Joanna Caroline Newsom (born January 18, 1982) is an American multi-instrumentalist, singer-songwriter, and actress. Born in Northern California, Newsom was classically trained on the harp in her youth, and began her musical career as a keyboardist in the San Francisco–based indie band The Pleased.
After recording and self-releasing two EPs in 2002, Newsom was signed to the independent label Drag City. Her debut album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, was released in 2004 to critical acclaim, and garnered Newsom an underground following. She would receive wider exposure with the release of Ys (2006), which charted at number 134 on the Billboard 200, and was nominated for a 2007 Shortlist Music Prize.
She released two further albums: Have One on Me (2010), and Divers (2015), the latter of which outsold all of her previous albums. Newsom has been noted by critics for her unique musical style, sometimes characterized as psychedelic folk, and her prominent use of harp instrumentation. She has also appeared as an actress, with roles in the television series Portlandia and in the 2014 film Inherent Vice.
Newsom’s early work was strongly influenced by polyrhythms. After Ys, Newsom said she had lost interest in polyrhythms. They “stopped being fascinating to me and started feeling wanky.”
The press has sometimes labeled her as one of the most prominent members of the modern psychedelic folk and freak folk movement. Newsom, however, claims no ties to any particular music scene. Her song-writing incorporates elements of Appalachian music and avant-garde modernism.
Newsom is a soprano. Her vocal style (in the November 2006 issue of The Wire, she described her voice as “untrainable“) has shadings of folk and Appalachian shaped-note timbres. Newsom has, however, expressed disappointment at comments that her singing is “child-like.”
Critics noticed a change in Newsom’s voice on her album Have One on Me. In the spring of 2009, Newsom developed vocal cord nodules and could not speak or sing for two months. The recovery from the nodules and further “vocal modifications” changed her voice.
2 EPs from 2002 – 2003
4 studio albums from 2004 – 2015
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Newsom was the second child of Christine (née Mueller) and William Newsom. Her parents, both doctors, were “progressive-minded professionals” who had previously lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Newsom was raised in Nevada City along with her older brother, Peter, and younger sister, Emily. She is the second cousin, twice removed, of Gavin Newsom, Governor of California.
As a child, Newsom was not allowed to watch television or listen to the radio. She describes her parents as “kind of idealists when it came to hoping they could protect us from bad influences, like violent movies, or stupid stuff.” She was exposed to music from a young age. Her father played the guitar and her mother was a classically trained pianist who played the hammered dulcimer, the autoharp and conga drums. Newsom attended a Waldorf school, where she studied theater and learned to memorize and recite long poems.
At the age of five, Newsom asked her parents if she could learn to play the harp. Her parents eventually agreed to sign her up for harp lessons, but the local harp instructor did not want to take on such a young student and suggested she learn to play the piano first. She did, and later moved on to the harp which she “loved from the first lesson onward.” She first played on smaller Celtic harps until her parents bought her a full-size pedal harp in the seventh grade