Hi Newsom fans,
A week or so ago, byaspringforaspell posted awesome audio of Joanna Newsom playing “The Sprout and the Bean” on piano. This audio reminded me of other songs which she first debuted on piano and then later recorded on the harp for Have One on Me (see this video of “Ribbon Bows” and this video of “Baby Birch”). I am wondering if there are any sources in which Newsom details her creative processes. Does she often compose her songs first on the piano? Is this because it was the first instrument she knew? What motivates her to change the main instrument of the song? What other songs did she first compose/perform on the piano that I am missing? And in addition to that, does she compose lyrics first? Harp and/or piano melodies first? How much does she use from improvisation?
This is a personal interest of mine as I struggle to write music, but is also deeply related to my wider political interest in women and music. I want there to be more chronicles of the creative and artistic processes of women because too often people ignore and denigrate those processes.
Thanks in advance for any help!
UPDATE: An early piano version of “Only Skin.” Thanks odetodeb for reminding me! But she mentions at the end of the video that she needs to play much of her set on piano because of blisters. Hmmm. Makes me wonder if she practices all her songs on both harp and piano.
Natalie Reed, in conversation with me on twitter, on the sexist, infantilizing, and reductive media narratives about Joanna Newsom. She brilliantly synthesizes what we have been saying at Blessing All the Birds since the beginning.
I also think the “fey” words are code for “we do not want to actually engage with this music because doing so would actually mean acknowledging a woman’s words are powerful and intellectual and thus, threatening to patriarchy in music (and the world).” Those words, most importantly, bespeak of the fear of Newsom’s intense and subversive femininity.
Rachel is leaving Blessing All the Birds, the blog she started with this fabulous post—a post which opened my eyes to the possibility of seriously writing about Joanna’s music and her media image and which allowed me to form wonderful friendships and correspondences with so many on tumblr. Rachel, in particular, has become an amazing friend and I am constantly in awe of her intellect, her heart, and her passion. She was gracious enough to invite me to the blog over two years now and I cannot thank her enough for the opportunity and for her continued support.
I, Melissa (the one who usually gets this blog into trouble), am not leaving, even though I will always feel a pang of regret and disappointment that things have turned out like this. To to be frank and open concerning my feelings about all this, the person I am is that I have always been a polarizing figure, so continuing to write on this blog to a vocally and united hostile audience is really nothing new to me (although people hating my blog so viscerally does, of course, affect me deeply). There are people who love what we write on Blessing All the Birds and yet, I admit it’s becoming harder to be uplifted by them. I do not understand how this became so personal and I do not understand how people expect me to sever feminism from its political and philosophical context. A rampant and inveterate criticism of the blog has actually always been that we are feminist and that “it’s just about the songs, stop boring us with your wider analysis and your politics.” And that, honestly, is pure, unadulterated malarky. Everything we do, every move our body makes is politicized. Literature has to be liberated from the ivory tower and exposed as political. When Joanna literarily sings of abortion, that is inherently politicized and that’s important.
There are absolutely things I have said on here that I regret and am mortified by (for example, I used to sincerely think only women had uteruses, which is not at all the case), but what was said the other day does not embarrass me in the least. I firmly believe that no one is free from kyriarchy (an intersecting system of oppressions like racism, cissexism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc) and that it deeply and complexly affects all our interpretations of everything and that it creates abortion stigma, which is something we every day have to strive to unlearn. I just wanted to call attention to that system and show how although we are autonomous and free to interpret a song however we want, we are constrained and that that constraint sucks and that that constraint is what I fight against every day as I think and practice feminism. The post was an attack on the system which frames all of us, including Joanna’s corpus. It is a philosophical and political question and concern that was not a personal attack in any way. But, of course, how can people not take politics personally? For me now, I am taking criticism of us to heart because what is said about our words is often in no way political. And that hurts very personally. No one is under any obligation to respond to us politically, but it would make me feel less sad.
More generally, the problem with the Internet is that online debate has a problematic and dangerous anonymity and no matter how much Rachel and I have tried to personalize ourselves, it has done little to help. When I “debate” with somebody on here, I do not know anything about their beliefs, their ethics, their values, their age, their geography. That is a depersonalization I have always been uncomfortable with about this blog, but I always have opted to just say what I wanted to say because otherwise nothing will have been said. I do not know most of you and you do not know me. It’s imperative to remember that you do not know me.
On a more positive note, I cannot wait for Joanna to release new material. Hopefully when new songs are released, there will be more submissions to the blog and shared discourse. I love this blog and I am proud of how it has helped me even more deeply appreciate Joanna’s music and I cannot wait to experience new Joanna and new feminist analyses with all of you. To the future!
Hey other people in the Joanna fanworld,
Rachel here. I just read over some of the stuff that’s gone in the past few days after Melissa’s most recent post. Here’s what I want to say and I hope you will read it.
I started this blog a long while ago because I wanted to talk about Joanna Newsom’s music with other fans and I wanted to talk about it seriously. I wanted to talk about the way her music makes me feel personally and I wanted to talk about the way she approaches topics that really interest me, like femininity and women’s sexuality and love and death and the pain of existing within the limits of the human body. I started it because I wanted there to be a place to organize those types of song interpretations and maybe encourage some discussion (this was before I knew that such a place already existed- the milkymoon forums).
I’m sad because it didn’t really become that. Instead, it’s become a wedge between fans of Joanna’s music and it’s become personal. People think that the things we post are directed at them specifically.
