If you're making art anyway, don't you want as many people as possible to appreciate it? This deceptively difficult question prompts another: At what cost?
The intersection of art and commerce is compounded when the artist depends upon that output's marketablity for sustenance. But for two decades, Omaha singer/songwriter Simon Joyner has opted for the less popular—but arguably more fulfilling—path.
The 42-year-old Joyner has always been quick to deflect his influence on Saddle Creek and the Omaha music scene that produced Bright Eyes, The Faint, Cursive and Saddle Creek Records. Making music was little more than a hobby for Joyner when, 21 years ago, his boss at Omaha's iconic and since-closed record store Antiquarium convinced him to issue a cassette. Behind spare but aggressively strummed acoustic guitar, Joyner's adenoidal voice cracked with emotion, delivering a wealth of literary references and cleverly turned phrases. A year later, fellow Omaha resident Conor Oberst followed with his own debut. Oberst's next three releases all arrived on Sing, Eunuchs!, the label Joyner co-founded and modeled after early '90s lo-fi cassette label Shrimper Records, former home to The Mountain Goats.
But while Oberst's Bright Eyes, his Saddle Creek labelmates and even Joyner collaborator The Mountain Goats acquired a national profile and subsequent careers, Joyner lurked in obscurity. There were moments of public awareness: In the '90s, Beck called Joyner one of his favorite artists, while British tastemaker John Peel played Joyner's 1994 fourth album, The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll, front-to-back on his show, something he did only one other time in three decades.
Careerists might have tried to convert those early snippets of attention into contracts, but that was never Joyner's intent. Joyner doesn't care much for touring; he is married with three children. He's supported his albums (now numbering 20) with no more than two to three weeks of touring total, here and abroad. When he plays in Raleigh next week, he'll play a restaurant, not a bar, once again forgoing the typical expectations of making money with music.
Rather, for the last 13 years, he's operated an antique business in Omaha and on eBay that provides most of his income. Observations from this vantage point, more than life seen from a tour van's window, have been integral to his output.
"I'd rather be at [my kids'] youth soccer game, to be there for the living stuff that makes it easier to write the songs," he told the Lincoln Journal Star last year. Touring inevitably leads to songs about the road and being a musician, a cycle he considers anathema to creativity. Joyner maintains he's never wanted anything more than to reach the people who appreciate his songs, not those for whom music is wallpaper or a lifestyle accessory.
"You'll never run out of things to write about," he told a blog in July, "if you just observe people trying to communicate."
That seems to hold for his latest and most ambitious album to date, the new Ghosts. A double LP funded by a $12,000 Kickstarter campaign, Ghosts returns to the jagged experimentalism of Cowardly Traveller. The 17 songs work as a whole, a typically atypical approach for Joyner at a time when singles have supplanted the album in most people's consciousness. Again, Joyner is not one for acute trends or viral markets.
As the title suggests, Ghosts is about death, absence and the struggle to escape the gravity that pulls us inexorably down. It's a band album that moves from the dissonant, dirge-like, psych-blues opener "Vertigo" to the slow-burn instrumental closer "Ghost."
In between, he considers the failed aspirations of Amelia Earhart and Icarus on "When the Worst Doesn't Happen," mournfully strums an elegy to "The Last Parade," and weighs the "Last Will and Testament" of a broken relationship over a swelling country-rocker that recalls Neil Young.
During "Cotes du Rhone," he attempts to understand the suicide of fellow musician and friend Vic Chesnutt. It's the prelude to the twin albums' centerpieces, "If It's Alright With You (It's Alright With Me)," whose first and second parts bridge Ghosts' second and third sides. Joyner, at his best here, speaks honestly and emotionally about life's messy path without neatening or rationalizing the potholed road. He refers to his friends as now being "free," echoing the album's theme of entrapment and release. Given the haunted, downbeat tone to the lyrics, ambivalence still reigns.
There are subtly hopeful moments, too, as when Joyner sings of a staircase left standing after a tornado took the rest of the house during "If I Left Tomorrow." "I didn't mean to cause you any pain," he offers at one point. "That cliché corrodes with every refrain."
But Joyner's career has not been an industry cliché: Unbothered by media glare or fiduciary concerns, Joyner's been free to grow his own bonsai way. In avoiding the business end of music, he has developed a distinctively literate but surprisingly plainspoken voice.
Joyner's sensibility, then, is driven more toward finding and describing life's little truths than communicating them like a greeting card for sale.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The dedicated hobbyist."