Omaha, autobiography, and songcraft.
For over twenty years, Simon Joyner has carved out a particular space for his own strain of music and storytelling. Among his fans are the likes of Gillian Welch and his fellow Omaha musician Conor Oberst. It isn’t hard to see the appeal of Joyner’s songs. He’s equally adept at channeling characters who live with the long-term consequences of quotidian decisions and getting inside the head of those in darker territory.
Musically, Joyner’s work ranges from stark and meditative to more ragged and loose. His latest album, Grass, Branch & Bone, is his first for Woodsist—though the news that he’d found a home on a label known for artists who venture into the more surreal corners of Americana comes as no surprise.
Our conversation, conducted over the phone on a winter evening, touched on everything from the evolution of Omaha’s music scene over time to the contrasting sounds of Joyner’s albums, to his occasional forays into collaboration.
Tobias Carroll Listening to Grass, Branch & Bone, it seems like a quieter record or a more stripped down record than Ghosts.
Simon Joyner Yeah, for sure.
TC Did you know as you were starting to write those songs that it was going to be such a contrast with the previous record?
SJ I did pretty soon into that batch of songs. I had an idea that it was going to be a really different sounding record. Thematically, things seemed to be heading in that direction—that the songs might benefit from a different approach, something a little more understated, rather than the loud, dissonant band.
TC Is the record all you in terms of recording, or did you bring in other people?
SJ To play on it? Yeah, a lot of the same people from Ghosts play on the record, but I approached it more like some of my non-band records in the past—where I just went in with my guitar, a bass player, and a drummer, then laid down the basic tracks. Then, I brought in other players to add parts on the songs, and kind of dressed them up that way, rather than having everyone tour or play around town, developing their parts as a working band.
TC You were talking about getting a feel for the record. Do you generally start with a song or themes or emotions? Things you want to work through?
SJ Usually it takes a while after another record comes out before I start writing songs again, so it puts me in a different place when it comes time to write. It’s not always just a continuation of where I left off—some living has happened. Once I start writing about something, though, there’s usually a lot of material that happens in a period of a few months. From there, I tend to just find the songs that seem to have a narrative and put them together. I think, this is where the album comes from with these songs, which are good maybe for another record or for some other project, but don’t quite fit thematically with this other material. So, I try to curate a new batch based on what these other songs are saying and get some kind of consistency with what I’m attempting with the record.
TC Ghosts was such a big, sprawling record. Was that something where you didn’t have as much left over afterward or was that, despite the length, similar to everything else you’ve done?
SJ With that record it was the same kind of thing. I wrote a whole batch of stuff and I wanted most of it to be on the record. Once I realized that, I knew it was going to have to be a double album. For that batch of songs, because they came together in the right time frame … There was a lot going on in my life at the time. I had lost some friends. I was writing about death, I guess, but trying to hit it from a lot of different angles, so it wouldn’t just be the same thing over and over with each song. From there, I didn’t want it to be too death-obsessed, so I tried to put in songs about different kinds of relationships as well. In an attempt to round it out a bit.
TC Where, thematically and narratively, would you say this new record fits in with your body of work?
SJ With this record, the theme I saw in the songs that were coming out had more to do with things that happened in the past, rather than an event like a death or something in the present. It's about memory and recollection and nostalgia—and some of the dangers of that terrain. It’s about people who have grown distant, or remembering something that happened or someone they have done something to, which they've never really been able to forget. Working that out. A lot of the characters on this record are plagued by something that happened in the past and they are dealing with it now, rewriting it as they go, the way we do when we’re dealing with something we can’t really remember and putting our new spin on it. We’re either too hard on ourselves or too easy on ourselves, but we’re definitely not getting it exactly as it was.
TC I was listening to the song “Old Days” earlier and I feel like its narrative becomes more and more layered.
SJ I can see that.
TC Where do the characters come from? I’m thinking of something like "Old Days" vs. a song like “The Tyrant” on Ghosts where you have two very different narrators who are capable of very different things. Do you have to be in the head of a character in order to write a song or does one come with the other?
SJ It sort of depends on the character. With a song like “The Tyrant,” I didn't want to spend too much time in the head of a character like that, but I always try to get into the mind of the characters and feel like I understand them, even if they’re not people I would necessarily want to spend a lot of time with. I have to try to understand them and have compassion for them even if they’re really messed up, or working things out, or always doing things in ways I wouldn't do them.
