I saw her last night at the Lincoln Theater and this song, Sawdust and Diamonds, brought me to tears. Joanna Newsom is one of the my favorite musical artists. She’s a badass rocker harpist who happens to look like a woodland fairy, and when you see her in person there’s something ethereal about her as though she stepped through some portal from another land. She and all the musicians in the band played musical chairs last night, alternating between all sorts of instruments I couldn’t even name, to create a magical performance.
One of my favorite things about her music is the lyrics. She’s a true poet. This line is one of my favorites from the song:
I was all horns and thorns sprung out fully formed knock-kneed and upright
And this verse is beautiful:
then the slow lip of fire moves across the prairie with precision
while, somewhere, with your pliers and glue you make your first incision
and in a moment of almost-unbearable vision
doubled over with the hunger of lions
“hold me close,” cooed the dove
who was stuffed now with sawdust and diamonds
Sawdust and Diamonds has a folksy, whimsical feel and for me evokes images of some fantastical medieval-pastoral setting. It was inspired when she read a fantasy novel, The Mists of Avalon, recommended by her best friend, which happened to have uncanny parallels to a dream she’d recently had. I found a summary of an article written about the parallels, but could not find the actual article, which I think is archived in the Boston Herald. I love, of course, how she turns into a mermaid at the end. =)
You may be more interested in the lengthy excerpt below if you listen to the song. Or, do yourself a favor, and just listen to the Ys, the album it’s on. Her songs are meandering, and don’t build in the same sort of way pop songs do, but if you take the time to listen, it is such a reward.
“…The last element of Newsom’s magnum opus to arrive was its title. Newsom spent a long time fishing for a name that would encapsulate the spirit of the project. One night she dreamed about the title, a swirling reverie that featured the letters Y and S smashing together in unusual combinations. Afterwards she began searching for a single-syllable word that bluntly combined the two letters. At the same time, Newsom also finally got around to reading the fantasy novel on her nightstand, which happened to be her best friend’s favorite book. She thought the novel might be cheesy, but she loved it. And one night, there it was: a passage about a seaside castle that had been raised ‘by the magic of the ancient folk of Ys.’
“Et voila–Newsom had found her title. Ys is a lost city immortalized in the folklore of Brittany, a region that lies along the northwest coast of France. As Newsom read more deeply into the legend, things got a little spookier. Here, in a nutshell, is one version of the tale: Dahut, the blond daughter of King Gradlon, begs her father to build her a citadel by the sea. And so he does, creating a city that’s protected from the waves by an enormous wall of stone whose one entrance, a gigantic bronze door, is opened by a key that Gradlon carries around his neck. Like a lot of seaside towns, Ys attracts horny sailors laden with goods, and Dahut makes a wicked pact with the powers of the ocean to make the already decadent city rich. The agreement is rather kinky: every night the princess takes a new sailor as a lover, and places a black mask on his head. In the morning, when the song of the meadowlark is heard, the mask strangles the guy, whose body is then offered to the waves. Eventually Dahut meets her match: a haughty crimson-clad lover who persuades her to slip the key from around the neck of her sleeping father. The rake then opens the gates of Ys to the raging ocean, which swallows the city. Father and daughter escape on a magic steed, but daddy is forced to drop the princess into the sea and she drowns. In some tellings, she is then transformed into a mermaid.
“Newsom saw so many parallels between this story and her own that it freaked her out. There were the themes of decadence and excess, of fathers and daughters and boundaries burst, not to mention details like the meadowlark and the heroine’s underwater metamorphosis. Then Newsom stumbled across the clincher: according to Breton folklore, on calm days along the coast you can hear the sunken bell of the cathedral of Ys, tolling evermore. Later, as Newsom finished the fantasy novel, she stumbled across yet another uncanny echo of her own tale: a line that spoke of ‘that damnable bell,’ a direct sample, as it were, from ‘Sawdust & Diamonds.’
-the above was pulled from here: http://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3530822107858564663/