Let’s Get Small:
Simon Joyner and the Virtues of Obscurity
Simon Joyner wins the award for most dropped calls during a phone interview. Attempting a conversation with him while he was driving from Omaha to Minneapolis late last month to begin a short “living room” tour, the spotty rural coverage led to an increasingly comical series of abrupt silences, dial tones, callbacks and busy signals during the span of our hour-long chat. Ultimately, patience prevailed, but perhaps that’s to be expected. As a friend recently described Joyner to me, “He’s one of the most peaceful people I’ve ever met,” an assessment that immediately generated a shocked ”Really??” out of the Omaha-based songwriter when I passed it on.
Let me just preface things with this disclaimer: I like Simon Joyner’s music, and I have a couple of his albums as well as that compilation from a few year ago. I’m particularly partial to 2004’s sublime Lost With the Lights On and last year’s comparatively dark, untidy and sprawling double-LP Ghosts. But I’m not one of these ultra-devotees that has every cassette and 7” and CD-R and knows the lyrics of his songs inside and out. I’ve never even heard 1994’s The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll, by many accounts his best work and one which John Peel once famously played start-to-finish on his BBC radio program. I’m sure it’s spectacular. I just haven’t gotten around to it.
But he seems like a decent guy, and he’s certainly a gifted, poetic songwriter whose stirring, natural voice fits the vivid stories he weaves perfectly. And all you Joyner disciples out there (which may number a total of a hundred or less in all of metro Atlanta, such is the perpetually-limited range of his notoriety) need to know that he’s playing a low-key gig in Todd Pullen’s loft in Avondale Estates on Dec. 11th. (Pullen’s hosted other intimate shows there in the recent past from Califone and Pere Ubu’s David Thomas.) And I know a lot of you are probably married now and possibly have kids, and you’re all deep into that early midlife mode nowadays whether you like it or not, so arrange for a babysitter or dogsitter or make it an official “date night” or whatever you people do. Because Joyner doesn’t come around every day, and, you know, you can bring your own beer or brie and wine or whatever. Like Chastain, but in a living room.
You’ve often said things to the effect that you’re glad you’re not more well known than you are. Are you still content to remain at this small level of notoriety? A small but dedicated following as opposed to a larger but not so dedicated one?
“Yeah, yeah. It’s pretty much plateaued. I sell the same amount of records, it seems like, from year to year. And the same number of people come to my shows. It’s just a real nice level where there aren’t really any kind of artistic expectations from labels that put out my records, you know, like, ‘Can you do something more like that one record that sold so many copies?’ Everyone who wants to put out something by me appreciates what I do, and they’re not in any danger of having a problem with records flying out of the warehouse or anything.”
Yes, what a problem that would be!
“Right! They know what they’re getting into. A small but dedicated group of people who have been following my career and look forward to my next record. But I can do different things – I feel like I can do whatever I want to do, and musically change things up whenever I feel like it without causing any stress. The people who like my music sort of appreciate that part of what I do, I guess.”
Did you experience a noticeable bump back when the whole Omaha thing was getting so much media attention, when Bright Eyes was breaking out and Saddle Creek was the big indie label du jour?
“Yeah, I experienced a bump from that. You know, Conor [Oberst, of Bright Eyes], he recorded one of my songs, which made a lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise know about my music know about it. And that probably increased my fanbase significantly, but still, it’s not all that different. But if there was a bump, for sure it’s from that. And just from bands in that Saddle Creek scene talking about my music, I guess, as being influential on them when they were coming up in Omaha, because I was already putting out records and touring and stuff. They talked me up a little bit in interviews. It did get me more notice, which is nice, but not so much that I do it for a living or anything like that. I really wouldn’t want to be a professional musician, where I’m counting on paying my bills with what I do artistically. I just would have a difficult time writing and recording and touring at the kind of rate that friends of mine have to, to make it a job. And I don’t really want to do it as a job. I want to work 9-to-5 and have my family and friends, and be in town most of the time, and just tour a little bit, and record when I have enough songs, and want to, not because I have to. I just think it would be artistically, uh, damaging. I think I would lose interest in it. Because I’ve always done it as a compulsion, not as a necessity.”
Do you think that’s the reason so many great musical artists’ early material is their best?
“Yeah, I think that that happens to a lot of musicians, a lot of artists, because they get comfortable and popular, and they’re making lots of money, and then it becomes a little bit more of a job. There are some exceptions, but I think it would be hard for a professional career musician to keep feeling compelled to write songs, and to keep being excited about it as an artistic outlet, if they were actually living off of that. I think there is a certain amount of struggle that is necessary, you know. Your life has to be interesting in order to have things to write about, and kind of financially struggling usually makes your life more interesting! (laughs) I don’t mean interesting as ‘good,’ I mean interesting as ‘complicated.’ And I don’t think that touring six months out of the year, and when you’re not touring you’re recording, and going on junkets, I don’t think any of that is very interesting, as far as material for writing about universal themes that people can relate to. I decided early on that I didn’t want to do that.”