I bring what I can of my own living and observing to the characters. Oftentimes I’ll use something that happened to me. I’ll put the event into the hands of this character with different skills than I have in terms of self-reflection. They might make different decisions with the same information. So, I try to see how these characters would react to this event in the story I'm creating. I take something from my life and put it in their hands and see how it goes. Different people have different faults and values and skills, so there’s going to be a different result. To some degree, it’s an exercise, but it’s also what I see happening around me—people trying, struggling. I’m interested in characters who are struggling. I am, too. Everyone is.
To get songs that are not just about me—it’s important for me to use some kernel of information or of real life as a springboard to explore other ideas. Human nature, I guess.
TC Is there a specific example on the new record that you would want to talk about?
SJ Well, the song “Nostalgia Blues” has these different encounters between people with someone from their past in each verse. There are a lot of moments in that song that come from real encounters I've had with people. Like I was explaining, I just change how the narrator perceives the encounter, which is different from myself.
There’s a verse in there where someone is offended by the songwriter who writes these songs. He’s kind of romanticizing himself all of the time, and digging through people’s dirty laundry to write these lyrics—the accusation of using people for art. That’s not something that happened to me, but it’s something of which I’m always aware. Since I do talk about real people, I change things. I’m always aware that it might not be such a welcome thing to have your life written about, expanded upon, and changed without your permission like that.
TC You’ve been making records for over twenty years now. Are the people you encounter aware that’s a fairly significant part of your life? Maybe an occupational hazard when coming into contact with you?
SJ (laughter) Yeah, probably so. Everyone handles things like that differently. Not everyone is so easygoing about it. Some people really like it. They’re like “Oh, you put that thing that happened to us in that song. That was cool to hear.” But usually, not so much. People aren’t always so cool about it.
I’m definitely not trying to hurt anybody, or write about anything so specific that anybody would know whom I’m talking about, especially since I’m changing what happened and making the characters do things that the real people didn’t do. The thing is, when someone hears himself in a song then he thinks, Oh this is how he thinks about me, or, He thinks I really feel this way that this character feels. That’s usually not the case. It’s just something that was really interesting to me.
I think people understand that. If they’re creative people then they’re probably guilty of the same thing: getting inspiration from the things around them. I would be into it. I would be grateful to be part of inspiring somebody, but I can look at it from the other side. That’s what I was trying to do in that song, having someone as articulate as I am point the finger at me and accuse me of something unseemly. To let that play out in the song was a way to throw out the idea that there’s another way of looking at all of this.
TC Do you also work in other mediums, like fiction or poetry, in addition to writing songs?
SJ I do. But, I haven’t really done anything with it. I would like to be able to spend more time writing fiction especially, but I think I’d have to take some time off from songwriting to do it, because I’ve been doing this for so long that when something comes to mind, when I think of some conflict that’s interesting to put into a story, lyrics start coming. I’ve just been operating that way for so long. If I wanted to do actual short story writing then I would need to stop writing songs for a while.
TC So, you used crowd funding to make Ghosts. Now, you’re doing a record again on a label. How did that relationship come about?
SJ Once I knew Ghosts was going to be a double album, and really expensive to make, I decided I’d try Kickstarter. I’ve always had these great independent labels champion my stuff, and they're always willing to put out my records. I just didn’t want to do that to anybody. (laughter) I just knew that, not only was it going to be a double record, but it was going to be a dissonant sounding record, and more of an effort, and expensive. I had been hearing a lot about Kickstarter, so I thought it would be a good one to experiment with. It worked out great.
It’s also a lot of work to take on—the idea of doing that every time. I never wanted to do it instead of working with labels, but for that project I thought it was a good way to get something done that would have been a financial burden on a label. I could have found a label to do it, but I thought this would be a good one to split up between all of the people who buy my records, anyway.
I played a show with the Woods guys in Omaha, and Jarvis Taveniere, who records them, and is in Woods, flew out to California to record a project I did with Dennis Callaci, of the band Refrigerator. Do you know Refrigerator at all?
TC I don’t know Refrigerator. I knew that you guys had worked on a record not long before the one that’s coming out.
SJ Yeah. Shrimper, Dennis’s label, put out a split with Woods and Amps For Christ, so he was friends with those guys, and wanted Jarvis to engineer this record he and I made, which turned out really great. It’s about half my songs, and half Dennis’s songs. It came out on Shrimper, and it’s called New Secrets. That came about between Ghosts and this new one. It was a great experience. I really love those guys from Woods, so it made sense to approach them to see if they were interested when I was making this new record, to see if they wanted to put it out. And, they did.
