Unedited transcript of Rob Young's interview with Joanna Newsom, following the release of her second album Ys
J: I think the fingers bleeding thing doesn't happen too often; I think I had been having too much fun in the weeks leading up to the tour instead of rehearsing four hours a day like I should have done, and I hadn't built up enough callous in time, so my fingers blistered, and then I bled when I played through the blisters...
R: Was Ys made by a different person from the one that made Walnut Whales and your early music?
J: Yeah, I think so. It would be difficult to justify saying yes if you had said, the Milk Eyed Mender, if you go as far back as those first little EPs - I don't think of them as EPs, but they're real home recorded CD-Rs that I made - but those were made in an incredibly different time, in my head, in my life, in my heart. Definitely. Some of those songs on the first EP wre written when I was still in high school. I'm almost 25 now, so without a doubt I'm a different person.
R: You've been forced to analyse what you do because of the exposure, do you feel more self-conscious about the process of writing now, or does it still come from a pure place?
J: I don't know if it ever came from an entirely pure place, I don't think anything that I do is pure, but it comes from the same place as before: writing music has been my chief joy and chief activity for almost my entire life, since I was eight years old. And nothing could be more natural to me than writing music. There are are a lot of other aspects of social interaction that I'm bad at, specifically because my entire adolescence, youth and teenagerhood was spent playing the harp all the time. So no matter what happens, the ability to write and play, it's going to be the last thing to go. They'll have to cut my hands off for that to happen, I think. It could take a number of different forms depending on what I'm thinking about in a particular period of time, or how I'm feeling. But always the reaction for me is to write music, naturally.
R: From those early days were you telling stories in the way that you do now?
J: No. I didn't sing, until I was 18 years old, so it was just instrumental. And it was like, me attempting to write music to be a composer and rthat was a very different form as well. When I was younger, everythign followed a general Celtic music form, or classical music, and when I got a little older, maybe 13 or 14, was when I started getting obsessed with all the West African figures, and then everyhting I did had to follow those lines, or had to be some outgrowth of those processes - I might not do three metre against four meter, but I might do five against seven... It was always an outgrowth of that for a few years. So whatever I'm doing with music has changed quite a bit, and it hasn't always felt evolutionary, often it's felt like a massive shift all of a sudden. But the common denominator is just that I'm playing or writing no matter what.
R: I read a quote where you said you prefer to think of yourself as a harper, not a harpist. Can you clarify the distinciton?
J: Yeah I heard that too, I've heard that damn quote everywhere,
I don't think I said that ever! I truly don't. I may have pointed
out that that distinction exists, but I don't in the least have a
preference. People I know who play the harp sometimes make a
distinction, and I believe it's a distinction between folk harp and
classical harp. I believe harper is a reference to folk harp, and I
think it might even be something like men have specifically been
proponents of, becaue I think harpist is somehow coded as feminine
somehow. I don't think there are many words in the English language
ending with 'ist' that refer to something that men are likely to
do. I could think of 'typist' - it's a real feminine suffix, and
I'm not sure why. I don't think it's officially feminine. And the
reason I say folk harp rather than classical harp is that there
aren't many men who play pedal harp still, because there's so many
associations with women still with that instrument that men don't
feel welcome to play it. So I really don't think I said that, but I
could be wrong, I don't remember. But that sounds like a really
wack thing for me to say, and I don't think I did!
R: Can you tell me where 'Ys' the title comes from?
J: Yeah, I can say where that came from. Basically it's a
reference to the island in Breton mythology that existed off the
coast off, I forget what it was called, begins with a D, somewhere
of the coast of Brittany. But it was a city built upon an island,
surrounded by a wall, and the basic story was that the wall was
breached and the city was flooded, but there are several myths
surrounding that. The most common is that the king built the city
as a present for his daughter, and then the daugher proceeded to
decline into a state of complete hedonism and decadence, and the
poepple of the city followed in her footsteps. And the most extreme
version of the story that I've heard involved her taking a new
lover every night. And when she's done with him, putting this mask
on him... Oh, I guess she puts the mask on him in the evening, so
she doesn't even have to see his face throughout. But the mask has
these prongs that come out when she's done with him, and kill him.
