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.

Carnegie Hall

Last night, I went to see John Mulaney perform stand-up at Carnegie Hall with three of my friends. Our seats were in a box in the first tier. I have a sort of fondness for those little boxes. I think this is because they’re small, but not really cramped, and each one has a tiny entryway with coat hooks and a mirror, and when I sit down and look out at the rest of Carnegie Hall I feel cozy and grand at the same time, which are two of the best feelings.

The coziness of the boxes means you must sit close to other people. There are eight seats to every box. So, in addition to my three friends, we sat with four strangers, who were the best kind of strangers in that they were very friendly for about thirty seconds and then happily went back to their own conversations. I was seated on the left side of the box, next to the low barrier that separated us from the next box, which meant that I was also very close to the people on the other side of that barrier.

Ten minutes before the show started, a couple walked into the next box and sat in two empty seats next to the barrier. Both were blonde and, I thought, effortfully dressed up. He was wearing a jacket and tie, she a dress and necklace that didn’t quite go. Her hair was braided into a crown around her head. (Incidentally, this is a style I’ve long wished I could master.) She sat in the seat in front of him and they chatted excitedly, seeming in awe of Carnegie Hall.

When they arranged themselves into a selfie-taking position, their backs facing out so that you could see the rest of Carnegie Hall behind them, the guy apologized to us for reaching his arm into our box in order to take the picture. My friend Lee offered to take their picture instead and did just that. We went back to our conversation, they went back to theirs. But then I tuned back into their conversation. Because it was very loud. Loud and actually just the guy speculating about whether Nick Kroll would open and doing his own impressions of characters from Kroll Show, like Fabrice Fabrice.

I find that my patience for others wears thinner by the day. Strangers especially. But I still love observing them, passing judgment from the safety of my own thoughts. I was embarrassed for this guy, with his loud voice and his not-very-good impressions. I wanted to turn to my left, grab him by the shoulders and say, “Stop talking. Or at least control your volume. You sound nothing like Fabrice Fabrice and your girlfriend isn’t even laughing at you.” He deserved to know, I thought. But then, he serves me better as a character if he doesn’t.

The lights eventually went down, everyone settled into their seats, and Fred Armisen walked onto the stage. “Oh my God,” the guy started saying to himself, over and over again.

He grabbed his girlfriend’s shoulders from behind. “That’s Fred Armisen,” he practically screamed into her ear. “That’s. Fred. Armisen. From PORTLANDIA. He does Portlandia!”

“I know who Fred Armisen is,” she said, giggling a little, and squirming around in her chair to get free from his grip.

Ha! I thought. So she knows he’s annoying.

Armisen performed and then Mulaney went on and we all laughed and laughed, as people tend to do at comedy shows. The girl with the crown braid laughed hard at a joke about elementary school grading. Her laugh reminded me of the sounds I make when I’ve just cried for a long time and am not ready to stop, but can’t really cry anymore. When Mulaney did a bit about the changes to the Catholic mass, I laughed a little too hard, clapped my hands a little too loud, and wondered if anyone around me was as annoyed with me as I was for the performance of “getting the joke” that I was giving.

Toward the end of the show, the couple held hands on top of the barrier that separated us. She reached her hand back and he reached his forward and they proceeded to perform that kind of playful handholding that happens when you’re simply happy to be in someone’s company. Their hands moved up and down the barrier, closer to me than I would have liked. I watched them out of the corner of my eye. I suppose there’s someone for everyone, I thought, even though I’m not sure I actually believe it.