Songwriter Joanna Newsom has seen her star rise steadily since releasing the haunting suite Ys in 2006. Noted for its lush orchestral arrangements, courtesy of Van Dyke Parks, the album solidified Newsom’s standing as the hippest harpist in indie rock, if not all popular music. Following high-profile appearances earlier this year in Brooklyn and Sydney, the folk chanteuse brings her Ys Street Band to Symphony Center for a unique collaboration with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where she’ll play Ys in its entirety. We caught up with her over e-mail.
Time Out Chicago: How long are you able to rehearse with the CSO?
Joanna Newsom: Very little time; only a few hours. What we’ve found in past orchestral rehearsals is that a lot of the time required to prepare relates more to the conductor becoming familiar with the score than to the orchestral players “practicing.” The timing can get kind of bonkers in a lot of sections of these songs. Van Dyke wrote so many amazing polyrhythmic, polymetric and esoteric parts that it would be easy for the whole thing to derail and get tangled up if that conductor didn’t have the parts seared unerringly into his or her memory.
TOC: So who’s conducting this one?
Joanna Newsom: The great thing is, for this show I’ve finally been allowed for the first time to bring in my own conductor, my friend, Ryan Francesconi. He is superfamiliar with the entire orchestral score, on account of having worked with it closely over the last few years.
TOC: Did prior collaborations not go so well?
Joanna Newsom: In both Sydney and Brooklyn we had awesome conductors, but I spent a lot of time being nervous about the gamble of it all. We wouldn’t know until we were on stage whether it had had time to gel, whether the orchestra would sound like a “band” or whether it would kind of all go down the drain. I guess the only major difference is that, in Sydney, it’d go down the drain clockwise.
TOC: Are any of the classical musicians familiar with your music?
Joanna Newsom: Just a handful have been familiar with my music beforehand. Or, at least, only a handful have mentioned that to me. But I’ve had some folks say some pretty nice things to me after shows. It means a lot, coming from these kinds of musicians.
TOC: Your record label, Drag City, is based in Chicago. Have label boss Dan Koretzky and co. been involved in the CSO performance?
Joanna Newsom: I think they’re cooking up some sort of companywide interpretive dance piece to debut during the second 40 minutes of “Only Skin,” but I don’t know for sure. Dan K. is supersensitive about people seeing his “danceplorations,” as he calls them, before they’re ready.
TOC: Now that you’ve collaborated with a large instrumental ensemble, would you ever consider working with a choir?
Joanna Newsom: I’m actually working closely right now in conjunction with a choir of eunuchs. But not, like, in a musical way. It’s purely recreational.
Joanna Newsom and the CSO perform at Symphony Center Friday 22.