The Judges Discuss: Joanna Newsom, “Have One On Me”

The last transcript from our 2010 Uncut Music Award deliberations...

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The last transcript from our 2010 Uncut Music Award deliberations…

Allan Jones: She’s someone Uncut has really championed over the last few years, and rightly so, I think. And I think of the incredible things about this new record is that it actually found an audience; three CDs, a singer-songwriter who’s principle instrument is the harp, and who seems disinclined to write a song under eight minutes long. I don’t think too many people would have predicted that, with the release of this record, she’d be selling out the Albert Hall, but from our point of view at the magazine it’s really encouraging that people are prepared to commit to this kind of music in such volume.


Hayden Thorpe: She’s absolutely audacious, I think she’s really got to be admired for having the vision and conviction to put out three albums of songs of such length. I saw her first show of the year, in Australia in January, before this album came out and she sat there and played the whole thing, no one had heard these songs before. By the end I was literally exhausted, but I think she’s so unrelenting in that sense. Everything about her seems completely at odds with mainstream acceptance of how songs should be, that they are complex and the dialect is really unusual and archaic. I think she is truly gifted as a musician, breathtaking.

I like the fact that she’s never marketed herself for her sexiness, it’s never been the focus or the selling point. She’s never tapped into that, because her intellect and her talent overpowers anything like that. I find the whole thing so compelling. I think the best track is “In California”, it’s just so romantic and creates such a myth about the place. I really, really believe in this record, and I believe in her. I think she has a classic album in here, and maybe she’s not quite there yet. She’s almost shooting herself in a foot a little bit by making herself so difficult. If she was to consider marking herself a bit more user-friendly she’d be a more dominant presence in the music world. But she’s getting there, and it’s on her own terms.

Mark Cooper: I love her world, her musical world; there’s something very abstract and pure about it. She exists in a very free musical space where she’s not trying to be commercial, she’s not following anything that dictates how long you write a song. It’s often meandering because of that, and diffuse, but I love that. I love the range and the reach of it. But I find the whole album a bit overwhelming. How do you get a hold of this record, how do you embrace this much music without feeling slightly like you’re being beaten to death? Sometimes I have difficultly with her whole lyrical and musical persona, I was never a big Kate Bush fan, and there’s something a bit cute about this, I suppose, and maybe a bit American indie kooky that I find, as a vocabularly, a bit stultifying.


But I admire her breadth as a musician, she’s prodigious in every sense. Ultimately it’s hard for me to love this as an album, because it’s not just an album – it’s a box set! But on a pure level, I think it’s the most admirable music here.

Tony Wadsworth: You either like her voice or you don’t, and I really do. I don’t think it’s particularly kooky, but it does distract you from the lyrics, maybe softens the blow a little bit, because the lyrics are really deep and strong, quite literary in parts. There’s incredible imagery in there, quite desperately sad in places. The only problem, really, is that there’s so much of it, so I tried to listen to it as three individual albums as a way of trying to get to know it. But I think it’s an unbelievable piece of work, Usually, when people do long songs there’s an element of jamming or stretching, but these are arranged and structured in such a way that it’s clear they’re supposed to be eight-minute songs, you can’t do them any other way, and that’s remarkable.

Allan: She’s prepared to give the song however it takes to exist.

Tony: She has no barriers, including commercial ones. Long may she continue to pay no attention to commercial issues, because that’s how she’ll become a legend.

Phil Manzanera: I think she suffers from the Frank Zappa syndrome of putting out too much stuff. Do I really want to spend two hours in her company? I would much rather have had a 40-minute album from her, with no harp in it. I don’t like the harp, I think it’s one of the problems I have with the record. When she’s singing along to the piano, her voice doesn’t sound so much like Kate Bush. It’s obvious that she’s very innovative, very playful. You can’t fault her for invention, but there’s just too much music to digest at any one time. In some places I found it a bit shrill, a bit hysterical, it can be very, very intense. Ultimately I found it difficult to grasp because there’s so much of it, but there are a lot of pluses in there.

Danny Kelly: Everything you say about her is true, Allan, and you, Hayden. She’s enormously talented, and I loved the previous record, but I think this one is a bit too confrontational. The concept of the triple album is like she’s daring you not to like it. Well, okay, I’ll take you on, Joanna, but there is too much of it! And it gave me a bloody headache, as she went on and on in Kate Bush’s voice – and I didn’t like Kate Bush’s voice that much. I think “81” is a beautiful song, I play it in the car all the time, and she can, on occasion, turn a lyric that stops you in your tracks, and that’s really good. But there’s just too much of it for me, and it’s not as good as her previous work, in my opinion.

Hayden: I was surpised to find that all the judges on this panel were male, and a lot of these albums I find very masculine. But I also find myself asking is there, anywhere in music, a male equivalent to Joanna Newsom? Is there anyone out with there with a similar vision, I’m not sure there is.

Mark: I would say Damon Albarn is the closest among this shortlist, in terms of dancing to the beat of their own drum, in terms of being prepared to be so expansive, so ambitious. She’s certainly set her own landscape, and that’s admirable.

Danny: Is there an argument here about pleasure? Shouldn’t a record, however great it is, give you some pleasure, as opposed to just cerebral engagement? There are albums on the long list that I got more pure pleasure of out just listening to than I did from being confronted by Joanna and her undoubted talent. When we judge these things we judge the artist and the artistry, but we should also remember that they’re not made in isolation; they are broadcasts attempting to communicate with an audience, and I found Joanna’s record very difficult to receive.


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