Everybody else thinks they're alone up on the bridge / Simon JOYNER

Interview en V.O (2022)
                    May 2022. Our 90s rock specialist met the great Simon JOYNER during his European tour, promoting the release of his latest album, Songs from a stolen guitar.


          Nevermind if it sounds like a cliché, but getting to meet Simon JOYNER probably feels like the closest thing to meeting a modern-day version of Bob DYLAN. Never one to worry about the number of records he sells, Simon JOYNER built an impressive body of work showcasing different incarnations of folk songs that already stood out from his contemporaries in the 90s. Since then, albums found a more polished sound and confirmed the genius of a man who always fails to disappoint. The perfect embodiment of what a songwriter's songwriter is (you can easily find some plaudits from BECK, Gillian WELSH, Kevin MORBY or megafan Conor OBERST to name a few), Simon JOYNER graced us with a few rare shows in France in May 2022. This occasion was to good to pass upon the chance of interviewing the man about his career, spanning over 16 studio albums in three decades, a few days before the release of the very solid Songs from a stolen guitar.


I N T E R V I E W     ////     I N T E R V I E W     ////     I N T E R V I E W


"Everyone seems to be very emotional about seeing live music again"

Hello Simon ! You've been on the road in Europe for a few weeks now...

A couple of weeks, yes.

Which countries have you visited ?

Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and then France.

How has it been going so far ?

It's been going great.

I suppose you missed playing live...

Oh, so much ! Two years of just inactivity. I mean I did some recordings obviously, I've got this new album but other than that, no performing at all until we landed in Bruges, you know.

What was the reception of the audience like ?

It's been really good. Everyone seems to be very emotional about seeing live music again. So that's nice because I think you start taking for granted that it's always going to be there for you. So I feel like the audience has really appreciated that. It's happening again and they're giving more of their selves to the transaction I guess.

There's also the fact that you're quite rare in these parts of the world.


So that makes your shows special on more than one count I guess.

I hope so !


Of course your music is very important but I feel like your lyrics are always the foundation of your songs. How does it happen with audiences who don't speak English ?

I guess it's tougher sometimes. So I've played a lot of shows where they are very regional or in small towns where there's not a lot of English and sometimes they can appreciate the mood of the music even if they can't totally understand. And so sometimes they still seem to really like it, or maybe it reminds them of something that gives them a feeling. It's tougher as far as the total communication that's possible is cut in half. So then it has to be engaging sonically because lyrically there might only be certain phrases or things here and there that work. In bigger cities where there is more English, it's a little bit better.

Would you say that it affects the way you play live ?

It doesn't affect me, it's more that it affects the overall impression I think. How the audience receives the music. I always worry like “Oh, this is going to be boring”. The songs are slow and long, they're probably not liking this. But sometimes, like last night, someone comes up and says “I really like your voice”. And that was all he really had to say, but there must have been a nice connection there.

The lo-fi aspect of your music has disappeared for quite a while now. Were your first albums recorded this way out of necessity or because it was a pleasing aesthetics for you ?

A combination of both. I came out of a punk-rock ethos where I believed that things shouldn't be too grandiose, that you should do it yourself so DIY aesthetics were always important to me. But also when I first began I couldn't go to a studio if I wanted to. Yeah, it was kind of a combination and it just happened to be that at the time there was a little bit of a movement around lo-fi so a lot of people were able to put music out that they wouldn't have been able to otherwise. It coincided nicely with my poverty I guess.

It makes a lot of sense to link you with those bands from the 90s such as SPARKLEHORSE, PALACE or SMOG, but you've never hidden your music behind a band name or an alias, why is that ?

I made a mistake !

Do you think it would have changed a lot of things ?

I don't know. You know at the time everyone was doing that and my heroes were all people like Tim BUCKLEY, Tim HARDIN, Fred NEIL or Bob DYLAN, Elise WEINBERG, people who were songwriters and put their name on it. And all of a sudden there were The MOUNTAIN GOATS, SMOG. I thought “Why are they so cowardly? They should be proud of what they are doing and put their names on it”.

