Outer Child 

How a girl who plays the harp became an overnight sensation.

It's raining in San Francisco and the city streets are, as always, confused by the wet. Heroin addicts pile into the pay toilets on Market Street, midsize sedans honk in slippery frustration, and outside Cafe Du Nord, anxious showgoers bounce and giggle as they wait in the rain.

Inside, it's thick and hot. Sweater weather plus one hundred people equals sauna. But everyone is palpably excited, and with good cause. Devendra Banhart is headlining, and the gypsy folk minstrel is currently basking -- or wallowing -- in next-big-thing hype. The place is packed and it's especially uncomfortable up near the stage, where the devoted have managed to wrangle seats on the floor, shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip.

To make matters worse, it seems that three bands are opening for Banhart, instead of the one that was scheduled. Three. No doubt rough-around-the-edges bands whose earnest sets may come off as endearing will nonetheless put butts to sleep and challenge the crowd's collective attention span. As the house music dims and people chatter and sip their first or second beer of the evening, the opening act takes the stage.

And it looks like -- oh, God -- she's going to play the harp.

But before this girl who no one knows sits down next to her harp, she stands at the foot of the stage. Dressed in a white blouse, tight-fitting jeans, and a pair of cowboy boots, she closes her eyes, claps a sturdy rhythm, and begins to sing a cappella.

"Do you know what this is?/This is the panopticon," she projects in an amplified whisper.

The crowd is still murmuring rudely as she gets into it. A group of goth-hippie types in the front are sprawled out and giving each other massages; others in the back clink glasses and tell nervous jokes. But in exactly two minutes they will all be dead silent, transfixed. And they will stay that way for the rest of the set.

"Who are you?" asks a rapt audience member as the girl sits down behind her harp upon finishing her opener.

"I'm Joanna," says she with the vim of a pixie. Then she sits down and plucks the first few notes of a song. Suddenly the venue's conditions -- jungle heat, pretzel legs, etc. -- take on a sort of lotus-position quality. The crowd jockeys for a view as if it was watching a fight, only all are silent, and the energy of a hundred sweaty bodies is directed toward this one girl, Joanna Newsom, who is melting us all like candles.

They say that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. If you were dancing about this music, it'd be one of those ballet/gymnastic ribbon-on-the-end-of-a-stick-type dances they do in the Olympics. You know when you're a little kid and your parents take you to the beach and at some point you're just like "Fuck it" and you take off all your clothes and just run around naked at the crowded beach? That's Joanna Newsom; that's the kind of music she plays, with her fingers plucking out melodies and counter-melodies and her vocal cords nimbly tweeting out words like "Cassiopeia" and "Clam crab cockle cowry." Combining playful albeit heart-wrenchingly poetic lyrics with jarringly original compositions (prog-folk?), Newsom is sharing a worldview that feels both totally absent and desperately necessary. It has something to do with whimsy and hope, and the way we cope with the imposing demands of our lives. And it has something to do with innocence, with feeling unhinged and free again, like children spinning naked on a beach.

So who is Joanna Newsom? She is a spry, charming girl in her early twenties. Her light auburn hair frames a dainty face, a pair of deep blue eyes, and a delightful amount of residual baby fat. If you happened to pick up the September 2002 issue of The Face, which featured a bands-to-watch-type story on her other band, SF retro-rockers the Pleased, in which she plays keyboards, then you might have caught a picture of her. In that shot, bathed in pink light and styled to look like Madonna circa "Cherish," the harpist looks more like a harpy. But The Face got it wrong. When she arrives for an interview at Children's Fairyland in Oakland, she's carrying a box of cupcakes and smiling like a Care Bear.


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