And then she throws his dead body over the walls of the city and
goes about her business. And then one day a man comes to call on
her, and she falls in love with him because of his great beauty -
and some versions imply that he's the devil - and other versions
imply that he's this messenger of righteousness, come to visit her
punishment on her. But she falls in love with him, and he convinces
her to take the keys to the city from her father, and she either
unlocks the door, or he unlocks the door to the city. But
regardless, it floods. And her father the king escapes and tries to
take her with him on the back of this magical horse that can run on
water, but a saint - I think - refuses to let her go, every time he
lifts her onto the horse, she's forced to get off again, and is
forced to stay and perish with the city. And then she becomes a
harpy figure who lures sailors to their deaths with her singing.
But my reasons for choosing it as the title for my record are many. I chose it because there were five or six different layers of meaning, from superficial or circumstantial, down to extremely specific. And I don't want to align myself too closely with certain parts of the story, because some reasons for choosing that as the title have nothing to do with the story itself but more to do with my thinking surrounding the story, like, one thing I was thinking about at a certain point in the process was the inquiry into the places whre Christianity came and erased a true story. Because I think when you read through this myth, you can see remnants or shadows of what it may have been in its original form, which of course would have been a pagan, Druid myth. And you can almost feel, although they're just out of reach, you can perceive distantly these spots where you can feel there used to be something else there. The story used to be different. And I think in a way maybe this record connects with what I imagine to be the actual pre-Christian myth, than I do connect with the Christianised, sterilised, morally upstanding of the myth that remains. But certainly I relate it also to the themme of the city going under the water, cos that's a pervasive theme throughout this entire record, of songs reachig their resolution - some of them don't resolve, but they reach a climax, or, they reach a point where something goes under the water, something drowns of sinks or floods, or changes beneath the water, and the water is a huge force of changing and starting over, and destruction. And also there's a big theme of fecundity and harvest and fertility, and also the excess of those things. I associate water with that as well - a flooding idea. And also, the original thing is that I was dreaming about the letter Y and the letter S, and I knew that I wanted the record title to contain those two letters - it just felt immediately right. That had to be what it was, no matter what.
R: You were dreaming about letters?
J: Yeah [laughs]. And I knew I wanted it to have one syllable, and there are very few words that have the letter Y and the letter S that have one syllable. There's like Say, and Yes, and I can't think of any others, and they're not very good record titles, and I'm like god dammit, what am I gonna name my record? It has to be this, and I know it in my heart, and then I read about Ys, and probably dropped my glass of water, was very dramatically like, Jesus, this is it! You know... And my certainty was driven home by the spooky fact of reading a line in this ficiton book, not only a reference to the city of Ys, but it also contained the line, 'It is that damnable bell', which is a line from one of my songs, and has a very particular syntax... It's weird that I would find that line in a book, it seemed like a massive coincidence.
R: You had written the song first, then you found that line repeated in a book?
J: Exactly, I had written it already, and then I just stopped in my tracks, because I read 'It is that damnable bell', which seems like, outside of the narrative that I wrote for that particular song, which is a real time narrative - it's not like 'this happened and then this happened'... It's like I'm narrating it as it is happening. And that is not a tone that is adopted in fiction very often at all. And I think that tone is required in order for that syntax to make sense and it's really awkward outside of that particular tone, and it was very strange for me to read it, and it felt like yet another confirmation. And then I read a little more about the city of Ys, and how the bells of the cathedral, you can still hear them ringing underwater on a still day, and I have yet another song about bells ringing under water. The point is, this title was the last thing to come. All the songs were already written, and I just needed a title, and couldn't think of anything that could encapsulate everything. And I didn't want a line from any of the songs, or a title of any of the songs, I didn't want to over-emphasise one of the songs over the others, and it seemed somehow inappropriate to do that, that seemed like a normal convention for an album. And I wanted to follow a different type of logic to choose a title for this record. And then I found that.
R: When you were talking about the city of Ys, you mentioned the word decadence, and I was going to bring that word up - it seems that although a lot of people talk about a childlike quality of your music, to me it seems like decadent is a better word - you give yourself the luxury to indulge yourself in song, it's opulent.
J: [Laughs] Sure, I think that's definitely true. It's a tone
that's voluntary - it needs to be a prerequisite for allowing
myself to write songs in a way that they came about for this
reocrd, but it was also an aesthetic choice - for example I wanted
the presence of an orchestra, the cover art, which took my friend a
year to make, I wanted there to be an opulence and a level of
detail and care that was really consistent throughout, so it made a
lot of sense for me to do it that way. But the third and for me,
probably the most significant role that decadence plays, is in the
narrative itself, like, decadence figures very prominently. Either
the idea of decadence, or I guess a searching or longing or
wnodering that is rooted in a desire for any self-gratification,
selfishness, self-centredness, which is a sort of decadence I
guess. I try to convey that by using language which places as the
goal this over the top thing, you know, like fiefs and that sort of
R: That antique quality in some of the words you use... you use 'thee' occasionally...
