Joanna Newsom – Esmé

One of the great things about this lovely song is that it veers dangerously close to being a bit silly. And that’s mainly, and most obviously, due to Newsom’s occasionally irritating little girl voice (or ‘witch child’ voice, as it’s been called). Yet it’s precisely that voice that helps to make it so moving: because it’s tackling a melody that’s so sublime, so perfect. The slight awkwardness just makes it all the more heroic.

The words, a happy mix of banality and profundity, are made to work very tightly within the melody. I’d guess that Newsom came up with the tune first and then simply made the words fit. I love that. I don’t think we hear it often enough in songs.

In truth, she could probably sing anything and the song would still work. Maybe. But because the melody is so delightful, the words she uses acquire extra depth. Like, for instance:

“Later, I stumbled to my bed,
All alone in the branches
I laid in the dark
Thinking about all of my friends
And their changes.”

Actually, that’s quite wonderful on its own terms.

I tend not to pay too much attention to lyrics. I agree with John Lennon: with music it’s the whole thing, the whole sound, that does it for me. In this case, the whole sound basically amounts to Newsom’s voice and her fairly minimalist harp accompaniment that subtly nudges the melody along.

Esmé is a perfect early morning song for when you’re feeling slightly hazy, slightly sad and perhaps don’t quite know why.

It’s also just utterly lovely.

* Available on: Have One On Me (2010, Drag City Records).

About Paul Saxton

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4 Responses to Joanna Newsom – Esmé

  1. Russell says:

    That was really quite sweet but then I do like 90% of whatever she does. Saw her at Latitude a few years ago on the main stage which was a shame as I’d of liked to have seen her in a smaller setting. Maybe she could come round and play at my house?

  2. Russell says:

    P.s this whole blog things ok but I want to play the choices and leave it on (playlist style). Hasn’t WordPress got a plugin for that or maybe you should join 8tracks?

  3. Paul Saxton says:

    Ooh, I don’t know if I can be arsed/have the time to do something like that. Send me a link to something easy.

    I use YouTube simply because most stuff is on there – even obscure stuff. Unlike, say, Spotify.

  4. Meg Dt says:

    I love Joanna Newsom. She is one of the few lyricists whose songs read like poetry, along with people like John Darnielle, Jeff Mangum, Diane Cluck etc. (to me it sounds as if she writes the words first, and then the music to accompany, the songs have such a steady, rhythmic orality to them).

    The new album is probably my favourite – precisely because of the mix of banality and profundity you mention, and which was missing at times in the mythically-inspired Ys. More than that, her sense of playfulness (which matches her childlike voice and somewhat fey demeanor) is present in the music and in lyrics like:

    It had a nice a ring to it
    When the old opry house rang
    so, with a solemn auld lang
    syne, sealed, delivered,
    I sang.

    Great blog!

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