Monday, April 12, 2010

Interview with Simon Joyner

Simon Joyner’s songs are stories, streams of consciousness or yarns woven sometimes about the darkest parts of the human experience and so much more, usually forming a tapestry of hope. He’s been an influential figure from Omaha for a long time, affecting acts like Bright Eyes. A lot of people shrug when his name is mentioned, but Joyner kind of likes it that way. Nearly two decades, twelve albums and now a revolutionary touring model and Simon Joyner still has time to be great Dad. He fit in a phone interview after his daughter’s dance recital.

My editor mentioned that your daughter had a recital just before this interview.

Yeah, she had a dancing recital. She goes to this class every Saturday and usually she just gets dropped off, but this was the last one so they had their performance.

Are you in Omaha right now?

Yeah, I’m in Omaha. I’m in between legs of this tour that I’m doing.

The tour is called the “Living Room and Discreet Places Tour,” right?

Yes. The premise is just to play places that are not music venues in the current sense of the word. You know, the “indie rock” clubs and bars. I’m trying to do shows that are in art galleries or workspaces or people’s houses. Places where people are gathering to see music just to see some music.

How did you come up with the idea?
I haven’t toured on my own in probably a decade…has it been a decade? No, (laughs)...I don’t know, probably a long time. I was finding that I had less and less fun performing on the road and I was trying to figure out why I didn’t really enjoy touring.

In Omaha there’s a pretty good house show scene and I would play in people’s attics and basements and living rooms and those shows I always really loved. The connection to the audience is really direct, it’s informal. You’re on the same level with the people that enjoy your music instead of on this elevated platform.

I’ve toured with Bright Eyes and done tours in Europe where I played nice theatres and things like that and I really enjoy some of those larger venue environments. But in your stereotypical rock club it can be terrible. The people who come to see you play, they’re all up front and there could be 50 people who came to see you and they’re watching but the “rock club,” even though it’s called a music venue, it’s really promoting the whole bar side of the establishment while you’re playing. So, right in the back or off to the side or however it happens to be, there’s all this commotion that really makes appreciating a show really difficult and it can be really distracting when you’re playing too.

In those kinds of music venues, more often than not you come away from it not feeling very good about how everything went.

How did you go about finding living rooms to play in?

So when I decided that I wanted to see if I could tour just house shows and art galleries, then that meant that a booking agent wasn’t really what I needed for this kind of tour. Basically I wanted to combine two things. The best kind of show is a small show, but at house shows nobody really pays, or there’s not an obligation to pay. So you can have the best experience artistically, but usually a really poor financial turn out. But the indie rock club shows usually have a good financial turn out, but, you know, the show artistically doesn’t feel so good.

I wanted to combine the two. So, I talked to this friend in Scotland who designed a website for me once before and he and I worked out this idea of creating a website where people can click on something that says they want to host a show in their town or they can click on something that says they want to attend a show in their town. Then I just sent out some facebook and myspace announcements. Team Love put up an article on their webpage that said Simon Joyner wants to play in your living room and click here for details and it took them to this website.

That’s how I booked the whole tour. And I booked three twelve day tours in a month. It was so fast. The response I got as soon as people found out about it, I got just a flood of people offering to host a show.

Are you going to try and keep doing it?
I think so, because I just did this southeast leg and it was great. We had a great time. We played all kinds of interesting unusually places. Half were galleries, then There was a DIY all ages art co-op place, then there were some living rooms and it really just kind of revitalized me as far as performing and going on tour goes. I really enjoyed it. It reminded me of the beginning of my career, before I had released anything. Where we would just hang out at our buddy’s parties and it got late and you’re just passing the guitar around. It has that kind of quality to it.

So you’re on Team Love now. How’s that going?
Oh, it’s going great. They’re really great to work with. They’re old friends of mine anyway. They’ve kind of been bugging me for years to let them put something out so I let them reissue this old record of mine [The Cowardly Traveler Pays His Toll]. When I left Jagjaguar it just made sense to move over to Team Love.

How do you feel about Bright Eyes borrowing the yellow bird symbol for I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning?

That song of mine, ‘Came a Yellow Bird,’ it was a really important song for Conor. He lost somebody in his family and wrote all the songs where he references that song of mine, because he really appreciated that song of mine. He came over, before he recorded the songs and played them for me and asked if it was okay that he referenced my song in these songs of his that he was working on and of course it was not a problem. I was flattered that the song meant so much to him that he kind of pulled out a symbol that he wanted to use, because it had to do with the same kind of message. So, he just thought of it as making sense to reference this symbol. I was flattered. He did a great job writing about a difficult subject and I was glad to be a part of it in that way.


How do you feel about people having such profound responses to your music?

You make songs hopefully to communicate and I talk about things that are important to me and it’s good to have that confirmation that I’m getting it right some of the time and that it’s resonating with people. Well, that’s when you know when you’re doing something right artistically.

As for the fact that I’m still underground, that’s where I want to be anyway and it makes it easier to do what I want to do, to not have any pressures and to just live a normal life. For me anyway, I need to live my life in order to have things to write about. If I was always in a bus playing shows and doing the whole career thing, I don’t think I could continue to write about things that anybody cared about. So, for me, this is exactly where I want to be.

