Joanna Newsom And The Art Of The Residency

Residencies are not a new concept. For a long time, Las Vegas was the hub of such activities, usually as artists saw their cultural impact wane but could still pack a house based on past hits. Why not post up in place with warm, dry air for your aging lungs, favorable tax laws, and a constant influx of tourists looking to spend money before they lose it gambling?

But in recent years, this has all changed. Suddenly, it wasn’t just greying musicians booking Vegas residencies, it was Lady Gaga, Adele, and Usher. Likewise, more and more stars are taking up the residency format in other places for a number of other reasons. It’s allowed Billy Joel to perform at Madison Square Garden more than 100 times, for Harry Styles to turn Los Angeles and New York into Harry’s House, and for someone like Clairo to announce her first dates in support of her upcoming album as a pair of club residencies on both American coasts. While this article was being written, LCD Soundsystem announced a November Los Angeles residency, something they’ve been trying out in major markets over the last couple years.

These are attractive propositions for both artists and fans. For the former, it has reduced risk of a Covid outbreak halting travel plans, and also lets the artist sidestep all the other aspects of travel that can affect performances. Anyone who leaves their home city on vacation can imagine how much harder it is to do your job when you are sleeping in transit, hopping timezones, and eating whatever is near the venue or on the way to the next city. In a world that’s becoming more aware of mental health sensitivities, residency performing seems the most inline with what can keep artists in the best headspace possible.

Likewise, it also provides destination events for fans of the artist, particularly for those that don’t live near a major city that’s typically on tour routes. This was definitely the case in Los Angeles over the last couple weeks, when indie icon Joanna Newsom announced a run of dates at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Waiting in line to enter — a line that even celebrities couldn’t bypass, as Beck, John C. Reilly, and Courtney Barnett all patiently endured — I struck up a conversation with a young woman visiting Los Angeles for the very first time. She’d only planned to stay for one day, less interested in literally anything else the city had to offer than a night with Joanna Newsom.

Inside the venue, the audience couldn’t have been more respectful, attentive, and reactive. And while the residency atmosphere and the artist’s fanbase played a part, the scarcity of Newsom performances in general added to the reverence. These were the first headlining dates that Newsom had performed since before the pandemic, and her enthusiastic fanbase treated them with such honor. On this night — the final performance of the run — Newsom and her two bandmates (Fleet Foxes’ leader Robin Pecknold and former Dirty Projectors’ vocalist/current solo artist Amber Coffman) donned Electrical Audio jumpsuits in honor of Steve Albini, who recently passed away and had worked with Newsom on past projects.

The residency appeared to serve multiple purposes. It was a chance to try out new material from what one would expect to be an eventual 5th album. Newsom performed five new songs on this night, which at first listen felt like a slight shift back towards the Have One On Me warmth. Several songs seemed to reference motherhood and/or children, which makes sense as Newsom has had two children since she last released an album. When these songs might see the light of day as recorded works remains to be seen, but as a fan of her previous work, it was enough for me to eagerly anticipate the additions to her oeuvre.

The second function of the residency was something a bit more experimental. Though most of the shows were traditional performances with old and new songs woven together — our night saw marvelous new three-member arrangements for classics like “Baby Birch” and “Peach, Plum, Pear,” as well as glorious solo takes on “In California,” “Sawdust & Diamonds,” and “Go Long” — she also performed a series of “Kids Shows” as matinée sets over the couple-week residency. These events required that you bring a ticketed kid to attend and saw Newsom performing with puppets, covering songs from The Muppets, and incorporating some of her most kid-friendly originals. It’s a pretty novel idea that would likely only come from a new mom, someone who has seen how parenthood can upend the ability to attend cultural events that you’d enjoy, much less stuff suitable and enjoyable for the whole family. By all accounts, it was quite the scene.

But I keep coming back to the feeling of being in that room for the concert, where people hardly took out their phone and erupted in rapturous applause after each song’s conclusion. In an era noted for people’s loss of public manners — thankfully, no one threw anything at Joanna or tried to film with their flashlight on — this felt, well, like concerts are supposed to feel. Focused, appreciative, and, ultimately, special. And this is the ultimate hope that comes from the concept of a residency, where artists and fans can be at their most comfortable, and the pacing of the world can slow for a much-needed moment and catch its breath.