TC When I heard about the new record, it seemed like a really good fit. It was of those, Oh yeah, it makes complete sense there would be an aesthetic overlap here.
SJ Oh, that’s good. A lot of people have said that.
TC I haven’t been out to Omaha. What is the current state of music out there?
SJ It’s a pretty diverse scene in town. A lot of people moved here from other places when the spotlight shined on our town. A lot of creative people came here and started bands and opened shops. There’s great stuff happening in town, a lot of different scenes, more so than what gets written about, for sure. It’s pretty healthy. So many venues have opened in the last five or six years. There’s music every night, which is definitely different from how it was when I was in high school, desperately wanting to see music. We had to drive out of town to catch bands, because no one ever came to Omaha. There were no venues. For records, I would have album release shows in the basements of restaurants and bookstores. There was no place to play; nothing ever lasted. It’s a good change. It’s less of a struggle if you want to be making music and find people who want to do the same thing. They’re there to work with.
TC How do you keep a balance between daily life, work, and making music? Is it a balance you’ve figured out pretty well over the years, or is it something that's still a give and take?
SJ I’ve always kept music on the back burner. Most of my career, if you want to call it that, music has been almost like a recording project. Maybe I’d go out for a couple of weeks after a record came out, maybe twice in a year. Some years, there’s no touring it all. When I can fit it in, I do it. I’m always writing and always recording and then I put out a record whenever I have one ready. The labels were always cool about the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to do tour support to help sales or anything.
I had kids pretty young, in my early twenties. And that was during the time when I first started making music. I just stayed in and worked. I would get out on tour every once in awhile, but not for very long. That was okay for me. I have a lot of friends who have been on the road for as long as they can remember and many of them aren’t comfortable in their own skin, or with staying in one place. It becomes too much a part of your identity, that rootlessness. I wanted the foundation of what I was doing to be a little more rooted. I’m happy that’s how I’ve done it. Now that my kids are older and moving out of the house, I can actually do more touring than I’ve ever done before. It’s kind of exciting.
I don’t really like to perform too many nights in a row. After about two weeks, I’m always afraid I’m going to become uninspired or feel like I'm punching the clock. Two to three weeks keeps me where I’m excited about performing each night and enjoying the sleeping on couches and everything like that. After that, I’m ready to come home and do other things. Do a little living again.
TC Does your home life ever work its way into your songwriting? Or do those stay pretty separate?
SJ It has over the years, for sure. In that same way that I was talking about before. Incidents happen, and the writing grows from a real life experience. I’ve always written about the personal through sort of a kaleidoscope: Breaking it up and taking it in different directions. But, it’s oftentimes about something. I was married before, and it was a difficult marriage. A lot of early records work out the problems that I was having in my life. I wrote this song called “Born Of Longing,” in anticipation of being a father before I was one, before my son Owen was born. It’s just this song that ends up being about wondering what this kid is going to be like and how he’s going to defy me and insist on living life his own way, and what that will do to me, and the loved ones in his life—imagining this life before it happened. Everything I have gone through has worked its way into the songs, for sure.
TC Since finishing this new record, are you in that quiet period right now where you’re not really writing anything? Do you have a sense of where the next one is going to go?
SJ I have this strange psychosis that happens, where I can’t write anything until the last project is actually done and out. I’ve turned in the record, and I’ve seen the artwork, the test pressing has come back, we approved it and I know it’s coming out… But, until it actually does come out, I’m still thinking about this Grass, Branch & Bone record. As soon as it comes out, I wont give it another thought. At all. That’s when I might be able to start writing again. I hope so anyway! I always think, That’s the last song I’ll ever write, because I go for such long periods without writing anything. But, I find that when I do start writing, I will have built up all of this information since the last time I wrote a batch of songs, all of these events and experiences to draw from. Letting all of that happen before reflecting on it tends to be a good thing, for me, because there’s a lot there to draw from, and a little more perspective on it, than if I were just writing in the moment, as it was happening. It makes it easier to have songs come out in a three-dimensional way, without as much effort as if I were writing it right off the headlines. It might be harder to do, at least for me. Other people operate differently.
TC The title of the record—where did that phrase come from?
SJ It’s a lyric at the end of the last song. I guess it’s sort of a Whitmanesque idea of tying people to the earth or something alone those lines. It’s in “Nostalgia Blues,” at the end.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn.