Harpist and singer Joanna Newsom—classically trained but a darling of the indie-rock world—constantly challenges herself. The process of reaching beyond her abilities is one of her primary methods for artistic growth.
"That's true in terms of my music, I guess, but maybe not in the rest of my life," she says with a chuckle during a recent phone interview from her home in Northern California.
Newsom will return to Tucson to play a concert on Nov. 6 at the Rialto Theatre.
"I used to do this with my harp stuff, and it moved into my vocal stuff, where I would find myself writing something I wasn't quite capable of performing, and I would have to practice really hard to learn to play it.
"I would write a harp figure at the speed I wanted to play it, for instance, even if I knew I really couldn't do it yet. So I would play it over and over and over again until I forced myself to learn how. The same goes for my writing for vocals; I expanded the technical stuff to fit the song, past the limits of my abilities."
Newsom, 28, sings in an airy soprano, in a classic folk style, floating on Celtic- or Appalachian-derived melodies that at first seem dainty but reveal hidden strength and depth on subsequent listens. It is a voice you either love or hate, and one that has been much commented on since her "official" debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, was released in 2004.
Since then, Newsom has released two albums—Ys in 2006 and this year's exquisite three-CD set, Have One on Me—and an EP. Before The Milk-Eyed Mender, she also made and self-released the recordings Walnut Whales and Yarn and Glue. And she has added harp to recordings by fellow artists such as Smog, Vetiver, Vashti Bunyan and The Roots, among others.
Although Newsom has grown increasingly popular with the alternative-rock and independent-music crowds, she has a hard time figuring out which camp she belongs in. "It's a mystery to me. I can see why people call it rock music—I mean, there are sometimes electric guitars in it—but people also sometimes lump it into folk music, pop, country, everything.
"I would consider it part of the singer-songwriter tradition. Although I don't like the way that expression is sometimes used, it includes some of my favorite artists, such as Carole King, Roy Harper and Mickey Newbury."
Newsom's growing career has attracted devoted listeners who consume and digest everything she releases, meticulously examining every song lyric, musical arrangement and album cover. In fact, a book of academic essays parsing her work, Visions of Joanna Newsom, was published this year.
Newsom says the singing voice is like a muscle that must be exercised regularly. "The ability to use it, to make it stronger, is based on constant exercise. And if you don't use it for long enough, it can start to atrophy."
These days, her once-fairy-sprite voice has lost much of the squeaky quality that caused some listeners to liken it to a cross between Kate Bush and Lisa Simpson. It has become slightly deeper and richer, in no small part because Newsom has exercised it like a muscle, especially in 2009, when nodules on her vocal cords threatened to destroy it.
The nodules went away with rest and care, and Newsom avoided surgery, but she changed the manner in which she sings.
"I had to learn to do vocal warm-ups after I had the nodules, and I lost my voice temporarily. I took lessons on how to do vocal exercises, partially to improve my abilities and technique, but also to make sure I was warmed up and didn't go into singing cold. That has been something that has helped my voice a great deal."
The process helped Newsom challenge herself during the making of the ambitious Have One on Me. Totaling more than two hours, the music on the album represents three "chapters," she says. It also is loosely meant to illustrate the 24-hour cycle of early morning, daytime and evening. However, listeners and critics have been more focused on searching it for clues to her love life and investigating themes of home, hearth and land.
She also has been testing herself in terms of composing, she says. Newsom began writing songs on piano rather than her usual instrument, the harp.
"One of my goals for this record was to try to approach the songs in a little different fashion than I did in the past. I worked often on the piano to form the core, building a song skeleton, and then adding the flesh and blood and skin. At this point, you have to decide whether the song stays on the piano, or (goes to) the harp, whether it is a solo arrangement, or what other instruments you want to add."
On some of the new album's tunes, Newsom doesn't even play harp. "Occident," for instance, is arranged for simply her piano and vocals.
"I wanted to make sure each song had what it needed for the best presentation, the right chord structures and melodies. My abilities are so limited on the piano that I didn't want to make the songs struggle just so we could have piano on them. But at the same time, you want to test your limits."
On her current tour, Newsom is accompanied by multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger Ryan Francesconi, drummer Neal Morgan and trombonist Andrew Strain. She can't say enough about her band.
Francesconi plays acoustic and electric guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, tambura and recorder. "He's like having eight people to play with," Newsom said.
"And Neal (Morgan) is the arranger of the drum parts on the record, and he sings, too. He's an amazing musician in his own right as well. And Andy Strain, when he plays trombone, is able to take all of the horn and wind parts—trumpet and bass clarinet and bassoon—and he'll play them all on the trombone in the most amazing way."