enjoys a taste of finger as he suffers through the photoshoot for his Songs
of the New Year album.|| |
by Tim McMahan
singer/songwriter Simon Joyner doesnt care if you know who he is.
managed to play his brand of haunting, minimalist folk music throughout the United
States and Europe (even though, ironically, few in Omaha outside the Old Market
know who he is ), without having to compromise his art for the record company
pimps. As a result, he lives a modest life, from a financial standpoint, anyway.
people are making music with the intention of making money, then the art itself
is instantly compromised," Joyner says. "For me, I have these jobs I
work for money. If I had to live on my BMI royalty checks, Id be writing
different kinds of songs. If I had to live off music, I wouldnt be able
to make the music I like to make."
before you judge him a snob, because Joyners quick to add that he thinks
its okay for bands to want to do it for the money. And sometimes, like in
the case of Beck, an artist can even keep from compromising his or her art and
still make millions. Just not Joyner...
have no interest in making music for a major label, because then youre making
art for people who dont care about music," he says. "Theyre
business people, and theyre not doing it because they love your music at
all, theyre doing it to make money. Its their bottom line.
discovered that I can do it myself and get good distribution in Europe and throughout
the states. And I have a following. Its not huge, but its substantial
enough that I sell my records."
but enough to keep him happy. Joyner, 27, made his first recording -- a cassette
tape -- when he was 17. "Umbilical Chords," released by Dave Sinks
One-Hour Records, was chock full of up-tempo acoustic folk ballads, each reflecting
a unique facet of Joyners life in Omaha. Though rough around the edges,
the tape had all the markings that typify a Joyner recording -- the awkward, unsure,
but painfully honest vocals, poetic lyrics and a lonely guitar.
most of the first record, I was unsure of myself," he said. "I couldnt
slow down, because I thought all the mistakes and sloppiness were going to show
Joyner showed more confidence on
"Room Temperature," a CD also released by One Hour. Again, accompanied
by nothing but his guitar, listeners got a better glimpse of where Joyners
music was headed. He even managed to record a couple slow ballads. While Umbilical
Chords went mostly unnoticed, Room Temperature caught the ear of legendary European
DJ John Peel, who played portions of it on his radio show, which is heard throughout
Still, it wasnt until Joyners
third album, "The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll," released in 1994
by Sing, Eunuchs!, a label Joyner runs with sometimes accompanist Chris Deden,
that his true voice would finally be heard. For the first time, Joyner let someone
play with him, and the results were marvelous. Deden plays very minimal drums
on a few songs, piano on another, while former Omaha musician Alex McManus plays
violin on two more. McManus currently plays with Athens, Ga.s, Vic Chestnutt.
So why did Joyner wait so long to get help?
wasnt confident that I could teach the songs to someone because I couldnt
play them the same way twice," he says. "By Cowardly Traveller, I wanted
to start doing more collaberative stuff, but I still wanted to control how things
turned out, and didnt want to have to practice with professional musicians."
followers were pleasantly surprised by the new sound. Unbeknownst to Joyner, Peel
had flipped over the album and was playing it to his nation of listeners. It wasnt
until Joyner toured Europe that he found out about what came to be known as "The
"I was being interviewed
by these different reporters from Germany and the Netherlands, and they would
talk about The Peel Incident, asking how its changed my career,"
Joyner said. "I didnt know what they were talking about. They said,
Dont you know? He played your record on his show from beginning to
end. I was blown away. Peel had only done that once in his shows 30
Its hard to understand Peels
influence, because his radio show isnt aired in the States. But Joyner says
his backing has had an impact. "Hes the most famous DJ outside of Alan
Freed," he says. "And when he really gets behind something, he plays
the hell out of it."
It was also while touring
in Europe that Joyner crossed paths with Beck at a festival in Holland. Joyner
gave him a tape of his music, and Beck wound up listing the tape in a personal
top-10 list printed in Rolling Stone magazine.
next year, Beck would go on to be a mega-star with his hook-happy "Odelay."
Joyners music, on the other hand, came to a crawl with "Heavens
Gate," a solemn, almost mournful album released on CD by an obscure Dutch
label, and on vinyl by Sing, Eunuchs! On the record, Joyner managed to out-do
a song on Side A about a worm-ridden, blind-nosed black dog who foams at the mouth
and sniffs dead birds with the album-closer "Farewell to a Percival."
Here, the song follows a character who walks from one troubled situation to another,
with lyrics like, "But I saw the glorious white arch fall and the great/Soldier
children were crushed and/All the townspeople looked and saw their shadows."
It may sound like a bleak, hopeless dirge, but Joyner says its actually
a song of hope.
"When the character expires
at the end, he says, Ill send you my thirst and the laces of my shoes.
Hes saying hell send you his desire to keep on living and the shoes
to start your search," Joyner says. "Its like saying Keep
on going for it. Its hopeful, and thats what its all about
for me. People so often hear the tone of my songs but dont follow them to
their conclusion. Im definitely not hopeless."
years "Songs for the New Year" was a return to form. One critic
called the album a deconstructionists attempt at Bob Dylans "Blonde
on Blonde." I think it sounds more like stripped down After the Gold Rush-era
Neil Young or even early Richard Thompson. Certainly its Joyners most
approachable record, as he blends a fragment of country into his mix of quiet,
modest folk and hollowed-out rock. Even more instruments turned up this time,
with "New Year" boasting piano, organ, violin, lap steel, bass, cello
and accordion. The combination works best on "When Will the Sun Rise Again,"
a tune that actually has a major league hook and would sound at home on the radio.
Still, Joyners best comes when hes alone with his guitar on "Disappear
from Here," a downright inspirational ballad, where Joyner and his wife,
Josephine (along with the baby shes carrying), outrun a metaphoric apocalypse:
the rain cant reach us because her hands are too precious
the sun lost his fingers he got them caught in an eclipse
the highway folds up well drive through the canyon
our blueprints on horseback and our echoes in the wagon.
the heels of this years 7-inch, "One for the Catholic Girls" b/w
"Hotter Than Satans Heels," on UKs Wurlitzer Jukebox, (which,
incidently, sold out in Europe and received a rave from Magnet magazine), Secretly
Canadian Records is releasing Joyners "Christine" EP this month.
Thats followed by his sixth full-length album, "Yesterday, Tomorrow
and in Between" in October on Sing, Eunuchs! Recorded last December at Truck
Stop Studios in Chicago, it features Joyner backed by a traditional band, including
bass, drums, piano/organ and electric guitar.
expect to hear tracks from it on your favorite radio station or see any ads harolding
its release in Alternative Press. Joyner prefers to let the music sell itself.
The label will send a few promo copies to radio stations and Joyner will even
do the reluctant interview. Thats the only promotion he says he needs, because
his fans will find it.
"If youre making
creative music, theres only a certain number of people who are going to
appreciate it," he explains.
millions of followers, but theres still the same fraction of people who
enjoy his stuff because its really good, its creative. The rest like
it because theyve been conditioned to like it. Most people dont listen
to music because they love it. It has more to do with social forum. You go to
a party, and theres music playing. Its not that everyone at the party
is a true music lover who really listens to a record or really appreciates it,
its just a social thing.
not really interested in having the teeny boppers listen to my records just because
they have the social endorsement. Id rather have a smaller group of people
like my music because they really like it, whether anyone knows about it or not."
printed in The Reader August 6, 1998.
© 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.