Simon Joyner’s Perfect Mile | Album Feature & Podcast

[Editor’s Note: Simon Joyner’s Grass, Branch and Bone comes out today on Woodsist Records. Dive in below, with our album review podcast and feature interview with the veteran Omaha songwriter.]

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You wouldn’t call Simon Joyner competitive.

That would imply a certain self-conceit that just isn’t present in the veteran Omaha singer-songwriter’s soft and thoughtful speech. “Self-assured” seems more apt to describe the machinations behind Joyner’s 25 years patiently and persistently releasing music from Omaha.

But just two weeks before the release of Grass, Branch and Bone, his 13th proper full-length, out today on Woodsist, Joyner admits his competitive spirit keeps him moving, growing.

“You’re a landscape painter and you feel competitive with another landscape painter who you consider the best,” he says.

When speaking generally about art, Joyner often calls in examples from mediums not his own, as if to emphasize that he’s looking beyond himself here.

Joyner’s brand of competitiveness feels importantly distinguishable from, say, an Olympian’s. He’s not out for awards to mark his ascent to the top. All the better, the Grammys don’t yet have a category for Best Experimental Lo-Fi Folk. His drive is much more abstract. But in one way or another, it’s central to his being, as you imagine it was for Michael Phelps in 2008.

Like any person in earnest contest, Joyner wants to be the most significant.

“I’m competitive with the greats,” he says. “With anyone who has consistently written just great songs, (to the point) where it’s difficult for other people to write songs that good.”

Draw a line from Joyner’s debut album, 1992’s Umbilical Chords to Grass, Branch and Bone and try to find a clear pattern. “Try” because there probably isn’t one. Finding greatness isn’t climbing an upward path. It’s actually a meandering hike through a vast grassland with thousands of small details to inspect along the way.

Those details have included founding the Sing, Eunuchs! record label, releasing albums on everything from Unread to Jagjaguwar and the legendary “Peel Incident” when famous British radio DJ John Peel played The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll from start to finish on air, something he had only done with an album one other time.

It began as lo-fi experimentation in the early ‘90s, which eventually bred The Cowardly Traveller, Joyner’s first minor breakout in 1994. The album is a carefully measured cacophony, a predecessor to 2012’s more unhinged Ghosts.

The Lousy Dance came in 1999, a Nick Drake-esque take on Americana. In 2009, Joyner released Out Into the Snow, which could be considered a musical cousin to Grass, Branch and Bone with its sparse arrangements. But Out Into the Snow finds Joyner wandering across six-minutes-or-longer tracks that are all flatland — no crescendos or climaxes. For that, the album requires either intense attention or disinterest.

Today, Joyner is once again onto something else. Grass, Branch and Bone is like a retrospective on his work to-date.

Like most his catalogue, it’s lyrically poignant, with lines that sound more like dramatic black-and-white films scripts than songs (“even Keats was never alone — he had the company of his cough,” Joyner says on opening track “Sonny”). Like Out Into the Snow, it’s warm and inviting. And, of course, it gives itself the freedom to play around.

Joyner has maybe never released a track as pop-friendly as “You Got Under My Skin,” his gentle and catchy ode to a romance.

All this is to say that if Joyner is seeking greatness, he’s not stacking his work on top of itself to get there. He’s spreading it out and covering his ground. Stretching his legs to explore what he likes. And in any case, he might not ever find what he’s looking for.

“Hopefully you never know,” he says. “You get there and you’re like ‘OK, that’s it, now I’m great.’”

It’d be as good as throwing in the towel.

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Joyner remembers hearing his father’s copy of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.

“My favorite song was ‘Desolation Row,’” he says. “I literally felt that it was like a god writing that song, that no man could’ve written it. It seemed so huge.”

Since his childhood, though, Joyner says he’s learned more about how an artist like Dylan eventually pens a “Desolation Row”-type masterpiece. It really comes down to effort.

“If it seems like no one could ever do this, it’s because he’s talented and he works really hard,” Joyner says. “He went on vacation with his friends and his friends are out swimming and he was in the hotel room typing. He just never stopped, he just got better and better because it’s all he cared about.”

That sentiment is a window into Joyner’s approach to his own work.

Simon Joyner

 photo by Marco Meyer

If you happened upon his name for the first time and gave it a cursory internet search, you might be overwhelmed by the amount of music or the music forums and no-name blogs filled with discussion of his music. Joyner has never been a breakout success. There was never a hit record followed by a fade back into obscurity. But his international fanbase is loyal.

It’s the result of decades of hard work, of sitting down, writing songs and making records with little thought given to the record’s afterlife. The phrase “cult status” comes to mind, not unlike that of John Darnielle, before The Mountain Goats released Tallahassee. Not coincidentally, the two have been collaborators.

“Once it’s made, that’s kind of all I care about,” Joyner says. “Then, (I care) that somebody wants to put it out, that there’s access to it, basically.”

He views his past records now as a collection of emotional scrapbooks. What he was feeling at the time, who worked on the record with him. If we’re talking competitiveness, Joyner might be his own strict head coach.

You released a record, OK, what’s next? Don’t rest on your laurels.

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It’s hard to say what greatness would even look like for Joyner. Or how it would be measured.

Is it determined by the cultural canon? Is it a number of albums sold or his name at the top of a handful of year-end lists?

