BY STUART ROSS
In a recording career spanning more than 20 years, neo-Americana singer songwriter Simon Joyner has often described the long walk home. He’s “making his way through the dead park” or he’s gotten “sick in the rain, on some holy day, dreaming of Saint Teresa.” Joyner’s nature is not the silhouetted mountain or the canyon on the postcard. The characters in his songs have barnyard problems. There’s even a Charlotte-like spider who “writes a letter to the fly caught in his web.”
That spider is from 1999’s The Lousy Dance, a collection of ballads that serve as a good place for the Joyner novice to start. It’s a proper midway point between his youthful, lo-fi recordings—the kind perfected by John Darnielle and commoditized by Beck—and the subtle, sonic layers found on 2006’s Skeleton Blues, or 2012’s sprawling Ghosts.
Joyner is often branded a cult artist. That’s true in the sense he seeps into your daily rituals. His music knows the first light blues. “Who cremated the morning and sprinkled it over my forehead?” he asks in “Love Is Worth Suffering For,” a song that deserves countless covers. In his hands, it’s hauntingly effective with only voice and guitar, the track rustling with bedroom noise. “It’s not a day of worship unless I haven’t got the facts straight,” he concludes. And with that, the morning passes.
Like most good things, I stumbled into this interview. I’d just purchased tickets to the Living Room show in Chicago this Sunday, and thought I was sending my song request to an auto-reply mailbox. It turned out to be Simon’s personal address. A few emails later, he agreed to this interview. We discussed his record club, year-end lists, the nature of Omaha, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, and the joys of starting off in the black.
Frontier Psychiatrist: I read you were named after Paul Simon. What was the role of music in the house you grew up in?
Simon Joyner: My dad played guitar and sang to us all the time as kids. He said stuff like “no one can really understand you quite like a good guitar does,” and encouraged me to take it up at an early age. He had a massive record collection so I grew up listening to singer-songwriters like Dylan, Neil Young, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin, Leonard Cohen, and Phil Ochs, as well as great rock and psych stuff like Moby Grape, The United States of America, the Byrds, Stones, Beatles, and the Velvet Underground.
It’s true I was named after Paul Simon. My younger brother was named after Paul Simon’s song “Duncan.” Great song off the first solo record. My other younger brother was named Jesse Donovan, after a Donovan and Janis Ian song called “Jesse”, or maybe it was after Jesse Colin Young. I can’t remember. My folks were Alabama hippies!
FP: You ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for 2012’s Ghosts. What was that process like for you? I feel like that’s a moment where you learn a lot about your fan base.
SJ: It was a great experience. I was able to raise enough to cover the costs of the double album with very nice packaging, essentially pre-selling the record to the people who would be buying it anyway. I would’ve felt guilty asking a label to put up that much money for a double album in a gatefold jacket. Instead of having a label put up a terrific amount of money they’d need to get back before the record broke even, by using Kickstarter I received a little bit from a bunch of people who didn’t expect the money back, because they were getting something in return. So you start off in the black, the opposite of how it normally goes.
It’s really gratifying to know what I do is sustainable through direct support from the people who appreciate my music. I’m definitely encouraged to do it again.
FP: In Aquarium Drunkard’s review of Ghosts, which they called a masterpiece, they did say it’s “somewhat stubborn” to release a double LP these days. Usually when I think of your music, I still think of it on CDs. Has the vinyl resurgence changed your approach to distribution?
SJ: I’ve always released my records on vinyl. That’s my preferred format. In the CD era my records would come out on both, which just adds to the overhead costs and takes the whole project longer to break even. I think with records coming with download codes now, there’s no reason to do two formats. People will either buy the vinyl for the download card & packaging artifact, out they’ll buy downloads from a website or my bandcamp page. To be honest, it’s liberating to be able to focus on releasing vinyl and not have to think about CDs at all. I never cared for CDs.
FP: Your stop in Chicago is the end of this Living Room tour. There’s certainly a troubadour-like romance when you buy a ticket to a show, don’t even know the exact location, and then get to see it in someone else’s living room. How’s working with Undertow? How’s the tour?
