Review: Is Joanna Newsom a serious artist or a pop star? (Get this: She’s both)

Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom performs Friday night at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Joanna Newsom didn’t hear the question — or at least she pretended not to.

Pausing her performance at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday night to tune her massive harp, Newsom opened the floor for an impromptu question-and-answer session.

Someone in the audience asked which Kate Bush album is her favorite. (She couldn’t decide.) Someone else asked what she dreams about. (Accidentally leaving a friend off the guest list.) And then someone asked about Andy Samberg, the comedy star to whom she’s married.

The words hung in the air for a second as she tinkered away at the harp’s strings.


“Any other questions?” she said.

The desire for mystique against the demands of celebrity: This exchange, like much of the concert, reflected Newsom’s position at an improbable crossroads.

A native of tiny Nevada City in northern California, she emerged in 2004 as part of the so-called freak-folk scene that included Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective. But over the next decade, her music grew more idiosyncratic, with traces of ragtime and bluegrass and lyrics dense with allusions to history and literature. Her latest album, the masterful “Divers,” is her most erudite yet.

At the same time, Newsom, who is related to California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, has become increasingly visible outside the insular realm of highbrow indie rock. She’s now a regular presence on red carpets, for instance, alongside Samberg, who took in Friday’s gig from a stage-right box seat. 


In 2014, she worked as an actor herself in director Paul Thomas Anderson’s big-screen adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice.” And this summer, she’ll appear in a musical mockumentary from Samberg’s comedy troupe, the Lonely Island.

At the Orpheum, where she’s set for a second show on Saturday, Newsom was getting something of the pop-idol treatment from her fans, who cheered the singer as heartily as Taylor Swift’s faithful cheer her. During the Q&A, one person even asked who she was wearing.

Michael van der Ham, she replied cheerfully, her red-carpet experience clearly coming in handy. She added that van der Ham had designed 11 dresses for her, one for each song on “Divers.”

This pop semistardom hasn’t diminished the scholarly complexity of Newsom’s music, which poured forth Friday in a great stream of sound: quickly but carefully plucked harp notes; flecks of banjo, piano and mbira from the members of her five-piece band; percussion that could make the songs swing or steady them with a stately boom; and, most memorably, Newsom’s darting, interval-jumping vocals.

For the last few songs of her nearly two-hour set, Newsom invited two guests — Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes and Amber Coffman of Dirty Projectors — to join in as singers, which made the sound more dizzying still.

If she’s maintained a kind of artisanal vision, though, she’s also opened up her music to offer more of what people come to pop for: beauty, humor, sensuality. This was by far the most emotionally vivid of the Newsom performances I’ve seen, with a human warmth I don’t always get from her impeccably arranged recordings.

“I ain’t saying that I loved you first, but I loved you best,” she sang in the gently thrumming title song from “Divers,” and the tenderness in her voice led you to believe she was addressing her famous husband, as opposed to speaking for some obscure literary figure.

Is that precisely the reductive reasoning she was trying to shut down by dodging the question about Samberg? Of course. But Newsom seemed to accept the misunderstanding.


Twitter: @mikaelwood