Welcome to Blessing All the Birds, a feminist fan project focused on the work of songwriter Joanna Newsom. We see Newsom's work as feminist literature and our goal is to provide it the serious critical analysis it deserves, as well as to discuss her unique place in popular culture.
Contributing Authors

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!

—Melissa 

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. 

And speaking of indie marquee names, the song on We the Common liable to generate the most chatter is probably ‘Kindness Be Conceived’, a sprightly and predictably pastoral duet with Joanna Newsom. (According to Thao, the two met somewhere that I assure you is not a soundstage for a ‘Portlandia sketch’ but an actual place in the world: ‘a Virginia Woolf-style farm paradise where women writers get their own cabins and write all day and meet in the evening for dinner.’)
Lindsay Zoladz for Pitchfork on Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s collaboration with Joanna Newsom. My big question/reaction is: that camp most be one of the most glorious, feminist, and creative places on the planet, right? And, of course, this means Joanna is writing new material???
I personally feel like a lot of the ways people (and critics…usually men) talk about Newsom and discuss her music is really, really intensely sexist. Like that SO much of the language used for her (‘fey’, ‘precious’, ‘elfin’, etc) are really just code-words for ‘feminine.’ And related to this, she gets described as ‘crazy’ and as being some wild muse that needs to be hemmed in by the more ‘rational’/’intellectual’ male collaborators like Callahan, O’Rourke, Banhardt, and [Van Dyke Parks]. But the thing is, Newsom IS intelligent, and her music isn’t some ‘wild’ thing, nor is it ‘precious’ or ‘childlike’ or ‘fey’. It’s complex, intelligent, intricate, creative, technical and also very mature. It feels to me like Newsom is a very extreme example of people’s perceptions of gender conditioning and distorting their perceptions of art and artists. The Newsom I read about in reviews has NOTHING to do with the Newsom I actually encounter in her music. And the former seems like it’s just a myth mostly constructed from fear of recognition of women’s intelligence, creativity, and proficiency. They’d rather cling to a storybook wild pixie filled with some magical, incomprehensible female inspiration than actually accept that a woman can be every bit as capable a songwriter as their beloved Leonard Cohens, Tom Waitses, Bob Dylans and so on, and as capable a composer as their [Van Dyke Parkses]…Seems to me a perfect example of sexism prevalent in music journalism and ‘hipster’/indie sub-culture, amongst people who pose themselves as more ‘enlightened’/sensitive than the rest of society.

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 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 bodies make 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 is so deeply saddening and dangerous 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 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.

Rachel :)

Asker Anonymous Asks:
maybe i don't interpret baby birch as a song about abortion because that's just not my interpretation????????????????
allthebirds allthebirds Said:

[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. 

—Melissa 

desliz:

one of my weird death hills concerns Joanna Newsom fans who are extremely resistant to the idea that “Baby Birch” is about an abortion, and who write lots of words about how this song is OBVIOUSLY about lots of things like… things (maybe she’s just really sad she broke up with a dude before they got to make babies :( did you ever think of that) and it’s JUST SO COMPLEX NO ONE CAN ASSIGN A MEANING, IT’S UNPOSSIBLE and how dare you imply my fragile ethereal elf queen might write anything that reaffirms abortion as a necessary choice sometimes blah blah blah

I mean, have you even read the lyrics? it’s not vague at all, you’re just really fucking resistant to the idea that abortion could inspire a complex, emotional song that simultaneously examines regret about limited possibilities and offers no apology for the decision made, because you’re choking on pro-life propaganda that implies that no one could think about an abortion for two seconds and go through with it, much less produce art about it

long story short, these fans can kiss my ass

I completely understand and appreciate this rage. Anti-abortion rhetoric and beliefs make my blood boil to dangerous temperatures. The very root of my feminism is about absolute self-determination and bodily autonomy and if people do not have absolute control of their uteruses, they are not liberated. And true liberation will not happen until abortion is available to everyone, for free, on demand (many other things have to happen as well, of course). Abortion stigma, even from those who work within and for reproductive justice, also makes my blood boil. There is this extremely problematic rhetoric going around which amounts to: “abortion should be safe, affordable, and rare.” First, as mentioned, abortion should be free and on demand, not “affordable.” Second and more importantly, “rare” stigmatizes the act of abortion and attaches a treacherous ethical value on it. “Rare” implies that abortion should be eliminated and that if the world were a perfect, utopian place, abortion would be “bad.” Someone should be able to have an abortion NO MATTER WHAT THE CIRCUMSTANCES. There should be no ethical judgments placed upon abortion as some sort of “necessary evil.” The “rare” rhetoric also implies that people have to explain WHY they had an abortion. No one should have to explain anything to anyone about their bodies and we should stop trying to police them by demanding an explanation. I would get an abortion no matter how I became pregnant. I just never, ever want to be pregnant. That’s it. The demands for explanations make some situations appear more legitimate than others. All abortions are legitimate. None should be policed. None should be shamed. All are about controlling one’s body without apology. 

We live in a society that absolutely and constantly stigmatizes marginalized people (e.g. people with uteruses) when they control their bodies. Marginalized people controlling their bodies is a direct threat to kyriarchy and we are taught from the moment we are born to uphold kyriarchy and it takes years of unlearning to even acknowledge that there is kyriarchy. And I know it is the case that sometimes when people interpret “Baby Birch,” they are reacting within that stigmatizing, kyriarchal framework. We live in a world where it is much more acceptable and admired for a person to say they deeply regretted their abortion than that they were deeply relieved by their abortion. There is so much more room for abortion stigma and apology than abortion acceptance and joy and that is so deeply problematic. I am not going to call out people whom I believe interpret “Baby Birch” in this way because I am much more critical of the “system” than the individual cases. I do not want to police people’s interpretations, I just want people to be aware of the system of interpretation and what voices and opinions there are room for in the kyriarchy. I am not at all saying that those who interpret this song as a miscarriage are wrong (it absolutely could be and I think “Only Skin” is in part about a miscarriage rather than an abortion). I am discussing those who absolutely deny that “Baby Birch” could be about an abortion because of the cultural narratives and stigma around abortion. I just want people to unlearn abortion stigma. That would be great. 

Moreover, it is completely valid for the original poster to bring up how if “Baby Birch” is about an abortion, it muddles the dominating narratives about Joanna Newsom and her (expressions of) femininity. Perfect ladies like Joanna don’t talk about abortion and they certainly do not get them! Controlling one’s body is radical in the kyriarchy and talking about it openly is just as radical. Too often I see that some people have no idea how messy and dark and troubling Newsom’s music can be, especially on Ys and Have One on Me. And people are resistant to see that because that complexity does not fit their preconceived notions of femininity. Ladies cannot talk eloquently about death, sex, mortality, obsession. They can only talk about love!!! Just take a look at some of the reviews of Have One on Me. They are pitiably uncritical and recycle sexist tropes and they are so and do so because of misogyny. That is a real concern and I do not think we throw that concern away because the original poster is angry. I am angry, too! Anger is a valid reaction to misogyny. 

[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.

Read More

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.

Rachel

Asker rocilanda Asks:
Hi, I've been recently reading your entries on Joanna's and Kate Bush' and Björk's comparisons with all that's magical and witchy. I've found them really interesting, and there's a thought that passed though my mind that I wanted to discuss or clarify: Witches don't exist per se. What does exist, is the enormous number of women who died because of the unfair accusations of a sexist society. And these women, I believe, have always been women who stand up for their rights, (...)
allthebirds allthebirds Said:

(…) 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?