Joanna Newsom recently shot a new music video with Paul Thomas Anderson in New York. What song is the promo for? Your guess is as good as ours. There is some speculation that it might be for 'The Diver's Wife' or 'Look and Despair', tracks she debuted live over the past couple of years, but for the moment her label, Drag City, is keeping schtum. The important point, however, is that this turn of events signifies the - hopefully imminent - start of a new album era for the Californian wunderkind, whose magnum opus, Have One On Me, came out over five years ago.

It's difficult to suggest the best entry point into the Newsom back-catalogue for a novice. Her first album, The Milk-Eyed Mender, is perhaps a touch more accessible than its siblings, partly thanks to the fact that the majority of its tracks are of normal length. Nevertheless, to our ears, Newsom's debut - when compared to Ys and Have One On Me - is but a hint of her talent, both in terms of the lyrical content and musical virtuosity.

Ys consists of only 5 tracks, yet each of its components offers an epic tale in theme and duration (the shortest, 'Cosmia', stretches to over 7 minutes while the longest, 'Only Skin', lasts for just under 17 minutes). The story-telling and soundbed endure an unflagging magical quality and Newsom's voice is demonstrably more mature than on The Milk-Eyed Mender. Then there is Have One On Me, which gathers 18 songs over three discs and incorporates a significantly more personal, emotional element into the writing. At various points you get a very frank testimonial about the final stages and subsequent end of Newsom's relationship with Bill Callahan and, as wet as it sounds, parts of the album are absolutely heartbreaking.

These are our choices for the essential songs from Newsom's discography to date. You will, no doubt, have your own favourites which we will have omitted. Feel free to leave us a comment with your choices or, if you have a different take on an interpretation of a particular song, let us know as well.


This opening track on Have One On Me showcases a kind of poetry and beauty that recalls what Joni Mitchell achieved with Hejira. A tale of a lover who, regardless of life's ups and downs, just wants to be allowed to love. "Who asked you if you want to be loved by me? / Who died, and made you in charge of who loves who? / All the livelong day, if I have my way, I will love you," Newsom sings with perfect piano backing and orchestration and you're rooting for her, especially in light of her commitment to the cause: "pluck every last daisy clean, till only I may love you."


The opening cut on Newsom's 2002 self-released CD-R, Walnut Whales, an 8-track EP which formed the blueprint for The Milk-Eyed Mender. Quirky, jaunty, great.

'Good Intentions Paving Company'

Someone, somewhere has the rushes for a video which Newsom filmed for this Have One On Me cornerstone almost 18 months after the album's release. That someone is Saul Freed, one half of directorial duo, Karni and Saul, who worked with Newsom on the shelved promo. The 405 approached Freed to find out about the video's fate and, sadly, we're told that it is unlikely to ever see the light of day. "Unfortunately, we are not interested in bringing up the project from the dark place it is resting at," Freed told us. "Let's just say it didn't work out. We love this film very much." The video remains the Holy Grail for fans, after various images from the shoot appeared online back in 2011. The song itself is up there with Newsom's finest and, while there are many great lines to choose from, our favourite has to be: "I regret how I said to you, Honey, just open your heart /when I've got trouble even opening a honey jar."

'Have One On Me'

A remarkable, epic re-telling of the fate of Irish actress and dancer, Lola Montez (aka Countess of Landsfeld), who was known as the mistress of Bavarian King Ludwig I, lured unto her clasp by a "spider dance". In an interview with The Independent in March 2010, Newsom explained that she had named the record after this song because of the connection with drinking and decadence. "It felt kind of appropriate to have the expression people use when they're buying a round," she reasoned, "but also in the song that the title comes from, the expression is sort of used as an example of self-sacrifice. I was thinking of it in terms of a bottle that's full, and then you pour into someone else's glass, and it's a little less full, and the giving of yourself diminishes the self." The music here is as intricate as it is captivating and the best bit comes around the 08m40s mark when a breakdown slowly starts to re-build with flexuous vocal harmonies, which then, about a minute later, sweepingly end up in a crescendo and - oh, wait a sec - an abrupt drop back into the first verse. It's incredible.


The stellar Ys opener was written about Newsom's sister, an astrophysicist, who has played a central role in the artist's life. The lyrics offer a glimpse into the siblings' childhood and relationship, using language which seeks to tie-in with Emily's passion for astronomy. A highlight example of this is the sing-song way in which Newsom recites the various forms of a meteor in the would-be chorus, serving as a tool to memorise which one is which: "...the meteorite is the source of the light / and the meteor's just what we see / and the meteoroid is a stone that's devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee." Twelve minutes of stratospheric amazingness.


