Joanna Newsom’s voice in just the right place

Times Staff Writer

Two songs into the second half of Joanna Newsom’s appearance Friday at Disney Hall, she had to deal with a heckler. “Turn your vocal mike up!” shouted the well-meaning fan. Newsom, stationed behind her harp, seemed ready to comply. Then she paused. “Is that really necessary, though?” she asked. The crowd response was evenly mixed. “You guys can discuss it while I play this next song,” Newsom said with a laugh, not changing a thing.

She made the right decision. Since releasing her 2004 debut album, “The Milk-Eyed Mender,” the 25-year-old musician has dealt with an irritating stream of words describing her -- elfin, childlike, chirpy, twee -- that diminish the complexity and singularity of her music. It’s mostly because of that voice, a hyperbolically girlish soprano often compared to Bjork’s but more reminiscent of forgotten jazz babies such as Ruth Etting. Her singing frees Newsom from the yoke of personal authenticity, helping transform her songs from confessions into golden tales. But it can also distract from her equally startling song structures and lyrics.

This stop on Newsom’s first American tour with strings (featuring a local chamber ensemble on each of its six dates) put her voice in its proper place.


Instead of being forced forward by the amplification and compromised acoustics of a club setting, her voice rested within fully fleshed-out, perfectly audible settings. Any strangers present might have sometimes wondered what words Newsom was garbling (A bear shedding its skin? Sassafras and Sisyphus?), but the devotees filling most of the seats got a chance to refresh their understanding of her sound.

The first half of the concert featured the lush string arrangements written by celebrated pop composer Van Dyke Parks for Newsom’s second album, “Ys.” The second half offered older and newer songs in the rootsy, world-music-influenced settings Newsom has devised with her touring quartet. Making a puckish joke about propriety in the classical world and in pop, she wore a full-length black gown for the first part and a candy-pink minidress for the second. In both configurations, Newsom took advantage of Disney Hall’s acoustics to give equal weight to every element of her multifaceted compositions.

“Ys” has only five songs, each about 10 or 15 minutes long. Parks adjusted his witty, bouncy score for this live tour; the updated arrangements nimbly guided listeners through each song’s time signature shifts and tonal fluctuations, leaving plenty of room for Newsom’s rhythmic, plucky harp playing. The set included one solo performance, the stunning erotic ode “Sawdust and Diamonds.” Her band also participated, sparingly; drummer Neal Morgan, playing a simple kit in his bare feet, provided the glue between the smaller ensemble and the orchestra.

At first it almost seemed as if Newsom’s singing would get lost amid the crescendos, but Parks’ arrangements didn’t swamp her. She did struggle with tempo a bit, rushing her words and taking awkward breaths. But eventually she found each song’s thread and pulled it further along.

Conductor Sean O’Loughlin, whose indie-pop experience includes orchestrating strings for the Decemberists, showed a deft hand in responding to Newsom’s needs, making sure she stayed at each song’s center but keeping any wanderings in check.

He had fun with the little flourishes and sonic metaphors Parks employs but avoided cartoonishness. The players under his hand were deft and understated.


Newsom, who is classically trained, has taken her approach to the harp beyond what most orchestras allow, incorporating African and Celtic influences and the looseness of rock. Although she stayed focused and as precise as possible during the night’s orchestral portion, she got rowdier during the program’s second half.

She has put together an ace band; besides Morgan, it includes violinist Lila Sklar and multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi, who played a Bulgarian tambura (a member of the lute family) and banjo. This kind of regular collaboration is a new adventure for Newsom, and it seems to be leading her toward more conventional song craft, though with her characteristic twists.

An untitled song that closed the program -- “I don’t intend to give it a name until I’m good and ready,” she said -- showed that Newsom is also continuing to rethink her voice. Based around rapidly ascending and descending arpeggios in which the harp and voice mirrored one another, this composition required vocal control, not quirkiness.

It raised the possibility of a whole new set of adjectives that might be in order for Newsom’s next recording -- including, simply, “beautiful.”