J: That's not so much a conscious aesthetic choice as it is an attempt to say what I mean to say in the most musical way possible. And the use of 'thee' I think only happens once, in "Emily", that particularly made sense to me because it was part of the three-part singsongy sort of rhyme, and that made sense to put thee in there, because within that tiny little section it seemed really appropriate for the tone. But I don't know if I would have used it elsewhere in the record, it was really specific to that moment. I mean, there's a real singsongyness to describing the three states of a meteor, and the three states for those and what they describe, and it was almost a singsongy rhyme that you would use as a mnemonic device to remember the differences between all of those things, and so it had to have thee in there, if that makes any sense! But I don't go out of my way to use 'antique' or archaic words, in fact I find it really distasteful when I hear music where I feel like that's intentionally done, where someone could have said something a different way, and they said it that way specifically because they wanted to make a period piece. I'm not interested at all in 'period indie music', I find it to be often really cheap and actually not very intelligent. In this case, I really wasn't intending to do that, but occasionally there was a certain type of word that I felt was entirely necessary. And I truly felt like, if anybody took me to task and went through the lyrics and questioned me on every word that seemed archaic to them, I could justify the use of that word over any other word. I've thought so hard about the lyrics that I truly feel that I could sit down and argue for my use of every single word on this record.
RY: The line about the damnable bell makes me think of Poe...
J: Yeah, definitely!
RY: And The Rime of the Ancient Mariner... the lines are long and it's moving towards the post-romantic...
J: And I think another similarity to that period of time that is less overt, is the pacing, because these songs were written from the ground up, with the knowledge that they were going to be long. And I think the same is true for a lot of poetry from that period, and short stories, they carried themselves in a differnet way from a lot of other poetry that I've read, each line seems to be written with the knowledge that it was going to be part of a longer one, like an epic poem, "Quoth the raven, never more!" - those are long pieces and they pace differently, and they select the moments in which they are going to repeat themselves, based on a different set of values, because they're framed differently. And I definitely relate to that. I had to reframe my writing style based on the fact that it was going to be contained within this longer form. The pacing of the ideas, the rate at which the ideas develop and unfold, it was all going to be different, because the songs were going to be long, from the first line I wrote.
R: "Emily", there's a reference to your sister, is it also addressed to Emily Dickinson?
J:: No, although maybe I shouldn't say no, because that's an interesting interpretation. I certainloy appreciate that, but that wasn't what I intended. It's certainly about more than just my sister, but the Emily referred to is my sister, yeah. And the use of the start and the cosmic imagery has a lot to do with the fact that my sister is an astrophysycist, and I wanted to express the idedas I was interested in with the song in not necessarily her language, because it would be awfully ignorant of me to think that I was speaking an astrophysicist's language, but at least I was taking a symbolic bow towards what she studies and the way her brain works.
R: So you write the lyrics separate to the music, and you work hard on the words aside from that? They don't evolve while you're playing harp?
J: No, I'd say some words do evolve while I'm writing the music, but what also happens is that I'll map it out, I'll have a lot of lines that're just bracketed by parentheses that retain a sentiment or an idea or a thought, but they're not worded yet. And I know that that will be paired with a particular musical phrase or a musical section, but I haven't been able to fill it out yet, with words that'll say precisely what I need them to say and say it with the set of sounds that are gonna agree musically with each line of instumentation. So it often takes me a lot of time to fill in all the chinks and cracks in each song. But sometimes a certain line of music will instantly call to mind a lyric and I'll know very quickly what I want to say there. And the melody, the sung melody, often comes quickly also. I often know the sound of what I'll be singing before I actually have it articulated with the words.
R: So the record is framed as a series of fables - the booklet looks like a book of Victorian adventure stories... when you live in these songs, they don't feel like the fairy tales or nursery rhymes that people talk about - but there is that framing device that you've used... how do you think about these songs - it's like they're not quite made for this world...
R: Are they a retreat, or a way of confronting the world...?
J: No, I mean, this is a really big world - I think there's room
for just about everything, every idea you have. I do think they
don't quite fit... I was very much prepared - mournfully resigned -
to my expectation that this record would be very poorly received!
