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If Simon Joyner weren't already living the life of a world-weary singer/songwriter, he could probably find success as a fiction writer. Armed with a dozen releases and a dedicated cult following, Joyner's songs flow like well-developed novellas, yet each is but a few minutes long. There's a focused clarity found in each ballad, more than enough to evoke powerful feelings and relationships with each character and his struggles.
"I want to depict a real situation even if it's a difficult one — characters who are acting like real people do or are suffering like real people do," Joyner explains from his home in Omaha, Nebraska. "For me, the process of writing in a realistic way is about interpersonal conflicts. It's not just woe-is-me kind of stuff. These are usually pretty serious struggling characters who are conflicted, but I don't really have an interest in any kind of wallowing. The fact that the characters are struggling at all shows there's also hopefulness there."
Joyner's characters come from real-life situations, but not necessarily his own. He admits to frequently being affected by events close enough to him to be personal, like a divorce or suicide, that compel him to put his deeper feelings to song. Still, he says, he tries to take a fictional approach and stay out of the picture.
"[My songs are] generally informed by living," he says. "But there have been times in my life where certain events have taken over my imagination because of the gravity of the situation and dealing with it. It occupied my artistic base. as well. Even in those instances where I'm writing about a failed marriage or the death of someone close to me — actual events in my life that lead to songs — the song is worked into something more imaginative and fictional."
Though most of Joyner's music is acoustic-based and often low-fi in approach, Ghosts, his latest release, is a sprawling double album that tips the scales in favor of alt-country. There are plenty of stripped-down numbers reminiscent of Joyner's familiar folk-psych work, but there are experimental diversions as well, with pedal steel and violin cutting through in a surprisingly buoyant manner. The music reveals something of a Wilco or maybe early-'70s Neil Young aesthetic at times while maintaining a slapdash quality, sounding loose, noisy, and disjointed.
"I love that really messed-up-sounding country rock," Joyner says.
Joyner's releasing Ghosts as a double album because the songs' heavy emotional content meant they "needed more room to breathe." So he made them longer. But in those extended sections, Joyner and his young band of Omaha musicians (many close to half his age) push in interesting directions where each sound reveals deeper meaning.
"Once the lyrics are there and everything feels natural, I wouldn't want the music to go against the message. But I like tension in the music," he says. "I enjoy that tension where the music is one thing, and the lyrics are something else."
Being an underground artist has its perks, he adds. Joyner has the freedom to produce what and when he wants — then tour if the desire strikes.
"I do this two-week thing once every couple years," he explains. "But if I had any kind of breakthrough [like fellow Omaha native and collaborator Conor Oberst], my career would have kind of usurped the living that made me an interesting artist to begin with. It's nice to have a devoted underground following where people are constantly discovering your music, but it's nice to know it's never going to be something unmanageable."