Joanna Newsom plays the harp, writes esoteric songs that contain words like Tulgeywood and sings in a high-pitched warble that manages to sound both beautiful and pained at the same time. It took the 28-year-old songwriter four years to release Have One on Me, the three-disc follow-up to her critically acclaimed sophomore album Ys. Newsom talks to TIME about the process of creating a monstrous album, why she wishes she was a better composer and what happened when she lost her voice.
Why did you keep your new album, Have One on Me, such a secret? No one even knew it was coming until about a month ago.
I didn't want to announce it and have it be delayed. There'd been so many setbacks along the way that I wanted to make sure the album was in the can and completely ready to go. Also, we were trying to prevent it from being leaked.
The album's over two hours long and spread out over three discs. It seems designed to be listened to as one complete product and not as a series of separate songs. Why did you make something in this format?
I tried to sequence it so that it could be listened to in its entirety and had a progression that felt thematically logical and natural. In a way, the three records are like chapters in a book. Unless you're serializing a book you wouldn't separate the chapters, but they're also meant to be these little self-contained segments within the narrative.
My favorite song on there is "Good Intentions Paving Co." but it feels a little bit poppier than your other work. Actually, a lot of the album does.
I think part of it was a reaction to the previous record, Ys. The experience of making Ys was quite intense and formal for me. I paid such close attention to every tiny little detail the syntax, the lyrics, the distribution of syllabic entropies, the interior and exterior rhyme patterns there was a lot of activity and it felt a little frenetic. When I was done with it all, I was pretty tired. I really wanted to allow my brain to approach music a little differently. When making this record, I had the feeling of being a little kid coming home from church. I was in my tight, scratchy sailor dress and my tight, scratchy patent-leather shoes. It was the feeling of tearing it all off and running around outside in my underwear.
This album is the underwear?
This album is me running around in my underwear, more or less.
As a musician you straddle two music communities, the indie scene and the more traditional orchestral symphony scene. Where do you see yourself when it comes to those two worlds? Do you think they should interact more?
I sometimes feel like they should interact less! Or if they interact as much as they do, it should maybe be planned better. I'm not going to name names, but I see things from time to time that feel like arbitrary collaborations.
I would place myself squarely on the nonclassical side. As a composer, I require assistance. I have ideas and I have an album in mind but I'm limited, I need help making the record. I'm a very poor composer. I really am. That may change over the years, but right now I have such a huge gap between what's in my mind and what I'm able to notate. I think it would be disingenuous for me to claim to be part of the classical world.