There was not a single damn thing I wanted to change, I was so
happy with it, but I didn't think that it necessarily had a place
within the context of recorded music, that people would bring home
and listen to. I just didn't know what was going to happen, I
couldn't hear it, it was the first time, I was a stranger, there
was no way of knowing what it would sound like to someone else. But
I don't feel like it's a retreat from this world; I feel like it's
maybe an invocation of some larger ideas that I've been scared to
touch in conversation, or in previous songs, or whatnot, and those
ideas are very much of this world. I don't feel that I'm writing
for a time that hasn't existed yet, or that has existed previously,
or anything like that, I don't feel conflicted in that way...
R: What about the cover painting, was it your choice to be depicted in that way, like a kind of Renaissance princess?
J: Aah, well first of all, I definitely would disagree with
that. I think his painting style derives from a pre-Renaissance
movement in Germany and Austria which I think is called Nazarene,
maybe? [actually 19th century]. I'm not sure, but I'm sure he could
clarify that. But he differs with the suggestion that it's a
Renaissance style painting. My clothing in that painting is like,
totally my clothing, that I wear normally on the street and is
completely normal, it's not a Rrenaissance constume, it's a cotton
T-shirt with a folk shirt underneath cos it was cold. It's been
interpreted as the weirdest stuff. The only thing in the whole
painting that looks slightly constumey is that wreath, and that was
specifically because of the flowers and plants in the wreath, and
that was a symbolic message I wanted to send with each of those,
and that was my choice. But many of the things in the painting were
Benjamin's choice. And we talked and talked about the images we
wanted the painting to contain. I think the choice to do a painting
instead of a photo was that it afforded so much more opportunity
for packing in information, and I thoght it was really appropriate
and consistent with the content of the songs, to have a really
symbolically rich piece of work on the cover. That everywhere you
look, everything in that painting is supposed to mean something.
And it's not really super-important that anyone know what it means,
the same as it's not super-important to know what any of these
songs are directly referring to, but I think it somehow magnifies
the charge and the strength and the worth of the work, to have that
meaning. Like filling every nook and cranny with information - the
choice to do the painting like that was made from that perspective.
It was definitely not intended to invoke a Renaissance princess,
however, I can understand that reading completely in context,
particularly because the posture he has me sitting in, you know,
the three-quarter facial profile, the window in the corner with the
curtain, there's all the conventions of that period in art; but
then there's also an airplane trail in the sky... there are little
nods to the fact that it's not supposed to have existed any time
but now. But it seemed with any particular style of painting it
seems awkward - like I wanted to wear jeans originally, but he was
like, It would be so weird for me to paint that. Not that he's
afraid of modernity, but becauue he prefers not to pin his
paintings down in time at all. He doesn't have any references to
Renaissance but he also doesn't want them to feel like 2006. So,
there was a certain amount of compromise... mainly that I grew out
my bangs for the painting - he really felt that your forehead
contains the majority of your facial expression, and he was like "I
can't paint under these conditions!" You need to uncover your
forehead! So I grew my bangs out, and I continued growing them out,
and they're at this weird challenge for myself to see if I could
live without bangs, because I've had them for so many years. But,
the content of the painting and the way it feels was definitely the
product of quite a bit of discussion between him and me. But of
course it is also a huge mystery for me, because there's no way to
know what emotion is going to be projected or how the painting as a
whole is done. He's the only one who had any real idea of that. And
I had scenes I wanted to talk aobut - one of which was an idea of
decadence, but also one of decay, like a little room with flowers
everywhere, and bugs crawling over the flowers, and a skull, and
poppies in the hair, which is like an opiated drugged reference,
and the wheat which is fertility - there's all these references to
physicality and death, and excess. And all contained in this very
airless space - and the posture's extremely stiff, implying a
corseted or breathless sense - hot summer air... There's also the
sickle in the hand which is another reference to wheat but also a
reference to a line in the song... All this stuff. There's no way
to project it any other way than in a painting, and I had been
thinking that for months, and then Ben actually approached me, and
said, I was thinking I would like to do a painting, woud you mind
sitting for me. And I was like, "actually... not only would I not
mind, but could I use it for my record cover?" So it worked out
He spent a damn year on the thing.
R: Astral Weeks... the music carries off the singer, there's a flow to it... reminds me of Ys. Yours works in a similar way... Could you talk about the process of constructing the whole pieces?
J: Let's see. As far as the construction of the long song goes
from an instrumental perspective, I'd say that that was much more
natural for me than the process of writing the lyrics. For years
that has been the way that I wrote music, before I even sang.
