drive around until I had finished my coffee, listening to “In California” on repeat, feeling my heart swell every time the part that begins, “I don’t belong to anyone, my heart’s as heavy as an oil drum” came up. When I got home, my parents would ask me where I had been. I don’t remember what I told them. I was keeping a lot from them at the time.

Everywhere I went, I preached the gospel of Have One On Me. I remember listening to it during a snowstorm, drunk on red wine in my friend’s basement, explaining how each song made me feel. I remember playing it in the car as I drove my youngest brothers to sports practices, describing how clever certain lyrics were. (The only song that seemed to make an impression on them was “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which they called “the bump-on-a-bump-on-a-log song.” My brother Aidan, who was ten at the time, claimed to like it, though I think maybe he only did so to please me.) I remember discussing it in-depth with a man with whom I had a brief affair and listening to it while we made out in his graduate student apartment in the woods of Princeton, New Jersey. Though it’s painful for me to look back at my experience that winter and spring of 2010, Have One On Me now seems like the single golden thread running through it all.

That summer, I moved into an apartment in Greenwich Village with two roommates. I continued listening to Have One On Me obsessively because, even after spending months with it, I still found that I discovered something new and exciting with each listen. Like her previous albums, I would listen to songs over and over again and like them but then one day, in a single listen, they would suddenly make the most sense in the world and I didn’t know how I could have not seen what they were about until that moment. I remember having this feeling particularly with the songs “Baby Birch,” “Go Long,” and “Kingfisher,” which are all lengthy and difficult and emotionally taxing and ultimately, I thought, worth the effort to understand.

I saw Joanna Newsom perform twice that year. The first time was in March, just after the album had been released. I’d never had the opportunity to see her, so I was beyond excited when I got tickets for one of her concerts at Town Hall. I remember sitting next to my friend Jen, alternately grinning like a dummy and tearing up throughout the show. I next saw her in November, two days before Thanksgiving, at Carnegie Hall. The friend who had been supposed to go with me bailed hours before and I wasn’t able to find anyone to take my second ticket. So, I went by myself. I had never been to any public event alone before and I was a nervous wreck. I drank a gin and tonic in the hall before the concert started, obsessively looking at my phone and feeling conspicuous. I forgot all about being alone soon after I sat in my seat in a first tier box, when Joanna and the other musicians started playing. I was moved more then than I had been at the show I had seen months earlier, likely because I had spent so much more time with her new music. During the ninety minutes of the show, I wept openly without anyone there to comfort me. I felt free.

It’s now been over five years since the release of Have One On Me. I continued to keep the album in heavy rotation until last year, when either I had come to know it so well that I no longer had anything left to discover or I just grew plain tired of it. (This is painful for me to write, since I have often said that I would never grow tired of that album.) I knew that a new Joanna Newsom album would be a long time coming. Perhaps three or four years. After three years had passed, I set up a Google Alert so that I would know immediately if Drag City announced news of her new album plans. I spent all of last year deleting Google Alert emails that had to do with Inherent Vice, the Paul Thomas Anderson film that Joanna narrated and also in which she appeared. And then finally, yesterday morning, I refreshed Twitter and at the top of my feed was a tweet from music site Consequence of Sound, announcing that she had released a video for her new song “Sapokanikan” and a track listing for her album, Divers, which comes out on October 23.

I watched the video, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which has Joanna walking around New York City. After some searching, I found that the song’s title is the original Lenape name for Greenwich Village, the first neighborhood where I lived as an adult. It apparently means “tobacco field.” I watched the video again and again, paying closer attention to where she was walking and what she was singing. My favorite part is when she swings through the Papaya Dog on West 4th Street, an establishment that is very dear to my heart. I still don’t have a favorite lyric but as a native New Yorker and a history nerd, I appreciate her references to the potter’s field that became Washington Square Park and Tammany Hall and mayor John Purroy Mitchel.

