Outer Child

Meet Joanna Newsom, a California girl with a harp -- and an overnight sensation

It's raining in San Francisco and the city streets are, as always, confused by the wet. Heroin addicts pile into the pay toilets on Market Street, midsize sedans honk in slippery frustration, and outside Café Du Nord, eager showgoers bounce and giggle as they wait in the rain.

Inside, it's thick and hot. Sweater weather plus one hundred people equals sauna. But everyone is palpably excited, and with good cause. Devendra Banhart is headlining, and the gypsy folk minstrel is currently basking -- or wallowing -- in next-big-thing hype. The place is packed, and it's especially uncomfortable up near the stage, where the devoted have managed to wrangle seats on the floor, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip.

To make matters worse, it seems that three bands are opening for Banhart, instead of the one that was scheduled. Three. No doubt rough-around-the-edges bands whose earnest sets may come off as endearing will nonetheless put butts to sleep and challenge the crowd's collective attention span. As the house music dims and people chatter and sip their first or second beer of the evening, the opening act takes the stage.

"…when I write songs, I'm trying to write them from the 
place in myself that's childlike."
"…when I write songs, I'm trying to write them from the place in myself that's childlike."

And it looks like -- oh, God -- she's going to play the harp.

But before this girl no one knows sits down next to her instrument, she stands at the foot of the stage. Dressed in a white blouse, tight-fitting jeans and a pair of cowboy boots, she closes her eyes, claps a sturdy rhythm and begins to sing a cappella.

"Do you know what this is? / This is the panopticon," she projects in an amplified whisper.

The crowd is still murmuring rudely as she gets into it. A group of goth-hippie types in the front are sprawled out and giving each other massages; others in the back clink glasses and tell nervous jokes. But in exactly two minutes they will all be dead silent, transfixed. And they will stay that way for the rest of the set.

"Who are you?" asks a rapt audience member as the girl sits down behind her harp upon finishing her opener.

"I'm Joanna," she says, with the vim of a pixie. Then she sits down and plucks the first few notes of a song. Suddenly the venue's conditions -- jungle heat, pretzel legs, etc. -- take on a sort of lotus-position quality. The crowd jockeys for a view as if it were watching a fight, only all are silent, and the energy of a hundred sweaty bodies is directed toward this one girl, Joanna Newsom, who is melting everyone like candles.

They say that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. If you were dancing about this music, it'd be one of those ballet/gymnastic ribbon-on-the-end-of-a-stick-type dances they do in the Olympics. That's Joanna Newsom; that's the kind of music she plays, with her fingers plucking out melodies and countermelodies and her vocal cords nimbly tweeting out words like "Cassiopeia" and "clam crab cockle cowry." Combining playful albeit heart-wrenchingly poetic lyrics with jarringly original compositions (prog-folk?), Newsom is sharing a world-view that feels both totally absent and desperately necessary. It has something to do with whimsy and hope, and the way we cope with the imposing demands of our lives. And it has something to do with innocence, with feeling unhinged and free again, like children spinning naked on a beach.

So who is Joanna Newsom? She is a spry, charming girl in her early twenties. Her light auburn hair frames a dainty face, a pair of deep blue eyes and a delightful amount of residual baby fat, and when she arrives for an interview in Oakland's Children's Fairyland, a park much like Houston's defunct Kiddie Wonderland, she's carrying a box of cupcakes and smiling like a Care Bear, though not speaking like one.

"I think every song I write is just attempting to bring back this moment that I had when I was probably a year old," the singer relates in her delicate, soft-spoken voice. "I had a dream about a huge cat and a huge dog wearing party hats, holding a big glass bowl of jelly beans and looking at each other in the eyes and being really silent. And they were standing at the top of these stairs, and I swear that the stairs -- and I know this sounds ridiculous -- but in my dream, I woke up and I thought that I had seen eternity. I thought that I had actually visually seen what it looked like for something not to end, you know?"

She says these things with a certain amount of apprehension, and rightfully so. Most adults simply don't understand ideas such as this anymore. Even Newsom herself struggles to stay in touch with that sensibility.

"As I get older and I think about [the dream], I feel like I'm more and more remotely distanced from what it meant," she says. "I think if I got sad about that, then that's the adult reaction. But if I feel kind of crafty, like, 'Okay, what am I gonna do to get this back, to get at it, poke at it, just sort of see it again?' I think that that's how I prefer to approach it because that's not the adult thing to do."

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