A Simon Joyner primer: 11 essential releases

Omaha, Nebr. songwriting fixture reflects on a curated list of singles, collections, and albums.

While traveling through the Southeast on a trip that takes him from his hometown of Omaha, Nebr., all the way to Savannah, Ga., Simon Joyner is making stops in both Nashville and Atlanta to play a couple of rare solo acoustic performances. The following is a list of my personal favorite recordings, and he’s been kind enough to offer up a few words about each one.

Simon Joyner plays a solo acoustic set on Tues., Aug. 5 at 529. Lily & the Tigers and Narrator also perform. $7. 9 p.m. 529 Flat Shoals Ave. 404-228-6769. www.529atlanta.com.

Image Hotel Lives by Simon Joyner
Hotel Lives
I had a marriage in active free fall while writing and recording this album. All my creative energy went into these embattled fictional characters but I was unable to work things out in my own life. It was a rough time but an extremely productive period for writing. The songs just kept coming and I feel like they cut as close to the bone as I’m capable of. I am not sure what else to say about the record, it’s difficult for me to imagine listening to it because of the time it reminds me of, but I’m really proud of it as its own thing. I was listening to a lot of Skip Spence at the time and even slowed tracks down to make already slow songs even more weighted and suffering. It was my short story collection, my Winesburg, Ohio and my What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It’s a coin toss between this and Heaven’s Gate for my darkest record but even though it’s awfully dark, it’s never hopeless. I’m not into that.

Why You All So Thief split 7-inch w/ the Mountain Goats
This was my first appearance on vinyl. The Sing, Eunuchs! label I ran with my friend, Chris Deden, was all tapes up to this point. JD and I were in touch and decided to do a split record. He came up with the title, it’s from a book or story he was reading at the time but I can’t remember the source. Recorded my songs in the living room of the little house I was in at the time. Eric Berner played the “jew’s harp” on “Burn Rubber” and if you listen closely, the last thing you hear on the recording is his front tooth getting chipped! Bright Eyes covering “Burn Rubber” brought a lot of people to my music, you can hear hundreds of kids covering it on Youtube in their shaky best Oberst variations which makes me very happy. The guy in the song never leaves his porch so I think what I was getting at was getting the fuck out of dodge mentally when necessary, not splitting town. But sometimes splitting town is a good idea too. Either way, staying ahead of your storms is a good policy. “Fluoride” is a better song and that’s the one John Peel played on his show but “Burn Rubber” is more fun, I reckon. I love JDs songs on this too, he was firing on all cylinders.

Image Songs For The New Year by Simon Joyner
Songs For the New Year
All these early records of mine were recorded on a cassette 4-Track. I kept trying to figure out ways to get more orchestrated within the limited bounds of the machine I was using. So when we added some strings on this album, we bounced tracks so we’d have more to work with and it turned out, despite the added hiss. Every record then was a challenge to get the thing you hear in your head onto tape. I listened to records I loved that were recorded in $1000 a day Nashville studios in the ‘60s and ‘70s and I’d say, I’m gonna do that on this piece of shit cassette 4-Track with these wrecked speakers and this crap voice. Arrogant, defiant youth. This album has the perfect balance of light and dark, song-wise. I was lifted a bit by imminent fatherhood. I stole Townes Van Zandt’s melody from “She Came And She Touched Me” for the song “Born of Longing” which I wrote about my unborn son. It was originally titled “First Song for Salvador” but he ended up named Owen Montgomery James.

Lost With the Lights On
Recording this in Los Angeles with Michael Krassner, Jim White, Eric Heywood, and Wil Hendrix was a great experience. We recorded the whole thing in one weekend because I didn’t have a cent to my name and couldn’t afford more time. The band had never heard the songs until we were in the studio and we just did a couple passes of each one and very little overdubbing so the album would have a loose and improvised feel. I used this approach on Yesterday, Tomorrow and In Between as well. Studio recording but no one knows the songs so it doesn’t sound over-worked. It’s a fine line. The Blonde On Blonde approach, leave the mistakes in. Writing the songs of heartbreak and loneliness was less of a great experience. I remember Krassner was doing work on an album for Capitol records at the time and used his time on the clock for them to mix my album at Capitol after hours so I wouldn’t have to pay for mixing and we got to use their famous reverb chambers on my vocals.

Image To Almost No One: Singer-Songwriter series Vol 1-5
My tribute to under-appreciated singer-songwriters who influenced me. I guess with the exception of Kristoffersen and Phil Ochs, mostly under the radar greats. It was not supposed to be definitive, I was going to do multiple volumes of covers but because I wanted them all to come out as five 7-inch box sets, I only found one label willing to do it and never got to follow up with covers of Bill Jerp , J.N. Fleeman, John Palmer, Curt Newberry, et. al. The title comes from the David Blue song I covered in the set. He sings “The radio played on, to almost no one.” I thought that pretty much summed up the fate of the songwriters in the collection and by extension my own artistic career. They probably had more of a problem with it than I do, though. I came up at a time when most of the good music was on independent labels and made for a handful of serious listeners whereas they were releasing records during Dylan’s reign and there was a reasonable expectation that if you were good, you could also reach a wider audience and become rich and influential in the process. Funny stuff.

