There's one harpist within traveling distance to New Orleans, who also happens to own a Lyon & Healy harp and reliably gets that harp into the hands of Joanna Newsom. Rachel Van Voorhees of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra is that harpist. Rather than consign a massive but delicate instrument to the unforgiving rear of a tour trailer, Newsom often hires a harpist at her port of call.
"It's usually a hunt," Newsom tells Gambit. "I just play Lyon & Healy harps, and there aren't that many harps to begin with. It is really cool in many cities I go through I'll often get a chance to meet great orchestral harpists, classical harpists, who are kind enough to let me use their instrument for the night."
Her homebound Lyon & Healy ("It's got a lot of gilding and carving and it's very elaborate") isn't safe for the road, but she relies on the company's harps with the reassurance that "it's going to be a great instrument" as she learns "its particular quirks — the tension of the pedals, whether there are any new strings I have to keep an eye on."
Newsom returns, borrowed harp in hand, to New Orleans for the first since 2010 on Sept. 9 at the Civic Theatre.
"When I show up, I know what the dimensions will be — the width of the soundboard, the spacing between the strings. Those sorts of things where there won't be any surprises," Newsom says. "You learn harp technique is universal to some extent, but you also learn how to coax the best sound out of an instrument based on certain variables — knowing that playing in a certain way will produce a certain amount of volume, or a certain quality of percussiveness, or softness. All these different colorations depend on the variables, the instrument being more or less fixed so you can work within that. If I can understand as much as possible in advance, I can be more free to play more expressively with that instrument."
Newsom's harp threads her four albums, including her acclaimed 2015 album Divers, her first since 2010's immense triple album Have One on Me. Both titles seemingly salute their devoted listeners while inviting them to submerge, once again, into her words and music; on Divers, a nonlinear exploration of a place and its people and things, bound by time — time as an omnipotent force in the way The Hobbit's riddle answers ("This thing all things devours: Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, And beats high mountain down"). The album closes with "Time, As a Symptom," in which she admits, "And it pains me to say, I was wrong. Love is not a symptom of time. Time is just a symptom of love."
Newsom dresses her winding verses with internal rhymes and perfectly placed words hitting just the right sounds — a wide-mouthed vowel, a soft, rounded consonant or click — with her voice, alien and angelic from an imagined prairie or mountain wood in a Martian heaven. Her work demands close and repeated listens, a literary pleasure and an immense musical one, mounted by buoyant piano and harp — and on Divers, an array of instruments to stage an otherworldly pop opera. Synthesizers, Wurlitzers, harpsichords and clavichords texture the album; on "Leaving the City," Newsom's brass-sampling Mellotron hammers her verses as if she's forging metal. "It is actual analog tape recordings of instruments rather than a synthesized version of instruments," she says. "It comes with all these interesting warps and quirks because of individual performances on each individual note. ... It ultimately sounds like a Mellotron. It doesn't sound like anything else on earth."
Newsom and her band had to rework the album's singular arrangements for live performance. "We sort of find instruments within the pile we're traveling with that share coloration or share timbral similarities with instruments on the record and find a way to make it work," she says.
"This one was really hard for me to let go," Newsom says of Divers. "I think we ended up mastering it 11 times. The mixing process took months and months, which is really atypical for me. In past records, I've mixed in two or three weeks. This one, I don't know why, I went in really deep. ... I was really obsessed about it and I had a particular vision and a particular idea. It took me months and months, and I remixed a lot of songs, and took them home, and lived with them in different environments, took instruments out that had once been integral parts of the songs, I removed them and did overdubs in the mixing studio I didn't expect to do. The album found itself in the mixing process."
She takes a deep breath and sighs.
"We went into that with that intention in mind, girding ourselves for an extremely involved process, just totally submerging in the record for months and months," she says. "It took me a long time to be like, 'OK! It's done, it's done, it's done. Stop thinking about it. It's done. You can't change it anymore.'"
Asked whether she feels burdened by the album, performing it live, Newsom says it does the opposite.
"An album is frozen in amber in a way," she says. "It doesn't change. I have albums I listen to that change over the years because I get older and I get new perspectives on life, and I think about songs new ways all the time, but the work doesn't change. ... The real exciting, life-giving aspect of touring for me is the songs change every night. I'm playing with such incredibly talented, sensitive and technical players who are so present. There are arrangements, they're set, we figure them out together, but we move with them and change with them, especially the dynamics. There are nights where all together as a band we get quiet for a passage we've never been quiet for before. Things like that. There's so much listening. If the album is this big, monolithic iceberg, the band version of the songs is this little Huckleberry Finn raft that's been halved off the side of it and we're all bumping down the river together."