Classically trained on the piano and pedal harp, Joanna Newsom is a young independent American singer songwriter whose music is almost impossible to define. Her magnum opus to date is without a doubt her 2006 recording Ys for the Drag City record label. While drawing on Americana, avant-garde, folk, classical and contemporary pop music, the album features five long “epic” meandering songs with unconventional structures. But the overarching influence seems to be more literary than musical. “How much were you sheltered from pop culture growing up?” was one of the questions put to her during a 2011 interview.
On the back of two confidential EPs released in the early 2000 but which nevertheless caught the ear of Will Oldham, the Nevada City native debuted with the Milk-Eyed Mender (2004) where she performed poetic songs accompanying herself on the classical harp. Then she released Ys in 2006. Harp and vocals were recorded first and were subsequently arranged for a full orchestra by maestro composer, arranger and producer Van Dyke Parks. The result is an ambitious, majestic and startling mix of baroque, poetic and esoteric songs, as emphasised by Emily, the opening song on Ys, written as a ode to her sister:
[…] Anyhow, I sat by your side, by the water.
You taught me the names of the stars overhead, that I wrote down in my ledger – though all I knew of the rote universe were those Pleiades loosed in December, I promised you I’d set them to verse so I’d always remember
That the meteorite is a source of the light,
And the meteor’s just what we see;
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee […]
Hearing Ys for the first time was a true musical epiphany. And while it made sense instantly, it is such an exuberant recording that I still feel I have barely scratched the surface. As Chris Dahlen concludes in his review of the album for Pitchfork:
The people who hear this record will split into two crowds: The ones who think it’s silly and precious, and the ones who, once they hear it, won’t be able to live without it.