Harpist/singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom’s debut record, The Milk-Eyed Mender, has inspired a number of memorable covers. But look ahead through the rest of of Newsom’s work—post-2006, frankly—and notable versions become far harder to come by. Newsom’s move from Milk-Eyed to her sophomore record, Ys, and beyond involved a series of especially massive creative leaps: modest folk songs to epic orchestral suites, and, later, to triple LPs. Newsom’s work has only gotten richer and more fascinating, the lyrics denser and the arrangements knottier — but, at least based on past precedent, she’s also seemingly grown more… uncover-able.
It’s refreshing and impressive, then, to come across a cover of not only a post-Milk-Eyed Mender tune, but a Newsom acolyte who has made their own creative in-roads to her later work. This would be singer-songwriter Rachel Sumner, who, alongside her band Traveling Light, has shared an artful new cover of Joanna Newsom’s “Colleen.”
Once an EP-only deep cut released by Newsom in 2007, “Colleen” gets a deserved feature placement here from Sumner and her band. Their version is rooted in bluegrass instrumentation — the track announces itself with just fiddle and voice, blooming gradually into a much fuller arrangement. But like Newsom and her atypical aplomb with the harp, Traveling Light go beyond just some old-time string band redux of “Colleen,” adapting the material to their particular progressive stylings. Sumner’s sound feels aligned with a number of newgrass/Americana-adjacent groups like Crooked Still and Lake Street Dive — both groups were long-ago upstarts with roots in Boston too, where conservatory training and a thriving local acoustic scene seem to be a winning brew for studied, adventurous music-making.
Rachel Sumner and Traveling Light’s new self-titled album, featuring “Colleen” at the center, will be released this Friday August 5th. Buy/pre-order the new album on Bandcamp here, and check out the Joanna Newsom cover below. (Also included below is another late-era/deep-cut Newsom cover from Sumner: “You and Me, Bess,” drawn from the aforementioned 2010 triple LP Have One On Me, and self-released by Sumner in early 2021.)