"Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate; Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait" -Longfellow

Monday, September 3, 2012

Into Ghostly Distances: 10 (err... 9) Questions with Simon Joyner

Simon Joyner (Photo by Micheal Patterson)

Time and gone distance have a way of reducing the immediacy of human feelings to quiet voices in the dusk of another warm evening falling. Omaha, Nebraska's Simon Joyner makes songs that seem to sit perfectly still in this dusk- even when they're full of angst, worry or frustration. All the movements and adornments on his latest work Ghosts, for example, have a hushed way of approaching the listener... polite but blunt about all the time we don't have to waste. Joyner's thirteenth album, and definitely one of his finest, Ghosts is rife with emotional texture, gnarled and dilapidated sonic settings, and lyrical spryness (intuitive, heartfelt, detached, sharply luminous, magical). It both stands out and blends in, among the other living snapshots in Joyner's 20-year recording gallery.

See my full review of the album (for KINDFORM) here.

Joyner was recently kind enough to humor some of my questions about his work, its inspiration(s), and his stance on being mentioned alongside his own heroes- the result is a necessary supplement for any listener with more than a cursory interest in the songwriter, the man and his music. Read that below and stream a few of Ghosts' standout tracks. And go get the album... If you're a fan, it will surpass all of your expectations... If you're new to Simon Joyner, I assure you it will be the first of many you'll want to have in your collection.

1. Ghosts is your 13th proper album, released in your twentieth year of recording... looking back and looking forward, how do you see it in the context of your other musical efforts? Especially for readers who are hearing your music and learning of you for the first time, talk a little bit about your development (what you've discovered) as a songwriter and recording artist over the course of these albums and years.
I guess I don’t look at all the records in a linear way, as part of an evolution (though I can see how the case could be made for that way of viewing a “career”), but more as individual projects existing in their time and place only. My goal with each record I make is to serve that batch of songs and whatever is in my head at the moment. Whatever preoccupations require further meditation, I guess. I rarely think about a record after it’s released, especially vis-a-vis the next record or the one that came before. So, with Ghosts I believed the songs I was bringing to the project needed to be approached a certain way and set out to create an environment and recording process that would facilitate that approach. With the other records I did the same. Some times I wanted to work with certain people in a studio environment to force a burning the candle at both ends creativity out of a limited time commitment, to see what could be drawn out of us from that approach. Other records were labored over many months. Other records mostly solo, recorded at home, with just a handful of musicians coming in after the fact to ice the cake, to dress up the skeletons, etc.... It always depends on the time and the songs themselves.

Consequently, I think there is no proper entrance point for someone hearing about my music and wanting to dive in. There will be folks who hate Ghosts but loved Out Into the Snow and vice versa, and so on with any of my albums, I think. It goes to show how important little degrees of change are when it comes to subjective information; poetry, music, fine art, whatever it may be. If I hit fewer blue notes, slid around a little less vocally, and trimmed a bit of dissonance, it might increase my audience substantially in a given population, perhaps decreasing it markedly among the more avant garde contingent. I can’t think about stuff like that and ultimately, it can’t matter. I make my music, and by definition, it can be whatever I want it to be at any given time, and that changes sometimes by little degrees and sometimes by greater degrees according to whatever the project at hand happens to be and what I think this particular song cycle needs. I’m pretty sure that after every record I’ve made, I’ve thought it was the best I’d done. So, I don’t have a perspective on the albums other than viewing them all as projects I was completely immersed in while I was making them. I don’t think I could release a record if I didn't think it was somehow better than or doing something different from all the others. 

2. Speaking about Ghosts specifically, what was the writing and recording process like? After many listens, it's hard for me to imagine a more appropriate title- what is the significance of the title generally and with regards to the song cycle? Who/what are the ghosts you're singing about?
I write a bunch of songs and revise them and re-write them until they’re basically presentable to other people. Then I make a recording of demos and give them to the band and we start rehearsing and working on arrangements. It’s a ways down the road before we get around to recording as the songs continue to develop through the process of adding other creative influences and working out ideas together as a group. With this record, that was the case for almost all of the songs. I threw “If It’s Alright with You (It’s Alright with Me)”  at them unrehearsed while we were recording because I wanted it to be even more loose and spontaneous. But generally, that was the approach. Recording-wise, we set up in my large warehouse space, spread out, using a 16-track reel-to-reel machine I borrowed from Conor and some nice mics and other gear from ARC Studio and other musician friends, combined with our stuff, and were able to get a nice warm recording sound without being in a studio. The warehouse environment meant we could record anytime according to everyone’s schedules and no one had to take much time off work, etc... We got the basics done live over a couple long weekends and then after that we just messed with the songs as time allowed, bringing in people one at a time to add this or that. A lot of the overdub recording was done by Chris Deden and I experimenting on songs when no one else was around. 

