To call Joanna Newsom unusual would miss the point. Yes, on the surface she seems quirky, and everything about her seems quirky as well – her look, mannerisms, voice, the sometimes indecipherable lyrics, her often disjointed melodies and even more disjunct chord and song structures.
But dig a little deeper and there’s a ton of substance here, often from actual history. Consider her single “Sapokanikan” from Diver, her fourth and most recent studio effort. The song’s title derives from the name of a Native American village, which was located on the current-day site of New York City’s Washington Square Park – and which not coincidentally was also the location Newsom chose for the video shoot supporting the song.
Also of note are Newsom’s complex lyrics, which even borrow from Percy Shelley’s most famous sonnet, “Ozymandias.” Published in 1818, the poem is obscure but as relevant today as back when, due to timeless themes like the impermanence of human achievement, mortality and a monarch’s fall from power owing to unbridled hubris. She explained the often weird and always intricate nature of her lyrics to Rolling Stone recently by saying, “I don’t want to solve the mystery because it’s like explaining why a joke is funny.”
One day when Newsom was just 4, she announced to her parents that she wanted to play the harp, and music has been an obsession ever since. Local and Bay Area alt-music buffs might recall her emergence as a member of the legendary SF-based six-piece indie group The Pleased, where she surfaced in 2002 as a keyboardist. But through all of her various side hustles, she has written and written and written some more. And while her work may not be for everyone, she’s now caught more than enough ears, minds and hearts to be selling out major venues in cities all over the country.
There are no formulaic, hook-laden, three-minute, made-for-radio tunes here. It’s wild, and wildly creative. Call it experimental Medieval boutique alt-punk. Or maybe Celtic chamber folk.
However it’s labeled, it isn’t a background, easy listening music. It is unpredictable and makes considerable demands upon its listeners – especially to be present and fully open to large doses of unique, original musical statements and possibilities.
JOANNA NEWSOM, THE STRINGS/KEYS INCIDENT TOUR 8pm Friday, Nov. 22. Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth, Carmel. $39-$59. 620-2048, sunsetcenter.org