Do you think it's a way to own your music more ?

I just felt like I would have been hiding behind something silly. It's silly because it's not a band, it's a person, let's just be honest. At some point it might become a band but I just thought it was kind of cowardly to do that. And I also just wasn't into the irony of the 90s. I felt like that was easy, you know ? I mean, PAVEMENT, big example [looks at interviewer's shirt]. Oh, but that's not PAVEMENT, that's (David) NANCE, nice ! I thought MALKMUS' lyrics were really tongue in cheek and super ironic. Even though I liked the music I sometimes felt like it's OK to be sincere also. I just felt for me, personally, I don't care what anyone else does, but for me the right thing to do was just to be like, if you don't like it, you don't like Simon JOYNER music. Instead of like, if I called myself VOLCANO or something, it would be like it's just an alias that you're hiding behind. But I think some of those bands they are post modern in a way, like art projects and I appreciated that stuff. I like SMOG a lot, a lot of bands that came up with those names, I didn't have a problem with them but I just didn't feel connected to the irony aspect.

Speaking of SMOG, Bill CALLAHAN started releasing music under his own name as he maybe started to embrace more the influence of the folk musicians you were mentioning earlier...

Yes, I just think that at the time he... I don't want to speak for him, but at the time he started you're a young person and you don't want to put on any airs and so it was also a way to be self-deprecating to call yourself SMOG, which is just not a good thing, right? SMOG is like pollution! He was probably making fun of himself and I appreciate that, the humility aspect but I guess I did do something similar with my publishing name, Simon JOYNER's music is not important and so that was my one way of...

Having an exception that confirms the rule ?

Yes !


"The songs are written to stand on their own"

How much has Omaha actually inspired your music ? Would you have played the same music if you came from California or any other place ?

Oh no, it's definitely a big influence as it's my hometown. I have themes of isolation, some of the aspects of living in the middle of the country definitely affects the mood and the music, for sure.

I have this feeling that the weather is also very important, which we can find on some of your albums' artwork too. Some are more linked to winter, like Lost in the snow obviously, while some are more influenced by summer or spring like Skeleton blues.

I guess it depends on when I start writing the songs. Omaha has four very distinct seasons. Winter is really cold and summer is very hot. I guess from a poetic standpoint it's nice to rely on the imagery of the seasons to reflect the human experience. It's just a tool in the toolbox to use. But yes sometimes they heavily occupy a batch of songs because of whatever is happening in my life or when I begin writing the next songs. I usually don't write for a long time and when I get back to it I write all of the record in one small time frame, over the course of a few months. It probably has something to do with why this imagery gets painted throughout the record.

You mentioned earlier that Songs from a stolen guitar, your new album, is about to come out. I was quite surprised the press release was heavily focused on the production aspect of it. Would you agree with what it said and consider the album as your best sounding one ?

Best sounding ? Oh, I don't know ! I don't know, do you think so ?

Well, I only got to hear the two songs available on Bandcamp yet and yes the sound is very clear but as I said I was surprised the press release was focusing so much on that aspect.

I think the reason is just that it was created during the pandemic and none of the musicians could be in the same room together, so they wanted to play up the isolation of the pandemic which created these extra hurdles for recording the album. And then the themes of the album have to do with being isolated so maybe that's why they decided to go that route. Recording wise, most of the parts were recorded by the musicians in their home studios. I recorded my guitar and vocals live in the studio in Omaha then everyone recorded their parts so I don't know if it's the best... I think it sounds great, but you know, the Lost with the lights on album was recorded in a really fancy studio in L.A. I think it's as good sounding as some of the other records in the 2000s have been.

From the two songs I managed to hear, it seems like the instrumentation and the way you're playing is very sparse. Is it linked to the fact that no one of you were physically present at the same time ?

Yes, I would say so. At first I thought I was going to do a solo guitar and vocal album, which I haven't done since the beginning of my solo career. That was the plan so I basically figured out all the arrangements for myself to play, as if it's just me and it's going to be OK. So when we went to record I hadn't worked any arrangements for the band to record. So they were forced to figure out parts based on what I did. Usually I'll have the songs basically figured out but then I'll get together with the musicians and we'll come up with what we should do, like extending a section, but there was no possibility of extending any section or creating room for riffs or anything, so the songs are written to stand on their own and then I just had people dress them up a little bit.

