Joanna Newsom on Andy Samberg, Stalkers and Latest Harp-Fueled Opus
Free from the parking spot, Newsom makes for the sanctuary, her stereo tuned to the Willie Nelson satellite-radio station. “I listen to Willie’s Roadhouse, a fair amount of Symphony Hall and a little bit of Bluegrass Junction,” she says. “Those are my presets.” As a kid, she and some friends choreographed dance routines to Paula Abdul songs, dubbing their squad “P.A. Patrol,” but that was more about social bonding than a love of pop, which hasn’t ever figured much into her diet. “You have to have such patience to get through the things that aren’t good to the things that are.” One of her recent radio favorites was “King Kunta,” by Kendrick Lamar, whom Newsom adores and in whose advanced wordplay and conceptual songwriting she has a kindred spirit. “I was driving and it came on and it’s great — it’s weird. It doesn’t exist in the same space throughout. He’s amazing. His last record was my favorite album that year.”
Newsom passes the Greek Theatre, where a sign announces that Lauryn Hill is performing tonight. “Awww shiiiiit,” she says. Soon we stow the SUV and hoof it through a cyclone fence into the bird sanctuary. The terrain is scorched and crumbly and for minutes the only creature in sight is an acorn woodpecker thwacking a dead trunk. Newsom wears cat-eye Miu Miu shades and a sundress whose muted earth-tones and subtle Navajo print suggest a very chicly tailored tablecloth. “Those are house finches over there,” she says, pointing them out on some chaparral. “And up there are starlings. But it’s so dry here. If there was more agave, we’d see way more ravens. You’ve got to go a tiny bit west for that. We should be seeing a lot of peregrine falcons, too, but I haven’t seen one. And if there were more flowers blooming, we’d see a shit-ton of hummingbirds.”
Newsom absorbed her ornithological know-how from her parents, who taught her to identify species on long childhood walks. Birds are a recurring theme on Divers, whose title refers, among other things, to their soaring and swooping trajectories. One of Newsom’s most impressive feats is how she balances rigorous, precise artistry with what, in lesser hands, could come off as hot-air, hippie-dippy mysticism. She tells me that one of Divers‘ inspirations was the simple, liberatory experience of “just watching birds fly, especially these loose-bodied, inefficiently flapping, joyful birds that just fling themselves at the sky, like the swallows you’ll see a lot around this town. You watch birds and you glimpse something, like a defiance of certain laws that otherwise seem un-defiable. Laws that seem to govern and define our lives in a way that’s impossible to transcend.” A falcon finally appears, strafing some dusty hills high above us. “Is un-defiable a word?” Newsom asks.
Growing up, Newsom was a precocious kid whose parents encouraged her idiosyncrasies. Her father, an oncologist, constantly read up on a variety of subjects, sharing facts about science, history and assorted esoterica; her mother, an internist, was devoted to environmental and feminist causes as well as meetings of her African-drum group, which gathered above the family garage. “We used to have these ‘poem races’ in the front yard,” Newsom recalls, in which her dad wrote words on pieces of paper and stuck them to trees, at which point Joanna, her brother and sister had to come up with poems for each word on the spot. (Today Newsom’s brother is a musician and her sister is an astrophysicist turned geophysicist.)