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Joanna Newsom Is Made of Magic

January 30, 2011
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The reason I love Joanna Newsom is the same reason why I love poetry. I love the richness of language, and I adore the complex, layered way they’re composed. It’s fair to describe Joanna Newsom as a poet, and perhaps the best modern poet I have ever came across.

Her voice has been described as everything from a melodious choir of silvery angels to the raspy howl of a cat being vivisected with a butter knife. A friend, upon first hearing her told me: “Her lyrics are good, but why does her voice have to be so weird?” I was actually turned off of her when I first heard the Book of Right On, because I found her reminiscent of a door hinge that needed a good oiling.

But after a few listens, it grows on you. It’s different, but different in a way that only emphasizes how beautiful it is. If Joanna Newsom has a normal voice, let’s say a sweet soothing voice like Regina Spektor or Sarah McLachlan, would she be half as effective? Would she force people to slow down and to actually listen, and I mean really listen? She does everything that goes against what is normal and appreciated, and that’s why she’s one of the most brilliant artists of this generation. No one else can paint with words the way she does. No one has the same powerful child-like vocals she has. No one else can throw an unexpected emphasis on a syllable the same way she can. It’s like poetry, only the difference is poetry works naturally with the reader’s rise and fall of breath to emphasize the written words, but Joanna Newsom recites it for you and she forces you to accept the completely unexpected AccENts oN tHE wONG SyLLAble. If I was to type it out the way she sings it:

“Let us go! Though we know it’s a hopeless endeavor
The ties that bind, they are barbed and spined and hold us close forever”

Becomes:

“Let US go! Though we KNOW it’s a hopeLESS ENdeavor
The TIES that bind, they are BARbed and SPINED and HOld us close FORever…”

And:

“O, morning without warning like a hole
and I watch you go…”

Becomes:

“O,MORning withOUT WARning like a HOLE
and I watch you go…”

It’s completely brilliant.

In addition to her voice, there’s the songs themselves : one of the best things about poetry is its images. I was only dimly aware of the differences between a river – as the great watery thing we see sometimes- and the river, which is the one I see when I hear her creaky scratchy voice singing (this is my favourite part in her entire work):

“…In a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror”

Oh.

For a brief and brilliant second, I stopped and I fully realized what a river is. She took something that I see everyday, something that is nice and pretty but mundane – and she captured its essence so well that the river ceased to be just a river and became something even more. The river she just described is far more real then any photograph I had ever seen. No painter in the world could mix the shade of blueish-grey she just captured. If I were to go and sit by this river for a week, I could never pin down or experience the exact river-ness that one line fragment gave me.

**Note of interest: the last two photos are actual baby pictures of me, because that sums up Newsom’s music best of all.

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