New Secrets
I was on tour on the west coast with my band the Ghosts and we stopped in the Inland Empire and recorded this collaboration with my good friend, Dennis Callaci, the head of Shrimper records and songwriter in Refrigerator. Did the whole thing in a weekend in Dennis’ living room with Jarvis Taveniere of Woods engineering and the band in swimsuits the whole time, coming in from the pool to do parts while dripping. Very L.A. in that respect! Half my songs and half Dennis’. I dug most of these songs out of old notebooks from the past twenty years, songs I hadn’t finished or just had lyrics for, with notes to the side like “finish this song” or “Less Sexton, more Plath” or “Steal another TVZ melody for this one,” that kind of thing. We backed up Dennis on his songs and he on mine. Dennis and I did a collaboration that was just the two of us called Stranger Blues a decade before on Catsup Plate so we were overdue for another one. I wish more people heard this record!

Image Ghosts by Simon Joyner
I tackled this like I did The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll, recorded in my warehouse on the weekends with the band and co-producing it with Chris Deden, just tinkering with the songs over time so we could try out whatever we wanted without time constraints. Sort of a twenty-year anniversary record, in that sense. It’s a difficult album for some to get into, I imagine. It’s raw and messy and dissonant in a lot of places. It deals an awful lot with death. I lost a string of friends over a period of time and dealing with those losses and approaching that theme from various angles is a lot of what’s going on here. It’s a true band record too, the way that Skeleton Blues was because I had the Ghosts together as an actual band playing these songs over the course of a year in advance of recording so that when we actually put the songs down, we could do the basics live and be loose and relaxed. Tonight’s the Night was a big influence.

Image Heaven’s Gate by Simon Joyner
Heaven’s Gate
Some say this record is too dark and they can’t listen to it all in one sitting. I had a friend once tell me to my face that they hated this record and considered it abusive. I don’t know, maybe “an acquired taste” would be a better way to put it. I didn’t think of it as especially dark at the time and I certainly wasn’t trying to hurt anybody by singing these songs but I agree that the worldview is a little harrowing here. It was another rough time in my life and if there’s one thing you can say about that is it tends to make for thematically consistent albums!

Image The Lousy Dance by Simon Joyner The Lousy Dance

My attempt to do Pleasures of the Harbor on no budget. Recorded in the amazing artist commune that was Truckstop on the upper floor of a warehouse in Chicago. Fred Lonberg-Holm convinced his avant-garde jazz friends to slum a bit on my record so we got some great players from different scenes working on this and Fred’s arrangements really made the record, I think. It was another difficult time in my life, beginning here and growing much more difficult by the next album, Hotel Lives. The Lousy Dance is less suffocating and more hopeful, buoyed by the bond I was developing with my Chicago musician friends. Still, I was on the fence about a lot of things and it shows here in the songs.

Beautiful Losers
A collection of singles and compilation tracks from early years. There are some favorite old songs on here. I was writing so much that I’d give away album contenders figuring I’d write more in time for the next record. But there are definitely some songs that I gave to labels because I didn’t know what else to do with the song and didn’t know much about their label or whether the compilation was really even going to come out. A mixed bag for sure. The Tim Buckley wannabe shirtless photo on the cover was taken in the little house where I recorded The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll. I am not nearly as dreamy now but neither is Tim Buckley.

Image The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll by Simon Joyner
The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll
Written and recorded under the influence of This Kind of Punishment and The Plastic Ono Band. This is where I got excited about recording music for the first time. I had done Room Temperature and Umbilical Chords before this but they were all guitar and vocal and more about capturing good takes of the songs in a naked form. This is where I realized I could be my own band, I could make something bigger out of songs, so I began experimenting with the art of recording and thinking conceptually about my songs, not just documenting. Chris Deden and I worked on this together. We were so young and unlearned, instead of tuning my guitar to the very out of tune piano in the house, Chris figured out how to play “Target” using all black keys. It wasn’t until we were done that Alex McManus said, “why didn’t you just tune Si’s guitar to the piano?” I remember we recorded the guitar and voice and piano simultaneously live and the part was so difficult to play in this convoluted way that it took thirty attempts to get through the song without Chris messing up! Sweet bird of youth. Then we drove to the San Dimas to have Bob Durkee mix the album to ¼-inch tape just so we could say it was mixed in the Inland Empire and meet some of our Shrimper label heroes and insert ourselves into their scene. The album caught the attention of folks over seas and enabled me to begin touring a bit out of the country. If it hadn’t received the airplay it did on John Peel’s show, I don’t know that I would have been able to continue making music, at least not at the clip that I did. Instead, I told myself, what the hell, Dylan dropped out of college too, and that was that.

Simon Joyner plays a solo acoustic set on Tues., Aug. 5 at 529. Lily & the Tigers and Narrator also perform. $7. 9 p.m. 529 Flat Shoals Ave. 404-228-6769. www.529atlanta.com.