Words matter for singer-songwriter Simon Joyner

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NORTH ADAMS — In a career spanning more than two decades, folk artist Simon Joyner has received praise for writing poignant verse. The way he sees it, that's not meant to imply that his music isn't worthy of similar recognition.

"It's just that that side of the craft is not in vogue right now the way that it was in the '60s and early '70s, where you had to be a great lyricist," Joyner told The Eagle during a recent telephone interview. "It was expected."

Joyner, who will perform Wednesday evening at MCLA's Design Lab, has been praised by, among others, Conor Oberst, a fellow Omaha singer-songwriter.

"And now, people are really lazy with their writing," Joyner said. "That's why when someone does kind of focus on the lyrics, it's conspicuous."

For Joyner, "kind of focus" is a gross understatement: He undergoes a painstaking process to produce songs that have been critically acclaimed, if not commercially successful, throughout his career.

In 1994, for example, famous British DJ John Peel played Joyner's album, "The Cowardly Traveler Pays His Toll," in its entirety on a BBC radio program. It was unheard of at the time, as was Joyner.

"It made me more known in Europe, I guess, than I was at home, which was interesting because I couldn't really take advantage of it all that much," he said. "I didn't really have the ability to just start going to Europe all the time to play where my crowd was."

Still, it emboldened him to continue pursuing his passion.

"To have that kind of endorsement made me think that maybe I could take this songwriting thing seriously, whereas before I thought it was more of a hobby," he said.

Joyner's songwriting routine begins by jotting down a phrase or line that comes to him after overhearing a conversation, passing a billboard or waking up from a dream, among other standard life occurrences. Sometimes, these words become a song's title or land in the middle of the piece.

"The song kind of grows in either direction from that line," Joyner said.

Other times, these notes never make it into a song, though they ultimately help Joyner start stringing lines together.

The next step is perhaps where the folk artist distinguishes himself from lesser lyricists. Joyner spends an inordinate amount of time editing, unafraid to completely change a song if one line doesn't work.

"Nothing is really safe at that point when I'm getting the scalpel out," he said.

Even once a song has been recorded, Joyner's editing is not done. Before a performance, he'll make tweaks to certain lines that he wished he had altered before completing the tracks, he said.

Joyner's educational background helps inform his meticulous songwriting method. He wrote for his high school newspaper and he planned to major in journalism at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. During a long college career that included stops at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska-Omaha, Joyner ended up studying creative writing, history and English, among other subjects.

"To me the best, the most interesting, songwriters are also heavily influenced by the fiction that they read," he said.

Joyner prefers short stories by writers such as Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel and Bobbie Ann Mason because he sees similarities between their work and songwriters'.

"You have to introduce these characters in this conflict and sort of comment on it, and suggest the backstory that there's no time for and suggest resolutions that aren't happening on the page," he said.

Once Joyner has written a substantial amount of songs, he searches for a theme tying some of them together that can serve as the basis for an album. A close friend's suicide, for example, inspired Joyner's 1998 album, "Yesterday Tomorrow and in Between," which explores not only the causes of suicide but also the effects it has on a community.

The close of "Came a Yellow Bird" reflects this motif: "And then the tears came rolling down/and the floor fell underneath / and the yellow bird folded her wings together / and I dragged her down with me."

Joyner's Berkshire performance will include similarly poignant songs spanning his entire catalog spanning his two-decade-plus career. He said a handful may also be from "Step Into the Earthquake," an album set to be released in October that examines the country's current political divide, seen through the lens of individual struggles.

Joyner does grant that his unremarkable voice may be one reason why some critics refer to him more as a lyricist than a musician. Still, he feels the strength of his lyrics is ultimately what guides the praise.

"That's the way I like to think about it," he said.


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