Joanna Newsom might be the best-known harpist playing today. Her latest album, Divers, was released to critical acclaim in October with both NPR and The Guardian naming it to their lists of best albums of 2015. Harp Column CD review editor Alison Young called it “storytelling in sound and color” and praised its “words burnished with artfully meticulous mixes of orchestral splashes.” Newsom’s unique sound has found appeal beyond the indie music scene where she first gained popularity. She took time between tour stops to talk with us about her new album, songwriting, and harp moving.
Harp Column: Congratulations on your new album, Divers.
Joanna Newsom: Thank you so much!
HC: The harp is kind of woven in and out of the tracks on the album. It’s foundational to all the music, yet it’s not overwhelming—it’s one of many textures in the music. How do you like to use the harp in your music? How do you think it’s most effective musically?
JN: I don’t think there’s any one set way in which the harp is most effective.Its character shifts, based on the desired “chromatic” palette—I mean, in the sense of tonal coloration, not in the non-diatonic sense—of a specific song, based on the desired mood of a specific record, or based on whatever harmonic or percussive or textural material seems necessary to build the particular little world of an album. I don’t really think there’s a limit on what the harp can do. For those people lucky enough to play and compose with the harp for a long lifetime, I don’t think it ever stops revealing new shades of character or miracles of patterning. I almost always write on the harp, even if I later rearrange the harp parts for piano or keyboard. My ideas are all rooted in the harp; the musical part of my brain is oriented and organized around the structure and sonic properties of the harp.
HC: In your song-writing process, what comes first—the lyrics or the melodic or harmonic line?
JN: Usually the first thing I’ll hear is a bare melodic line running over a blocky version of the chords—just the skeleton of the song. Every once in awhile, the melodic line will arrive with some words already attached. But usually the melodies start out as a string of nonsense syllables that only resolve into lyrics over time.
HC: If you were not making music, what would you do for a living?