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As oddities in popular music go, Joanna Newsom’s music, her look, and her sound, would be among the most notable. But beyond the odd lies something that is beautiful and fascinating and reaches beyond the our surprise and into a corner of our brains.

Whether she stays there, or sends you running from that corner is another thing. But as Wind Back Wednesday goes back a decade to discover, you don’t easily forget and certainly can’t ignore Ms Newsom.


Joanna Newsom

Opera House, January 18

By mainstream music standards, yes, Joanna Newsom is strange.

Her principal instrument is harp; her songs tend to the lengthy, quasi-mediaeval and fantastical; her voice is both a struck bell and a dewdrop, a child’s and wizened adult’s; and she does not dance.

However, any thought that Joanna Newsom is just too strange does rather quickly run into a counter argument which begins with yet more sold-out shows at the Concert Hall.

And no, this room wasn't filled with beardstrokers and those who nestle in the arcane corners of modern music (frankly there aren’t that many of the breed in Sydney anyway as avant garde groups’ sales can sadly confirm).

They looked like you and yours. Some even in suits. And frocks with matching hats.

Then there’s the realisation at some point deep into the 90-minute performance that you have been happily lost in your imagination’s creation of deep lakes in forest clearings, long corridors in white-walled galleries, late nights in plush seats and early mornings under heavy comforters.

How did you get there? Is it a mechanical explanation?

To the right of Newsom’s harp and occasional piano, there’s a percussionist, Neal Morgan, who works in shadings and rumblings, subtleties and encouragements with occasional vocals. To the left there’s Ryan Francesconi, who apart from his consistently creative arrangements, adds guitar, bouzouki, flute, banjo and sometimes voice. Behind her are two violins, a trumpet and trombone.

Is it that voice, an instrument of as much delicacy and threat in its own way as the glass harmonica being played in Sydney this week, with its undulations and the way melodies make it stop and start in peculiar rhythms?

Or maybe it's the blending of familiar folkish tones (Joni Mitchell and Bjork can be discerned at times) with something quite ancient (bouzouki, harp/lyre, hand drum and voice in combination does go back a few thousand years after all)?

Or maybe it’s simply that while several pieces were relatively brief and attractively quite song-like, the stand out compositions work on a longer pulse in an atmosphere which becomes quite mesmeric.

I fancy it’s all of the above: a blend of threads weaved together into the kind of flecked tapestry which says, yes, Joanna Newsom is strange but wonderfully so.


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