Simon Joyner Talks Analog Vs. Digital, Leftover Songs + More
Simon Joyner has been a fixture in the Omaha music scene since the 1990s, writing and recording more than 20 albums. Folk icon Conor Oberst drops Joyner's name whenever he gets the chance, and credits Joyner with turning him on to all the essential classic artists. Beck's been a fan ever since Joyner passed him a cassette tape just before Beck hit paydirt with Odelay.
While not as well-known as these artists, Joyner earned a distinction no other artist has when famous British DJ John Peel broadcast his 1994 album The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll from start to finish.
Now, Joyner is prepping for the release of his next album, Grass, Branch and Bone, which comes out on Woodsist Records March 31. He took some time to discuss his songwriting process, what he loves about recording to tape as opposed to working digitally, and his record collection.
Grass, Branch and Bone is your first album with Woodsist Records. How did that relationship begin?
Yeah, I knew the guys in [Brooklyn folk band] Woods; I’d played with them some years ago and befriended them. Like, whenever they came through town, I’d set up a show for them. [Woods are] Jarvis, Jeremy and Kevin Morby. And Kevin, I knew him from way back. When he was in high school, he set up a show for me when he lived in Kansas City. So I knew him from a long time ago.
When I was recording this album, I wasn’t really sure who was going to put it out. I put the last record out myself because it was a double album, and I knew it was going to be really expensive. With this one, it seemed like a good fit: what they’re doing and what I’m doing, so I asked, and they were really excited to do it.
Throughout your rather large discography, there’s no one label you seem to stick with. Do you prefer it that way, or do ever think of finding one label you can work with long-term?
I’m excited when people want to put my records out, and I like working with a lot of different independent labels. I’ve had long-term relationships with, like, Jagjaguwar. I’ve got a few records on that label. But ... it’s never like a hard-feelings type of thing, whenever I put out a record on a different label.
I have a fan base, but I’m not selling records in the kinds of quantities where it’s hurting any label if I go and do a record with anybody else. They end up doing it because they love the music, not because I’m making them a pile of cash. That’s for sure.
If was selling so many records that working with someone else would seem hurtful to the label that had been so good to me, then I would definitely think twice about it. But usually, it’s amicable. I’m just like, “Oh, this other label is willing to lose some money on me this time. So I’ll spare you guys having to do it for once.”
We got hear the songs "Nostalgia Blues" and “You Got Under My Skin” already. Is that a good representation of what to expect on the new album?
I guess so, as far as musically, instrumentally. The album is pretty sparse, so there’s not a lot of stuff going on in most of the songs. The instrumentation is pretty stripped down to just a small band. As far as the mood, that changes from song to song, depending on what the song’s about. Sonically speaking, it’s more, kind of a folkier, more sparse sound than the last record, which was a full band and ... messy. This one is more controlled and folky, I guess.
Would you say it’s closer in tone to The Cowardly Traveller?
Like, of the earlier records of mine, it probably most closely resembles Songs for the New Year in its approach. Cowardly Traveller, there was a lot of electric guitar in there, but it’s also sparse. The new record has a more acoustic base, a piano here, and some strings here and there, but keeping it pretty sparse.
Folk music is generally a very lyric-focused music genre. What are you drawing on these days for your lyrics? Does it ever feel difficult to find inspiration or subjects to write about?
Not really. I mean, the great thing about songs is that, as long as you are not a hermit, you’ll have plenty to write about. People are always getting into conflicts with one another and always kind of struggling with their own demons and overcoming things that they are haunted by, or succumbing to things they are haunted by. As long as you know people, you’ll always be able to observe them in action, and it’s just, like, a never-ending body of different variations.
I’ve written a lot of songs about, you know, relationships, but there’s always going to be more of those kinds of songs because there’s just so many different ways a thing can go. I don’t really expect that there’ll ever be a shortage of things to write about. So long as I’m still interested in investigating people, then I should be able to keep writing.
Did you collaborate with anyone on your songwriting or is it a solo process?
It’s a pretty solo process. I don’t really collaborate on songwriting generally. I do collaborate when it comes to how to record a song, and I definitely give a lot of freedom to the people in the band to come up with their own parts. You know, I keep veto power if there’s something I don’t like. But basically, how a song turns out after recording can be a little more collaborative. But when I’m writing the song, as far as the music and lyrics, that’s just going to be me.
On your website, the blurb for Ghosts says “Recorded, mixed, and mastered entirely all-analog. No digital technology was used in making this record.” Is that true for Grass, Branch and Bone? Or is that typically how you record an album?
I try to do as much as possible analog. That record was one that we were able to do the whole thing analog because we were able to get two reel-to-reel machines that were calibrated in the same way, so that we could even mix that way. But for this album, the machine that I used for Ghost was on the fritz. It’s a 1-inch reel-to-reel that I borrowed from Conor [Oberst]. He recorded his self-titled record with that machine in Mexico. He loaned it to me for Ghosts, but sometime between when I recorded that and now, it stopped working. And so we only had one reel-to-reel machine. So when we went to mix, we had to mix digitally. But we recorded all the music analog.
