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Simon Joyner: Talking with Ghosts

Songwriter and perennial outsider embraces the dour side of Nebraska



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Often, I approach the event from different angles within the same song. The dissolution or imminent unraveling of a relationship is a perfect opportunity to discuss the same information from two perspectives and I've written those kinds of songs all along. There is a song on Hotel Lives called "Now We Must Face Each Other" which is sort of a back-and-forth in this way and the song "Red Bandana Blues" on Ghosts does that, too. So, you have one character leaving and stating his reasons and the other intent on staying and giving her reasons. They both are making their case to the other what the next step in the relationship is, with one finding it beyond repair and the other insisting that it's worth saving. I don't take a stand, I just let them make their cases and respect both of their positions. I can see how someone bailing can be viewed as a lack of bravery or willingness to the dirty, hard work that real intimacy demands. I have also experienced the evidence of incompatibility stacking up in such a way that I know how something is going to play out and the best thing to do is go now before it gets unsavory. Nobody wins in my songs, it seems!

Bruce Springsteen painted a dour picture of Nebraska with the album Nebraska. But your vision of life there seems to be more robust.

Yeah, that's a great album. Springsteen paints a dour picture of Nebraska in that song about Starkweather and his girl, but the whole album isn't about Nebraska even though that's the title. I'm pretty sure "Atlantic City" is about someone from Springsteen's own stomping grounds in New Jersey and the other songs aren't specific. I think he named it Nebraska after that song but it's not a record of short stories about Nebraska characters, like, say, Rock Springs by Richard Ford or something. From the perspective of the characters in those songs, I don't see how you could see the landscape any differently. Springsteen uses the pathetic fallacy to full effect with the landscape reflecting the inner turmoil of those people. In any case, the Nebraska of his song or songs is an invention and part of his own poetic imagination. Same goes for my Nebraska. I don't pretend to depict it faithfully. Some writers invent a fictional county or an imagined place and put their characters there. Winesburg, Ohio, for Sherwood Anderson, Yoknapatawpha for Faulkner, etc. It's the same thing as going with a real place. John Waters' Baltimore is a depiction of a city based on his experience and imagination, for example, but I think more often than not, these places are actually just locations to give the artist's energy a sense of place. I love Nebraska but it's just a place where people live and it's the people that matter and they really are the same wherever you go.

The way you weave characters into your songs is very honest and awfully close to home. Is there danger in writing about people that are so close to you?

My early records Umbilical Chords and Room Temperature were experiments in confessional songwriting, heavily influenced by early Loudon Wainwright III. I got into some trouble with friends over frank depictions and judgments about their lives in my songs. As I grew out of those methods of approaching a dilemma, I realized that the same thing could be done without calling out anyone in particular and that there was no compelling reason to be so specific about who a song was about, especially given that my own interpretation and creative license with the facts was spreading false information about real people's lives. So I began to disguise the real-life antecedents. Now, if I name-check someone from my real life, like Alex, or the string of people mentioned in "Answering Machine Blues," it's in the context of an event or discussion of my life, not theirs, so I don't feel as protective of their actual identities. Alex and Chris show up from time to time in my songs because they're two of my best friends. In "Cotes du Rhone," I have Alex calling me on Christmas and giving me the news about Vic Chesnutt's suicide. There's no harm in mentioning the real person in that song but it's also important to realize that the song uses that real event as a starting place and not everything actually happened, some is hallucinatory or thoughts about suicide and grief that I've used the event to highlight.

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