Joyner names Joni Mitchell, Townes van Zandt and Leonard Cohen, among Dylan and others, as some of his greats — the people he is, in one way or another, competing with. To him, the common thread is a musical and lyrical insight that seems to surpass the limitations of human effort.

As Joyner did with “Desolation Row,” there’s a tendency to see the people that made this art as somehow more than human for it. But it doesn’t seem like he would ever want people to look at him that way. In fact, he says he doesn’t know if he could continue working how he does if he had significantly more attention than he does now.

“When someone moves you, or something they created moves you, you’re so appreciative of having been moved by their art that you want to also know them,” he says. “You want to like them as people. You’re searching for clues because that would be awesome if the person who made this painting is also a great a person.”

It’s a one-eyed sort of art criticism — trying to read an artist’s personal life into their work, something Joyner seems careful to avoid.

“There are a lot of artists who can transcend their own flaws in their art and cannot in their life,” he says. “You don’t want to hang out with them.”

For many artists, the artistic self is the better self.

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There’s little distinction between Joyner talking about art as a consumer and as a creator. In either case, he’s looking outward.

It wasn’t always that way. When Darnielle and Joyner toured together, Joyner says the two would have conversations about songwriting. Up until 2005’s The Sunset Tree, Darnielle had famously never written an autobiographical song.

“He says [to me], ‘You put all this personal stuff in your songs, but I don’t think that needs to happen at all. There doesn’t have to be anything from your own life,’” Joyner says. “I would just say that’s one way of doing it.”

Simon Joyner

photo by Marco Meyer

These days, though, there’s little specific self-reflection to Joyner’s work. The fact, then, that so much of Grass, Branch and Bone’s first-person lyricism sounds deeply personal is a tribute to both Joyner’s growth and his skilled lyrical hand.

“When I was much younger, I had a lot of problems that I was working out in music,” he says.  “As I become more at peace with life, if I had just written about myself as I become a happier, more together guy, it would just get more boring.”

He’s taken on a more universal approach, then. We as humans have had the same basic struggles since the beginning. And for as long as there has been art, those struggles have been art’s fodder. In fact, artists have no choice but to continue that tradition or risk alienating audiences.

Essentially, it’s an exercise in empathy. Find a fleeting feeling and flesh it out. Pick up a bit of conversation between strangers and imagine the surrounding moments and livelihoods that created those moments.

And Grass, Branch and Bone is packed with Joyner doing just that so dexterously, it becomes hard to remember he’s relaying fiction.

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For the most part, we find characters on Grass, Branch and Bone reflecting at the intersection of warm nostalgia and cold consideration.

On “Old Days,” you’re at a bar catching up with people you used to know, and you suddenly tune into the myriad small instances that put you there. Maybe all those instances add up to a life full of love and support. Or maybe they’ve meant watching friends quietly disappear through the years.

“It interested me to write about characters who are haunted by decisions in the past or things left undone or actions that they can’t take back and have never moved on from,” Joyner says.

These are deeply personal tracks then, even if the people are made up. And the album’s process reflects that.

With Ghosts, Joyner assembled a team to record the noisy, visceral album. Joyner says sound-bleed was a specific challenge in putting that album to record. For Grass, Branch and Bone, Joyner scaled his team down to a three-person core: Megan Siebe on viola and cello, Alec Erickson on stand-up bass and Kevin Donahue on drums.

Ben Brodin recorded the album at ARC in Omaha. The result is an in-the-room-warmth that foregrounds Joyners wavering voice. It suits the intimate nature of the material, it feels like a small and private show.

Even while Joyner keeps the lyrical content at arm’s length, it’s hard not to note the pieces imported from his own life.

“You poke your nose in everyone’s dirty clothes so you can turn them into your light blues verse,” he bemoans on album closer “Nostalgia Blues.” On “You Got Under My Skin,” he sings that everything rhymes, you just have to “bend it like a spoon.”

There are probably dozens more that only Joyner or those close to him would pick up on.

But those true-to-life moments make it more immediate for Joyner. He says specific details from his own life allow him to slip into the songs. They give songs texture.

And perhaps those details serve as touchstones, too. A way for him, like his characters, to reflect on where he’s been.

* * *

It’s not the idea of overtaking Bob Dylan on a Rolling Stone list. It’s chasing that feeling he first had listening to the mythic troubadour illuminate the world around him.

To write something divinely good.

Even when he names untouchably great songwriters as his personal competition, there’s no objectively measurable victory there. Certainly to some people in his fanbase, he’s already surpassed the likes of Dylan. In his 23 working years, he’s penned some great songs and maybe even a truly great album or two.

But knowing that isn’t useful for Joyner, because measurable success would put an end in his sights, no matter how far away.

No, it’s better to think of Joyner as a dedicated mile-runner. Maybe he’ll enter the race once in a while, and when he does, he competes well. But watching the leaderboard misses the point, which is that he’ll be running another mile tomorrow, race or not, and the day after and after that and so on, until he loses interest.

“I see myself as getting better all the time,” he says. “Not necessarily competing. You set the bar at this unattainable level and it makes it you get better.”

Joyner is trying to run the perfect mile, discovering all the best ways to do so. He’s trying to improve his time, tweaking his routine, adjusting his stride. Maybe he has his eyes on the greats, but only because he has to run toward something. There’s a reason his goals are unattainable, though.

What would he ever do if he achieved them?