Joanna Newsom (born January 18, 1982) started taking piano lessons at a very early age and played for a couple of years, but switched to the harp at seven. Her approach to the harp, from the percussive aspects of her playing to her chord changes, was also influenced by West African and Venezuelan harp music, which she began studying at a folk music camp she attended in her early teens. At the same time, she also listened to more vocal-based folk, punk, and jazz like Karen Dalton, Texas Gladden, Patti Smith, and Billie Holiday. By the time she reached high-school age, Newsom decided she wanted to become a composer, and while that became the focus of her studies, in her free time she began writing and recording instrumental songs. Eventually, Newsom's passion for songwriting won out, and she began studying creative writing to work with words in the same way she was accustomed to working with music.
Although Joanna Newsom's Appalachian-meets-avant-garde take on folk music is her most celebrated work, her range is even more inclusive than her solo career suggests: the classically trained harpist adds a decidedly different, textural sound to Nervous Cop, the noise rock trio that also features Deerhoof's Greg Saunier and Hella's Zach Hill, and she also plays keyboards for The Pleased, another San Francisco-area band more akin to Blondie or Television than her other projects. Newsom's family and hometown of Nevada City, CA, were both musically rich: her mother trained to be a concert pianist, her father is a guitarist, and her brother and sister play the drums and cello, respectively; meanwhile, the Newsoms also counted composer/pianist Terry Riley as a neighbor, along with Howard Hersh and W. Jay Sydeman.
Despite her extensive musical background, she hadn't sung until she began concentrating on her songs, but her voice — which had a pure, untrained sound somewhere between a child and a crone — was the perfect complement to her music. Newsom recorded some collections of songs that she gave to her friends, but eventually her music made its way to likeminded musicians like Will Oldham and Cat Power, both of whom invited her to play opening slots for their shows in 2002. That year also saw the release of the Walnut Whales EP, which she followed up with more appearances and another EP, Yarn and Glue, in 2003. After signing to Drag City, Newsom released her full-length debut, The Milk-Eyed Mender, in spring 2004; later that year, she toured the U.S. with Devendra Banhart and Europe with Smog.
In 2006 she changed direction again, with the release of her new album Ys, which received great critical acclaim and landed Newsom the Number 3 spot on Pitchfork's list of Top Albums of 2006. The EP Joanna Newsom & the Ys Street Band, which contained one new song and rearrangements of two old ones, followed the next year.
In Spring 2009, she developed vocal cord nodules, leaving her unable to sing, speak, or cry. Since then, her voice has seen a few changes.
2010 saw the release of her third full-length, the triple album Have One on Me, which contains eighteen songs spanning just over two hours and which (arguably) collectively makes up her most diverse set of material yet. It has also frequently been regarded as more accessible than its predecessors, in part due to the changes in Newsom's voice. The album was chosen by UK's Uncut magazine critics as their Best Album of 2010, and became the most commercially successful album she had released to date.
Her fourth full-length, Divers, was released in 2015. Like her previous work, it was highly critically acclaimed. It also proved to be commercially successful, outstripping its predecessors' performance on the U.S. Billboard 200.