The title refers to people who have died and their stories, as well as the stories that exist around their death due to how the living deal or don’t deal with it. In writing about the lives that intersected with them when they were living and are left altered now that they are not, you end up with multiple ghosts, living and dead. I am not who I was at various times in my life and I think of all of those people I have been as ghosts. On the cover of the record I have pictured friends and family, living and dead, all in some previous incarnation, so to speak. There are no recent photos of me but there are several of me from different points in my life. I made the band give me pictures of themselves from the past, as long as they believed they were fundamentally different then than they are now. I have also worked in a few photos of influential ghosts, artists whose work “haunts” this album! I don’t want to be sued so I will leave it to others to investigate the cover art for themselves. The idea of the cover was to create a “sea of humanity” feel, where the past and present, the known and unknown, all exist side by side on contact sheet strips as if they were all photographed at the same time. In this way, a photograph of my daughter can be seen next to a photo of my grandmother at the same age, that kind of thing. Time is so fluid and life is so incredibly short, you know, and people aren’t who you think they are or want them to be, they are always more than you think they are and only occasionally who you want them to be, like a clock that is only (or always) right twice a day. This isn’t any fault of theirs, it’s our mistake, expecting consistency out of something so messy and mutable. I think about how the light of the microscope changes what is being observed to render it unknowable.

Photo by Zach Hollowel

3. You went through Kickstarter to 'crowd-source' the funding for the finalizing of this project... Please talk a bit about your experience with that. What do you see as the social and artistic value of Kickstarter and other avenues like it?
I knew this would be a double album and being an artist surviving on the largess of small, independent labels, I thought I’d give them all a break, and not ask them to fund this expensive project. It certainly could have been done traditionally but I thought about the financial burden of doing it and really didn’t want a single entity to have to shell out for the whole thing, especially given that I’m a little particular about artwork and packaging and wanted it to look and feel a certain way. The benefit of the Kickstarter model is it allows the people who usually support my music indirectly (by buying the records in a store which paid a distributor which paid a label which shelled out all the initial investment) to move into a direct support role and pay for the record themselves. Ultimately, that’s where the record is ending up anyway (in their hands), so it’s just a nice way to cut to the chase, for one thing, and do so in such great numbers that no one person’s initial investment in the record jeopardizes their life in any way. If 200 people donate an average of $50, that’s not going to hurt them, but it adds up to $10,000. If a small label has to pay $10,000 to put out a record, they might be hurting for awhile or holding off on other projects while something recoups, you know? 

So, this model really facilitates art and does so with very little risk. The other benefit it provides is getting the artist back into a more human relationship with his or her supporters. Art becomes less mysterious and foreign, artists can be viewed as just like you and me, and that’s a positive thing, I think. It sort of cuts the stilts off the stage and gets the pedestal hoppers down here with everyone else. The work a person does might be exceptional but there isn’t generally anything more special about them as people. I’ve met them, I know! So, the crowd-sourcing puts the artist in a place where he/she is asking for money directly from people who support his art, and that subtle shift changes the dynamic in a way that benefits everyone, I think. I know that I enjoyed communicating directly with supporters during the Kickstarter campaign. Hearing from people who appreciate what I do is always encouraging. It’s easy to write and record in a vacuum and put it out there without knowing if anyone is hearing it or thinking about it. Just as performing in front of people can affirm that you’re not strictly doing this for yourself, the Kickstarter model also provides that connection. For some artists, knowing there is an audience is extremely important. But of course Emily Dickinson and Jandek did alright too.

