Simon Joyner: A Nebraska Songwriter | Artist Profile

[Editor’s note: This story appears in the Fall 2012 issue of the Sheldon Museum of Art’s “artland” magazine.] 

story by Andrew Norman | photos by Daniel Muller

The pillowcase is full of kittens, and the little boy clutching it is Simon Joyner’s father. The young couple hugging in a tiki bar in post-WWII Montgomery, Ala., are his grandparents. And the brick, 13-windowed storefront is where his friend, Dave, released his first cassette of songs.

Joyner himself sits with his buddy, Alex, about to tour the country for the first time in a 1974 Plymouth Valiant.

Alive or dead, they’re all Ghosts on the cover of and in the plastic grooves on the Omaha musician’s new, sprawling double-LP of the same name, which marks 20 years of Joyner’s recordings. The record cover is a black-and-white collage of retrofitted contact sheets featuring photographs of Joyner, his band, his family and friends spanning a century.

“There are all these ghosts of me from different points in my life,” he says, sitting next to an industrial fan on a torrid July afternoon in his expansive warehouse/studio. “They’re me, but they’re not me anymore. And everyone is like that.”

Much like in his storytelling, the album’s visual presentation distorts time.

“I’ve lost some friends over the last couple years, and because of having lost people recently, I’ve also been revisiting some thoughts on older friends who died earlier in my life,” Joyner says. The life-and-death theme plays prominently on his 17-song album, which explores human existence from various perspectives — through characters who end it all, those who grieve and others who survive.

Delivering descriptive, narrative-rich storytelling in a distinctive, haunting, minimalist folk style, Joyner has earned a cult following around the world. Many of his older fans no doubt heard of the rawboned Nebraskan because of legendary British DJ John Peel, who played Joyner’s landmark 1994 album, The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll, from beginning to end on Peel’s influential radio show — something he’d done only once in 30 years.

But while Beck even listed Joyner in a personal top-10 list for Rolling Stone magazine in the early 1990s — and though he has performed on some of the country’s premier stages — Joyner remains largely unknown by casual music listeners in the city where he’s lived for the more than 30 years since his father transferred to Offutt Air Force Base from Biloxi, Miss.

That’s just fine with the 41-year-old husband and father, who keeps a low profile in his city and in his warehouse. Stacks of cardboard boxes, giant bags of packing peanuts and collections of antique furniture fill the main floor of the historic Roseland Theater that houses Joyner’s eBay business, where he lists, packages and ships dealers’ wares as his day job. The 90-year-old building also houses a Mexican dress store and a tax service company amid South Omaha’s primarily Latino business district.

The Roseland hasn’t hosted a play in decades, but with help from his friends and bandmates, Joyner recorded and mixed Ghosts in this open, cavernous space. Including mastering, the record was produced entirely in analog — a nod to an undead format.

In the spirit of his early records, he worked on Ghosts during weekends over a period of months, instead of rushing in a studio. Joyner says the additional time allowed him to add multiple layers of sound, á la early Sonic Youth and late-’70s New York rock band Mars.

“I was able to bring in more of the noisy elements that I like but that I don’t always have time to incorporate into the recordings. I kind of wanted a more raw and jagged sound,” he says, “and wanted the music to sort of reflect the themes … with a little dissonance and lots of ambient noise and clanging.” He used techniques like flipping the tape over and recording on it backwards to achieve sounds he likes from late-’60s psych-folk bands.

Through fundraising website Kickstarter, more than 250 people contributed a total of almost $12,000 — nearly double Joyner’s goal — to finance the album’s production. “In celebration of 20 years of toiling underground,” according to his website, he resurrected his own Sing, Eunuchs! label to self-release Ghosts.

Wearing a tan railroad cap, gray shirt and blue jeans, Joyner says his writing has become less narcissistic as he’s aged — unlike in his earlier, “angry-young-man songs.”

“We start off our lives where we are the main focus, and that’s what we’re most concerned about — our own suffering and our own pleasure,” he says. “And if you live your life right, that flip-flops and you care about other people’s suffering and pleasure more than your own.”

But even after producing 19 albums on various formats, and an additional seven 7-inch records, his writing process hasn’t changed.

“The way I deal with things I’m thinking about — whether it’s a relationship or appreciating art — is to write about it,” he says. “That’s sort of how I make sense of it. I find that if I’m just thinking about something it gets real circular and I can’t make heads or tails about it until I start writing.”

While it helps provide a living, Joyner doesn’t clock in to work at songwriting.

“I’ve never gone to a desk and opened a blank notebook and shut the doors and put on some new-age music and said, ‘I’m going to write a song today’ and just looked at a blank page,” he says. “It’s never worked like that.”

Along with the darker subject matter dealing with mortality, Ghosts explores Joyner’s own family history and other personal relationships — familiar territory for the songwriter.

“It never stops being interesting to write about how love plays out in these various ways,” he says. “The people around me are constantly providing interesting material for songs — always have and always will.

“People sort of strive to find accomplices in this short life. And that effort, and the crazy things they’ll do to each other, is infinitely interesting.”

Red Bandana Blues by Simon Joyner and the Ghosts from Ingrained on Vimeo.

Joyner says he’s often asked why he lives in Nebraska, rather than in a traditional cultural hub like New York or L.A. One reason he gives is that his home state — and Omaha, specifically — is “unimposing” from a creative standpoint.

“I think that people feel a freedom to try whatever they want to try in a place where everyone isn’t an artist, where everyone isn’t doing the same kind of work,” he says. “And it allows little groups of people, little scenes, to develop around different aesthetics.”

The city Joyner knew while attending high school at Omaha Central rarely hosted the bands he was into, such as The Minutemen, Hüsker Dü and Black Flag.

“It was an event because we never got anything,” he says. “So I think that faced with a sort of lacking, thriving art scene, people create their own.

“And that’s kind of the story with Nebraska is that there are all these creative people who have never been told, ‘you can’t do that because someone else is already doing it better just around the corner.’”

Andrew Norman is Hear Nebraska’s director. He wrote this story in August, and it’s been hard to sit on it for so long. Contact him at andrewn@hearnebraska.org.

Andrew Norman (@andrew_norman) is Hear Nebraska's Executive Director. Reach him at andrewn@hearnebraska.org.