'Colleen' may or may not have been intended for Ys but eventually made it onto the Joanna Newsom & The Ys Street Band EP in 2007. A rich, traditional arrangement with Celtic flourishes accompanies a beguiling story of a whale (or a selkie, perhaps?) who has morphed into a woman, forgetting her past and true identity. One of the most notable parts of the songs is Colleen's recollection of a dream she'd had the night before, whereby a whale confronts her about wearing a corset (traditionally made using whale bones): "A gray and sloping-shouldered thing said 'What's cinched 'round your waist, Colleen? is that my very own baleen?' No! Have you forgotten everything?"

''81' (Live On Jimmy Kimmel)

The first Have One On Me taster Drag City chucked online in January 2010. The lyrics in the sleeve note refer to "...sin, or none, in a garden seceded from the union in the year of A.D.1" and earlier in the song Newsom refers to the Garden of Eden. The mention of A.D.1, however, precludes this from being a reference to Adam and Eve's union, whilst the intentional phonetic misspelling in the song's title suggests Newsom is talking about the union of her parents (as 1981 was the year in which she was conceived). This live performance on Jimmy Kimmel is pretty much flawless.

'This Side of the Blue'

The Milk-Eyed Mender didn't need to sell any copies to recoup the money spent on making it because 'This Side of the Blue' scored a major synch licence for an Orange advertisement, using footage of the New York blackout from 2003. Coming, as it does, straight off the back of the somewhat frenetic 'Inflammatory Writ', the track's slow pace together with Noah Georgeson's guitar clothe the middle point of Newsom's debut with calm enchantment.

'Monkey & Bear'

Very possibly this writer's favourite Newsom moment, a particularly well-written and well-executed fable of a dancing bear and an organ-grinding monkey, who escape from the clutches of the farmer in whose captivity they'd been kept. Ursala is innocent and puts her trust in cunning Monkey, who takes advantage of her love, convincing her to keep performing to terror-filled children, in order to earn both their keep: "Will you keep your fancy clothes on, for me? / Can you bear a little longer to wear that leash? /My love, I swear by the air I breathe: sooner or later, you'll bare your teeth." When, at the end of the song, Newsom sings of how "Bear left Bear", it's up to the listener to decide whether Ursala has died or chosen to leave her old self (as well as Monkey) behind and start a new life. If you're new to the song, listen with the lyrics to hand and get sucked into the story. Also contains the best use of the word 'spelunking' in any song ever.

'In California'

Newsom's love song to her home region is a triumph of cinematic soundscape and lyrical dexterity ("Just like they told you it would /just like the Tulgeywood") and when it erupts, at 06m43s, with boisterous calls of cuckoo, the goose bumps come out. That segment is then reprised into a track of its own on Have One On Me's closer, 'Does Not Suffice' (see below).

'Jackrabbits' (Live On Jools Holland)

There are various ways to interpret this stark, vivid staggering through the aftermath of an end of a relationship. To us it seems as though the narrator is simultaneously courting and avoiding sobriety, trying to convince her former lover with whom she had lost a baby, that she can love him again. The lyrics are brutal and beautiful in equal measure ("I stumbled at the door with my boot / And I knocked against the jamb /And I scrabbled at your chest like a mute /With my fists of ham"). Newsom performed this on Later... with chilling poise.

'The Book Of Right On'

We've geekily chosen the album version of the track (as opposed to the Walnut Whales original), because of its final thirty seconds, which allow the reverberations of the last note to extinguish in their own time. Lyrically, we're on rhyming triplets territory, an instance in point being this gem: "Do you want to sit at my table? / My fighting fame is fabled /and fortune finds me fit and able."

'Does Not Suffice'

Drawing on and providing a counterpart book-end to Have One On Me's first chapter, 'Easy', the melody reprises elements from 'In California' and the lyrics dissect the mundane practicalities of wrapping up a relationship: "I will pack up my pretty dresses / I will box up my high-heeled shoes." This tormented torch-song also underscores the negation of the pledge Newsom made on 'Easy': "everything that could remind you of how easy I was not." It all ends on a sombre note, as the protagonist finishes emptying her stuff out of her former lover's place and all that's left are hangers swaying in the closet, unburdened hooks and empty drawers "and everywhere I tried to love you is yours again and only yours." Excuse us, we have something in our eye.

'Only Skin'

This track appears to consist of at least two separate compositions, which Newsom had seamlessly sewn together. A live recording of an earlier incarnation called 'Be a Woman' from 2004 provides a big clue as to its evolution. The song's greatest achievement - and there are many - is that, despite its length (16m53s), it keeps a grip on the listener through its peaks and troughs, never not thrilling. Best bits? Try the word-play section at 07m52s (a joyous musical tongue-twister) or the "all my bones" segment at 13m38s, where Newsom's wonderful call-and-response with Bill Callahan is underlined by haunting orchestration.

Bonus track: '81'' (covered by Marika Hackman)

We love ''81' and we love Marika Hackman and that, right there, is where we are.