4. The Simon Joyner legend is a series of half-spun yarns and word of mouth from diehard fans who long for the type of rambling life that seems so deeply embedded in your music. There is, of course, a long history of artists of all kinds seeking and finding inspiration on the proverbial road. Please talk a little bit about your various travels and how the land and the characters have become a part of your songs and your worldview.
Freedom is in the mind, really, and an idea that seems to distract from what people’s actions say they really want. Or, perhaps, it’s just mis-named. When Cohen’s character says “I have tried in my way to be free” in the song "Bird on a Wire", I think that that “freedom” is about choosing where you rest and how you surrender. A bird rests on a wire, people stop somewhere and do something for however long, etc.... That’s being free, choosing under what circumstances you will surrender. I think people are mostly adrift, wanting to anchor, not wanting to ramble at all. Distance and disquiet loom in characters who anchored in the wrong place at the wrong time, you know, John Cheever protagonists and the like. 

I’ve been no different throughout my life. The rambling we do is all searching for meaning and beauty and staving off and then embracing inevitable disasters that both disrupt and infuse everything with that meaning and beauty. So, we want the worst to happen and we want to avoid the worst that can happen for the same basic reasons. The road itself is not so important. It can be a convent or a prison or a Kerouac jalopy or whatever. Self-reflection and desire and investigating whatever mystery moves you can be done without going anywhere. I have enjoyed all the traveling I’ve been able to do and will continue to do it all my life, whenever I can, but I’m not driven to travel for the same reasons as some of the characters in my songs. I am not necessarily suffering from the same delusions about freedom, I guess I should say. I don’t think an unhappy person can go to the ocean and be happy. Seeing more geography is not necessarily the answer when a person can travel all over the world and still be anchored in the wrong place.

5. As a follow up to the previous question; your life (and thus your work) is obviously not wholly defined by your travels... Tell us a bit about your personal story. I'm not just concerned about elements that are closest to your music but also elements that are closest to your heart. For instance - and I think this is important for all artists attempting to remain so while 'growing up' - what role does domestic life play in your creation/inspiration?
Domestic life is as important as anything else, I’d say. It’s part of the whole picture and if you’re interested in writing about people in any kind of three-dimensional, universal way, you have to know something about what makes people tick or what kinds of things motivate them. Family is one of the things that motivate people to act in certain ways so of course it’s important. I’ve been married and divorced. I am married now and have three children. I wrote about married and divorced people before I was married or divorced, with as much information as I was able to achieve through serious observation, just as I’ve written from the perspectives of many characters regardless of whether or not I shared the same views or had the same experiences. You make it up but you make it real by paying attention to what you’ve seen and heard. Having a family and being directly involved in a variety of complex relationships is just working with more information than I had before, but it doesn’t change the process from a creative standpoint. If anything, it makes me lazier as an observer, taking things for granted. Domestic life and my commitments here have more of an impact on the logistical aspects of my creative life in that I rarely tour or spend very long away from home when I do tour. That kind of thing. But that’s where my priorities are for my everyday life. Having a family may make me more acutely aware of the passage of time than I already am, I guess, and that certainly works its way into my creative process, as heard on this new album.

6. For me - and this is not at all to take away from the power of your songs as a whole - lyrics are a huge part of what draws me to your music. You are poetic and direct, mystical and realistic, passionate and stoic, personal and universal... All at once. What is your lyric writing process like? Who do you consider some of your biggest influences in the realm of lyric writing and/or the literary arts?
Thanks, that’s nice of you to say. My process depends on the song and what it’s trying to say. Sometimes I have an idea of what I want to write a song about, a problem I want to write about. So in those cases I try and think of a scenario that would work to illustrate it, and from there I imagine the characters and so on downward, starting with big idea and ending up with smallest details like dialogue and the color of someone’s hair, etc.... That’s the harder way to go about it and not very fun because it’s really making something tangible out of something completely abstract. More often than not, a song develops in the reverse. I start by writing down a piece of dialogue I overheard or a single line comes to me that rolls off the tongue just right. Some little detail which I then work around until a direction starts to emerge and eventually the idea or problem becomes apparent later in the process. Often the line I began with is in the middle of the song and I’m building in both directions from the center. Sometimes as the direction of the song takes shape, the original line is discarded or changed to say something else, having served its purpose to get things rolling. This way starts out messier and more aimless but generally gets fine-tuned through multiple revisions. Both ways of writing songs end up at the same place, being revised and fine-tuned, but the processes are very different.

