Often cited as the songwriting mentor to Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, Simon Joyner has lead a secretly respectable career of his own for 20 years, writing songs about the people and the places he knows, emphasizing mood and darkness. His acclaimed 1994 album The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll is the only record that famed BBC DJ John Peel ever played on the air in its entirety, and with such later albums as 1999's The Lousy Dance and 2006's Skeleton Blues, Joyner has continued his headlong dive into the dark side of life in Middle America. Before heading South on tour, Joyner took time to discuss the death-afflicted sound and vision of his 12th proper album, Ghosts.
You have said Ghosts is an important record for you.
Well, it's important in the sense that I've been making records for 20 years now (my first tape came out in 1992) and I still feel excited about how a song comes together and hopefully that shows on this record. I'm still expanding the territory for myself in terms of where I'm willing to go with my songs, both sonically and lyrically. As Dylan says, "Always becoming." Having been artistically compelled to release a double album at a time when most people ingest music as opposed to digesting it, I realize it's a statement of faith in the medium, in my muse, and in my fan base. It's not "important" in a broad sense, but it's a big project for me and I think it stands nose to nose with anything I've done.
As with every record, the goal is to make something that works as an album, not just a collection of songs. Thinking in these terms, a song sometimes needs to be mutilated to fit the record's sequence and flow, even if it could be recorded in a way that would allow it to standout more. For this record, I knew it was going to be a double album because I had a lot of songs written since the last album that worked together and approached the same themes from different angles, so I decided to use the opportunity of a long album to really work on the songs in as "painterly" a way as possible, given this large canvas to work with. I knew this would mean the songs wouldn't be "singles" so much as parts of a whole, and that's what I wanted.
Ghosts isn't sympathetic to the Internet generation's short attention span.
Right, I know the "Internet generation" has a short attention span and in many ways has demanded a shift back to pre-Rubber Soul era music-making in the sense that the way they consume music leads to albums being a collection of singles rather than an artistic whole. Who would have thought? It's strange to me but the convenience of MP3s and 20-second teasers of songs online leads to bands working less sculpturally and more bombastically if they want to be heard. It's a step backward, in my opinion, for the sake of the art, and it doesn't surprise me that with the mental shift back to albums as a collection of singles rather than works of art, the ethics of taking and exchanging music without compensation to the artists would be a by-product of that. It's all too much to think about and for someone whose music has never been popular in a broad sense, there's almost no temptation to pander to the crowd. I know I'm toiling in the dark so I do what I want to do and I think that the people who appreciate my music enjoy my approach and don't necessarily want to hear a collection of songs from me. I assume they like it that the music changes and the approach varies from album to album and I haven't rested on my laurels or fallen into some kind of rut I can't get out of, making the same record over and over.
Tell me about the song "If It's Alright With You (It's Alright With Me)."
Several songs on Ghosts deal with death and loss and specifically suicide, which are spread out over the course of the record and form the backbone of the album. "If It's Alright With You (It's Alright With Me)," which we ended side two and started side three with, is the internal bookend of the record, or the cathartic center, as it were! It serves as a litany for lost friends. We recorded it two different ways and took the first half of the song from one version and the last half of the song from the other, so even though the second record begins with the second half of the song that ended the first, it's an entirely different approach and rhythm and pace, and it feels like its own song with a distinct emotional position. I was thinking of Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night" and wanted to honor that song, but rather than begin and end the record with my song, I thought it worked better that it happened in the middle in this case. That placement allows the weight of that message to be part of a process of coming to terms with something and keeps the record from literally beginning and ending with death. For me, that seemed appropriate.