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The Ocoee River runs through the Appalachian Mountains and haunts the Eastern ridges of Tennessee. It flows with this pristine mist and coats everything in a kind of unnatural wilderness that pricks and prods and pushes back against the natural progression of time. I have this memory of floating in the Blue Hole near the middle rapids of the Ocoee during the end of my Freshmen year in college. I was watching clouds meander from one horizon to the next, my vision framed by the far reaching branches of trees. Local kids were lounging on a nearby rock, drinking Coors Light and laughing and listening to the strangest music.
Harps trotting along behind commanding vocals with an otherworldly voice, a spirit calling from deep in the woods, singing softly about a monkey and a bear. I floated upright for a moment and looked over to their perch. All the boys had hair on their chests and all the women were wearing two-piece bikinis. Older kids who were mature, who were grown up, who had access to magical harp-driven music. I wondered how they’d found it.
A few weeks later I was in a record store in Knoxville. I’d go there on Saturdays when I was visiting my parents for the weekend. I’d spend hours flipping through a sizable room of new and used LPs. I’d made it to the N’s without finding anything special that I didn’t already own. Nada Surf, Neutral Milk Hotel, The New Pornographers, and then, of course, Joanna Newsom. The cover was a baroque painting, a woman holding a framed butterfly in one hand and a scythe in the other, her ear poking out of long golden hair, a blue river flowing in the background from behind two mountains. It looked like something from the 70s that was trying to look like something from the 1800s.
I turned the record over. It was printed in 2006.
The old man with the old beard who managed the record store let me open the album and give it a trial listen. I skimmed through the tracks and stopped on a nine minute song called “Monkey and Bear.” I jumped the needle right to it, and there it was: The same song that had played from the rocky perch of the older kids in the Ocoee River. My love by the air I breathe, sooner or later you’ll bare your teeth. Lyrics soft and beautiful and violent, like a decadent woman holding a knife behind her back.
I checked myself for chest hair but, no, I was still a Freshman.
That album played on repeat in my basement level dormroom, side a to side b and back to side a, with the window open, wafting in the crisp fall air that carried the burning scent of browning leaves. I made an MP3 transfer with my USB player and strung earbuds up through a knitted scarf. Newsom’s “Ys” narrated my walk from class to class, my chubby body plodding across the ped mall.
Her music is somewhere between folk and avant garde, like the chamber music of some long-forgotten hipster king. It could all be written off as pandering or ironically passe, but her voice, my god her voice, it ties everything together as though it’s always existed. It’s magical and it’s forever. Her unusual accent, the to and fro from mythic to modern... it captured me deeply. Even more so, Joanna Newsom was music that I had found on my own. No one had introduced us, so she was the music that I got to show other people. There is little currency more valuable when you’re an asshole in college.
I fell in love with Joanna Newsom. That love that all college-boys give to art when they finally find it, fierce and devoted but ultimately temporary. My record collection grew and I found Feist and Jenny Lewis and a dozen other indie darlings to distract me from the natural hum of Joanna Newsom.
Somewhere between graduation and a move to Denver and a move back to Tennessee I lost my copy of “Y’s” and my unfinished love affair with Newsom’s voice.
Years passed and I fell into my late 20s. I moved to Nashville. I went to shows every other night and started wearing black jeans and leather jackets and before you knew it I was covered in tattoos. I’d wrapped myself in a new aesthetic in a new place and was surrounded by new people. My body was slimmer and my legs leaner. I fell in love with a girl, she broke my heart. I fell in love with someone else and she moved away. I floated from day to day and shadow to shadow and for a long time I didn’t really know what I was doing. I started jogging, stopped drinking, tried to force an addiction to cigarettes. A distant voice hummed in the background.
Finally I decided to do what all broken artists do. Move to California.
A week before I left I went to the movies with my friend JP. We watched “Inherent Vice.” It’s based on this post-modern novel by Thomas Pynchon, where there’s an “A” and a “B” plot and the “A” plot is the story and the “B” plot is just observing the “A” plot and the point of view character, the one the story spends the whole time following, is stuck in the “B” plot. Trust me, it’s a lot better than it sounds.
The movie is cleverly narrated, a way to inject some of the novel’s direct prose without being overbearing. The voice is beautiful and soft and layered in velvet smoke and I could swear I’ve heard it somewhere before. JP does that voice sound familiar to you? I know I’ve heard that voice somewhere.
And then, in fine post modern tradition, the narrator becomes an active character. She’s a young woman with a button nose and ears that stick out from her hair. The hair on my chest pricked against my shirt. Holy shit JP. That’s Joanna Newsom.
An old woman sitting behind us shushed me. I shushed her back. She shushed me harder and I realized I was still in a movie theater. I went home and downloaded “Ys” that night, and then “Have One on Me,” and then “The Milk-Eyed Mender.”
My god, if only I’d had access to ethical downloads in college, there’s so much I wouldn’t have missed. A needle skipped in my heart and I got stuck on “Bridges and Balloons.” I played it over and over and over again. What a great Decemberist cover, I thought. It wasn’t until months later that I realized the Decemberists had covered Newsom, not the other way around. I’m an asshole.
I packed my bags, shoved too many records in too few suitcases, and flew to the West Coast. Now my mornings are filled with pre-dawn jogs and black coffee and train rides. I string earbuds up through my jean jacket and let Newsom’s voice guide me from stop to stop. When the train slips under the bay between Oakland and San Francisco, if I close my eyes, if I’m just sleepy enough, I can hear the water of the Ocoee River flowing between the rocks.