Simon Joyner: Talking with Ghosts
Songwriter and perennial outsider embraces the dour side of Nebraska
Often cited as the songwriting mentor to Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, Simon Joyner has lead a secretly respectable career of his own for 20 years, writing songs about the people and the places he knows, emphasizing mood and darkness. His acclaimed 1994 album The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll is the only record that famed BBC DJ John Peel ever played on the air in its entirety, and with such later albums as 1999's The Lousy Dance and 2006's Skeleton Blues, Joyner has continued his headlong dive into the dark side of life in Middle America. Before heading South on tour, Joyner took time to discuss the death-afflicted sound and vision of his 12th proper album, Ghosts.
You have said Ghosts is an important record for you.
Well, it's important in the sense that I've been making records for 20 years now (my first tape came out in 1992) and I still feel excited about how a song comes together and hopefully that shows on this record. I'm still expanding the territory for myself in terms of where I'm willing to go with my songs, both sonically and lyrically. As Dylan says, "Always becoming." Having been artistically compelled to release a double album at a time when most people ingest music as opposed to digesting it, I realize it's a statement of faith in the medium, in my muse, and in my fan base. It's not "important" in a broad sense, but it's a big project for me and I think it stands nose to nose with anything I've done.
As with every record, the goal is to make something that works as an album, not just a collection of songs. Thinking in these terms, a song sometimes needs to be mutilated to fit the record's sequence and flow, even if it could be recorded in a way that would allow it to standout more. For this record, I knew it was going to be a double album because I had a lot of songs written since the last album that worked together and approached the same themes from different angles, so I decided to use the opportunity of a long album to really work on the songs in as "painterly" a way as possible, given this large canvas to work with. I knew this would mean the songs wouldn't be "singles" so much as parts of a whole, and that's what I wanted.
Ghosts isn't sympathetic to the Internet generation's short attention span.
Right, I know the "Internet generation" has a short attention span and in many ways has demanded a shift back to pre-Rubber Soul era music-making in the sense that the way they consume music leads to albums being a collection of singles rather than an artistic whole. Who would have thought? It's strange to me but the convenience of MP3s and 20-second teasers of songs online leads to bands working less sculpturally and more bombastically if they want to be heard. It's a step backward, in my opinion, for the sake of the art, and it doesn't surprise me that with the mental shift back to albums as a collection of singles rather than works of art, the ethics of taking and exchanging music without compensation to the artists would be a by-product of that. It's all too much to think about and for someone whose music has never been popular in a broad sense, there's almost no temptation to pander to the crowd. I know I'm toiling in the dark so I do what I want to do and I think that the people who appreciate my music enjoy my approach and don't necessarily want to hear a collection of songs from me. I assume they like it that the music changes and the approach varies from album to album and I haven't rested on my laurels or fallen into some kind of rut I can't get out of, making the same record over and over.
Tell me about the song "If It's Alright With You (It's Alright With Me)."
Several songs on Ghosts deal with death and loss and specifically suicide, which are spread out over the course of the record and form the backbone of the album. "If It's Alright With You (It's Alright With Me)," which we ended side two and started side three with, is the internal bookend of the record, or the cathartic center, as it were! It serves as a litany for lost friends. We recorded it two different ways and took the first half of the song from one version and the last half of the song from the other, so even though the second record begins with the second half of the song that ended the first, it's an entirely different approach and rhythm and pace, and it feels like its own song with a distinct emotional position. I was thinking of Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night" and wanted to honor that song, but rather than begin and end the record with my song, I thought it worked better that it happened in the middle in this case. That placement allows the weight of that message to be part of a process of coming to terms with something and keeps the record from literally beginning and ending with death. For me, that seemed appropriate.
From the moment I put the needle on Ghosts, which begins with the song "Vertigo," I was instantly reminded of your album The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll. Are these two records connected?