Joanna has burst back on the scene at just the right time for me. I’m currently facing the biggest crisis of uncertainty I’ve experienced in years. I know that neither she nor Divers will save my life, per se, but I do hope that I find in this album the catharsis and comfort that I have found in her previous. October 23 can’t get here soon enough.

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To Not Have a Job

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the week that I’ve been unemployed, it’s that no one wants to talk about unemployment. This isn’t to say that anyone has been outright dismissive of me when I have mentioned that I no longer have a job. Everyone is very sorry. They know how much it sucks or, if they’ve never lost a job, how much it must suck. I appreciate that people say things like this. It’s better than nothing at all. But what I really want to talk about is how shitty I feel, how expendable, how utterly shocked at how much I had come to identify with my job and my employedness. But who wants to have a conversation about these things unless they’re feeling them as well? I know that I wouldn’t if I had a job right now. When something bad happens to someone else, I think we tend to “be positive.” We tell them everything will be all right, we believe in them, we know that they of all people will come out on top. Because, I think, we are scared of our own futures. We want everything to be all right for us. We want to know that of all of the people out there, we will be the ones for whom everything works out.

I had been employed since I graduated from college in 2009. Wait, that’s sort of a lie. I interned for free for two months the summer after I graduated, and when I found out that I didn’t get the job that this company had practically promised me, I found myself unemployed. For three weeks. I got the first job I interviewed for and became, for a little over a year, an executive assistant at People Magazine. From there, I worked in a variety of roles on the advertising sales side of digital media, until last week, when my position as a Senior Marketing Manager was eliminated, along with those of many of my co-workers.

I can’t say I was surprised when this happened. The writing had been on the wall for some time, though I was doing my best to ignore it in order to have “a chill summer.” By this I meant that I didn’t want to look for jobs until the weather got a little colder. I also wanted to put off thinking about what I wanted to do next.

The only job I’ve ever loved was the first one I had. As an executive assistant, I scheduled meetings and booked travel and answered the phone for my bosses. But I also met a lot of interesting people and learned more in that year about life than I did during my four years at a prestigious and very expensive university. And, as the gatekeeper for a busy and much sought-after executive, I felt rather important almost all of the time. However, I grew bored after a year and knew that I needed to get on with my career, even if I didn’t know what I wanted my career to be. So, I interviewed for the first opening that came up at People, and got a job as a sales planner for People.com.

Now, you probably don’t know what a “sales planner” does and I’m not really going to bother to explain it in-depth because it’s super boring. The role is basically performing a lot of nitty-gritty numbers work to sell and then manage digital advertising campaigns. (I’m talking banner ads, here. The ones you never pay attention to.) I loved the job at first because I was learning. And then three months in, I ran headfirst into a wall of anxiety and depression. I was making a decent salary according to everyone I worked with and was told that a lot of people would have killed to have my job at age 23. (I know “killed” is a strong word, but you get what I’m saying.) However, I found that I could barely pay my rent and my student loans and have enough money leftover each month to do the things that I needed to do to actually, like, enjoy life. I also found that again, I was really bored. And really frustrated being at the bottom of the totem pole, where I could easily be blamed for mistakes or complications that resulted in lost revenue for the company. I started feeling a constant, unbearable physical pressure in the space between my eyebrows, just above my nose. Most days, sitting in my cubicle, I would burst into tears thinking about how long I could continue along this path, making this little money and being this miserable. Eventually, my anxiety resulted in so much physical pain and paranoia that I went to see my doctor for a checkup. She recommended talk therapy and I have been seeing the same therapist that she sent me to for the last four years.

