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Simon Joyner Pays His Toll
Joyner enjoys a taste of finger as he suffers through the photoshoot for his Songs of the New Year album.simon2.jpg (10452 bytes) 


by Tim McMahan

Omaha singer/songwriter Simon Joyner doesn’t care if you know who he is.

He’s 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.

"When 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, I’d be writing different kinds of songs. If I had to live off music, I wouldn’t be able to make the music I like to make."

Hold on before you judge him a snob, because Joyner’s quick to add that he thinks it’s 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...

"I have no interest in making music for a major label, because then you’re making art for people who don’t care about music," he says. "They’re business people, and they’re not doing it because they love your music at all, they’re doing it to make money. It’s their bottom line.

"I discovered that I can do it myself and get good distribution in Europe and throughout the states. And I have a following. It’s not huge, but it’s substantial enough that I sell my records."

Not millions, but enough to keep him happy. Joyner, 27, made his first recording -- a cassette tape -- when he was 17. "Umbilical Chords," released by Dave Sink’s One-Hour Records, was chock full of up-tempo acoustic folk ballads, each reflecting a unique facet of Joyner’s 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.

"For most of the first record, I was unsure of myself," he said. "I couldn’t slow down, because I thought all the mistakes and sloppiness were going to show through."

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 Joyner’s 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 the continent.

Still, it wasn’t until Joyner’s 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?

"I wasn’t confident that I could teach the songs to someone because I couldn’t 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 didn’t want to have to practice with professional musicians."

Omaha 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 wasn’t until Joyner toured Europe that he found out about what came to be known as "The Peel Incident."

"I was being interviewed by these different reporters from Germany and the Netherlands, and they would talk about ‘The Peel Incident,’ asking how it’s changed my career," Joyner said. "I didn’t know what they were talking about. They said, ‘Don’t 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 show’s 30 years."

It’s hard to understand Peel’s influence, because his radio show isn’t aired in the States. But Joyner says his backing has had an impact. "He’s 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.

The next year, Beck would go on to be a mega-star with his hook-happy "Odelay." Joyner’s music, on the other hand, came to a crawl with "Heaven’s 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 it’s actually a song of hope.

"When the character expires at the end, he says, ‘I’ll send you my thirst and the laces of my shoes.’ He’s saying he’ll send you his desire to keep on living and the shoes to start your search," Joyner says. "It’s like saying ‘Keep on going for it.’ It’s hopeful, and that’s what it’s all about for me. People so often hear the tone of my songs but don’t follow them to their conclusion. I’m definitely not hopeless."

Last year’s "Songs for the New Year" was a return to form. One critic called the album a deconstructionist’s attempt at Bob Dylan’s "Blonde on Blonde." I think it sounds more like stripped down After the Gold Rush-era Neil Young or even early Richard Thompson. Certainly it’s Joyner’s 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, Joyner’s best comes when he’s alone with his guitar on "Disappear from Here," a downright inspirational ballad, where Joyner and his wife, Josephine (along with the baby she’s carrying), outrun a metaphoric apocalypse:

And the rain can’t reach us because her hands are too precious

And the sun lost his fingers he got them caught in an eclipse

If the highway folds up we’ll drive through the canyon

With our blueprints on horseback and our echoes in the wagon.

On the heels of this year’s 7-inch, "One for the Catholic Girls" b/w "Hotter Than Satan’s Heels," on UK’s Wurlitzer Jukebox, (which, incidently, sold out in Europe and received a rave from Magnet magazine), Secretly Canadian Records is releasing Joyner’s "Christine" EP this month. That’s 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.

Don’t 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. That’s the only promotion he says he needs, because his fans will find it.

"If you’re making creative music, there’s only a certain number of people who are going to appreciate it," he explains.

"Beck has millions of followers, but there’s still the same fraction of people who enjoy his stuff because it’s really good, it’s creative. The rest like it because they’ve been conditioned to like it. Most people don’t listen to music because they love it. It has more to do with social forum. You go to a party, and there’s music playing. It’s not that everyone at the party is a true music lover who really listens to a record or really appreciates it, it’s just a social thing.

"I’m not really interested in having the teeny boppers listen to my records just because they have the social endorsement. I’d rather have a smaller group of people like my music because they really like it, whether anyone knows about it or not."

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Originallly printed in The Reader August 6, 1998.

Copyright 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

"When people are making music with the intention of making money, then the art itself is instantly compromised."
"I was being interviewed by these different reporters from Germany and the Netherlands, and they would talk about ‘The Peel Incident,’ asking how it’s changed my career. I didn’t know what they were talking about."
A return to a more approachable style: Joyner's Songs for the New Year was a welcome change from the gloomy Heaven's Gate.simon1.jpg (7461 bytes)











"If you’re making creative music, there’s only a certain number of people who are going to appreciate it."