Those machines require a lot to keep them running right, so I understand why people just work in Pro Tools or whatever. It’s more accessible and easier. But I recorded this record in a studio here in town called ARC [Another Recording Company], and they have a lot of analog gear. So I just focused on using that as much as I could. But when we mixed, we had to mix in Pro Tools. Even if you’re just recording analog, it keeps you from doing too much, from overworking everything.
[ARC’s website says they now has a ½-inch reel-to-reel for mixing, allowing artists the ability to work entirely in analog.]
How long did the songwriting for Grass, Branch and Bone take? Did you write songs specifically for the album, or do you just keep writing songs until you feel you have enough for a new album?
I don’t write all the time, but what usually happens is I will go quite a while without writing any songs, and then something will come to me, some image or something, and then I’ll start writing. And then the process begins again and I’ll write a whole bunch of songs over a few months. Then I’ll have enough for a record, usually more than I need. Then I take the ones that seem to go together and focus on those for recording an album. And then I’ll go a long time without writing again, you know, four or five months without writing a song. And it’ll happen again where I get inspired, then write a whole bunch of songs, whenever it kind of strikes me.
What do you end up doing with the songs that don’t make it onto the album?
A lot of times, they end up on … maybe I’ll have a 7-inch come out or something, so I’ll just put something on there. Or people will ask for a song for a compilation or a book or something like that. But sometimes I just save them and they fit on another record better. Sometimes the reason they’re not on the record is not because I don’t think they’re good enough. It’s more like, thematically, they didn’t really fit with the other songs. But then, when I’m writing another album down the road, I’ll remember, “Oh, that one song from Skeleton Blues that I never used, that would fit perfect on this with these songs.” And that happens quite a lot, actually.
So what was different about when you wrote and recorded Ghosts, because you have a lot more songs there than a normal album.
It’s happened a few times where, it’s like, I keep writing songs, and they’re all related in some way. And I always think, well, when I’m done, and I’ve hit this from every angle, you know, the subject or whatever, I’ll just pick the best ones. But sometimes there’s just too many songs that seem like they belong together. That’s when I’ll decide to do a double album instead of a single album.
I did that with Ghosts. And then there was a record called Hotel Lives in 2001. There’s a kind of similar situation there. I didn’t expect to write so many songs, but they all belonged together, it seemed, so that was another double album. And there’s another record called Yesterday, Tomorrow and In Between, from ‘97, I think – same kind of thing. Just too many songs. I didn’t want them to end up elsewhere because they seemed like they belonged with each other. I just did a double album then, too.
Conor Oberst mentioned you in his interview with Mark Maron, where he also mentioned famed Omaha record store Antiquarium. We were heartbroken to hear it had closed.
Yeah, that closed down years ago. What he was talking about had the bookstore on the main floor and then the basement had the record shop. And when that closed down, some of the guys who were running the record shop at that point, moved around the corner into a small space. They kept it going for a little while longer and they went out of business a couple of years ago.
I think the second shop is the one I'm familiar with. Weren’t they also running a label?
Yeah, those guys were. Grotto Records.
Right, and Unread Records?
[Grotto and Unread] are two different labels, but they’ve partnered up on some things.
Yeah, when you hear one, you usually hear the other. They’re two different labels, but it seems like they dabble in the same pools.
Yeah. They put out a record of mine called Spiritual Rags with this band. I did this one record with Lonnie Methe and Chris Deden, just like a one-off band project called Spiritual Rags. And Grotto and Unread put that out.
Do you release everything on vinyl? How does vinyl sell compared to the other formats you use to release your music?
I release all my proper records on vinyl. I have occasionally released some cassette-only releases of odds & ends and demos, that kind of thing, on Unread Records. I love tapes too. My first releases in the early 90's were on tape, and the label I ran back then with Chris Deden, Sing, Eunuchs! Records, released tapes and records exclusively.
I never cared for CDs, and although many of my records came out on both vinyl and CD, I don't sell many CDs at this point. If you want the artwork, the vinyl packaging is better. If your preference is digital, it makes more sense to pay for a download. But my last two records have been vinyl-only with a download card. That seems the way to go for me.
What are you listening to lately?
I’m trying to think about what I’ve bought recently that I was excited about. I’m always buying records. A lot of the time, it’s reissues and older records that I need to get. Mostly it’s been filling in blanks in my record collection.
I just bought this reissue, or, I guess the records never really came out, of this New York band from the late ‘70s called Jack Ruby. It’s on Feeding Tube Records, and it’s great. I got that recently. I got the Jim Sullivan U.F.O. record on Light in the Attic recently. There’s a lot of stuff on Light in the Attic that I’m getting lately that’s just great.
Simon Joyner will be touring in the U.K. in April. Then he'll be playing some shows on his way to the Woodsist Festival, where he'll be performing May 18. Joyner has most of his tour confirmed, but he said more will probably be added later. For tour updates, visit Woodsist's website. Here's a list of what's confirmed now:
April 4 Omaha, NE--The Slowdown, album release show
April 24 Omaha, NE--The Reverb Lounge
May 10 Ft. Collins, C--Living room show
May 11 Albequerque, NM--Downtown Contemporary Art Galleries
May 12 Phoenix, AZ--Cibo
May 13 Pomona, CA--Center for the Arts Gallery
May 16 Oakland, CA--The Octopus
May 18 Big Sur, CA--The Woodsist Music Festival