Because of therapy, I gained the strength to find a new job by mid-2012 and negotiated for a higher salary. I moved out of my expensive apartment in Manhattan and into a cheaper, nicer place in a neighborhood that I love in Brooklyn. My new job, though at a different kind of place that I thought would suit me more, drove me just as crazy as my old one. I no longer felt paralyzed by anxiety or worried that I would end up homeless, but I did get sucked into a work environment where psychological warfare and disrespect were all too common. One of my co-workers once accused me of being a “mole” who delivered negative information about others to my boss in order to get ahead in my own career. Another tried to get me fired after, in a moment of frustration, I raised my voice at someone else. We never saw eye-to-eye and had been frustrated with each other for months. When asked why I should be punished or whatever she wanted to happen to me, she cited the fact that, even though the work I produced for her was great, I often made her “feel stupid” with my direct manner of speaking. (A manner of speaking that I probably developed because I was so tense that I was barely keeping it together, frustrated that I was still performing sales planning duties and feeling that the wide variety of personality disorders raging among my coworkers was driving me insane.) I did not get fired and, in fact, was promoted that day. I laugh about these incidents now with friends and former colleagues but…I’m also upset about how much shit I took because I was too scared of getting in trouble or losing my job or whatever I thought was the worst case scenario.

My promotion from sales planning into a dedicated marketing role was extremely freeing. It meant that I got to spend most of my time writing, which, even though it was sales-oriented corporate jargon-y stuff, made me a lot happier than when I was working in Excel all day. However, my work environment continued to be negative. Everyone was unhappy and no one felt secure in their jobs. After two of my bosses were fired within a few months of each other, I started maniacally searching for new opportunities. In the space of two weeks I think I applied to twenty jobs. Within a month, I was hired as a Sales Marketing Manager at my last company. They offered me a lower salary, but “matched” my old salary with a signing bonus. I was essentially getting less money since the signing bonus was taxed to shit, but I didn’t care. I needed something new.

I want to tell you that I loved this job. But I can’t do that. I was still stuck in ad sales, which I realized at this point truly didn’t do it for me. I was coming up with ideas for custom digital advertising programs, writing about them as creatively as I possibly could, ensuring that the sales people understood them so that they could sell them, and then. That was it. I didn’t make commission if they were sold. I felt like my intelligence and creativity were being mined for the monetary benefit of others. What, I thought, is the incentive for me to perform here? The only reason I continued to try, to do the really excellent job that I was used to doing, was that I needed to keep up my self-esteem somehow. And that made me feel sad all over again. I had never before realized that I had so entirely based my self-worth on this cycle of “doing well”, pleasing others, and receiving praise. Of course, I can look back at my life, at my family dynamics and the circumstances of my childhood, and see exactly why I am the way I am. But repairing something like this takes a long time, so I decided that I needed to start taking baby steps to get to a profession or career that would make me happier, where I didn’t have to rely merely on doing good work and getting praise to feel good about myself.

I started thinking about what I might want to do. Even though I still believe I would be happiest being an academic full-time, I ruled out PhD programs after a while when I considered the financial burden and the academic job market I would eventually face. I also temporarily ruled out Masters programs because I couldn’t decide which, if any, would be worth the risk of leaving the workforce for a year or two. That left me thinking about other career paths and, frankly, there was nothing I found very compelling. I decided to continue in my job, get a promotion, and hopefully be able to make some kind of sideways move into another industry in which I might be happier. In retrospect, I think I was – and still am – afraid. What happens if I decide to do something else with the aim of making myself happier and it makes me just as dissatisfied, or worse, more miserable? What if I never make enough money to feel secure? What if I never figure out what it is that I really want to do? What if I never do anything that matters?

Amid these swirling questions, I found myself being given more responsibility and more interesting projects at work. I knew that I wanted out eventually, but this was enough to keep me going. When I got promoted, I felt that my elevated position would buy me a little more time to figure things out and would perhaps give me a bit of leverage to get a different and better job.

And then, this winter, a larger European media company acquired our company. Eventually, it became clear that the side of the business on which I worked was not meeting the standards they had set. And I started to think that maybe my job was not safe. Though I looked for other jobs and went on interviews, nothing seemed to work out. I couldn’t – or wouldn’t – make the time to aggressively search for jobs or to sit down and think about realistically what I was willing to sacrifice in order to make a bigger change. I kept telling myself that next week, I would get more serious about it. And then, before I knew it, it was the last week of July and I was being told that the sales and marketing departments were eliminated. That, for the first time in my life, I was truly unemployed.

