Regret, in my head, sounds like Joanna Newsom’s voice: I have often turned to her music in endings, in trying to remember beginnings, to parse everything in between, to know what I could have done differently, what I ought to have said. Divers, her first album in five years, carefully replays and processes historical events, past relationships, and identities she used to inhabit, wondering all the while if such tributes and analyses are even worth the effort. Sometimes its narrator resembles a child at a dinner party, interrogating grown-ups with plain but piercing questions that ring through every partnership: “What happened to the man you were / When you loved somebody before her? / Did he die? / Or does that man endure, somewhere far away?”
This is an album of ghost stories, of ghost songs, and while I can’t know what I could’ve done in the past to dodge cause for regret, I don’t mind living inside of these questions when they’re so tenderly written and recorded, creating a new kind of love. By the album’s final track, the narrator urges the listener to “Stand brave, life-liver,” knowing we are built to recover from transitions and from loss. She sounds not like a child but a veteran of change. Ghosts are nothing to fear.
I think I was brimming with tears throughout my interview with Newsom last month, just so happy to hear someone actually love doing the thing that they love. It can be fashionable to dread and detest the creative process, but Joanna Newsom is here because she has to be. You can hear every molecule of every choice made on Divers, but it still feels like an outpouring of emotion. I think any friend or coworker who’s seen me since our conversation has commented on a new kind of self-respect and sense of purpose: We should all take our inner worlds this seriously.
That being said, our conversation somehow started on the topic of bananas.
JOANNA NEWSOM: I don’t eat weird shit like bananas.
TAVI GEVINSON: It’s hard to look good while eating a banana! It’s really unflattering.
I can’t even be in a room where there’s a banana peel in the trash. I have to clear out.
It makes me straight-up sick. Like, gasoline-fuel style.
Are you OK with mayonnaise?
I’m not a huge fan of mayonnaise but there’s nothing that fills me with horror and rage the way that bananas do.
Whoa. I’ve never heard such a strong opinion about a banana.
Yeah. I’m bummed I don’t like them because they’re a very nutritious snack.
Do you have a feeling about banana bread?
A very negative feeling. For me a banana is like, it’s a non-food. Like it’s like dog crap. Like if someone was like, “You don’t eat dog crap bread? You don’t even eat hard candy that’s flavored like dog crap?” It’s still a hard no.
Well banana-flavored hard candy is actually the worst.
Some people like it, some people have a thing about banana Laffy Taffy.
The worst. Banana Laffy Taffy…There’s so much going on in all of your songs. I know that you put a lot of thought into the internal rhymes and other technical aspects, but at the same time that they feel really carefully constructed, they also feel like outbursts. Is it outpouring and then editing? Do you edit line-by-line? Do you have outlines of the whole structure of a song?
It can be and has been all of the different things you just described. There are some songs where, for whatever reasons, the formal requirements of the lyrics are fewer and it makes it easier to just write. When I say formal requirements, there are all sorts of things that could be. Certain songs feel like they need, as you were saying, internal rhyme structure that’s more strict, or maybe a counterpoint that’s voiced by the syllabic emphasis within a given line, or even a rhyme within a line.
[Sometimes] it’s something that can be written more quickly because the only obligation is to convey the story and the feeling. And then in other cases, the obligation is to convey the story and the feeling under a very specific set of parameters, if that makes sense. For that reason, sometimes I can write something in a day, sometimes it takes me three months or four months.
Your new album Divers is noticeably different from your others; the songs are shorter and you use different instruments. Did you want to experiment with either of those things or did the songs just end up like that?