Does it mean you gave them more freedom than you usually would ?

Yes, because I couldn't change what I did. Whereas if we were in a studio and I was playing a song, somebody might say : “Hey, after that second verse why don't we add a few bars for me to wind this thing down that I figured out before the second chorus ? That would be great”. We'd run through it and figure out a way to make room for everything. But there was no possibility of that. I think everyone liked it to have the extra constraint added to the... I guess necessity being the mother of invention. They enjoyed the challenge but it was definitely another experience.


"The only record where I'm happy with how I sing everything
                                                       and with how I played everything"

This is another album that you recorded with Michael KRASSNER. I remember you saying that any of the projects you have would need to have him involved in it. What makes your musical relationship so special ?

He's just like the person with the closest... the nearest same vision that I have for the songs. Whenever I start sending demos on my phone then he seems to have a very intuitive idea of what would be best for the music and it's never different from what I'm thinking about. I just trust him the most. He's a very tasteful, non obtrusive producer. He doesn't try to put his own signature on things, he's just serving the songs the most of anyone I work with.

You also had David NANCE once again for this record. How did you get to start collaborating together ?

Well he used to be in my band for many years and so we've done a lot of things together over the years. He's my favorite guitarist and he's a good friend so when I decided I'd be recording this with everybody doing their parts separately I just thought of Dave to be the one who like... Because he's known my music for so long and we toured together, made records together, he's been on many of my records... He knows what I like and we have similar music tastes. I just trusted him to come up with good stuff. And he did a lot of recordings, he'd say “I tried four different things on this song” and because we were not doing it live in the studio you can choose the things that you want. So lots of the record's arrangements had to be processed at the end because we had way more than we needed from everyone. There was more organ, there was more piano, there was more viola, there was more guitar. Everyone gave me just too much, because they might as well, you know? And then KRASSNER and I edited it down to be the record. Everybody knew it was going to be a sparse record but they wanted to give me options because they knew they couldn't do it again. If we were recording with a live band, if we got a great take of something even if I didn't like what I did, I would keep it because I loved everything else. So there are songs on my albums where I wince at the way that I sing something or if I play something on the guitar where I hesitated, these little soggy-woggy moments... Doing it this way I recorded each song until I got a take that I liked on guitar and vocal, where I thought this may be the way it comes out and so I got my parts to sound the way I liked them and then everyone added their parts. So it's the only record where I'm happy with how I sing everything and I'm happy with how I played everything, which almost never happens.

Does it mean there could be very different versions of this record ?

Oh yes, I could definitely have KRASSNER... get together with KRASSNER and have the full band version of this record just with all the stuff that we have and it would sound 180° different. It could be fun.

Speaking about different versions of your songs, you recently started a very cool project with some custom made albums...

Oh yeah !

Basically people get to choose ten songs from any of your albums that you will rerecord with the band to finance your U.S. Tour...

No, I'm just recording them solo. I'm recording them at home.

So how's the project been going so far ?

Oh no, I don't know what I've gotten myself into! I've sold a lot of preorders for those and I'm going to have a lot of work to do when I get back after this tour. I'm going to have to relearn a lot of old songs. I guess I knew that there would be some of that, the things that I never play or early things I don't play anymore. So it's a chance for people to make me do that. [Edit : Simon ended up with more than 160 songs to record ! ]

Are there any songs that you dread going back to ?

Oh yeah ! Absolutely. Like 30% of them !

I suppose it's also a chance to turn them into something new ?