Yes, definitely. Chris Deden and I deliberately set out to approach the recording of this album the way we recorded The Cowardly Traveller. Rather than go into a studio for a short period of time, we wanted to work on it over a period of months, on the weekends, in a warehouse space. That's how I recorded all those early albums up through Songs for the New Year, but the subject matter of this album seemed to demand the noisier elements we were working with on The Cowardly Traveller. So we applied more of the dissonance and jagged experimental sounds we used on that album. For this record we took that approach further — it's not as spare as The Cowardly Traveller, so there's more ambient sound and more experimentation, but it definitely draws from the same well.
With your 1998 single "One for the Catholic Girls" you sing about a cicada with a hard C. In "Last Will & Testament," from Ghosts, the cicada returns but with a soft C. Are these two references meant to mirror each other in some way?
I love the cicada and it's part of my Midwestern environment so it's worked its way into some songs over the years. No direct mirroring going on between "One for the Catholic Girls" and "Last Will & Testament," though, except that I use imagery from life in Nebraska in both songs. When I recorded "One for the Catholic Girls" I mispronounced "cicada," using that hard C, not sure if I didn't know how to pronounce it at the time or if I was reading and singing at the same time and just did it wrong in the moment. I don't think it's pronounced that way anywhere, it's just a flaw in the song, unfortunately.
On Heaven's Gate there's an allusion to searching for a dead girl in the song "Prometheus," which recurs in "Sing a Little Lullaby" from Ghosts. Is this imagery based on real incidents that you've synthesized into songs?
I'm usually writing about subjects of universal concern but from my experience and my particular environment, so I'll use specifically Midwestern imagery in the songs to give the action of the song a sense of place. That being said, the discovery of a dead child in a cornfield in the winter or an FBI search for skeletal remains in a SoHo basement are equally harrowing and bring up the same terrors and questions. I borrow events from my surroundings as well as news that I've read to give the characters in my songs dilemmas. In the case of "Prometheus," I was writing obliquely about Candice Harms, a student who was abducted, tortured, and killed and left in a field, but the song uses that event to ask questions about the human need to make sense and give order to what's essentially random and cruel. Religion takes the heat in that song but we have all kinds of crutches to get us through our days. It doesn't mean you don't care; it's just that your brain knows it's got to see you through to the end of the day and that means filtering out and explaining away all manner of material too difficult or too simple to process. So, to answer your question, I set the stage with real-life incidents to create something fictional, if that makes sense.
Do you revisit these same events from different perspectives?
In the case of "Sing a Little Lullaby," I've revisited the John Joubert kidnappings that haunted my middle school years. I wrote about that in a song called "He Can't Kill Me" on my first tape but the song itself was nostalgic in the sense that it was really about coming of age and invoking all the innocence left behind during that year or so when these kids my age in my neighborhood were getting kidnapped and sexually abused and killed and the police hadn't caught the guy doing it. One of the verses in "Sing a Little Lullaby" re-imagines one of those kidnappings but from the experience of a search party looking for the body. Like "Prometheus," the act of uniting to bring closure and solve the case is a way of imagining order and meaning where there is none. But it's a necessary, empathetic gesture that keeps us going. I return to other events time and again from different angles. There are many cases of relationship story lines, which I visit and revisit to get new understanding by looking at them in different ways.
Often, I approach the event from different angles within the same song. The dissolution or imminent unraveling of a relationship is a perfect opportunity to discuss the same information from two perspectives and I've written those kinds of songs all along. There is a song on Hotel Lives called "Now We Must Face Each Other" which is sort of a back-and-forth in this way and the song "Red Bandana Blues" on Ghosts does that, too. So, you have one character leaving and stating his reasons and the other intent on staying and giving her reasons. They both are making their case to the other what the next step in the relationship is, with one finding it beyond repair and the other insisting that it's worth saving. I don't take a stand, I just let them make their cases and respect both of their positions. I can see how someone bailing can be viewed as a lack of bravery or willingness to the dirty, hard work that real intimacy demands. I have also experienced the evidence of incompatibility stacking up in such a way that I know how something is going to play out and the best thing to do is go now before it gets unsavory. Nobody wins in my songs, it seems!