What is your 9-to-5 job, then, that makes your life so interesting?
“(laughs) Oh… I, uh, I have a business selling antiques and furniture and stuff on eBay, that I’ve been doing since I guess the early days of eBay. I have these antique dealers who consign their stuff to me, and then I photograph it and research it and put it on eBay and sell it, and take a commission. That’s what I’ve been doing for a little over ten years. Before then I worked for an antiques store, and then when most of our business started being online, I just decided that that would be a good thing that I could do from home. A be-your-own-boss kind of thing. It worked out really well.”
So you have an interest in antiques, old furniture?
“A passing interest. I mean, I know a lot about all of that stuff, and so I’m really good at selling it. I’m not a collector of the things that I sell. I think once you start working at an antiques store, or start selling this stuff as your living, you realize it’s kind of silly to collect anything. Except for records.”
There are thousands of singer and songwriters out there. What do you feel makes you unique, other than the fact that everyone is unique in certain ways?
“Gosh, I don’t know. I think any really good songwriter is bringing their own perspective to these universal themes. They’re not really writing about anything that no one has written about before. It’s all about the approach that you’re taking, and the angles and stuff, and whatever kind of insight you think you have about what’s motivating these people to act the way that they are. And then all of your musical sensibilities, like the music that you’re interested in and the songwriters that have kind of worked their way into the way that you write songs – it just creates unique combinations…I have always wanted to be more of a prose writer. Short stories and things like that. I thought that that’s what I would’ve done with my life, so my songwriting is really in that vein of telling a story arc, and creating characters that are three-dimensional. That’s always been important to me.”
We’ve heard about how much you’ve inspired others. What or who really inspired you to start doing this? Who did you hear or see early on that made a lasting impact on you?
“Well, a lot of the obvious people like Neil Young and the Velvet Underground. And the Minutemen were a huge impact on me. Just punk rock in general, was a big influence on me to want to try and write songs… My dad had all the great albums by, like, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley, Fred Neil, Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, all this great music that I really absorbed. That era of music was really influential on me. But the Velvet Underground and the Minutemen, punk rock in general, somehow felt a little more like what I might be capable of attempting. Music like that was a little more gritty and less… I don’t know… polished. It was like, people could give it a shot. Anyone could make this beautiful music. So even though I also really adored Dylan and Cohen and stuff like that, I was more inspired to actually try doing it by punk rock bands.”
On the other hand the Minutemen’s music in particular is not easy to play. It’s very jagged and jazzy, and Watt’s basslines are out there.
“Totally. Not simple at all, but more like the attitude and the, um, you know, their lyrics are really obtuse and kind of political but also really ‘of the people.’”
They also really defined the American DIY, “play everywhere” touring ethic.
“Right. That sort of uncompromising, doing it for the love of it. Keeping your 9-to-5 job and doing this in your free time. That aesthetic’s always meant a lot to me. Hard working people who are also artists – that’s kind of where my sensibilities are.”
Are you truly a peaceful person, like my friend described you? Have you ever punched anyone in the face?
“(laughs) I guess I’m pretty easygoing, for sure, with people. But I don’t know how at peace I am, in general. But I do feel like I get through a lot of stuff just by writing and working out stuff. So maybe I am more at peace because of that. I’m definitely more so than if I didn’t have an outlet like that. But yeah, I used to punch people in the face all the time! I was a juvenile delinquent. Really bad. When I was in junior high, my parents went through this really gnarly divorce, and so I became just this monster. I was out breaking windows out of peoples’ cars, and stealing cars, and breaking into the zoo with my juvenile delinquent friends. All kinds of terrible things. Yeah, I’d get in fights a lot.”
When did that phase end?
“There was an English teacher who sort of saw some kind of hope for me. It was like 9th grade or something. He was like, ‘You know, you’re really smart, and that essay you wrote about what you did over the summer, you should keep writing,’ and convinced me to get into an honors English class. And then I just kind of fell in love with, you know, with school, really, and learning. I became this person who really wanted to know as much about everything as I could. And that’s really what fixed me. (laughs)”
That probably also had a big impact on what you’re doing now, as far as helping you to channel life’s traumas into writing.
“Yeah, for sure. I mean, every sort of major event in my life, I started writing, and it sort of worked its way into the songs. And that’s why the records are often really different from one another. It’s just some preoccupation that’s getting worked out a little bit through these characters.”