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Joanna Newsom weaves a fairy tale world through her music

American harpist, singer and songwriter Joanna Newsom performs during her concert in the Palace of Arts in Budapest, Hungary, Saturday night, Jan. 29, 2011. (AP Photo/MTI, Balazs Mohai) (Balazs Mohai / ASSOCIATED PRESS)
American harpist, singer and songwriter Joanna Newsom performs during her concert in the Palace of Arts in Budapest, Hungary, Saturday night, Jan. 29, 2011. (AP Photo/MTI, Balazs Mohai) (Balazs Mohai / ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Joanna Newsom creates small, bustling universes within her songs, which take on the form of fairy tales, medieval allegories, or meditations on war, time and mortality. It’s tempting, then, to treat them like works of fiction, to follow along with a lyrics sheet in order to keep up with the fables she’s relaying. Newsom even speaks of her own work as an author might discuss a new collection of short stories.

“Every time I make a new record, I want the air to smell different and I want the colors to read differently,” Newsom said during a recent phone interview. “I want the people in the songs to speak with a different accent, so to speak. I want each album to inhabit a completely different world from the previous album.”

Newsom’s lyrics are dense and poetic, and her instantly recognizable voice, as pure as it is affected, has a way of making the simplest turns of phrase sound playful and almost alien when it wraps around them. But the singer, songwriter and harpist, who performs at the Bing Crosby Theater next week, says she’s more concerned with mood, tone and atmosphere than the actual lyrical content.

“If someone is listening to a song and they’re emotionally affected by it … but aren’t bothering to read the lyrics sheet or analyze the specific words, I still think they’re getting the most important thing about the music,” Newsom said. “It’s nice that there are people who follow and trace and dig for and analyze every little lyrical detail. But that thing I have in mind before I find the words for it, that is the thing that matters most about a song, whether I’m actually saying something that matters and has emotional truth, that has value to it as a statement.”

Newsom is currently touring behind her fourth studio album, “Divers,” released five years after her two-hour, three-disc epic “Have One on Me.” Though its formal ambitions aren’t as immediately apparent, “Divers” is deliberately constructed – Newsom says she knew the album’s sequencing before she recorded any of the songs – and its 11 tracks are as elliptical and beguiling as anything she’s written: Her songs play out like miniature symphonic suites, and their melodies zig when you expect them to zag.

“It’s a thematic record, and it has a structural conceit to it that echoes the narrative conceit,” she said. “The goal was to have the songs be complete and hopefully good outside the context of the record … but they’re also meant to be heard together. There’s a picture I’m trying to paint through all the songs played together.”

Newsom has always collaborated with writers and producers on her ornate musical arrangements – she most famously worked with Brian Wilson muse Van Dyke Parks on her acclaimed 2006 record “Ys” – and she says that healthy artistic partnerships have helped to expose the soul of her music.

“For me, arrangements are very, very collaborative,” Newsom said. “There’s not ever a circumstance where I just send someone a song and what they send me back just goes on the record. It’s an extended back-and-forth conversation with lots of notes and ideas exchanged, so it doesn’t work if we don’t have a rapport and a good intuitive understanding of one another.

“With this record, I wanted to work with a lot of different arrangers. I wanted to balance out the many different things that unify the songs on the record – the narrative and harmonic connections between the songs. I wanted there to be a variegated and colorful instrumental counterbalance to all that, and part of how I wanted to achieve that was through a rotating cast of collaborators.”

As lush and complex as Newsom’s musical arrangements can be, her backing band on this tour is relatively small. Her five-piece ensemble includes multi-instrumentalist Ryan Francesconi (he was an engineer and arranger on “Divers”), violinists Mirabai Peart and Veronique Serret, and Newsom’s brother Pete on drums. Newsom’s sister Emily may join the group, too: “If we can get the schedule to work, we’ll steal her away from graduate school,” Newsom said.

“There’s a lot of running back and forth onstage during the set,” she continued. “But it’s nice, because we don’t have this gargantuan band where no one is communicating. It’s this intimate, small band that manages to make a big, diverse sound. … Every night I’m dazzled by playing music with them. We’ve tried new things on different nights and there’s some improvisation. I don’t know if it’s different for anyone watching, but I’ll have little revelations about different things based on the experience of playing songs with this great band.”

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