Yes, I mean some of that stuff, things I wrote when I was 20 years old or whatever, it's like it's a different person. I like that kid who did that stuff and I appreciate it so it'll be fun to redo those songs for people, but it definitely feels like I'm covering someone else at that point. I don't totally relate to a lot of what my concerns were on some of that stuff but I can find some things to appreciate about those songs. It'll be funny. I've always believed that and appreciate when other artists play some songs over the stage of their career and on different records, like Townes VAN ZANT would rerecord songs from his first album on albums 20 years later. I always thought that was cool. Performing songs live needs showing that they take a new life and can have a new form if they're well enough written. They can survive your new outlook on life or whatever. If you can still find a way to enter the song and make it your own now, then that's the sign of a good song I think. Some of that super old stuff I can't stand now as it might be a bit dated and can't work anymore. But it'll be fun either way.

I felt like there was a significant change between your last two albums in terms of lyrical content. Step into the earthquake was, I thought, quite focusing on social commentary while Pocket moon was more filled with personal stories.



"It was an anti-American institutional racism song"

Is writing songs about the state of society sometimes overwhelming ?

Because I don't do it that often ? I think there is just a moment where I felt that there was so much horrible stuff happening in America at the time that to write about my own stuff too much would be inappropriate. It was unavoidable to comment on what was happening. It was just what I was thinking about at the time a lot, and worried about, so that's why when I started writing songs a lot of social commentary stuff ended up on the record. There were also songs about relationships on the record too, but I would say, yeah, half and half, which is why it became a double album because there wasn't enough social commentary songs, political songs to make a whole album onto itself. And so it made sense to just keep on writing and sprinkle them throughout and make it all work together somehow. But it's still important to me to write about whatever comes up or whatever occupies space in my mind. It's difficult to write about politics and social commentary stuff without it seeming... It's just hard to pull off. I definitely try to do what I think I can do well and so I felt that those songs on the record I was able to... I wrote more songs in that vein but I felt like they were the ones that were strong enough to be included.

There was also a big controversy with the song As long as we're in danger...


I thought really strange that people could misread what you were trying to express in that song, because if people know your music, I guess it's pretty obvious you're not using the “N” word just to be offensive. And I also thought about the way you also used it on Medicine blues and no one said a thing. Is it because there's a different social context in America now ?

Well, in that song I used the word “Negro” and so it's very different. I don't think it's any different now, it's just that the power of that word has made context irrelevant to a lot of people. So critical thinking skills are superfluous. It doesn't matter what the context is. Some people don't even care what the song is about or if we're on the same side or the same team. It was an anti-American institutional racism song. I mean, it's obvious that's what the song was about and trying to open up and look with a microscope how it's written in our history since the beginning of the country. But with the word itself there's a movement to pretend no one is using it. But I felt more like a journalist in that sense, like I'm reporting on the fact that it is used and there is this racism, without utilizing the ugly power of it. I definitely would not have done it again. I would not do it again. Because it's just not worth it, which is...

Too much trouble ?

Yeah, I mean it almost ruined... It was really bad for me personally. Because of the way these things spread on social media it was like a wildfire and no one even... at a certain point, very quickly, people don't even know what it's about, someone is saying “This guy is a racist, we have to stop him”. And then that's getting repeated, so then everyone is hating you when they don't know what the original deal was. And you get canceled for something that you're really, earnestly caring about. And it's the opposite of what I intended. If I had a way to go back in time I would find a different way to write it but at the time I couldn't think of anything that could be awful enough to really depict what was happening, especially in the country right then. There was just so much harnessing of this hatred and racism that was being used in this way and people being given permission to go in that direction. I was trying to point out that this is really happening again. Anyway it ended up taking over, the controversy made the song's power... it eclipsed it. So that song is not successful at communicating its intended message then it's a failure. Even though I'm sure a lot of people totally understood it and appreciated it, enough people didn't that it is a failure.

I felt really bad at the time because there's this song on the album about dreaming of sharing a concert with Lou REED that I find incredibly amazing yet it was overshadowed by this controversy. Could you tell us about recording this song ? It's very different from what you usually do. For starters I think that's your longest song on record and it also feels way more adventurous musically than the usual Simon JOYNER songs.