SJ: It’s been fantastic, really wonderful. I prefer smaller shows for the enthusiasm of the audience, and Undertow is a great model to facilitate that. The Living Room tour enables me to have house shows that essentially have the security of a larger venue show. But it’s not a “pass the hat” around type situation, like DIY shows used to be. I love the whole concept of treating a house show like a venue, and gaining the experience of performing and listening to music at an intimate level where it’s most enjoyable for everyone.
The shows have been really great so far. Really gratifying artistically and the support has been overwhelming.
FP: You’ve made a home for your family in Omaha, Nebraska, one of those cities we rarely see on screen. But this year, Alexander Payne’s Nebraska takes place almost wholly in the state. The film captures a lot of the beauty of the landscape, and also the shuttered homesteads. I was thinking about your music during the film, particularly “Out into the Snow”, which I hear as man’s battle against both the cold and living in a small town. How does your home affect your creative process?
SJ: I enjoy living in a medium-sized city with enough culture to satisfy those needs but as slow or fast-paced as you want to make it otherwise. I’m very fond of Omaha, the tight knit community, the distinct seasons. It’s a great place. Of course I travel a lot performing, so I get to enjoy much larger cities and perhaps that makes living in a smaller one just fine. In any case, you write about what you know and the people you know, so I think Omaha comes through in the stories and in the characters in the songs.
FP: How do your album covers come about? The cover of Out into the Snow is one my favorite covers of yours, or anyone else, for that matter.
SJ: I painted the cover to Skeleton Blues and did the line drawing on the Christine EP, but I’m not really an artist in that sense. I love designing the artwork for my records, though, I think it’s as important as the music. The cover of Out into the Snow is from a photo postcard from the late 19th century. I got it at an estate sale. A really nice, evocative image. I usually use art by others. I mostly do layout and design.
SJ: I named the label after my song, and also as a nod to Apple Records, which is why we have half a grapefruit on the center labels. The idea behind the label is to release four records a year as part of a series, all limited and numbered editions. You can subscribe and get them shipped to you quarterly or you can buy individual records. The subscription is a little cheaper per record, and I hope that it encourages people to check out the whole series instead of just buying what they know. We try and mix obscure artists with some known underground artists so everyone shares one another’s fan base. It has been a great three years so far, and I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to put out.
In 2013, we released albums by Bill Direen and the Hat, Marisa Anderson, David Kenneth Nance, and The Renderizors. Our fourth year of releases will begin in 2014. On the scheduled are Kath Bloom, The Prats, Eye, and The Garbage and The Flowers. I’m very excited about the new series.
FP: You’ve worked a lot with cellist and arranger Fred Lonberg-Holm, and on The Lousy Dance your band included other great Chicago improvisers like Ken Vandermark, Jeb Bishop, and former Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. What’s your history with these players? Who have you played with on this tour?
SJ: I did a few records in Chicago working with Michael Krassner, when he was living there. He had this great wrecking crew he brought into these recordings, great musicians working there at the time. I became friends with a lot of these guys and consider those recording experiences some of the most enjoyable of my life. Krassner is really instrumental in putting the right people together.
This current tour is composed of a small version of my Ghosts band, reduced to a trio for Living Room show necessities. I have Noah Sterba on guitar, bass, and keyboard, and Kevin Donahue on bass and percussion. Great Omaha musicians from several current bands. I’m playing an acoustic guitar for this tour, and poorly executed (the only kind I know) harmonica.
FP: There are more than a few “Best of 2013” lists going around right now, what have you been listening to this year? Reading?
SJ: I’ve been listening to a lot of Kitchen’s Floor, Naked On the Vague, Spires That In The Sunset Rise, Twerps, Mad Nanna. That and all kinds of great reissues. I’m terrible at recalling things on the spot for lists like this though! Been reading a lot of Roberto Bolaño, Amy Hempel, and Louise Gluck. And I’m tackling Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March right now.