At the age of 5, Newsom asked her parents if she could play the harp. Her parents eventually agreed to sign her up for harp lessons, but the local harp teacher did not want to take on such a young student and suggested that she learn to play the piano first. Starting at the age of four, she began playing the piano and later the harp which she "loved from the first lesson onward."
She studied composition and creative writing at Mills College in Oakland, California. While at Mills, she played keyboards in The Pleased. She dropped out of the school in order to focus on her music.
In 2002 and 2003, Newsom recorded two EPs, Walnut Whales and Yarn and Glue. These homemade recordings were intended to serve as a document of her early work that she recorded on a Fisher-Price tape recorder. These EPs were not intended for public distribution. At the suggestion of Noah Georgeson, her boyfriend at the time and the EP's recorder, she burned several copies to sell at her early shows.
A friend of Newsom's passed one of the CDs on to Will Oldham at a show in Nevada City. Oldham was impressed with Newsom's music and asked her to tour with him. He also gave a copy of the CD to the owner of Drag City, his record label.
Drag City signed Newsom and released her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender in 2004. Shortly thereafter, Newsom toured with Devendra Banhart and Vetiver and made an early UK appearance at the Green Man Festival in Wales, returning to headline in 2005, 2007 and 2010.
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-----Newsom's work has become prominent on the indie scene. Her profile has risen, in part, due to a number of live shows and appearances on shows like Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC.
Her second album Ys was released in November 2006. The album features orchestrations and arrangements by Van Dyke Parks, engineering from Steve Albini and mixing by Drag City label-mate Jim O'Rourke. On a road trip, Bill Callahan recommended she listen to the album Song Cycle by Parks, which led to his being chosen to arrange her work on Ys.
Newsom's earlier work was strongly influenced by polyrhythms. Her harp teacher, Diana Stork, taught her the basic pattern of four beats against three which creates an interlocking, shifting pattern that can be heard on Ys, particularly in the middle section of "Sawdust & Diamonds." After Ys, Newsom said that she has lost interest in polyrhythms. They "stopped being fascinating to me and started feeling wanky."
The media have sometimes labeled her as one of the most prominent members of the modern psych folk movement. Joanna, however, makes no ties to any particular music scene. Her songwriting incorporates elements of Appalachian music and avant-garde modernism.
Newsom's vocal style (in the November 2006 issue of The Wire she described her voice as "untrainable") has shadings of folk and Appalachian shaped-note timbres. Critics noticed a change in Newsom's voice on her latest album. In the spring of 2009, Newsom developed vocal cord nodules and couldn't speak, sing or cry for two months. The recovery from the nodules and further "vocal modifications" changed her voice.
Joanna is known to debut songs impromptu at her concerts. On March 28, 2009, she performed over two hours of new material at a 'secret' concert in Big Sur, California with fellow Nevada City singer-songwriter Mariee Sioux under the pseudonym 'The Beatles's'. Those in attendance reported that about one-third of her new material was played primarily on piano, with a backing arrangement of banjo, violin, guitar and drums.
Since late 2006, Joanna has performed a solo harp version of the Robert Burns poem "Ca the yowes tae the knowes."
In February 2010 Spunk, Newsom's Australian label, released her newest album, Have One on Me. P-Vine Records in Japan announced that Have One on Me, which was recorded in Tokyo in 2009, would be released in Japan on March 3, 2010, as a 3-disc CD set, with a total of approximately three hours of new recordings.
On February 11, 2010, Pitchfork Media reported that Newsom would be the subject of a tribute book titled Visions of Joanna Newsom which has now been published by Roan Press.
In addition to her solo work, Newsom has played on records by Smog, Vetiver, Nervous Cop, The Year Zero, Vashti Bunyan, Moore Brothers, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Golden Shoulders and The Roots and played keyboards for The Pleased.
She married comedian Andy Samberg, (SNL, Broooklyn 99), on September 21, 2013.