Joanna Newsom On Nabokov, Songwriting And Music Journalism A decade after her breakout debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, Newsom unvelied her fourth album, Divers, this week. She speaks with NPR's Scott Simon.

Joanna Newsom On Nabokov, Songwriting And Music Journalism

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Harp music is often considered to be ethereal, even soothing. Think of lullabies. Joanna Newsom is a different kind of harpist. She's the kind who could wake a baby.


JOANNA NEWSOM: (Singing) Bleach our collar, leech our dollar from our cents. The longer the live, the higher the rent. Beneath the pale sky.

SIMON: Joanna Newsom's new album is called "Divers." She joins us now from out studios in Culver City, Calif., NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

NEWSOM: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The harp wouldn't seem to be the most obvious instrument on which to build a career in indie music.

NEWSOM: Right, I wasn't really focused on a career in indie music when I started playing the harp as a small child.

SIMON: How'd you meet the harp? If I might put it that way?

NEWSOM: I saw the harpist, who ended up being my first teacher, performing somewhere in our town.

SIMON: Which town is this?

NEWSOM: Nevada City, Calif. I was, I think, 4 and just started harassing my mom on a daily basis about wanting harp lessons. And she finally took me in to see the teacher named Lisa Stine. And Lisa said the youngest she would go for a student was 8 years old. So she wanted me to take piano lessons for a few years. And I did take piano lessons maybe one year and just continued to bother my parents about wanting to learn the harp. So they took me back to Lisa and she finally agreed to teach me.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the title track from "Divers."


NEWSOM: (Singing) The diver is my love and I am his, if I am not deceived.

SIMON: So what's the imagery at work there? What do you take from the image of a diver? What do you want us to?

NEWSOM: I guess I don't even think in terms of what I want the listener to take from an image. That's not really how I write. I think it's a little simplistic for me to say I write down the images that are in my mind because it's not like I just have a frozen image that I'm illustrating with the language. But it's maybe a set of visual imperatives and feelings and ideas that feel like they're waiting to be connected. And it's the most literal in this song, but there are incidents of diving in various forms throughout the record, falling or crashing an airplane or divebombing or being a bird diving for prey.


NEWSOM: (Singing) How do you choose the time you must exhale and kick and rise?

SIMON: Is there another songwriter, a lyricist, a novelist who's been a real influence on you?

NEWSOM: I think probably Nabakov has been the biggest influence on me as a writer. Particularly - there's something interesting that happens in the novels that he translated himself from Russian into English, rather than the novels that were translated by someone else. I am interested in the process of a brain as incredibly gifted as his brain was writing in what was essentially his second language.

SIMON: Yes, 'cause for example, I mean, I seem to recall he wrote "Lolita" in English.

NEWSOM: Yes, he did. But I - in a way, I think of it as a translation because there's a brief moment of translation that happens - I would imagine - any time you speak in a second language. And I - I liken somehow the process that Nabokov applied to writing in English to writing a line of prose that has a secondary imperative to be musical in some way.


NEWSOM: (Singing) The cause is Ozymandian. The map of Sapokanikan is sanded and beveled, the land lone and leveled by some unrecorded and powerful hand.

SIMON: If you kind of trace back the way in which your career has been written about over the years, especially a few years ago. At the start of your career there was a lot of kind of characterizing you as ethereal, whimsical girl of the woods sort of.

NEWSOM: Right.

SIMON: How do you feel about that now?

NEWSOM: Well, I do think that pretty much every person who makes music has some thing that he or she cannot shake and doesn't really relate to (laughter) and that this is mine, so I can't complain too much.

SIMON: Joanna Newsom, her new album is "Divers." Thanks so much for being with us.

NEWSOM: Thanks so much for having me.


NEWSOM: (Singing) Saw his ship in its whistling ascension as they launched from the Capitol seat. Sweat I saw our mistake...

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