Certainly when I was in school attempting to be a composer, those
were the forms it was almost taken for granted I would write
within. And obviously no vocals...
It goes back to the decadence of allowing myself to luxuriate in this longer song form - it very much felt like a return to a way of writing that was really familiar and natural for me, and I have attenuated and reined in, and disciplned quite a bit when I decided to start singing with my music. And that's a choice I still belive in, and think in future that's a good idea to uphold; the desire to be economical - I don't think it's a good idea to promote myself to range out on these insanely long songs. That's because it made sense very early on for this record, and the subject matter and the things that I was thinking about and feeling and wanting to write about for this record demanded a longer song form, and it seemed like it would be incredibly crass and vulgar to sit down and write a conventional song form, it would be clumsy to do that... Because I had set myself to the task of writing these long songs and loved doing it, it was so fun and so natural, and so wonderful to think about... so natural to allow the idas that much time to develop, instrumentally, and the strucutre of the songs - it is different from anything I've done, because even though they don't have choruses, they certainly have quite a bit of returning back to certain ideas, reiterating musical themes, and repeating certain melodies and so forth - there's a cyclical nature to these songs, but the cycle is much wider, and instead of just stretching out each theme to fit that new words, I'm filling it in with new vignettes... musically it was really interesting and a bit of a challenge, but mostly just really fun, and very natural. And it probably took me, just the writing of that stuff, took me about five months. I wasn't really keeping track. And I think the spontaneity that somehow manages to get preserved in the record, I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that I recorded the harp and vocal parts prior to a single note of the arrangements being written. Because Van Dyke wanted it that way - he had noticed that I vary my performances slightly, but often, and he wanted to write his arrangements to my final take rather than a straight harp take because any tiny change in the performance would completely inform every nuance of his arrangements. Which was very reasonable to me; I was a tiny bit disappointed because I was excited about standing in the middle of a full orchestra and making eye contact with people... But it turned out to be the best thing that could possibly have happened to that record, because... I really hate to use the word innocence, because usually I don't relate to it at all in my music. But in this context it's slightly appropriate because I recorded these songs and harp parts in a climate in which I had no idea what was to come. And they were just the sogns, they were really simple, there wasn't a lot of formality, I wasn't burdened or encumbered by the knowledge of this huge orchestera and what it was going to be doing at each turn of phrase, so I was able to do things without too much... I think it would have been very different if I'd recorded with the orchestra or later on, when their parts had been written. I think there would have been much more formality, more stiffness. And much less emotional presence, because I was in this small room with Steve Albini and nobody else, and I was playing the songs exactly as they are, and it was a pretty intense time, and I had it candlelit, in the dark with just candles and conjuring up these pretty insane moments that I had been experiencing... Basically I felt like I was in an environment where I was able to sing the songs the way they were when I wrote them. Which isn't always the easiest thing when recording. Sometimes I can do that when I'm performing; there's something about the heightened energy of performing focuses me and brings me back to the place I was in when I wrote those songs, but I've never been able to record very easily without changing the energy of the songs, and there's something about the way Steve recorded me and the environment in which it was done, there was a sense of closeness and spontaneity, and I felt extremely emotionally on edge, and I went through these vocal takes, I was just like wrecked afterwards because it was such an emotional experience. But it was really good, that I was able to do that, because then we went into about five or six months of working on the arrangements. And I got so much more technical in my brain during that process, and I think it would have been much more cumbersome, if I had tried to record all the harp parts in that mindset. And it was really hard work - I was using a different part of my brain, so I was glad to have gotten that stuff out of the way.
R: What was it like working with Van Dyke - did you learn stuff about your own music that you hadn't thought about before?
