Joanna Newsom Discusses Divers and Her Solipsistic Swagger

Music Features Joanna Newsom
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Joanna Newsom is just as likely to drop an f-bomb into conversation as she is to drop a word that you have to look up. Her latest album, Divers, is a dense exploration of the shape of history, often told from the perspective of the future. The instrumentation similarly probes this puzzle of “when are you from?”, mixing her signature throwback harp and dizzying string sections with spacey synthesizers. Divers is conceptual, yet it just may be the most accessible of her four official full-lengths. In short, Joanna Newsom is a study in contrasts, and so is Divers.

Speaking a few weeks before she is set to begin a North American tour, she is quick with a laugh and generous in assisting with the comprehension of her art. When I ask her about the forever-looping structure of the album, and how that seems at odds with her appreciation of vinyl, she acts as if I have uncovered a secret.

“Mmmm,” she says, almost like a game show host, pausing for dramatic effect as she considers whether or not my observation is correct. “You are right!”

And when you are right, Joanna Newsom rewards you with a more detailed explanation.

“I think that this record is sort of pinned up, for viewing purposes, with a series of tacks that represent various points of binary tension,” she says. “It’s sort of held apart by these contrasts, within the body of the record, and that’s one of them. It’s going to sound best on vinyl, but from a dissecting standpoint, it definitely is most complete if you observe it in that digital format.”

Paste: Much of this album is about time, and it’s been five years since your last release. A lot has changed since 2010. Did you give any consideration to the musical landscape that this new album would be dropping into?
Joanna Newsom: I didn’t consider it while I was making the record. After that, I did consider it in a bit of panic. Drag City is a smaller label and there’s sort of a long turnaround time, and of course I always want to make sure when the digital version of my album comes out, that it’s the same day that the physical versions come out, and that the vinyl is available in stores. So there’s a bit of a turnaround time when I finish a record, and turn it in, and in this case it was like four months. That’s the period of time where I go from this like solipsistic swagger of like “It doesn’t matter. It’s just for me. No one will ever hear this. I’m just completely following my every creative whim and desire.” I go from that to the complete opposite end of the spectrum, where it’s like, “FUUUUUUUCCCK!” You know? This is a new world, where people have bought versions of themselves, updating what they had for breakfast, lunch and dinner when they’re stuck in traffic. It’s a completely different world and a completely different conversation. The fact is, I spent many years working on this record, and Drag City, my label, just followed me every step of the way and allowed it to be what I needed it to be, and supported me and funded it, and it was a huge project, and so there was definitely a moment where after it was done, it was like, “oh, I really hope that someone buys this record, because I would love to be able to pay my label back for me and the amount of faith that they put into me.”

Paste: Let’s talk a little bit more about the chiastic structure, and how the album ends with the word-fragment of “trans” and then begins with the word “sending.” One of my other favorite albums of this year, The Most Lamentable Tragedy, by Titus Andronicus, also presents itself as an infinite loop of sorts. I don’t know if you’ve heard that album yet…
Newsom: No, I haven’t.

Paste: At what point in the process did you realize that this was something you wanted to employ? And at what point did somebody figure out that you had done this? I’d imagine it didn’t happen right away.
Newsom: No, it didn’t. I do remember that the first person who found it didn’t bring it up to me during the interview. I think it might have been Kelefa Sanneh, from the New Yorker. He talked to me about certain things that were sort of edging towards this idea of the circularity, and then I think he sort of listened to it again, and then wrote about that. But it’s possible that someone else wrote before him about it. I don’t remember. I just know that when it first was being written about, it was something that someone had just kind of busted out on their own.

Paste: It must have been fun, from your perspective, after releasing the album, to watch people figure it out. Or do you even monitor it at all and do it truly just for yourself?
Newsom: That’s a good question. Things like mix and sequencing start approaching this space where I’m starting to think of it not necessarily as something that will be out in the world, but at least an album, as opposed to a series of songs. When I start thinking of it as an album, I start thinking of it as the physical medium of putting a record on and experiencing it as a series of songs that I wrote. But with the sequencing, I knew on this record from really early on, because the songs are harmonically connected, so they had to each fall in a certain order. So I did know what the first song would be and I did know what the 11th song would be.

