Many, many years ago, in 2004, I was made aware of the most intriguing song: “Peach, Plum, Pear”. Joanna Newsom’s voice on this song was nothing short of intriguing. At the time it was something like masochism. Because my friends hate me, they bought me her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender.
Joke was on them: I listened to it most thoroughly, and learned to love Joanna. Her bite-sized songs were whimsical, sounded most pleasant, and you could acclimatise yourself to the voice. I think that she understands that herself, but it hasn’t stopped an army of support. In late 2005, I went and saw Joanna play the Metro. She cracked out some new songs which would go on to be recorded on Ys. I will admit here and now that I got lost in these songs, which is particularly easy considering that they’re each about twelve minutes long.
I bought Ys when it came out and it sounds beautiful but I honestly cannot tell you what any of it means.
Which brings us to Friday night, after almost four years of adventure: Joanna Newsom plays the Sydney Opera House, with the support of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Joanna began the show with Ys. Like … she literally played the album, start to finish, with some cursory nods to her band and to the orchestra. The lights were low and, frankly, the effect was somewhat soporiffic to someone who had been on his feet with work all week. I didn’t fall asleep, and I did enjoy what I was listening to, but Ys gives me a strong disconnect. I can’t follow the songs, they just seem to amble along with references to monkeys, bears, meteorites and meteoroids.
At the end of the first act, Joanna said that she would be bidding farewell to the orchestra and that the second half would be her older stuff. I was filled with a palpable excitement, while at the same time feeling like a terrible person: revelling in the safer stuff? What kind of fan am I!
So, cue the second half of the show: lights are brighter! It’s just Joanna Newsom and her band: one fellow on drums and backing vocals, Neal Morgan, and another alternating between the banjo and tambura, Ryan Francesconi. It was hard not to notice that Neal Morgan was not wearing any shoes – and so, at this juncture, Joanna decided that she would connect to the audience.
“Just before we came onto the stage tonight,” she told us, “And I mean, we were just waiting outside the door, Neal cut his foot on some glass. It was in his shoe. He told the conductor about it, and the conductor said ‘Oh! You found my shard.’ ‘Yeah, sorry I bled on it.’ It was great.”
That’s the sort of stuff I go to a show for. Joanna Newsom was finally at home with us, rather than having to endure the stiff formality of working with an orchestra, and we were well rewarded: “Bridges and Balloons” was our first treat. As we progressed, she played “Peach, Plum, Pear”, which sounded entirely different when performed with the aid of a drum, seeming more like an epic adventure than whatever it was on the original album. “Peach, Plum, Pear” is an intriguing song, but even to this day certain parts of the recording itself leave me wondering precisely what was being thought.
There was a song, “Colleen”, from the elusive Joanna Newsom and the Ys Street Band EP, which was definitely pleasant to the sound. Joanna herself was unwilling to name the EP because she thinks that the name sounds silly now – as many things do when you say them too much. In between songs, she also commented on the damper that Neal was using for his drum – a shirt that read “OBAMA ’08”. He told us that he had been informed that, if Obama gets in, he will be “the first world citizen to be President of the United States”. The audience cheered this, but you could tell that we weren’t really sure how to take it. Did Jet, for instance, play in the US wearing “KEVIN ’07” shirts? My friend Rowan informs me that Joanna said in the Saturday show that this had caused quite the controversy, which I suppose must have happened back stage. Still, the Saturday people got to observe the shirt.
We were treated to two nameless new songs as well, and the ultimate song for the band total – which I shamefully cannot recall off the top of my head – had Joanna telling us afterwards that a certain chord is broken in her mind, and that it’s one upon which Neal relies for an “epic harmony”. He says that she hates him for it and she would have to pay him $10 afterwards, like James Brown. A beautiful rendition of “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” capped off the night, but that would not be the end of it! No, Joanna came back on, with Neal and Ryan, and launched into … “Inflammatory Writ”! You read that right. Back when I saw her in 2005, Joanna took requests in her encore. She was asked to play “Inflammatory Writ”, but she hilariously could not remember all of the words. I had read in an interview that she needs to play the music to sing the words, and that they kind of guide each other.
To compound this, “Inflammatory Writ” is a piano song. She doesn’t normally play it on a harp.
What followed was her playing the song, and periodically forgetting a part, and then playing the part leading up to it again, while the audience called out the lyrics to her. It greatly endeared me to her on that evening. To hear Joanna playing “Inflammatory Writ”, note and word perfect, to truly call quits to the night, was a moment of perfection that saw me leaving the Opera House with a smile on my face and a song on my lips.