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.
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."
Most of what Newsom does is not the adult thing to do. Take her music and stage presence, for example. At a 2003 gig opening for Cat Power in San Francisco, the singer and harpist wore a frilly blue dress, the kind a kid would see in a thrift store and insist on wearing to a birthday party. Understandably nervous, she twinkled through her challenging songs and even screwed up a few times (you try playing two contrapuntal melody lines with each hand while nimbly singing at the same time). When this happened, she'd blow her bangs up or wiggle her nose a bit and recover the song. It was like watching a junior high recital, only this wasn't a 12-year-old stumbling through "Für Elise." One audience member commented after the set that it was like experiencing the unmitigated genius of a prodigy.
The reason that writing about music is like dancing about architecture is that you simply cannot catch the fairy of affecting music in the net of words. The way Newsom's consonants clang off one another like marbles, the way her voice dances majestically with her harp, as if the two sounds were joined in a waltz under the grandest chandelier in the largest ballroom you've ever seen, the way she plays all this beauty down with her simple, unassuming delivery -- you really can't relate that magic with words. It is, as Van Morrison so simply referred to it, the language of the heart. Newsom speaks this language, has her own little accent too, a kind of Venus twang. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sounds of honesty and innocence and perhaps even remember what it was like when you heard them all the time, whether in a story that was read to you or a song you may have heard on the radio as you were driven to day care.
Sitting on a bench in Children's Fairyland, as a flock of geese fly by overhead -- a flock of geese that Newsom pauses to wave at, say hello to, then say good-bye to -- the tiny girl inside the grown-up's body is trying to get at something so simple yet so difficult to communicate.
Such as how she used to pass the time on long car trips. "I used to look at the houses that we passed, and I never fell asleep on the drive home, although the kids in the car all fell asleep," she remembers. "I just sort of watched the houses as we'd drive by and watch the windows. Sometimes you'd see people moving behind them, and sometimes they'd just be sitting across from one another at the table.
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"I was really little then, and I think that little kids know something," she continues. "I think they're a lot braver than we give them credit for, because they're willing to look straight at a thing that's big and sad and beautiful, that is too much for us to look at when we're a little older. And I guess when I write songs, I'm trying to write them from the place in myself that's childlike. But not childlike simplistic, childlike in the opposite way, that kind of bigness of awareness that kids have. Like, the part of them where they're watching the window and they're not gonna tell their mom and dad and they're not gonna tell the other kids, but like, they just saw a moment between two people sitting at a table and they know something about that moment and they're going to remember it until the day that they die."
When she finishes talking, the words evaporate like a marriage proposal written across a blue sky. Moments of silence go by, interrupted by the sounds of kids playing in the background. Newsom has a confused, earnest look on her face. She really wants people to comprehend what she's talking about, and ultimately it's clear to her that words are not going to do the trick. But luckily there's the music, and the cracking, almost desperate sound of her voice when she sings lyrics such as "There are some mornings when the sky looks like a road / There are some dragons who were built to have and hold / And some machines are dropped from great heights lovingly / And some great bellies ache with many bumblebees."
Yeah, somewhere in there is a special point. For those of us who've forgotten how to understand it, Joanna Newsom is helping us to remember.
Joanna Newsom appears Saturday, July 3, at the Orange Show, 2402 Munger. For more information, call 713-726-6368.