How much scope and challenge is there to California songwriter and harpist Joanna Newsom's coming second album, Ys? Well, the chorus of the first, 12-minute-long song -- to the extent that there are any choruses here -- provides a lesson in cosmic terminology.
"The meteorite is the source of the light, and the meteor's just what we see," she sings in a high, passionate lilt, proffering a mnemonic for science students everywhere. "And the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee."
Newsom, who plays at the Pop Montreal festival tonight, can empathize with such issues of perception and mismeasurement.
She burst into the skies of the indie-music planet with her acclaimed 2004 debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender. Ever since, she has seen her own intentions confused with the constellated guesswork that fans and detractors alike project onto the charismatic figure of this elfin 24-year-old blonde with a very-non-rock axe wedged between her knees.
She has been mistaken for "childlike" because of the heady naturalism of her singing style, when on closer inspection her songs leap routinely from personal lyric to themes of sex and death and environmental disaster. She has been labelled an antiquarian nerd for her allusions to mythology and the pastoral -- and the occasional "thee" -- when in fact the delicate stateliness of her harp line is consistently juddered away by a verbal and vocal tone as urgent as an ambulance siren. (Though the Renaissance-pastiche portrait on the cover of her new album does her no favours in that area.)
"It bugs me to no end," she said in a rare interview with The Globe and Mail this week, which she would conduct only by e-mail. "I'm tired of feeling like I need to put extra energy into making statements outside of my songs. But it remains startling, deflating, and somewhat funny that people can ignore so much of what I've said and am saying."
Then again, to extend the astronomical analogy, that's what happens to a star. Which is what Newsom is rapidly becoming.
She grew up in the exotic atmosphere of Nevada City, Calif., a former prospecting town taken over by artists, academics and post-hippie intellectual families like her own, which may account for some of her distance from her popular reception. Minimalist composer Terry Riley was a neighbour. She nursed a fascination with the harp as a toddler and began studying it as soon as she could hold one, but quickly spurned the instrument's stereotypical, decorative glissando pastels, learning Celtic styles and then catching on to both Appalachian traditions and African polyrhythmic harp idioms as a teenager at folk-music summer camp. In university, she started as a composition major but, finding her inclinations out of fashion with academic currents, switched to creative writing.
Her first album (which followed a pair of homemade EPs) shot to the upper stratosphere of best-of-the-year lists from music blogs to magazines to The New York Times. It was an unpredictable fate for a collection of idiosyncratic pop-folk tunes played mainly on solo harp, and one that led to concerts before adoring fans around the world -- wherever a quality instrument could be borrowed -- including opening a show for an admiring Neil Young.
The status she has garnered among musicians is further evident in the personnel list for her second album, due next month. It is co-produced by Van Dyke Parks, the veteran eccentric best known as Brian Wilson's collaborator on the Beach Boys' legendary lost-and-found master stroke, Smile. Parks built his elaborate symphonic arrangements around voice-and-harp bed tracks engineered by Steve Albini, whose most famous work among hundreds of seminal underground recordings was with Nirvana. And the record was mixed by composer-guitarist Jim O'Rourke, a former member of both Sonic Youth and Wilco.
What, were George Martin and Brian Eno tied up? One has the feeling they wouldn't have said no.
Yet, rather than merely consolidating her position, Ys is an intensely personal album that will test the capacities of acolytes and new listeners alike. It has only five songs, but together they last nearly an hour, with Parks's orchestra, as she put it, "playing off the beat in somewhat disorienting (albeit gorgeous) ways."
The twirling verbal mobiles that Newsom pasted together in miniature on her first record (rhyming "dirigibles" and "irritable," or coining hybrid synecdoches such as "you were knocking me down with the palm of your eye") now become a 4,000-word torrent of images, metaphors, ontology, epistemology, anecdote, punning and rhetoric that seldom repeats itself.
It's a vast thing to absorb. And yet Ys (pronounced "Ees," after an ancient Welsh and Breton myth about an idealized, inundated city, reminiscent of events a year ago in New Orleans) also feels like one of the richest, most moving works anyone has made in pop music this decade. Despite the flood of information that passes through a listener from song to song, each one has passages that raise goose bumps. In that opener, Emily, she sings of how "tugboats shear the water from the water, flanked by furrows, curling back, like a match held up to a newspaper."
The process, beginning from a stubbornly nagging set of personal experiences, took over a year, but the conception was ever intact. "It actually drives me crazy when people refer to these songs as, like, 'suites,' or use any words suggesting a cobbled-together, modular narrative; because they're completely bound together, in my mind, and they tell the story I wanted to tell very deliberately."
The central, 17-minute saga, Only Skin, in particular, juxtaposes the erotic, artistic and ethical realms so vividly that it feels like a vast summation of Western existence in 2006. "You'll notice there are many, specifically 'contained,' tamed, exploited versions of nature in this record," Newsom said. "There are a lot of invocations of harvest, fecundity, rot, livestock, domestication, flooding, property lines, etc. And the other nature represented in these songs is a gaping, cosmic one; not close, not familiar, not harmless, not knowable. . . . I didn't want to tell a story explicitly; I wanted to tell the shadow-version of it."
But fans of The Milk-Eyed Mender need not worry that Newsom is giving up permanently on compression.
"I think it was important to do these songs this way, but I think writing longish songs indefinitely could create a bit of laziness. In this case, it was necessary; I don't know if it will be necessary for me again."
So Ys is just one more comet streaking across the infinite space of a restless young mind. It seems very likely that there are decades more yet of indelible radiance to emanate from Joanna Newsom, if we make it there -- more light from a source that won't be mapped to any foreseeable orbit.
Joanna Newsom plays tonight in Pop Montreal at the Ukrainian Federation, 5213 Hutchinson.
Joanna Newsom's appearance is just one of many coups the Pop Montreal festival can claim in its fifth-anniversary year. Founded by a handful of local promoters, it has grown more and more ambitious by the year, now including nearly 30 local venues, with parallel programs for film, art and small publishing. And as its hometown deserves, it has a reputation for the best after-parties of any music fest on the continent.
Among the more official highlights this year are concerts by several long-lost legends of the 1960s and 1970s, including Bob Dylan's rival Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Newsom's personal hero, British folk singer Vashti Bunyan, Texas psychedelic pioneer Roky Erickson and New York new-wave-era maverick Gary Wilson. Also not to miss are Calypso icon The Mighty Sparrow, young Eastern European émigré Regina Spektor, legendary hip-hop absurdist Doctor Octagon, and bands such as Denmark's Under Byen, Victoria's Daddy's Hands (a decisive influence on such current indie favourites such as Wolf Parade, Sunset Rubdown -- who play the festival on Sunday -- and Frog Eyes), and Montreal's own electronic innovators Akufen and Tim Hecker, among many others.
For full program and schedule information, see .