The people who do know about my music really follow it and respond to it and so that’s great. So long as I can continue to be able to do what I do. As long as people are willing to put out these records…well, even if people weren’t willing to put them out at this point it’s easy enough to do that I could still put out a record every year or two.

You don’t do it for any reason other than because that’s what I do. It’s my only real artistic outlet. So I’m not looking for anything beyond a venue for doing it.

But I don’t begrudge anybody who runs with it. There’s things that I probably should’ve done if I really wanted to be more well known. But, there’s also limits because of the songs I write and the way that I sing. Things like that. I think I would still be not hugely successful.

In your most recent record Out Into the Snow, there’s a song called ‘Sunday Morning Song for Sara.’ Is it the same Sara in ‘Folk Song for Sara’ on Room Temperature?

All throughout my records I used to use the name Sara as a stand in name when I was writing and wanted to reference the person that I’m talking about in the song, but I didn’t want to use the actual name of a person I knew. That was kind of a reference to the Bob Dylan song ‘Sara.’ It was the archetypal song about the important woman in his life kind of thing. So, I used that name whenever I needed a name to refer to somebody.

All these years later, now I am actually married to someone named Sara and so that was kind of like…it becomes confusing because then people think, ‘oh all these references to Sara are about his wife Sara,’ but only the song on this last record is.

The song title ‘Sunday Morning Song for Sara’ is a reference to ‘Evening Song for Sally.’ It’s a Jerry Jeff Walker song which you should check out for sure. It’s an amazing song. And I was trying to pay homage to that song when I wrote ‘Sunday Morning Song for Sara.’

Does it have anything to do with ‘Folk Song for Sara?’
No, they’re two separate things.

‘Sonny’s Blues,’ referenced in ‘Last Evening on Earth’ is a James Baldwin short story, right?

That’s one of my favorite short stories and there’s an image in the book of Sonny playing the piano in the final scene when the brother or friend, I can’t remember because I haven’t read the story in a long time, is watching him play the piano in this club after dealing with all his problems and everything. There’s an image that I’m trying to reference in that.

There are a lot of references to poems and writers and stories all throughout my songs in the whole catalog. Essentially I’m more of a writer than a musician so that’s always been the part of it that comes first for me is the writing part and the music part is a process. I put a lot of references to things that I like. I always like it when I am listening to music and I catch something and feel like it’s a little gift to me from the person who wrote the song. Like if you’ve read this then you know what this is a reference to and here’s a little present.

The song ‘Last Evening on Earth’ which has the Baldwin reference happens to be named after a book of short stories by Roberto Bolaño called Last Evenings on Earth. I wrote it after a friend in Chile sent me a copy. I had never heard of Bolaño and it was a real revelation. If you haven't read "2666" or "The Savage Detectives", you are in for a hell of a ride. Epic, all-encompassing literature, a lot like Faulkner in that Bolaño comments on our world by creating his own dark, mysterious world with characters that pop up in his other books, as main characters in some and then tangential characters in others. You should check him out. Unfortunately, he died very young so there are only a handful of books and only a few have been translated into English so far.

Team Love reissued a lot of your albums on MP3 for the first time, like Iffy, which was one of your first records right?

I put out a cassette Umbilical Chord, then I put out Room Temperature and then I was going to go on tour. The label that put out Room Temperature was going to charge what I thought was too much for the CD. So I wanted to have something inexpensive to sell when I went on that first tour, or second tour I guess. I went on a tour when Umbilical Chord came out. I wanted to have something kind of cheap to sell. So I put together all these odds and ends, boombox recordings and live recordings and demos and things that didn’t have a place on a collection on a period of years and created that as a kind of touring thing. People really liked it.

How do you feel looking back on your earlier stuff?
Some of it of course I like more than other things. I don’t regret any forays into awfulness, it’s just part of it and you know it’s important to do stuff that’s going to make you wince later. I’m always wary of the person who never did anything that wasn’t great. It’s good to have those skeletons in the closet.

I play stuff from all the records, except for probably Umbilical Chord. I’ll play stuff from Iffy that I like. It’s not so much I don’t like something as I don’t know how to give it a voice anymore. Sometimes I feel like it’s from such a different person that I don’t know how to honestly perform that song and make it legitimate anymore.

What’s next?
I’m writing new songs. Some of the songs that we’re playing on these house tours will be new songs that I’ve been working on that I’m going to record soon. Another record for Team Love. We have about half of the record now.

I’m hoping that this touring model works for me, because I really do prefer the small intimate show. It seems like it’s working so if it keeps working I’ll keep touring this way.

I’m thinking of adding a feature where people in a town where I’ll be playing can volunteer to help promote the show in exchange for free tickets or records or whatever. I have people write me after the southeast leg that I did saying “I didn’t even know you were in town, I totally found out about it after.” So I want to find a way to reach all the people that want to come and see it.

I’m not really sure how to improve on the model. It’s working pretty well, I think it could work even better. If anybody out there has any ideas then they should definitely send them to me.

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