The Prince William Concert Grand harp stands over 74 inches tall, weighs 83 pounds and costs $89,000. According to Lyon & Healy, its manufacturer, the harp features not only a “clear and resonant” sound but also clusters of “23+ karat” gilded roses at its crown and pedestal, double rosewood inlay and a motif of ribbons and vines hand-drawn in gold leaf on its Sitka spruce soundboard. The instrument, in other words, is a lot like the music of Joanna Newsom, who plays one: elaborately, beautifully, preposterously well-wrought. Newsom has the unlikely distinction of being the best-known harpist in American indie music, and she’s probably the best-known harpist in America, period, selling hundreds of thousands of records and earning champions like Will Oldham, who gave Newsom her big break; Dave Eggers, who’s written rhapsodically about her; and Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast her in Inherent Vice and directed two of her videos. Newsom has acted on Portlandia and starred in an MGMT video, too, but music has been her obsession since she declared, around age 4, that she wanted to learn the harp.
A few years later, an impressed instructor taught her a revelatory new way to think about the instrument, derived from polymetric West African traditions, that stoked Newsom’s sense that harps were capable of more than just making pretty glissandi: “The idea is that the left hand” — which plays the bass part — “is very grounded, playing a steady one-two-three-four beat, and that’s the earth,” Newsom says. “But your right hand” — which plucks out the melodic line — “is doing a one-two-three that never grounds, never resolves, and that’s heaven.” Newsom drums her fingers to illustrate, creating a transfixing beat that undulates in and out of phase, then raises her hands to her temples to mime her pre-adolescent skull shattering. “It was mind-melting,” she says. “Heaven and earth come together every 12 beats.”
Newsom bought her Prince William a few years ago at a steep discount — “Lyon & Healy basically sponsored me” — and it squeezes just barely into the back of her Audi SUV, which she has parked, at the moment, in a comically tight space in Los Angeles. Newsom is a self-described insomniac and although it’s nearly 4 p.m. on a Monday, she only just ate breakfast, at an old-timey restaurant in Los Feliz. There’s a nearby bird sanctuary she’s curious to visit next. “I haven’t had a car since I was 16 that couldn’t fit a harp,” she says, tugging at her steering wheel and dislodging the Audi in fits and starts. In high school she drove a “1992 Plymouth Voyager in periwinkle,” and while her ride’s gotten sleeker since then, the principle stands: “I need a dumb, big car.” When Newsom isn’t schlepping the Prince William to rehearsal spaces or recording studios, it lives in her music room at home, near her piano and framed by windows facing pine trees, which are uncommon in Los Angeles and remind her of her birthplace.
Newsom comes from just outside Nevada City, a small, New Age–y mecca in Northern California; on the music room’s western wall is an oil portrait of her, painted by a hometown pal, which she used for the cover of her 2006 album, Ys, and which her husband, Andy Samberg — the Brooklyn Nine-Nine star, 2015 Emmys host and former Saturday Night Live wunderkind — bought from the painter last Christmas as a gift to Newsom. The Audi’s backseat is currently flat, ready to receive the harp at a moment’s notice, and the dashboard is beeping frantically because Newsom’s close to crunching the bumper behind her. “It took me a good two minutes to get into this spot,” she says. “I had a mortifying Austin Powers moment.” Newsom realizes she just name-checked a gag from 1997 and adds, in a self-deprecating deadpan, “Which is a topical, timely reference.”