Well I wrote it, the words, and then I just told the band I want to do this piece that was almost like krautrock or something but in a VELVET UNDERGROUND two-chord kinda way and I'm going to do this recitation. It was one of the political songs on the record that I wanted to end with. We came up with what we were going to do musically in the studio, to put it on the spot. We just did it in one take. I wanted it to be cathartic and really express just the visceral anger about what was happening in the country and the Lou REED connection is just that his album New York, which I always really loved because it's political about America at the time and he expressed his anger about things in a really great way, very powerful, so it's kind of an homage to that and his spirit in general, writing about the important things, the difficult things, the hard things to write about with the ultimate compassion for people who struggle.

By the way, is the opener on the new album a nod to Caroline says ?

Perhaps, yeah, it could be. I mean I definitely wanted it to sound like... I wish Dougie YULE was singing it because it was written in a way that if I could sing better it would be really nice.

What's with all those songs with girl names in “-ine” as the title ? Caroline's got a secret, Christine, Geraldine, Catherine...

Oh, yeah, it's true !

Is it just coincidental ?

Yeah, I think so. I think it's just names that sound good you know and that I like to say. Or they're based on someone in my life that I'm changing the name to... Some people might know what I'm talking about and some won't.

Do the people concerned usually recognize themselves or do they miss it ?

It's happened. Both things have happened.

You very often have strong song titles and opening lines. Is it something that you work hard on ? I feel like they're usually very cinematic, sometimes with the whole experience in a few words.

That's nice, thanks. You know, I think it's important when you're writing to try and grab the listener to get him in that stage early but I also approach songwriting as short-story writing. So it's the most economical form of telling a whole story. So if you need to paint... you have to establish the scene and what the possible emotional states of the characters are very quickly, and establish what the conflict is and do that quickly. It's just something I work at I guess. It's just par of the craft and I guess if you are talking about opening lines, I know how important it is. I don't want any of the lines to be weak, I want them to all be strong, but it should be cinematic to a certain extent. You don't want to start something in a boring way.

I know you once wrote a book for children. Have you ever been interested in the novel form ?

Yeah, I have. I thought about it. Never explored it too much. It's definitely something I want to do but just haven't yet. I actually write short stories sometimes and I end up turning them into songs and then feel like the song is better than the story. That it's better even more condensed than what the short story is. It's definitely something I thought about doing and might still do at some point. It's not easy but it's so familiar to return to the song form for expression that I feel like I'm out of my element when I try other kinds of writing. And so I want to be effective and I'm like “Aaaargh, screw this ! I'm going to turn this into a song instead”. And then all of a sudden it's like “Oh yeah, now I know where I am” and I like the challenge of how to affect people in this very micro, economical form. For me good poetry is like the highest art form, the most difficult. You don't have as much time and there are all these rules about how to do it. I feel like songwriting's like that too. Except you have this crutch of music so a lot of people are lazy songwriters because they have good music and so they don't spend enough time on their words. I feel like you can have it all if you just make the words stand on their own as much as possible and then you get to add this music that can help you push the image closer to what you want to express even if you don't have a lot of time to do the language part of it.

You mentioned earlier how there are certain periods when you don't write anything. Does it mean that there are some specific settings that make you more efficient, or is it open ?

It's open, yeah. It's usually just a state of mind where a lot of times when I've made a record but it hasn't come out yet, I can't write anything new until it's out. And it's boring I guess you know. And then I can start worrying about the next thing. Sometimes I write the songs and it's six months until I record them and it's another year before it comes out so you end up with one year and a half without writing anything new. I try to force myself but I just really can't until the other thing is done. Otherwise all I can think about is that, when it will be coming out, letting people know about it and all of that. But once it's out then the lock comes off and I can start thinking about what's next.

So you need every album to be in the rear-view mirror...

Yes, in the rear-view mirror and then I really just move on. It's interesting because I revisit songs performing, but I don't... I just like to keep moving forward, whatever the next project is is just what I start thinking about.


"Let's do a DEVO cover album ! ”

We talked about your songs finding new lives after they're recorded... How did you feel about The BRUCES doing a whole Simon JOYNER cover album ?

Oh god, I loved it ! It's so great ! I mean I was like “Damn ! I wish I had recorded it that way, that's really nice ! ”.

