I was an English major with a focus on poetry writing at Harvard, and my poetry teacher gave me Joanna Newsom’s first CD— he was like that teacher who totally changes the course of your life. So I was super into The Milk-Eyed Mender, and then my friends invited me to go see Joanna Newsom play live when Ys came out. I felt like I’d been transported to another world. Ys has a lot to do with the death of a loved one and discovering your own creativity, all done through very mystical poetry, and I was also dealing with those same things. I felt like she was speaking directly to me the whole concert. I was like, “How can this happen?”
I listened to that album on repeat for so long. I could spend days trying to figure out just a single complex metaphor. The one that stands out to me is: “In the mud cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror.” It’s like John Donne, who was a really early metaphysical poet, or Yeats. That image has so many layers and the ideas you can draw out of it are also manifold.
The main thing I learned in college is that if you’re going to make a piece of art, you’d better have some emotional urgency behind it; otherwise, it’s not worth making, and you’ll never accomplish anything with it. When I think of a performer who’s willing to be super weird and super naked and always writes with some kind of urgency, I think of Joanna Newsom. It’s a good lesson in being yourself. Live, she makes these faces, and she squats a little bit, and she is very physically involved with the instrument, which is cool. I try to do all that stuff, maybe not consciously, but I like to think that I’m not just standing around and staring at my shoes. I don’t really care about keeping up with appearances—I’ve pretended that the guitar is a machine gun and shot the audience with it. I saw a nine year old do something similar at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Camp for Girls showcase concert a few weeks ago. It was a little shocking.