I don’t want people I don’t know to harbour anger or hate towards me or something I’m involved in. I’m just not interested in arguing or defending. It’s just not who I am and it’s not how I want to be known in this fan community or in any community I am involved in.
There are some posts I am incredibly proud of on this blog and I’m thankful that it has allowed me the opportunity to hear from other fans who think about Joanna’s music the way that I do.
With that, I am letting Blessing All the Birds go.
Thanks for reading and commenting and contributing and encouraging.
[Question in reference to this post about “Baby Birch” and abortion.]
The point of the post on abortion stigma was to display how problematic interpretation, taste, attraction, and thought is in kyriarchy. We are taught and socialized from birth by the media, by literature, by education, by government, by the justice system, etc. to only value white, cisgender, straight, thin, able-bodied, Christian, rich men. Everything we do and say and think is a part of that system and even acknowledging that we are so limited and framed by a system of many oppressions is radical. But, of course, that does not mean we do not make choices and that we are not autonomous. For example, I know I do not want to engage in capitalism at all, but the only way to not engage in capitalism at all would be to live in the woods, off the grid and how in the world has capitalist education prepared me for that? Is there a course I missed at public school about hunting and tracking animals and deserting your entire life? So, I make choices about how to engage with capitalism and at the same time, it must be said that I have many more choices than most people. Some people do not have the privilege to decide to say “hey, I’m not going to shop at Walmart” because that is the only store in their damn town as a result of years and years of unchecked capitalist hegemony. Hence, the limited choices issue I was talking about.
More importantly, acknowledging that those who are not white, cisgender, straight, thin, able-bodied, Christian, rich men matter and have value is even more radical. Every day for me is a process of unlearning all I have been taught by kyriarchy and and every day is a process of learning about how it operates and to liberate myself and others from it. Yes, people can interpret things (especially Joanna Newsom songs) any way they want (as mentioned in my initial post), but I was just drawing attention to the fact that we are socialized and conditioned by many forces. To name a sort of trivial example in my life, I am super critical of heteronormative narratives about romance, but yet, I eat that stuff up (Downton Abbey, anyone?). I am queer and yet queer romances do not excite me in the same way heterosexual ones does. And do you know why that is? It is because I have been conditioned since the time I was born to think like that. I have been conditioned to see my worth only in relation to heterosexual relationships. I cannot help that I feel like this, but I hate it and recognizing this was such a huge, AUTONOMOUS step for me. Liberation from kyriarchy means that people will have full autonomy over themselves and we are absolutely not there yet.
[CONTENT WARNING: ABUSE, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, RAPE, SUICIDE]
I have been having thoughts about the refrain of “sooner or later, you’ll bare your teeth” in “Monkey & Bear” for quite some time now. I wrote an early draft of this mini-essay on my iPhone while on a disastrously long subway ride to Queens a month ago and it’s taken me this long to actually set it down officially.
As mentioned previously on this blog, “Monkey & Bear” is probably my least favorite from Ys musically and aesthetically, but its lyrics have always been a treasure trove for feminist analysis. Some of what I will talk about below responds in part to Rachel’s most wonderful essay on Bear, clothing, and performative femininity.
At a literal level, the refrain refers to Bear and her (in)ability to eat because of Monkey’s abuse. Monkey is controlling her food consumption as a way to fetter her and exploit her. He explicitly begins their “liberation” from the farm with fear-mongering about eating (But, Ursala, we’ve got to eat something/ And earn our keep, while still within/ The borders of the land that man has girded).
But the refrain also bespeaks of Monkey’s fear of Bear and the revenge she may take against him.
Hi Newsom Fans,
Recently I can’t stop thinking about the role that Joanna’s music has played in my life not only as a source of inspiration and comfort, but as a catalyst to personal reflection and growth.
I was wondering if any fans would be interested in joining me in writing personal essays on how Joanna’s music has impacted them. Are there any particular songs or lyrics that have helped you, resonated with an experience you went through personally, or somehow helped shape you? Any aspects of Joanna’s work that you find particularly empowering?
I’d love to hear your stories.
(…) and did things that only men were allowed to do, and therefore disturbed people that lost their power over them. Witches, in reality, were nothing but forceful women who weren’t understood, and generated fear due to their intense pasion and love and freedom that were so restricted for the twisted society of that era. And in a way, Joanna, Kate and Björk are like that, and to look at them as witches is not that offensive. Maybe being a witch doesn’t always got a negative connotation.
Hi, thanks for the great question! I agree about the innate power of witches and I realized a little while ago how much empowerment I actually derive from reading the history and culture of witches. And I understand the impulse for people to call Kate Bush and Björk and Joanna Newsom witches. They are powerful, they are special and talented, they tap in to and use feminine energies that are important (but misunderstood), and they are extremely independent and smart. But my main criticism around that moniker for them as artists is that it is too often cast upon them by people and critics who don’t actually analyze and engage with their femininity and its power in a critical and clear way. They cast that moniker on them because they are being reductive and unwilling to explain what “witch” means in a literal and figural way and also many times, I think they are intimidated. Witches directly threaten kyriarchy and when one is called a witch, it’s a warning to those who want to uphold oppressive structures. And we also cannot divest that moniker of its sexualization. Witchcraft and (illicit) sex have been tied together for centuries and I think that is part of the impulse to give them that moniker, too: it’s just another facet of how objectified and sexualized female artists are in this society. Witches are desired and hated because of their sexual independence. Transgressions are attractive, but they also must be squelched.
Let’s keep on talking about this. Anyone else have any witchy stuff they want to discuss here?