Credit: Annabel Mehran
There are some songs you’ll always associate with certain moments in your life. “Maria” by Blondie will always remind me of my Year 11 prom, yelling the chorus along with everyone else as a strange tribute to Maria, a woman who worked in the art department at our school. “Apple Cider Reconstitution” by Al Stewart takes me back to being six and lying on the brown carpet of my home, my head near the soft black speakers. And Joanna Newsom makes me think of autumn, and of winter.
It’s strange, because I first listened to her in the summer. On a hot, dark night when I couldn’t sleep, I played “Peach, Plum, Pear” for the first time. I didn’t like it. I gave her the benefit of the doubt though, and played another of hers: “‘81”. This one I liked infinitely better, although I didn’t really know why. I fell asleep dreaming of the garden of Eden, dirt, dragons, and harps. I found a cover of “‘81”, that I liked even better; this one had twanging guitars and haunting echoes of chords. The singing was softer, sung with a rounder, deeper voice. I wandered around my university house for weeks, singing it over and over again.
I returned to Joanna Newsom in the autumn, a year later. It was a real autumn, a proper autumn, with orange leaves and mist and fog. I listened to the aptly-named “Autumn” and I didn’t look back. I fell in love with her work completely. Even the ghosts, Newsom sings, huddled up for warmth. Autumn has come to my hometown. Her slow, addictive, complex songs are suited to the autumn and winter, when time seems to slow down, when the trees bend their heads and shake off their leaves. A kind of hibernation occurs in everyone during this time of year (we stay in more, we eat more) and for me, Joanna Newsom’s songs conjure up that sense of rest, recharging, and the hint of something fresh and new peeking around the corner. They invite in spring, and new life, whilst keeping you safe in the warmth of the golden autumn and snug in a blanket covering for the winter. Pitchfork’s review of Have One On Me tells us: “Newsom seems to sing from somewhere deep inside of them [the songs], and her earthy presence has a way of drawing you in.” “Earthy presence” is definitely right: to my mind, Newsom’s voice has an otherworldly quality while also being completely grounded in the familiar. Her songs remind me of stories of faeries, who have lived on this earth for much longer than you or I, and know the secrets it contains.
Newsom’s most recent album, Divers, was released October 23rd a few years ago, just as the autumn began to turn colder and the nights began to get darker. Pitchfork described the album as “a love letter in the form of a reckoning with death”. Death and winter are, of course, so often linked. It probably helps that I listened to Divers alongside my watching of the BBC miniseries of War and Peace (2016), and now can’t untangle the two from each other. “Anecdotes”, the first song on the album, is a song about war, of loss and love. I wept listening to the lines Now hush, little babe/You don’t want to be/down in the trenches/remembering with me … where you will not mark my leaving/and you will not hear my parting song/Nor is there cause for grieving/Nor is there cause for carrying on. The pureness of the notes Newsom achieves when she carries on to the last verse:—and daughter, when you are able/come down and join! The kettle’s on/and your family’s round the table/Will you come down, before the sun is gone? affected me more than I would’ve thought. This song is forever tied up with frosty images of wounded and dying men, of a cold and beautiful Russia, and a family finding out (they believe) that their son and brother and husband is dead.
When looking back on Newsom’s album The Milk Eyed Mender, on its tenth anniversary, John Everhart for Stereogum says that Newsom’s album created “a world of blues, folk, bucolic campfire singalongs; songs of pain, the ache of memories, and ultimately, the infinite possibilities for redemption and healing.” It’s certainly true that her songs touch on difficult, knotty subjects: the loss of a friend in “Sadie” (But the water got so cold/and you do lose/what you don’t hold), the loss of a child in “Have One On Me’s Baby Birch” and “On a Good Day” (I saw a life and I called it mine/I saw it drawn so sweet and fine). Connections have been made between her use of “water” in lyrics to represent love and life. “On a Good Day” continues with Newsom singing The creek is lying flat and still/It is water though it’s frozen; the child does not stop being a child, does not stop being her child, just because it has died. In “Baby Birch”, along a similar vein, she sings We heard the rushing, slow intake/Of the dark, dark water. Water changing from a moving, living thing to a cold, dark, frozen thing belongs to the winter, and I believe these songs belong to winter too. And don’t the lines There is a spring/Not far from here/The water runs/Both sweet and clear/Both sweet and clear/And cold/Could crack your bones/With veins of gold summon in your mind the cold gold of autumn?
from the “Divers” music video, credit Kim Keever
Winter is beautiful and harsh, and Joanna Newsom’s songs are beautiful and harsh too. I can’t pretend that, on an intellectual level, I understand her when she sings your skin is something that I stir into my tea/and you are starry, starry, starry but emotionally I do. And when I listen to the last song on Divers, “Time as a Symptom”, and Newsom sings out The nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating/Joy of life in a repeating, circular melody that builds and builds (Again, around–a pause, a sound–a song/A way a lone a last a loved a-long/A cave, a grave, a day: arise, ascend/(Areion, Rharian, go free and graze/Amen) I imagine her putting winter to bed, and heralding in the spring. No time, no flock, no chime, no clock, no end/White star, white ship nightjar, transmit, transcend-! •
Catherine Mitchell is a library assistant and writer from the UK. She likes cooking with too much garlic, staying up too late, and spending too much money on books. Find her on Twitter @caffrinem