DO YOU KNOW THE DIFFERENCE between the sprout and the bean? You don’t? Then I’ll tell you. It’s a golden ring. It’s a twisted string. And you can ask the councillor. You can ask the king, and they’ll say the same thing. It’s a funny thing.
If you’re thinking that last paragraph was just beamed in from the planet Venus, you should hear it sung in a high-pitched, cartoonish squawk by an elf-like girl in a floral patterned dress, playing the harp. She is Joanna Newsom, she is from California, and she has made an album called The Milk-Eyed Mender which you really must hear. On the cover there is embroidery and child-like drawings of a unicorn, a swan, a butterfly and a dumper truck, among other things. Inside there are fairy-tale songs populated by bats, dragons, knights and canaries, and language - dirigibles, poetaster, lateen, goneness - that will have many listeners buried in a dictionary for hours.
There are many appealing things about Newsom, but the principal one is that she seems so unspoiled by the money-grubbing, cynical industry in which she works. You could surely never "manufacture" her (you would, at least, be insane to try), yet she is currently getting a lot of attention, and could potentially be a big star. She is that rare find - a performer who seems to exist completely outside fashion or the usual commercial rules, looking and sounding like nothing else on earth, and yet, precisely by doing all of this, wins converts wherever she goes. While others are hyped as the "new Killers", or the "new Franz Ferdinand", it’s difficult to imagine Newsom being hyped as the "new" anybody. She is just her.
Here’s the paradox, though - such rare finds are strangely common at the moment. Just out this month is I Am a Bird Now, by the extraordinary Antony (he has no surname, being a unique creature). Antony is a New York performance artist and transsexual, whose instantly recognisable singing voice is one part Boy George to two parts Jeff Buckley. He has won champions in Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright, both of whom appear on his album - although perhaps, out of respect, I should say "her" album, since I’ve never heard the transsexual experience described so movingly. "One day I’ll grow up to be a beautiful woman," he/she sings in a voice both trembling and triumphant. "But for today I am a boy." Over in Britain, we have Patrick Wolf, a dark-eyed, romantic soul described by one critic as "part Calvin Klein hunk, part Pre-Raphaelite street urchin", whose current album Wind in the Wires is dedicated "to the West Country, to the autumn gales, to electricity, to magic". Wolf’s song The Libertine, which mourns the blandness of celebrity culture, is an eloquent summary of the appeal of pop outsiders such as himself - rebels against shallow fashion and ambition. "In this drought of truth and invention, whoever shouts the loudest gets the most attention. So we pass the mic and they’ve got nothing to say except: ‘Bow down, bow down, bow down to your god.’ Well I can’t, and I won’t bow down any more.’"
I could go on. Regina Spektor, Martin Grech, Arcade Fire, Devendra Banhart, Piney Gir, Simon Bookish. All are, in their own way, wonderfully unusual. Perhaps the internet has simply made it easier for word to spread about such finds, allowing music-lovers to bypass conservative radio playlists, and making that slippery, sought-after buzz, "word of mouth", louder and swifter. Perhaps more musicians are listening to more varied music than ever before, feeding their diverse influences into bizarre new hybrid musical forms (Wolf’s music has been described, in a brilliant contradiction, as "laptop folk").
Whatever the reasons, there is something in the air, and it bodes well for the imminent, long-delayed return of that queen of musical misfits, Kate Bush. Bush, lest we forget, launched her career just as the UK was in the grip of Punk (January 1978, the month of the Sex Pistols’ infamous US tour) by releasing a melodramatic piano ballad inspired by an Emily Bront novel. Her mentor? Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, probably the least fashionable band of the time, their progressive rock considered beyond the pale by most punks. The result? One of the best-loved songs of the past 25 years, Wuthering Heights. Bush has been heroically ignoring both fashion and received commercial wisdom ever since, whether dressing like a gay pirate, getting Rolf Harris to play didgeridoo on one of her songs, or baffling most of her hard-won audience with The Dreaming, one of the most pigheadedly uncommercial albums ever released on a major label.
Given that Kate Bush has released nothing since 1993’s The Red Shoes, her return will be one of the biggest musical events of this year. Her influence can be detected everywhere - Gwen Stefani’s loopy performance at the Brits, in particular, was very Kate Bush - but it’s a good time to remind ourselves that, if she has become something of a national treasure, it has a lot to do with the fact that a genuine misfit - 1978’s equivalent of Antony or Joanna Newsom - became a huge star.
Pop stars who make us feel we can shine by stubbornly being ourselves will, I suspect, always win warmer admiration than pop stars who, deliberately or not, make us feel we must dress in the right clothes, lose weight or fit into any "tribe" in order to be loved and accepted. I suspect that Kate Bush’s extended absence will make people like her all the more. She has stayed away so long, by all accounts, simply because she was enjoying being a mother, and had no great interest in either releasing music or remaining famous simply for the sake of it.
It’s a sentiment Joanna Newsom would surely endorse. Asked recently if she had advice for people who wanted to do music, she replied: "There has to be a need. It should be a need to expel or to exorcise something rather than the need to perform in front of people." Perhaps, as we tire of celebrities whose only ambition is to be famous, and pop stars created by audition, the likes of Newsom will appeal more and more. I hope so.
Patrick Wolf plays at Mono, Glasgow, on 30 March; Joanna Newsom is at the Grand Ole Opry, Glasgow, on 13 April.
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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