Joanna Newsom: Best rapper alive?

Joanna_lThe Brooklyn Academy of Music hummed with anticipation last night. One row ahead of me in the hipster-heavy crowd, Saturday Night Live clowns Andy Samberg, Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer whispered and giggled to one another. The formally attired players of the Brooklyn Philharmonic filed quietly on stage. And the sold-out house burst into fevered applause when the night’s star strode out from the wings: Indie-folk harpist Joanna Newsom, here to play her 2006 masterpiece Ys in its entirety on the next-to-last date of a world tour.

Ys (pronounced "eess") is a profoundly strange piece of music, perhaps even more so in a live setting. The Philharmonic brought composer Van Dyke Parks‘ psychedelic orchestral arrangements to head-spinning life as Newsom led them through the album’s five meandering suites. And Newsom’s dexterous dance with her harp strings was, as always, impressive. But her sheer verbal wizardry was what really drove the show — her ability to recite an hour’s worth of dense, passionate poetry without missing a beat. Newsom is one of the few musicians who’s really, truly unlike anyone else at all. Still, the way she unleashed those great gusts of language made her seem something like an ancient rhapsode unspooling Homer from memory, or Dylan at his far-out ’66 peak, or maybe Lil Wayne on a particularly peak-quality mixtape bender. (Joanna Newsom: Best rapper alive?)

The Philharmonic definitely added a vivid jolt to Newsom’s songs, but she shone most brightly on the night’s sole solo performance, "Sawdust and Diamonds". After Ys, she ditched the orchestral baggage altogether and returned with a stripped-down trio — "the Ys Street Band," as she’s wittily dubbed them — to play some old favorites and a couple of new pieces, plus a brief interlude in which Newsom and her drummer enthusiastically endorsed Barack Obama in advance of next week’s New York primary. Both of the new offerings were long, untitled, and beautifully weird. (Check out a recent performance in Brazil of Newsom’s second new song below.) One fleeting performance was hardly enough to tease out their meanings; here’s hoping Newsom heads back to the studio soon so we can pore over them properly. 

addCredit(“Joanna Newsom: Wendell Teodoro/”)

Comments (6 total) Add your comment
  • Bear

    There can’t possibly be no comments. Anyway, that video was mind-blowing. I get a little wary of people who try to be ‘different,’ but it’s obvious Joanna Newsom is channeling a separate plane from the rest of us. I love it. Going to iTunes now to check her out. Man, this makes me wish AGAIN that I lived in New York.

  • Leo

    Ys is so good it is hard to listen to anything else afterward. Props to Popwatch for featuring her on the page. I don’t know if a lot of people will “get” her, but those that do will be forever grateful.

  • Kevin

    I understand that she is musically talented. She might even be a good lyricist. But that voice! It’s like Carol Kane trying to sing whilst gargling shards of glass. It’s not pretty.

  • lola

    Wow! This sounds…unusual.
    –read my blog at

  • Chad

    Her voice is unique, not like all the rest, may take some getting used to, but I find it incredibly beautiful. She expresses vulnerability and emotion, but at the same time has a raw power. If you listen to all her recordings (more!more!) you can hear how her voice has grown and gotten richer. Hearing her for the first time, a lot of people have an odd reaction, but it’s simply due to the fact that she is so unusual.

  • jess

    Have you guys seen this hilarious video on It compares her music to baby gargle. I love her music but this video had me laughing my ass off.
    Check it out here:

Add your comment
The rules: Keep it clean, and stay on the subject - or we may delete your comment. If you see inappropriate language, e-mail us. An asterisk (*) indicates a required field.

When you click on the "Post Comment" button above to submit your comments, you are indicating your acceptance of and are agreeing to the Terms of Service. You can also read our Privacy Policy.

Latest Videos


From Our Partners

TV Recaps

Powered by VIP