This Joanna Newsom article was written by Stephen Butchard, a Gigsoup contributor. Edited by Natalie Whitehouse. Photo by golebnik
For indie-folk fans, Joanna Newsom and Robin Pecknold are a dream combination. Newsom’s intricate, harp-led compositions are among the very best of the last decade, while the Fleet Foxes frontman can drum up emotions more than many others clutching an acoustic guitar. This might sound hyperbolic, but their recent tour together solidifies their position as two titans of modern songwriting, but through vastly different approaches.
Robin Pecknold is almost unrecognisable as he bobs onto stage at Glasgow’s Royal Concert Hall. The last Fleet Foxes last album, ‘Helplessness Blues’, was released over four years ago, and since then, he’s taken a break from music by enrolling at Columbia University, as well as shaving off his iconic beard. For other acts, this break could threaten to throw their name into irrelevancy, when given the fickle nature of the modern music listener. Yet Fleet Foxes’ music holds a longevity that’s kept Pecknold firmly in listener’s minds; his layered songwriting and earnest voice are anything but throwaway. Even listening to his new material tonight, it’s easy to feel like you’ll be living with it for a long time.
It’s this longevity that’s made the wait for a new release so painful. Luckily, tonight’s set is made up of mostly unreleased songs, implying that a new album could be imminent. With nothing but rich guitar playing and a gorgeous voice, Pecknold provides poignancy. Some songs feature delicate finger picking and multiple movements. Others wrap around the audience with stately strums and his cavernous choral reverb. Though his music with Fleet Foxes is usually instrumentally rich and vast in scale, some of their most emotionally affecting songs come from these stripped back moments; whether these will later be expanded into sprawling epics or left in their intimate state, they remain resonant and impressive.
The most startling moment of his set comes when Pecknold takes ‘Montezuma’, a song of intense cinematic scope, and strips it to its bones. The results are just as moving, with focus on his vulnerable lyricism and plaintive vocal. It’s a support set that could be worth the price of admission on its own.
But there’s a whole other performance yet to come. Joanna Newsom delivers a two hour set that couldn’t be more different to Pecknold’s in terms of scale; after introducing her bandmates, Newsom quips that half way through a night, she will suddenly remember an another instrument that her frequent collaborator Ryan Francesconi plays and have to blurt it out – “Not during a concert, in life in general” she jokes. This exaggeration seems fully understandable. Her compositions unfold and expand to dizzying effect, with all four musicians swapping instruments on the fly as the melodies thicken. ‘Divers’ begins with a delicate harp loop, and morphs into a complex web of sound, with interweaving thumb pianos, violins, guitars, drums – and that voice sitting atop of it all. The arrangements are overwhelming.
Newsom’s music is not just immaculate, but completely impossible to pin down. As a harpist writing songs filled with archaic allusions, it would be easy to label her folk, but this would be reductive. In fact, Newsom’s latest batch of songs defy classification completely; ‘Leaving the City’, is probably the most metal thing the songwriter has ever performed, with its droning, metallic keyboard and propulsive groove. This rock-leaning rhythm is offset with drums that feel fit for a battlefield, and lyrics that could be ripped from the book of a poet from 1830. Fan favourite, ‘Emily’, morphs endlessly over its fifteen dense minutes; regal finger-picking gives way to swaying syncopation, while the key and tempo change freely throughout. It feels as though the song is drawing attention to its own slipperiness.
All of this intricate musicianship carries Newsom’s untamed vocal, which is at its most rich on ‘Time, as a Symptom’ where she sits alone at her harp. It warps from an sharp yelp, to a breathy whisper, to a crackling hiss with every few lines. It’s ragged and untamed, more than on record, but never losing its emotional weight. For a musician this challenging – and perhaps off-putting at first listen – Newsom’s genius relies on the same power of Robin Pecknold: deceptively raw emotion.
It’s an odd feeling to see Newsom in the flesh, in part because of how mythological her music feels. More than this, though, it’s because these are songs that need to be lived with to understand fully. The live setting feels so transient and fleeting, with these performances perhaps lost forever. This is fitting given that her latest album, ‘Divers’, deals so heavily with the destructive quality of time; to quote Newsom herself, “the event lives only in print.” What’s even more fitting is that her music feels timeless tonight.