Interview: Simon Joyner

I  had the pleasure of interviewing Simon Joyner ahead of his North Adams gig on June 14(Ticket link here.) His thoughtful responses left me inspired and serve as a strong reminder on doing things for the right reasons. He also was beyond graceful and kind in telling me I was wrong in the information I had for a question or two, also. I guess you’ll have to read below to find out which ones…

–Christopher Hantman 

DWP: Your discography is both impressive and daunting.  Judging by my count, you have released 24 albums in 26 years; that is amazing. If you had to pick one album that represents your voice as an artist, which do you think you would choose and why?

Simon Joyner: Well, not all of the releases in the catalog are proper albums. Some are collections or side-projects or collaborations, or whatever. There are only fourteen real albums, as far as intentional song-cycles go!

I’ve been asked variations on your question at different times over the years and I always choose the most recent album as my favorite or the most representative because that’s where my headspace is at the moment, you know? The fact is all these records represent different times in my life and the circumstances of my life are always changing. So, the most recent effort is always the one I’m closest to. Looking at it this way means all the records are connected or somehow a continuation of what came before. That’s how I see it anyway. Nostalgia is an unhealthy emotion and it would be fairly sad if I was pining to recapture something I did fifteen years ago or something. In order to remain creative, I think you have to always be looking forward. So, they are all important to me, even if I feel like they are ghosts or snapshots of who I was or where I’ve been. They are interesting because they capture a time and place and a passport into what I was thinking about and feeling about at that time. But no one album can really capture an essence of a changing thing, they can only document a moment.

DWP: You crowdfunded your latest record via Kickstarter. What was that like? How did it compare to the traditional release through a label? In retrospect, which do you prefer and why?

SJ: I didn’t crowdfund my last record, actually. That was three records ago, with the release of Ghosts. My last record, Step Into the Earthquake, came out on Shrimper records and the one before that, Grass, Branch, and Bone, came out on Woodsist. But, yes, I did crowdfund Ghosts in 2012. It was a good experience. I just wanted to try it out to see what it was all about. At the time, I knew that the record I was making was going to be a double album and that the subject matter was dark and the recordings would be somewhat crude and messy and the band discordant, to suit the subject matter. I knew it would be a challenging, non-studio album, and so it seemed like a good one to not ask a label to pay for since I expected it to sell less well and be difficult to promote, as well as being expensive.

I think crowdfunding is a great option and I’d definitely do it again sometime but it’s nice to have labels help out with promotion and take care of a lot of the tedious details of manufacturing. I don’t mind sharing a portion of any profits with a label because it is a lot of work to get an album out into the world. When I crowdfunded that Ghosts album, it took up pretty much all my time for awhile just getting it released and following through with all the promised gifts to donors for their support. But it was really rewarding to work closely with the supporters of my music and know that they directly paid in advance for the album to be recorded and manufactured. It was a refreshing reminder that I’m not creating these things in a vacuum, there really are a lot of people who appreciate artists and are willing to help them do their thing.

DWP: While doing some research on you I found myself feeling this innate kinship to your desire to follow your art but not belabor it to the point where it becomes solely a profit-seeking endeavor.  What I gleaned as your priorities of family and your antique business while still pursuing a love for music speak to the authenticity and rawness in your sound. While it has become a part of your voice as an artist, was this a conscious decision you made early in your career or more one you developed over time?

SJ: I decided early on that I didn’t want to jump through all the hoops and devote an inordinate amount of my life to being well-known. I don’t know exactly when I made the decision, it was more of a guiding principle about why you should make art that developed naturally because of the artists I appreciated, I guess. I feel strongly that it’s not to make money, even if making money is involved. Anything that sort of shifts that balance was easy to spot and avoid along the way. I also know that living an authentic life and drawing from experience is the only way to be a good writer, and that if I were touring nine months out of the year and doing press junkets and whatnot, my life would be supplanted by my music. The proper roles would be reversed. I’d be finding time to have a life instead of finding time to make music. So, it always seemed an easy decision to live life first and have plenty of material to draw from to write songs when I made time for writing and recording.

This is why I’ve never written a song about being on tour. Being on tour shouldn’t be a person’s life, and there are only a handful of people who can relate to a song about being on tour or being a musician anyway, and that’s other musicians who’ve been on tour. To me a song like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” about the isolation of the rock star on tour is the worst, most offensive type of song that exists. I don’t know how people can listen to that song without laughing. When I listen to music, I’m interested in songs that seem to reflect my own experiences; music is supposed to be empathetic in that way. So, that’s how I write too, I’m more interested in universal struggles. Musicians really have to compromise and sacrifice things they should not easily sacrifice to get something that ultimately ruins their music anyway, so I never really wanted the temptation and haven’t regretted anything as a result. But, different strokes for different folks. I’m just speaking for myself, the music industry is not something I feel a special kinship to or want to get too close to, I guess.

DWP: Different people have definitions of what it means to have made it in their career. As someone who some people use the term “legend” to describe and who has influenced the contemporary music scene greatly, do you feel like you have “made it”? How do you define success for yourself and the niche you have carved out?

SJ: Success as an artist for me is just feeling good about what I’m doing and having the freedom to produce whatever I want at my own speed. I will keep making records as long as I have things I want to write about and if there’s an audience for the albums, all the better. I don’t really care about how many records sell, though. To me any kind of actual success is confined to the creative process, not the output or anything that follows. Probably the most well-known song I’ve ever written is “Burn Rubber” because Bright Eyes covered the song on an EP. There was a time when you could find a hundred young men singing their bedroom renditions on YouTube. It was a strange thing because the song’s success on one level was entirely owed to having a very popular group cover it. But in my mind it was always just a little scrap of something I had in a notebook and spontaneously put to music. When I recorded it, it was for a split 7″ with the Mountain Goats back in 1995 and John Darnielle sent two songs for his side and I only had one recorded for my side, so I threw Burn Rubber together really quickly in five minutes so we’d both have two songs on the record. It’s probably the one song I put the least thought into producing but it’s the one everyone knows. It doesn’t bum me out or anything, it just shows that whatever happens beyond the creative process is unpredictable and subject to a variety of factors and accidents. It would be foolish to base any kind of idea of success on that side of the equation, best to confine your idea of success to the actual creation of things of artistic value. Do it for the pleasure of the work and you’ll never be disappointed by your success or failures.

DWP: Finally, what have you been listening to or enjoying (film, tv, books, etc.) lately?

SJ: I’m currently reading The Death of Jim Loney, by James Welch. It doesn’t get much darker than this, I highly recommend it. I just finished The Last Summer of Reason by the Algerian writer Tahar Djaout. He was assassinated by religious extremists and the book was found in his desk and published posthumously. It’s a very poignant little book everyone could use right now because it deals with the importance of free speech and what can happen when an overzealous society starts restricting speech and thought. I have a summer pile I’m looking forward to reading but those are the two most recent things I’ve enjoyed. Film and music are all over the place too, I just take in as much as possible and wish I had more time!

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