Harpist inspired by hometown
This community and Joanna Newsom were recently linked by The New York Times when writer Kelefa Sanneh wrote “… a 22-year-old harp virtuoso from Nevada City, Calif., happens to be one of the country’s greatest young singer-songwriters.”
That geographic reference is just as important to Newsom as it was to the Times writer.
“Growing up in Nevada City definitely impacted my music. A lot of the musical composers here affected me Ð like Terry Riley, he was definitely an influence. Howard Hersh, I was friends with his daughter and he would play music when we were in their garden in grade school. I would just float over it,” Newsom explained. “I always thought how nice it would be to be able to play music in my house when I grew up.”
Also credited with influencing Newsom, as she was raised here, is her entire immediate family. Her mother, Chris Newsom, is a classical pianist and conga drummer and her father, Bill Newsom, is a guitarist; both are also well-known local doctors. Her little sister Emily is a cellist and her big brother Pete (seen in several area bands) is a drummer.
When Newsom began taking harp lessons from Nevada City teacher Lisa Stine, Newsom was sold on creating originals.
“I always knew I wanted to write. I loved it early on when I started playing with Lisa Stine, who’s amazing,” Newsom added. “She emphasized composition and improvisation with students who are so young. She exposed me to these great ideas. By eighth grade, I knew I would be a composer.”
While she enthusiastically sang and acted in Nevada County Performing Arts Guild musicals during that same period, Newsom never imagined she’d be on stages outside of Nevada County less than a decade later. To Newsom, performing around the world was an unexpected but welcome development.
“I’m a little surprised, but it’s a happy surprise because I can do what I love. Performing doesn’t give me the most happiness, it’s writing the music that does,” Newsom stressed. “Performing gives me an opportunity to dedicate all my time to writing; it justifies it. If people will come to listen and buy the record, then it makes me feel that it’s all right to sit at home for six hours and play.”
As for being singled out by The New York Times music critic Sanneh on June 26, Newsom remains down-to-earth about the glowing praise.
“It was surreal,” Newsom said. “I had spoken face to face with the fellow who wrote the article. I associated the article with this one guy rather than with The New York Times. Someone else from the paper could have written that I was the worst singer-songwriter. It’s just one guy’s opinion.”
Newsom, who has often been described by the press as folk-oriented, struggles with that classification.
“I love folk music. I sort of think that what I do doesn’t count, it’s folk-informed but influenced by West African harp music,” said Newsom, who shouldn’t be so concerned with the classification since she has a strong fan base in the states and abroad.
In support of her first album, “The Milk-Eyed Mender,” Newsom began touring last March and continues through the next three months. Upcoming appearances include Berkeley next month (with Neil Young and Jonathan Richman), and then England, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, France and the Netherlands. Locally, Newsom plays Friday at the Center for the Arts in a concert benefiting The Inkwell, a Nevada Union High School student poetry project facilitated by local poet/performer Grace Totherow, also appearing at Friday’s benefit. In addition, four students from The Inkwell will also read their works.
Agreeing to perform Friday is partly deja vu for the days when Newsom was a Nevada Union High School senior writing poetry.
“It was kind of thrilling when a little community of like-minded people at that school came together. The idea back then was to go into the Black Box Theatre and have everyone perform their poetry,” Newsom reminisced. “It was really fun. For me, again, the performance wasn’t the main thing; it was the stated thing. The great thing was finding a bunch of people who loved to write.”
“Months before the performance, we did potlucks where we’d sit around and read poetry,” she added. “What I like about what Grace is doing is it’s providing people with that same sort of community. It’s helping them to meet like-minded creative people.”
KNOW & GO
WHAT: Joanna Newsom at The Inkwell benefit concert
WHEN: Friday at 8 p.m.
WHERE: Center for the Arts, 314 W. Main St., Grass Valley
ADMISSION: $15. Tickets at Love Shack Records, BriarPatch, Yabobo, The Book Seller and online at http://www.thecenterforthearts.org or by calling (800) 594-8499.
INFORMATION: Literature Alive at 272-5812
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