J: Hmm, no, I don't think that's accurate - I think I learned a
lot, but... It was amazing working with him. This is going to sound
incredibly arrogant, but I know my music really really well. It's
one of the very few things on this planet that I know really well,
is my own music. I'm not saying I know music in general really
well, but my own. But I learned a lot from him about other stuff! I
learned a lot about arrangements from him, I learned a lot about
what he does. And Iearned about grace and being rad, cos he's
really rad! And he's an incredible human being... and he was
writing these arranegments that from day one were just amazing and
spectacular, and even in the form that he was sending them to me,
which was on a cheesy synthesizer approximation of the
arrangements, you can still tell, oh, that's Van Dyke - that right
there is his inimitable, singular writing style. And they were
incredible. But they started out pretty far from what I needed them
to be for this record. The exception was "Monkey And Bear" - pretty
soon after he wrote that arangement, we were able to get it to a
point where it was exactly what I wanted. But for the other pieces,
it took months of editing and drafting, and him sending me these
ararngements and me coming up with a huge list of notes about what
I wanted to have changed, and sending it back, and him instituting
those revisions, and them sending it again... And these
arrangements went through geneartion after geneartion and he was
just incredibly graceful and tireless about the whole process. As I
said, the producing was incredible gorgeous. Because I lack the
technical abilities that he has, in terms of what I want... If I
had the technical language to describe what I wanted exactly, then
I would also have the technical ability to score these arrangements
myself. So, like, I didn't, I couldn't be as technical as I wanted
to. So there were a lot of times when he was responding to a prompt
that I had given to him in a very non-technical form, like, I want
this to feel like this, or I wanted to evoke this particular image,
or I wanted to shift from this mood to this mood at this particular
point, and I want the instruments that are involved to switch from
this group of strings to the woodwinds... It left so much room for
him to write exactly what he needed to write, and it took a long
time for us to bring it to a point where we both felt it was what
it should be. But his way of being throughout this whole proces has
been patient and fearles and really certain that we were going to
get there. That we would reach a point where people would feel good
about the arrangements. What was necessary in the end was for me to
come to LA for a few weeks just so I could comb through them bar by
bar, because there was such a huge volume of notes and musical
gestures, stacked on top of each other, that I needed to be able to
hear it while looking at the written score and to be able to point
out this note or that note... It's pretty incredible that he
allowed me to do that - and invited me to do that - it was his
idea. Come to LA, and like comb through, nitpick his work. And he
said, in the history of his working with people, he's never ever
had somebody do that - someone he was arranging for come to his
office and go through the arrangement he'd written for them and say
what they wanted changed and what they liked and everything. So I
think the whole process was really different for him. But I think
he produced some incredible work - really amazing stuff. And one of
the most painstaking things I've done.
In order for him to make these arangements, a digital transfer had to be made so that he could lay down a click track over my harp and vocal parts, because they modulate so much in tempo from passage to passage. I refuse to record to a click track because I think it's inherent to the lyrics that they speed up and slow down on various sections. So just to do his work, and write an accurate score that could be read by orchestral players as they were listening to this piece, he had to transfer it digitally so he could put a click track on it and line it up to something approximating an accurate representation of the tempo and time changes. Which means the orchestral scores look pretty amazing - they're like bonkers, the time changes are constant throughout. But it was totally worth it, because when we sat with the orchestra there was a real fluency and instanteneity, and they had the click that he had generated digitally, and they all had their little headphones, and then they had the record, the harp and vocal parts they were recording to, and Van Dyke jumping around in front conducting them, doing the most beautiful conducting job I've ever seen in my life, and they were just so present and to what was required of them, which I had had so many fears about. If my playing was just too idiosyncratic for anyone to follow along to. But they did it, they were so on top of it. So that was pretty incredible.
R: "Monkey And Bear" suggests concern with tension between artistic freedom and the obligations in the day to day world...
J: I'd say actually, believe it or not, the motif of the
performing bear, the dancing bear who's just being egged on
throughout has nothing to do with my experience of being a
performer. In a way, the song is obviously a surreal narrative that
goes away from the story of the record - in my mind I was still
talking about the same set of ideas, and one of the most important
things for me when I was thinking about the story of the song, was
that this monkey and bear had been in captivity in the beginning,
and they had still been a dancing bear and an organ grinding
monkey, but they had been in captivity, in the possession of a
farmer - it's supposed to be slightly unclear exactly what the
situation was. But I thought it was an interesting story to tell,
of what happens when they get free, and they're still in captivity
because they're wild animals and there's no place for them to be
wild, and they're in search of self-gratification, the idea of
decadence I was interested in. And it's basically a fucked-up love
story, like, I was interested in the relationship between the
monkey and the bear, and a few other things [I'm sorry, I have to
blow my nose again!]