Paste: I guess what I’m really wondering is whether or not you pay any attention to peoples’ discovery of these riddles or historical references that you bury within the lyrics?
Newsom: Firstly, I wouldn’t think of them as riddles. I think of them as sort of varying talismans or varying things that initially are there because they’re there to somehow strengthen my own belief in the little world that I’m trying to build. I’m trying to convince myself of that, and trying to create a home for these stories to live in. And to make it hospitable you have to do some terraforming and condition the atmosphere so that it’s breathable and I think that part of how I do that is lining a nice, cozy, padded layer of references and details and things that collectively create this sort of atmosphere of verisimilitude, and then the stories sort of saunter in and curl up and make themselves at home and it’s not necessarily there to be decoded, although it’s delightful to me when people take the time to do that. But it’s the background for the record. It’s not what the record is actually about.

Paste: Let’s take a song like “Sapokanikan.” What was the moment you realized you wanted to reference the place that is now known as Washington Square Park, and reference how 20,000 bodies are buried there?
Newsom: I think probably the very beginning kernel of that song would have come from just walking around in Washington Square Park, and walking around in Central Park as well, and walking around in Greenwich Village. There are a few other monuments that are referenced in that song as well that are just sort of buried throughout the Village. And getting very curious about what those monuments actually represent, what they’re memorializing. They’re all kind of odd. It’s not that it’s odd to memorialize the people whom they are memorializing, it’s that they commemorate the moments that they’re commemorating. And I started reading and thinking about that more, and thinking about what we as a culture choose to lionize and what we as a culture allow to be forgotten. And then I just started researching Washington Square Park and getting more and more fascinated and amazed by what had been layered on top of it, and I was also very fascinated by what was there before.

Paste: In this day and age, are you just going to Wikipedia, or are you consulting textbooks?
Newsom: A lot of it is Internet research. I’m not getting to a lot of microfiche.[Laughs.]

Paste: That would be a good montage though!
Newsom: It would! It really would!

Paste: I can picture you pulling out a huge dusty book and bringing it to the librarian…
Newsom: And then I’d open it, and I’d just have a laptop inside of it.

Paste: There is this theme of “how will time remember any of us?” on this album and a meditation of mortality that has been a through line of your work. On “Sadie” on your debut, there’s that line that really gives the song its gravitas, where you say, “we pray and suspend the notion that these lives do never end.” And I have to wonder how much of your day is spent thinking these deep thoughts, and pondering the limits of mortality?
Newsom: Very little! Very little of my day is spent thinking deep thoughts. I’m kind of a compartmentalizer. And I think part of making records for me is creating a repository for the things that are preoccupying me to a point where I get a little bit of paralysis. You know, where I can’t really get through my day because I’m thinking too much about certain ideas, or I’m worrying about certain things. I find myself just drifting off, thinking about these themes and not having any place to put them, so I start organizing them in album form. But, you know, I also watch a lot of bad TV.

Paste: What’s your show these days?
Newsom: Oh my God, I go through them so fast! At this moment I don’t know that I have a show. I shouldn’t even say “bad TV” because that implies an insult to anything I say after this, but I was really liking Homeland, although I’m not sure I can watch it for a little while at present. Life is just resembling it much too closely at the moment.

Paste: I can’t imagine that any TV you’ve been watching would have informed the content of this album.
Newsom: No. But that’s sort of what I mean when I talk about compartmentalization. I have the “trash” portion of my brain and I have the non-“trash” portion of my brain. But that’s not exactly true, because I know with Have One On Me, I kind of let certain parts of the “trash” portion of my brain inform the other side, because it felt connected somehow, to that narrator. I’m pretty obsessed with interior design, and I’m pretty obsessed with furniture design, and I’ve gotten really deep into that world, but in a really useless way, where I can’t afford anything. It’s like following a sports team where I’m really familiarizing myself with a bunch of glorious, amazing furniture designers whose pieces are like $100,000 each.

Paste: So it’s like fashion and Kanye, but from more of a distance?
Newsom: [Laughs] Yeah! Sure! Kanye from a Distance: The Joanna Newsom Story! But that part of my brain, the hyper aesthete, I sort of let into Have One On Me a little bit. It felt useful. It doesn’t feel useful for Divers, so I didn’t really let it in. It didn’t really have much of a relationship to that area, or to that idea, but it really connected to the kind of decadence and aesthetic saturation that characterized the previous record.