The first thing I felt when I lost my job was relief. I thought about how I wouldn’t have to go back to our office that I hated so much and how I wouldn’t have to do all of the mindless tasks that sucked out my energy and how maybe now I would have the opportunity to do all of the things I say I never have time to do. I was actually a bit excited. But it wasn’t long before anxiety took hold. I barely slept for the first few nights after I heard the news. My mind raced, thinking about how it wouldn’t be long before I was out of money and I would have to sublet my room and my parents would make me move back into their house and shame me for not saving enough or not getting a job fast enough. I didn’t have an appetite, but I made myself eat at mealtimes, which often resulted in stomach-aches.

Meanwhile, everyone was telling me that I would be fine. I would find a new job soon. Getting laid off, they said, was a blessing in disguise. I should enjoy the time off while I have it.

And all I wanted to do was verbalize how I was feeling inside, which was basically like the floor had disappeared from beneath my feet and that I was falling and falling into a black pit with no promise of a safety net to catch me. But it was hard to say this to anyone. It’s a lot easier to say, “I know that everything will be fine. I’m looking forward to finding something new. I’m not worried.” And, for me, those statements aren’t lies. There are times, especially when someone is feeding me positivity, when I do feel like everything is going to work out quickly and easily. But I’m afraid that when it does “work out” that it will not work out in a way that affects me in a positive manner other than financially.

I think that what I’ve been trying to get at here is that I wish it were easier to talk out loud about things like fear of the unknown or the dissonance between our desire for happiness and the reality of struggling to live as happily as we can. I know that I, like a lot of other people, fear fear. It is easier not to acknowledge what we are afraid of or even the fact that we are afraid, because then maybe we can trick ourselves into thinking that we’re not really afraid, that we’re doing just fine, that everything is going to work itself out because everything happens for a reason.

I do not think everything happens for a reason. I think most of what happens to us is beyond our control. I lost my job because someone else decided that they didn’t need me – or anyone else – to do a particular set of functions any longer in order to run their business. I had no control over that. To be fair, I could give myself some agency in this situation. I could say that I lost my job because I, over the course of my life, have made a bunch of choices that led me to be in that particular job at the moment that it was decided that it was no longer needed. Now, I will make another series of choices that will, I hope, lead me to another job and a completely different set of possibilities. I don’t know where I’m going or what’s at the end of the path or even if there is an end to the path. Or a path at all. For all I know, life might be more like a hamster wheel than the journey that we all seem to think it is.

To conclude, because I feel like this might be a good time for me to stop writing even if this is not the most logical place or way to end things, I’m going to tell you some of the ways that I’m feeling right now. Then maybe we can talk about it, if that’s something that you want to do. It’s something that I want to do.

Okay. Here we go.

I’m frustrated that I’m overwhelmed by so many feelings at once. I’m really sad that I lost my routine and the thing that I “do” for the majority of the week. I hate that I don’t walk to the Bedford Avenue L in the mornings with my iced coffee and get off at Union Square and walk down University Place to my office. I miss taking lunchtime walks in the East Village. I’m psyched that I don’t have to sit hunched over my laptop for most of the day in a freezing room where I had no privacy. I’m really happy that I have new opportunities on the horizon and the chance to do something different, to meet new people, and to have other interesting experiences. I’m worried about money. Like, really worried. I’m thrilled that I have the time to practice French, go on long walks, work on my novel, write blog posts, see what goes on around my neighborhood during the day, read books, and hang out in my apartment alone. I also feel lonely. I want all of my friends and my family to call me every day and just say, “How are you feeling?” But I also kind of want everyone to leave me alone sometimes. I’m scared that I’m just going to sit around and do nothing when I have so much time to do all of the things I named before. I’m relieved that I can go on interviews and take phone calls whenever, because I don’t have to sneak away from the office. I love that I don’t have to brush my hair and that I can walk around in gym shorts and sneakers all day. I’m afraid that the future will bring too much change. I’m afraid that the future won’t bring enough change. I feel lost.