I’m influenced by everyone from Cole Porter to Hank Williams to Patti Smith to Bob Dylan to Mike Watt & D. Boon to Woody Guthrie to Peter Laughner to Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake. You know, songwriters like Phil Ochs and Kris Kristofferson and Townes van Zandt and Joni Mitchell too, of course. Peter Jefferies, Neil Young, Chris Knox, Alastair Galbraith. These are just some of the people who spring to mind but really, it’s anyone who knows how to write a song. 

7. As a bit of a back porch academic, I have always been very interested in the philosophical, mythological and religious references in your songs... Where do these come from? What, to you, is the value of these kind of allusions in music? If philosophers were baseball cards, who would you definitely want to have in your collection?
They are just reference points or signage in a song. If you allude to something people know the story of, that allusion or reference can do a lot of the work of conveying meaning for you. You allow people to bring their own knowledge of this or that to the line in question and put that information with the other information given to go a little deeper into the song. Some might say it’s cheating! It’s a tradition in storytelling at any rate and if used in a nuanced way, really great. Some poets like T.S. Eliot have so many allusions that there’s a page of footnotes for every few stanzas. I think it gets a bit much and in a song, it should be used in a way that doesn’t begin to call attention to itself. You should be able to get the point of the song without knowing any of the references or catching any of the allusions, but if you know some of them then it’s just more information to use when thinking about the line or the song. Having grown up when and where I have and given a decent education and a secure enough home life to retain a lot of it, I make use of those characters and stories from the bible or from mythology or from literature and pop culture. It’s just more tools in the toolbox. I know that a lot of people know the story of Icarus or Prometheus or Cain and Abel or will bring a certain amount of their own knowledge of Christianity and the idea of original sin to any apple references, for example. It’s fun to use the knowledge you have to make a song more interesting. That’s how I look at it anyway. 

If philosophers were baseball cards, I’d want David Hume in the collection.

Photo by Sara Adkisson Joyner

8. Those who are most acquainted with your work (myself included), who are also fans of Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, place you more firmly in their lineage than a whole host of acts that have been referenced as such by various media outlets...  How does that grab you? Pleasure, pressure, or indifferent?
It’s a flattering comparison. I am humbled by their best work, of course, and strive to work at that level whenever I write. It’s tough. This isn’t false modesty but I rarely feel that I’m even in the same building, let alone a hundred floors below them in the tower of song. To have anyone really believe I’m in their pack somewhere blows my mind. I’m not sure how to feel about it. If you want brutal honesty, hearing that kind of thing more often than not makes me think twice about the person who said it. That’s how distant their lead seems to be.

It’s funny, I have this thing I do when I’m done writing a song and I think it’s really good. I pop in my DVD of Don’t Look Back and I watch that scene where Donovan plays his "A Song For You" tune in the hotel room and then Dylan says something like, “wow, nice song, man, that’s a good song....HERE’S MINE” and then he plays "It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue". You know the scene, it’s excruciating to watch. Then I think to myself, if it were this new song of mine that Donovan had sung instead, how sorry for him would I feel now after "Baby Blue" finished? Would I feel just as bad? Would I feel even worse? Would I think he did pretty well under the circumstances? That’s the barometer. I just want to stay in the hotel room and not feel like shit after that exchange. I’ve thrown away hundreds of songs that way. Other songwriters need to throw away hundreds of songs too. Raise the bar and try much harder. If people think I’m competing at that level, what has probably kept me in that hotel room is just knowing and fully appreciating what I’m up against.

9. Speaking of your legacy... What’s next for you? Recordings? Writing? A quiet retiring life (haha)? Adventures? You’re twenty years in and have made an inestimable mark on the songwriting world - one that will certainly only strengthen with time - where do you go from here?
Dunno. I’ve got some writing left to do. I’m basically a young man.



SIMON JOYNER: facebook, twitter, website, ba da bing records, discog
For more on Simon and Ghosts see: HERE (NPR) and HERE (Dusted).

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