Were there songs where you felt like their version was superior to yours ?

I mean I love everything that Alex (McMANUS) does. And I feel like he's a genius. Back in the day he would always say “That could be a pop song Simon ! It's a really good song but you're doing it this way, like you're ruining its pop potential”. Yeah but if anything sounds to poppy then I feel like I'm cheating or something. But when other people do it I love it. If I do it I want to fuck it up in some way, I want to degrade the pop aspect of it. Whether that means slowing something way down or adding an out of tune piano, I like to mess it up. But Alex totally believes in pure pop. I couldn't bring myself to do something like that but I love it that he can, and does. I love those versions of those songs.

You also did a whole cover album of the ROLLING STONES' Goat's head soup with David NANCE, which is something he frequently does...

He does it a lot yes, it's become kind of like his cash cow, you know like “I gotta pay the bills ! Let's do a DEVO cover album ! ”. We were going on tour together and we wanted to have something together that we could sell on the road. We set up this tour where we would just go on the road with a car and he'd open for me. We thought “Let's just do a cover album that we sell on the road ! ”, so we just came up with the idea of doing that because we both kind of didn't like that album. It's kind of overblown, overwrought... there's some good songs but there's some stinkers on there, so it just seemed like a funny project. Maybe like the way PUSSY GALORE did that Exile on main street cover album. It was kind of in that vein. So we had a CD-R of that and somebody heard it and said “Oh you should have that on vinyl”, so we did a small run on vinyl and it took out a life of its own.

Was it through your own label ?

Grapefruit ? Yes. But Bada Bing paid for it. They recommended we do it and they said “If you do it, we'll pay for it”. But we put it out on Grapefruit.


"I'm just trying to maintain the levels I have"

You've released albums with so many different labels. What makes it so difficult to work with Simon JOYNER ?

Yeah, right ! I don't know. You can only lose so much money. I try not to bankrupt record labels. I want them to stick around and keep doing what they do. So I ask for one record. If they want to do one record I'm like “That's good” but then... do some other things and maybe we'll do another one later.

Is that the reason why you started Grapefruit Records ?

Well, I started it to put out other people's music that I thought wasn't... You know, it was underground or experimental or needing an audience but I didn't want to put out any of my own stuff. Then I decided it was kind of silly, I can still do the stuff I want to do with other people and do my own thing. I just have more control on how my own stuff comes out. But collaborating with BB Island in Germany to do the European version of the last couple of records...

That's good because it used to be quite difficult finding your records here !

Yes, and expensive to have them shipped over too.

So is life any easier for you now that you have Grapefruit ?

It's a lot easier, yes. A little more control and I don't have to play the games... You know I'm in a point in my career where I'm not trying to gain thousands of new fans, I'm just trying to maintain the levels I have. I don't really feel a need to do all the silly stuff, jump through all the hoops I guess, so it's nice.

One final question about the title of your new album. Can you explain where Songs from a stolen guitar comes from ?

Well, just from that song I guess. That sort of story song. Just the idea of all the songs on the record being related to that character, who's maybe some version of myself. This storytelling life or whatever. Maybe feeling like a fraud sometimes, pretty self-crippled, nothing's ever really like the way I hear it in my head.

The title made me think of this great quote by Alfred HITCHCOCK that says “real talent is being able to steal things from yourself”. Would you say it applies to this record ?

Sure. I'm definitely guilty at this point of returning to familiar themes and tricks, my old tricks again.


Interview by Eric F.

(september 06, 2022)


Simon JOYNER. Songs from a stolen guitar
(Grapefruit Records/BB.Island, 2022)



Go further

Simon JOYNER : Bandcamp
Simon JOYNER @ BB.Island
Songs from a stolen guitar : Bandcamp @ BB.Island
Grapefruit Records : web site

     I dreamed I saw Lou REED last night
     The only living boy in Omaha (Little Elephant session)
     Live in London, November 6, 2019


In our written archives :
Simon JOYNER sort de l'ombre
     this interview in French version (13/09/22)

Photography : Eric F., Andrew Lachance, DR.