I think the idea of performance in this song has more to do with the relationship between the monkey and the bear than anything else, like conditional love - the monkey's saying, if you just dance a little bit longer and if you keep those chains on, and if you keep that costume on, then under those conditions then I'll continue to love you. So that's much more like a smaller comment I'm making than any comment on the idea of being a musician. And there's a bunch of things that go on in that story. The whole story is a set up for an end, which is supposed to be totally, 100 per cent different, and it's supposed to be scary and strange and disorienting and it's not supposed to be clear what's happening. One thing that is supposed to be clear is I'm hoping it'll reiterate again the idea of just searching and searching and searching for gratification, in the image of the bear, what's left of the bear after the bear removes itself from itself, dragging its coat through the water trying to catch minnows with its own fur as a net. But it's really meant to be ambiguous, whether it represents death, or rebirth, or a triumph on the part of the bear, or a complete absolute resignment on the part of the bear, it's supposed to be pretty unclear. I have certain ideas myself, intentions for what I meant there, that I thought it would be a much better passage if I thought there were several interpretations. I wanted it to be surreal, I wanted it to be juxtaposed with the baroque, very simple story, it was supposed to feel simple at first, then I wanted it to break down into this weird scenario...
R: "Sawdust & Diamonds", using images of puppets... it made me think, as a harpist, the instrument turns you into a kind of marionette, doesn it?
J: [laughs] I really like all of your interpretations, I feel bad saying no, because I don't want to close doors for anybody, but I can say that, again my intention there was pretty far removed from the experience of my own performance. It was more supposed to be a larger comment - "Monkey and the Bear" was very small and specific, this type of performance I was referring to was a larger social one. That refers to everybody, not just people who get on a stage. But certainly you're right interpreting the strings as marionette strings, that was intended, and the lights in the wings are supposed to be the wings of a theatre, not the wings of a bird... But that line set off more about spectatorship and scrutiny, and the collective gaze of these things, more than he idea of me playing harp in front of some people.
R: You mentioned about the interest in pagan stories, where does that interest come from?
J: It comes in part as a nod to the friend for whom many parts of this record were written, who I can't talk about very much. But I basically did some reading and studying specifically, I guess, in honour of her - I don't particularly like that expression but I don't know a better one. Sorry to be so cryptic!
R: Is there any conneciton, you've talked about your idyllic sounding upbringing in Nevada... you made a lot of music with your family?
J: I think that has actually been pretty over-emphasised or
exaggerated. We had this little thing when I was way younger, and
my mum led a little children's band for Christmas shows when I was
little, like, me on a tiny little harp and my sister on a tiny
cello, and a few other people. We all played music to some extent,
but we didn't sit around evening times and like jam together or
anything like that. We all had very differnet experiences in music;
my brother's a great musician; he plays piano and guitar but all
the time I was growing up he was this insane drummer. We have a
drum room at my parents' house, that was built for him and my mum,
cos she's an African drummer and she could have her classes meet up
there. But my brother would go into the drum room and play every
waking hour, when he wasn't he was eating or being forced to do
homework. And that was similar to the way I was with harp, only I
was in another little room, making up weird little stuff. And then
my sister was much more classical, she was a cellist and my mom
would play with her, cos a lot of her cello suites need a pianist.
There was music happening all the time, but we didn't sit around
together singing "koombaya" or anything like that.
There was music playing around the house a lot, but I feel like a lot of people have that experience. Mine probably wasn't totally unique in that regard at all.
R: Did you always have an active imagination, were you writing at an early age?
J: They definitely did. I guess you could call them hippy parents, but they're almost more like new agey parents. But not only that, because in other ways they're more western orientated, like they're both doctors, not alternative medicine doctors - they're physicians, but they're just really like, really liberal. My mom is a total feminist and political activist and always has been - since the 60s she was in student activist movements then, and she just never stopped. So she has a million causes that she's always spearheading, and involved with doctors without borders stuff, and all of that. And my dad is really sensitive and quiet and gentle, and really really smart, intimidatingly smart. One of those people, ask anything he's read 18 books on the subject and he for fun studies etymology and and meteorology and all this crazy shit. And he, I think, I mean my mom encouraged me most in music, cos music is one of the big loves of her life, but my dad I think encouraged me with words. He used to buy a new book once a week and hide it under my pillow, and I would read it and he would want me to tell him about it. He just has this enormous soul. I mean my mum is too - I make her sound like a militant scary woman, but she's also this incredibly beautiful sweet woman. But my dad, it sounds so cheesy now, but when we were younger he used to do these things called poem races in our front yard, and he would make these relay race things where the rule was, you pulled a piece of paper off a tree and it had a word written on it, and you had to yell out a poem about the word, and run to the next tree... I can't even remember. But I think in retrospect both of them really wanted us to have a craetive life, because they were both doing something very left-brain, and they both came from very ambitious struggling backgrounds, and just happy doing what they're doing, but maybe both felt creatively deprived, and had gone through this huge consciousness raising during the 60s of course, and had read a lot about psychology, and they were trying things out on us constantly, we were guinea pigs for weird ideas, how to nurture someone creatively. But I think all of that was nothing for me in terms of composition, if I hadn't had this insane music teacher who, from the first harp lesson I ever had with her, she ws like, OK, we're going to improvise, I'm going to play chords with my left hand and you're going to do whatever comes into your head, with your right hand. There's no wrong note - just play. And we'd do that for half an hour of every single lesson, for years and years, until I was a good enough harp player to play the part with my left hand. And from very early on, she would assign me to write songs, when I was very little. And she was one of those teachers who valued improvisation and composition just as highly as she would value practising etudes or classical repertoire, which I did eventually. I think that was more important than anything else because it was really specific, because it was just 'my whacky childhood'! but that was how I learned how to write and play music.
