The Prince William Concert Grand harp stands over 74 inches tall, weighs 83 pounds and costs $89,000. According to Lyon & Healy, its manufacturer, the harp features not only a "clear and resonant" sound but also clusters of "23+ karat" gilded roses at its crown and pedestal, double rosewood inlay and a motif of ribbons and vines hand-drawn in gold leaf on its Sitka spruce soundboard. The instrument, in other words, is a lot like the music of Joanna Newsom, who plays one: elaborately, beautifully, preposterously well-wrought. Newsom has the unlikely distinction of being the best-known harpist in American indie music, and she's probably the best-known harpist in America, period, selling hundreds of thousands of records and earning champions like Will Oldham, who gave Newsom her big break; Dave Eggers, who's written rhapsodically about her; and Paul Thomas Anderson, who cast her in Inherent Vice and directed two of her videos. Newsom has acted on Portlandia and starred in an MGMT video, too, but music has been her obsession since she declared, around age 4, that she wanted to learn the harp.
A few years later, an impressed instructor taught her a revelatory new way to think about the instrument, derived from polymetric West African traditions, that stoked Newsom's sense that harps were capable of more than just making pretty glissandi: "The idea is that the left hand" — which plays the bass part — "is very grounded, playing a steady one-two-three-four beat, and that's the earth," Newsom says. "But your right hand" — which plucks out the melodic line — "is doing a one-two-three that never grounds, never resolves, and that's heaven." Newsom drums her fingers to illustrate, creating a transfixing beat that undulates in and out of phase, then raises her hands to her temples to mime her pre-adolescent skull shattering. "It was mind-melting," she says. "Heaven and earth come together every 12 beats."