Paste: You say that you compartmentalize, but when you’re in the composition phase of working with these heavy concepts, do you talk with other people about it? Or is it not until you’re collaborating with other musicians?
Newsom: I mostly don’t talk about it. There are probably exceptions. And you’re right, the collaboration with other musicians is definitely when that conversation happens, and it suddenly swings really steeply to the other side, where suddenly I’m over-explaining things in a way I never would in an interview, or anything like that, because I’m trying so hard to get us all on the same page in terms of meaning; that very problematic word “meaning.” It’s such a beautiful thing to allow listeners to find meaning and determine it and name it for themselves and frame it in language and symbolic ways that fit for their conception of the songs, but when I’m working with arrangers and collaborators, I’m real bossy about it, where it has to feel exactly this way, it has to sound exactly this way, it has to evoke exactly this meaning, it has to work towards creating an environment that feels precisely this way, because we all have to agree what this song means. We have to agree in order to make this as concentrated as possible. So I really belabor meaning during that point.

Paste: How often do the people you’re working with tell you that they just don’t get it?
Newsom: I don’t think anyone’s ever said, “oh, I don’t get it,” in terms of like what the song is about, but I’ve had collaborators say, “I don’t understand what you mean when you say that you want this solo violin to be played in a rattling manner that evokes the sound of a rope stretching on a ship connecting to a dock.”

Paste: Is that an actual instruction you’ve given?
Newsom: I think so, at some point. [Laughs]. There’s a lot of little vignettes like that, that we talk about, and usually how we do these arrangements is that I’ll bring a lyric sheet, and kind of describe what I want to be happening musically, while each lyric is being sung. It’s constantly linked back to the narrative and to the words. And then, because it’s so subjective, sometimes it takes a lot of back-and-forth, because I can describe a sound that I want being “lonely and distant,” and “lonely and distant” can sound completely different to my ear than it would to the ear of a collaborator of mine, so then I may have to go back to the drawing board and think of a more precise wording than that.

Paste: I’ve often wondered too about the instances when you double or triple your voice and make it a chorus of Joanna Newsoms, which you do a lot on this album. Is that because you can’t find the right voice, or the right person who gets what you’re going for?
Newsom: No, it was a choice for this record. I’ve had other people sing harmonies on records in the past. But one of the sort of sci-fi notions on this record is the idea of traveling sideways through time, colonizing various iterations of the multiverse in which human life never evolved to exist in the first place, having that be a form of population control. In “Waltz of the 101st Lightborne,” there’s this sort of horror movie sting that happens at the end, where a different version of Earth evolved to develop the exact same set of technological advances and basically, an iteration of Earth occurred where all of the conditions were exactly the same, and so it’s basically a copy, and they’re coming over to colonize in reverse, and this idea of doubling, so that’s sort of the horror/sci-fi version of doubling and there’s constant references to the doubling of the self and the halving of the self, the binary of the self throughout the record, so it seems to be the most sensible move to have myself be doubled and copied over and over again, singing harmonies, rather than bringing in another person.

Paste: What are your own beliefs and theories regarding all of this? Do you think time is something that’s nonlinear? Do you believe in reincarnation? Do you believe in God?
Newsom: I know this is going to sound very quaint, but I think that’s kind of private. I put the things that I’m interested in sharing publicly in a record, but all of those questions for me, that’s actually really personal, and I probably wouldn’t go into in too much depth.

Paste: Okay then, tell me this: A lot of this record does seem to be about how time will remember you. So how do you want to be remembered? It’s a hundred years from now and somebody looks Joanna Newsom up on whatever device they use to look things up, what do you hope it will say?
Newsom: I don’t know. Obviously, I’d like for it to say something. It’s kind of distressing to trip out on the notion of nothing coming up, of just being a blank. But it’s all so abstract to think about. I’ll be long gone. I think the only thing that really matters is that my friends and family from this space of my existence hopefully remember me well and love me and if I have kids that they remember me well and love me, and whatever love I gave them translates to them being happy and healthy people and them passing love onto the next people that come after them. And that’s the best form of immortality that I think there is. Not to be too corny, but kindness and love is essentially the only real immortality. And I guess evil is immortality as well. Any time you do an evil act it has repercussions for generations. I think those sorts of basic choices—good vs. evil—are some of the only substantive ways we have of marking the future forever.