R: What do they think of your music now?
J: yeah, I think they really like it, but I don't like to talk
too much about it... Maybe it's because I want my family and
friends to be this safe zone - when I've talked all day in
interviews about the songs, and I want to pretend that I don't even
play music. And I think they are trying to learn that I really
don't want to get peppered with questions about what something
means... But I told my dad, cos "Emily", it's written for my
sister, but it's partially about my father, and I told him some of
the stuff that that song means, because I knew nobody would
understand it otherwise, and it's not really important to me in
general that people understand it, but I really wanted him to. So
when it comes to my mind I'll explain something but... It's weird,
like with your family it's so intimate, it's like talking about sex
or something like that - it seems really gross somehow talking
about music! I feel like it's too close to home or something.
R: Beyond this record, you suggested that there's a sense of a quest about this record, so do you feel that you reached a certain point that you were trying to reach, or if there's still stuff that's out of reach... Where do you think you might be led next?
J: Yeah... hmmm... Well I feel like conceptually, in terms of the ideas I was struggling with, and then writing about, in some ways I feel I reached a certain resolution, and in other ways I felt like I had reached some extremity, some point where I felt I couldn't feel worse, or I couldn't feel better, depending on what we are talking about... And crested this hill, and there was endless mountain ranges stretching out before me. I think there's certain heights or depths that the more you think about them and the more you go into them and write about them, the more boundless and paralysingly huge they seem. So, I feel like I certainly am different because of thinking and working the way that I did on these songs, but I don't know if that change carries with it a great deal of resolution, or whether it's a different kind of restlessness, a new way of being restless. But musically, I don't really know... I feel this is a real self-contained project and whatever I do next will exist completely separately of this project. It'll be either very simple again, or very complicated but in a totally different way of being complicated. I feel this is a complete work or idea for me, and it's building something really delicate... And this is an image I hate to use, because it reminds me of thinigs people say about my music that I like the least, but the image that came into my mind was something very detailed and delicate, like a doll house built out of toothpicks or something like that, and it took me months and months, and I had a bunch of other people helping, like I had an architect, and a draftsperson and a contractor, and all these, Jim O'Rourke, Steve Albini, Van Dyke Parks, and my label who helped me so much, and the orchestral players... I had so many things in place that allowed me to make this little house, and when I was done I couldn't help, I was just bellowing and weeping for weeks after I finished this project because it was just so huge for me, and I was so overwhelmed by how everything had come together, and it was exaxctly the way I wanted it to be, and now it's this object that so much work and attention has been put into, but it's contained. Nothing else to do on it, and whatever I do next is going to be pretty separate from that. I don't know what I'm going to be interested in talking about next, and what I'm going to be writing next...
R: difficult one to repeat..
J: Yeah. Well, especially because it requires a great deal of force and motivation, and emotional pressure to do it, and all of that stuff got released into this work. I can't conjure up the motivation to do anything nearly this hard unless I have a new reason to do anything different - that's just as hard, because it's just... done!
R: Are you a restless person or a contented one?
J: Yeah. I think I'm creatively restless and I think I'm content in every other regard. I'm a lazy pig most of the time, and unambitious, and not a big traveller - if I wasn't a big traveller, I'd probably never leave my town. There's so little that I want to do in this life - I want a little family, I'm really domestic. It's actually hilarious to me that I'm able to do music as my career because I never really made any effort in the beginning for that to be the case, other than just writing my music. Writing, writing, writing obsessively, because that's all I like to do, outside very mundane things that aren't worth mentioning. Somehow by chance several of the right people who should have heard it, herad it, and let me make a record, and all this stuff happened. But I don't have any major ambitions beyond just writing the best music I can write, and hopefully continuing to do that indefinitely.