Although JOANNA NEWSOM's Appalachia-meets-avant-garde take on folk music is her most celebrated, her range is even more inclusive than her solo career suggests. The classically trained harpist adds a decidedly different, textural sound to Nervous Cop - the noise rock trio that also features Deerhoof's Greg Saunier and Hella's Zach Hill - and she also plays keyboards for The Pleased, another San Francisco-area band more akin to Blondie or Television than her other projects.
Newsom's family and hometown of Nevada City, CA, were both musically rich. Her mother trained to be a concert pianist, her father is a guitarist, and her brother and sister play the drums and cello, respectively; meanwhile, the Newsoms also counted composer/pianist Terry Riley as a neighbor, along with Howard Hersh and W. Jay Sydeman. Newsom herself started on piano lessons at a very early age and played for a couple of years, but switched to the harp at seven. Her approach to the Celtic harp, from the percussive aspects of her playing to her chord changes, was also influenced by West African and Venezuelan harp music, which she began studying at a folk music camp she attended in her early teens. At the same time, she also listened to more vocal-based folk, punk, and jazz like Karen Dalton, Texas Gladden, Patti Smith, and Billie Holiday.
By the time she reached high-school age, Newsom decided she wanted to become a composer, and while that became the focus of her studies, in her free time she began writing and recording instrumental songs. Eventually, Newsom's passion for songwriting won out, and she began studying creative writing to work with words in the same way she was accustomed to working with music. Despite her extensive musical background, she hadn't sung until she began concentrating on her songs, but her voice - which had a pure, untrained sound somewhere between a child and a crone - was the perfect complement to her music. Newsom recorded collections of songs that she gave to her friends, but eventually her music made its way to like-minded musicians such as Will Oldham and Cat Power, both of whom invited her to play opening slots for their shows in 2002. That year also saw the release of the Walnut Whales EP, which she followed up with more appearances and another EP, Yarn and Glue, in 2003. After signing to Drag City, Newsom released her full-length debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, in spring 2004. Later that year, she toured the United States with Devendra Banhart and Europe with Smog. She also performed on Smog's 2005 album and began to work on her second solo album that year, drafting collaborators Bill Callahan, Steve Albini, Jim O'Rourke, and Van Dyke Parks. The ambitious, intricately lovely Ys arrived in late 2006 and became one of the year's most critically acclaimed releases.