Bruce Springsteen painted a dour picture of Nebraska with the album Nebraska. But your vision of life there seems to be more robust.
Yeah, that's a great album. Springsteen paints a dour picture of Nebraska in that song about Starkweather and his girl, but the whole album isn't about Nebraska even though that's the title. I'm pretty sure "Atlantic City" is about someone from Springsteen's own stomping grounds in New Jersey and the other songs aren't specific. I think he named it Nebraska after that song but it's not a record of short stories about Nebraska characters, like, say, Rock Springs by Richard Ford or something. From the perspective of the characters in those songs, I don't see how you could see the landscape any differently. Springsteen uses the pathetic fallacy to full effect with the landscape reflecting the inner turmoil of those people. In any case, the Nebraska of his song or songs is an invention and part of his own poetic imagination. Same goes for my Nebraska. I don't pretend to depict it faithfully. Some writers invent a fictional county or an imagined place and put their characters there. Winesburg, Ohio, for Sherwood Anderson, Yoknapatawpha for Faulkner, etc. It's the same thing as going with a real place. John Waters' Baltimore is a depiction of a city based on his experience and imagination, for example, but I think more often than not, these places are actually just locations to give the artist's energy a sense of place. I love Nebraska but it's just a place where people live and it's the people that matter and they really are the same wherever you go.
The way you weave characters into your songs is very honest and awfully close to home. Is there danger in writing about people that are so close to you?
My early records Umbilical Chords and Room Temperature were experiments in confessional songwriting, heavily influenced by early Loudon Wainwright III. I got into some trouble with friends over frank depictions and judgments about their lives in my songs. As I grew out of those methods of approaching a dilemma, I realized that the same thing could be done without calling out anyone in particular and that there was no compelling reason to be so specific about who a song was about, especially given that my own interpretation and creative license with the facts was spreading false information about real people's lives. So I began to disguise the real-life antecedents. Now, if I name-check someone from my real life, like Alex, or the string of people mentioned in "Answering Machine Blues," it's in the context of an event or discussion of my life, not theirs, so I don't feel as protective of their actual identities. Alex and Chris show up from time to time in my songs because they're two of my best friends. In "Cotes du Rhone," I have Alex calling me on Christmas and giving me the news about Vic Chesnutt's suicide. There's no harm in mentioning the real person in that song but it's also important to realize that the song uses that real event as a starting place and not everything actually happened, some is hallucinatory or thoughts about suicide and grief that I've used the event to highlight.
Bright Eyes recorded "Burn Rubber" and Conor's done several of my songs at shows. Diskothi-Q did a great version of "Javelin" on a 7-inch back in the '90s. There are a lot of interesting covers of my songs on YouTube. That's pretty great for me, maybe more so than known artists covering a song, because it really gives a sense that the music is getting out there and meaning something to people. I remember reading an interview with Leonard Cohen where he talked about hearing someone singing and playing "Suzanne" on a ship he was traveling on early in his career, and that endorsement was what kept him writing. It's not as romantic but all these kids on YouTube has that kind of effect for me, however good or bad the renditions happen to be.
Has being labeled Conor Oberst's mentor affected the way you're viewed as an artist?
The Bright Eyes connection has had the effect of a lot of people giving my music a listen and that's been all positive. It's definitely helped to bring more people to my songs than I could have done on my own — that and Conor frequently praising my songwriting in interviews. He's been a real champion and very generous. Also, you have no idea how many "Yellow Bird" tattoos there are out there on people's bodies right now. I get a lot of people showing me their yellow bird tattoos, so I have Conor to thank for using that image from a song of mine in a couple of his Wide Awake songs and inspiring a lot of ink to be spilled on ankles and shoulders. Again, very flattering to have his endorsement and to have people find my songs because of his songs.