I knew early in the process that there were going to be a lot of narrative connections on the record, that there were going to be these thematic things that keep coming up. Once I’d written three songs I had a sense of what the album was going to be about, and I also knew that it was going to be a real harmonic connection that ran through the record. There’s a connection from the end of each song to the beginning of the next, harmonically, and because I started to see the shape as being really unified and interconnected, I also decided early on that I wanted to balance that with a lot of variation, instrumentally speaking. This might be the first time I’ve written a record where from the ground up—the harp part or the piano, whatever I’m leaning on in the song—I’ve written that instrumental part in an anticipatory relief, with spaces carved out where I know something specific is going to go, or where I know something vaguely is going to go. Basically, this might be the first record I’ve made where some of these songs don’t sound totally done if you listen to just the basic tracking, whereas with Ys [Newsom’s second album] there’s a version of that record that exists that’s just harp and voice and sounds like an album—a different one than the one I wanted to make—but the songs sound like they can exist independent of the orchestration. Whereas with [Divers], even if the orchestration, so to speak, that I wanted, is just four other piano parts I wanted to layer, I still wrote the instrumentation making room for those things. In that sense, it was a decision early on to have the instrumental palette be really broad, or deep, I should say. I wanted each song to be dense in a different way than the one before and the one after. I wanted to balance the connected aspect of the record with something that created definition within each song. I wanted to have each song be like a little vignette, or a chapter.
When there are that many elements, how do you know it’s done, and when to step back?
Certain things are easier for me to tell than others. I usually know when a song is done in terms of written, I just hear an inner bell clang. I know when my instrumental part is written, and I know when an orchestration arrangement is done. When I’ve done back-and-forth with a collaborator—someone who’s doing an arrangement—sometimes it only takes two rounds. Sometimes it takes eight rounds of giving notes, making changes, but it usually feels done when it’s done.
But there’s other stuff that’s really hard for me to tell, like, in the mixing phase. Usually I mix—in the past, it’s been two weeks for an album. I believe [mixing Divers] took six months total, and I mastered it 11 times. It usually takes me two times. I think one reason the mixing process took so long is because this is the first record where I would say I’ve actually co-mixed it as opposed to—I’ve always been in the room [when other albums were mixed] with various levels of involvement depending on my level of confidence.
When I first made a record, maybe even the first two, I really thought of myself as just a songwriter and performer and a musician. I thought of the recording and mixing end of things as its own realm that I didn’t really know about or have feelings about. I just wanted to trust people who knew about that world. That’s slowly shifted over the years. I’ve gotten more confidence in myself in the studio. I also realized I had strong feelings about things that I didn’t realize I had strong feelings about—there’s a drum sound I like, there’s a drum sound I don’t like—and I don’t know if I was aware of that 10 years ago. There’s a place, in the mix, where I like things to sit; there’s a kind of a pan I like; there are effects I like and don’t like; EQing things I like and don’t like.
For the last album [Have One on Me], I mixed partly with Noah Georgeson, partly with Jim O’Rourke. They are both amazing mixing engineers but they have very different mixing styles. Jim likes to have a full pass at it, which could take six hours, completely immersed in the world before he wants me to give comments. Noah’s style is more like we start out where we talk about how I want the song to feel, and if I have any reference points, like, “Oh, I want the guitars to sound like Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘First Light,’ I want the violin to sound like it’s in a wide open space, but I want the piano to sound like it’s a foot to the left of the listener.” Some songs I might have very nonspecific thoughts and other songs I’ll have very specific thoughts out the gate, and he’ll set it up, which might take anything from half an hour to three hours. How this record would happen is that I would sit with it, listen four, five times, make a ton of notes, he would implement those notes, and then I’d listen again and take more notes, then he’d implement those notes. It was just this slow pass after pass after pass, and I’d take the songs home, make some more notes and bring [them] back.
We also did a lot of additional stuff during the mixing phase, because part of the mixing process was identifying what the songs need but didn’t have yet, or sometimes identifying what they had too much of. In some cases, there were arrangements that had reached a point where I thought they were perfect in the writing and collaboration phase, and then once they were recorded and I was in the studio with them I realized maybe I didn’t want an instrumental voice to come in for a full minute after I had it in there. So there’s whittling down and editing that can happen in the mixing phase but also sometimes there was a realization that something was missing. We’d pull in a bunch of synthesizers or borrow some weird instrumentation or bring the harp back in and I’d do a second harp or vocal harmony. So that’s part of why the layering phase stretched out so much. It wasn’t just a mixing phase, it was an overall, final pass, I guess, at the arrangements as well.