Music News

Happy Birthday, Joanna Newsom!

​Born January 18, 1982, Joanna Newsom has made her mark in modern music circles as one of the chief proponents of what's been dubbed the psych-folk, freak folk or nü-folk movement, depending on the pundit. It's a curious hybrid, a combination of surreal arrangements and back-porch sensibilities. Imagine Joni Mitchell under an acid haze and a sound suggestion may be a bit easier to understand. Or not.

Not surprisingly, Newsom is the product of a musical family. Her father played guitar, and her mother was a classically trained pianist who was also adept at hammered dulcimer, autoharp, and conga drums. Newsom herself was apparently taken with this prodigious environment, and at a very young age, she started taking piano lessons before eventually learning to play the harp. 

That led to a music career that included two early homegrown EPs and three full-length CDs, The Milk-Eyed Mender (2004), Ys (2006), and the ambitious three-disc set Have One on Me (2010).

There are other artists who plow the same terrain -- the wildly eccentric hippy revisionist Devendra Banhart and indie outfits like Fleet Foxes, Espers, and Vetiver. Though in truth, the genre originated in the '60s with folks like the English songstress Vashti Bunyan and the eclectic West Coast combo known as the Holy Modal Rounders.

Yet in the space of little less than a decade, Newsom has become the maternal spirit of that movement. She's inspired both a book, Visions of Joanna Newsom, and an all-star digital tribute album of the same name that included Newsom covers by M. Ward, Billy Bragg, and Owen Pallett, among many others. However, Newsom's work has always provided popular fodder for others. The Decemberists, Final Fantasy, and Straylight Run have all tapped her catalog for their individual efforts.

In addition, Newsom's also made her name at several of the hipper venues on the festival circuit. In 2009, she unveiled a number of new songs at a secret concert in Big Sur, performing under the pseudonym "The Beatles's." This coming March, she'll take part in the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in the U.K. However, her most prominent appearance was the one that took her to the masses... specifically her vocal contribution to "The Muppet Show Theme" for the recent Muppets movie.

Yet for all her accolades, Newsom's fame seems somewhat out of sync with her underground ambitions. At very least, it would seem unlikely that a harpist with a preference for polyrhythms would be capable of capturing a wider following. Likewise, the juxtaposition of Appalachian tradition with avant-garde experimentation, no matter how adventurous, wouldn't seem the avenue to mass appeal appreciation. Still, the media seem to have set their sights on her and pointed her toward prominence.

And, oh yeah, she just might make the tabloids too. After all, she's dating Saturday Night Live cast member Andy Samberg. In today's gossipy environs, celebrity setups are a sure-shot way to stardom.

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Lee Zimmerman