In the 2010 essay collection Visions of Joanna Newsom, writer Dave Eggers described the music of Joanna Newsom as making “my heart feel stout, and enables me, with my eyes, to breathe fire.” This characterization is befitting of the ethereal, dream-like qualities of the California singer-songwriter, whose persona has inspired its own fantastical mythology.
There are many reasons why Newsom is a singularly unique performer, and not only because she’s one of a select few musicians who play the pedal harp in the indie scene. Her enchanting voice is unparalleled at conveying stories like the journey in “Bridges and Balloons” (“We sailed away on a winter’s day, with fate as malleable as clay”) or the nine-minute tale of “Monkey and Bear,” believed to be a reference to the Ursa Major constellation.
Because of this, Newsom has amassed a devoted, almost diehard following, many of whom gathered at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday, March 25, for the first of two consecutive shows at the downtown L.A. venue. Audience members in the packed venue included Marc Maron, Carrie Brownstein, Maya Rudolph, Nick Kroll, Jason Mantzoukas, Ty Segall, Julia Holter, Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen, Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth (who contributed orchestral arrangements for new album Divers) and Newsom’s husband, Andy Samberg.
Dressed in a floor-length floral gown designed by Michael van der Ham (whom Newsom said “made 11 dresses to go with 11 songs on the record”), she arrived on stage with a backdrop that mirrored the cover art of Divers, a pastel-tinted image of clouds. Her backing band included her brother Pete (keyboards and drums) and her sister Emily (vocals, cello and recorder) as well as multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi and violinists and backup vocalists Mirabai Peart and Veronique Serret.
The arrangements of the music were rich and engrossing, particularly when, midway through the set, she performed the beautiful Have One on Me track “In California,” a love song filled with poetic imagery: “I have torn my soul apart, from pulling artlessly with fool commands.” Her haunting call of “cuckoo,” imitating the bird in a cuckoo clock, resonated powerfully with the thunderous drums.
Another standout was the Divers track “Time, as a Symptom,” in which Newsom repeatedly sings of the “nullifying, defeating, negating, repeating joy of life.” Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors and Robin Pecknold, who opened the show, also joined in during that song, which began with a spareness — just Newsom and the piano — before quickening its pace with the addition of drums, violins and additional vocals, as Newsom delivered the last three verses in rapid-fire style.
At one point, when Newsom tuned her harp, she invited the audience to ask her questions. One of the first was, “What’s your favorite Kate Bush album?” Newsom admitted, “I get that weirdly a lot,” referring to the comparisons between her and the British singer, before responding, “The Kick Inside.” When another fan asked, “How’s Andy?” the private Newsom simply smiled and said, “Any other questions?” Unfortunately, there was the crude question (one man asked “DTF?”) and an odd comment (one fan yelled about Jesus Christ), and Newsom resumed the performance, commenting, “I feel like I can get by on half a tuned harp.”
The five-minute question-and-answer session was a rare peek inside the singer-songwriter, who has no online social media presence and doesn’t divulge much about her private life. Her focus, clearly, is on the music, and it is through her songs that fans can attempt to understand the thoughts and imaginations of the immensely talented Joanna Newsom.