I (Don’t) Hate That is a series where a Bearded Gentlemen Music writer presents one song to convince another writer to not hate a previously hated artist.
There are plenty of things I like about indie music, actual independence being the big one. I love the do-it-yourself aspect of a person being able to create something without the pressure of sales or popularity. Not being defined by genre or label gives an artist a blank canvas with every color imaginable and that’s where the magic is. The downside of that freedom happens to be a bit of a superficial one. When an artist creates the kind of music they want to make, sometimes there’s this weird sense of obligation. Almost like if you take the time to listen, you have to enjoy it. This is something that keeps coming up when I try to listen to Joanna Newsom.
I remember sometime in 2007, hearing about how interesting Newsom was. With indie slowly becoming its own genre, it seemed like Newsom was the one to keep an eye on. She had a unique voice, played the harp, and wrote songs that went beyond the standard fare of an acoustic folk singer stereotype. On the surface, this was something I would be into, but I just didn’t get around to checking her out until I heard “The Sprout and The Bean” in the horror movie The Strangers. After the movie, I pulled up some of her music and not only was I immediately disappointed, but I felt bad about it.
“What We Have Known” was one of the other songs I checked out and while it’s unique I couldn’t get past the elephant in the room: Joanna Newsom sounds like Lisa Simpson.
I know it sounds really petty but I just can’t get past the sound of her voice. From what I’ve heard, her songwriting is fantastic lyrically, and I would sell my soul for a percentage of her musicianship. But I just can’t get into it. That weird obligation comes into play here for me. At the time there was so much hype surrounding her it made me feel like I was missing something. Of course, art is subjective, but I wanted to experience what all these fans were.
The songs I’ve heard are boring, pretentious, and her voice is grating beyond comprehension. However, I do have an open mind and I would love for you to change my mind. It’s not that I want to like Joanna Newsom because so many people do, it’s just that I feel like I should and I have guilt. Convince me I’m right or I’m wrong and complete my journey of curiosity, obligation, and guilt.
For the most part, you aren’t wrong. Her songs tend to be slower at times, and her voice is an acquired taste, to put it kindly. These are things you don’t necessarily learn to love but you get used to over time. She’s an artist that you need to listen to a lot of her music to get into, but the barrier of entry is so high that most people can’t clinch their teeth and push through the pain.
So I get it. The challenge here is finding a song that can sell you just enough on Newsom as an artist that you’ll give her a longer chance with her other stuff. It’s a difficult task. Newsom is Newsom no matter the song. There aren’t outliers here where she abandons her artistic self in a way that will convince you she’s not who she is.
My hard sell isn’t sounding very convincing so far, I know, but that’s the thing. If you’re going to get into her music, you’ll have to accept her how she is. At this point, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Pass on that, Kendon.”
Well, trust me a little, Coop. Jesus.
I chose the song “Leaving the City” from the album Drivers. (I almost picked an eight-minute song for you but had pity. You’re welcome.) The shorter run time of this song probably makes it an easier pill to swallow, but the real highlight here is that it condenses everything that is great about Newsom into that shorter run time. It’s like when a great novelist bangs out a really nice short story. It may not be her masterwork or anything. It doesn’t need to be. What it does is showcase all the things you might like about her.
What are those things? Thanks for asking, Coop!
You already know that it’s great lyrically. Typically heartbreaking as much of her work often is. What you may not have realized, without giving her more of a chance, is that she has a knack for really big moments that drop out into sadder, quieter parts. On her longer songs, you may have already checked out by the time she gets to them. Here, she gets to it in the first minute and a half.
What also helps is this is one of the few songs that aren’t just her voice and harp. The drums help propel her through much of the song. And while her voice isn’t “better” here, that propulsion adds frantic desperation to her voice in a way that makes “good” and “bad” matter less.
Before I leave you to it, though, I do want to respond to your “pretentious” accusation.
Newsom might be the least pretentious artist I’ve ever known. She’s joyfully uncool. Her lyrics and style aren’t hip in any way, and it’s a small miracle the cynical assholes of the indie-loving world like her at all. I know you’re probably reacting to the “so cool it’s uncool” crowd, so I forgive you for this one, but Newsom herself just likes making dorky music. Nothing about her is trying to be cool — and certainly not cooler than thou.
Okay, so I gave this song a proper listen. The first thing I’ll comment on is the arrangement. I’m glad you chose one that isn’t just harp and vocal. Hearing her voice layered and somewhat compressed makes it a little less grating. That’s the first win. Not being able to make it through a song without cringing with every word is important. I’m not sure it’s enough for me to give her a pass on vocals but this goes a long way towards acceptance.
I also really like the production on this track. You already know I’m a lover of headphones and with a good set up, you can hear all the subtle nuance of the instruments. The harp is there but it’s elevated by piano, strings, and what sounds like a harmonium (or marxophone?). The drums are a nice touch but for me, the star is the leitmotif thing she does with the verse and chorus. (To understand what a leitmotif is, see my 1-ups and Innovation: Understanding The Music Of Super Mario article). During the chorus, her vocal line is the same chord progression her harp plays during the verses and vice versa. That may sound nerdy to someone not interested in music theory, but I really appreciate details like that.
I can’t say I like this song but it does make me see her as an artist in a different way.
She’s a music nerd and that pretty much sums it up. Someone who isn’t interested in making music for car commercials or Spotify playlists. Newsom makes the kind of music that demands attention to detail. It may sound insulting but in a lot of ways, its similar to Minecraft music. Your brain enjoys it before your heart does. I better stop before it’s me who starts sounding pretentious!
“Leaving The City” hasn’t converted me into a Joanna Newsom fan but this song is far more interesting than the two I heard a decade ago. I think I’m warming up to the idea of hearing more from this album, or at least stuff in the same vein. I’m still not sold on her Lisa Simpson voice though. However, I think her musicianship is the meat and potatoes of the meal and the vocals just the salt and pepper.
The verdict on this one is I don’t hate Joanna Newsom, maybe just the hype.
Aaron (or Coop) is a freelance writer, multi-instrumentalist and overall lover of all things music. As an advocate for indie record labels and artists, he is passionate about local scenes and do-it-yourself artistry. If it’s good, it’s good. If it’s bad, he’s not afraid to explain why.