There’s even more to the interview with Simon Joyner than made it into these columns, but most of it is below and in last week’s installment. One detail that didn’t make it in concerned the “Peel Incident.” I asked Joyner what the other album was that Peel had played in its entirety. He said he heard that it was a Fall record, but that someone also told him it was a Bob Dylan record. I guess we’ll never know for sure. One thing’s for certain, with the advent of technology, no one will ever have the power Peel had to discover and focus attention to new talent.
Column 175: The Traveller Returns, Pt. 2
The second in a two-part look at Simon Joyner’s just-reissued seminal recording.
Continuing last week’s look at Simon Joyner’s The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll, which has just been reissued on Team Love Records…
By 2003, Joyner already had made a name for himself as a journalistic lyricist who painted acoustic snapshots on his first two tape-only recordings, Umbilical Chords and Room Temperature. For his next — and what he thought would be his last — recording, Joyner dipped his toe into something more autobiographical.
“I had moved away from the sort of journalistic confessional songwriting,” he said. “I was finding that the best approach to deal with things in my own life was by turning them into fictional stories, just like any other writer.”
And just like any good literature, where the reality ends and the fiction begins is never known by the casual listener. Joyner’s lyrics reflected the crossroads where he stood both professionally and personally. Born in New Orleans with parents from Alabama, Joyner was yanked from his southern roots as a child after his father was stationed at Offfutt Air Force Base. “I only saw my relatives once a year,” he said. “I felt a little bit rootless in my early 20s, and I wanted to make sense of the history of my family, where I came from and what it meant to me.”
As a result, a southern-gothic pall hangs over the album, along with plenty of death. The song “Montgomery” focuses on a military funeral, with lines “The mourning is for everyone / But the hole is for your papa / He’s lying in his old uniform / His pockets full of mothballs.“
“I wrote that song for my father about my grandfather, who had also been in the Air Force. It’s about going to his funeral with my dad,” Joyner said. Around that same time, Joyner’s grandmother also passed away; her death was reflected in the song “Cole Porter”: “And I should have known she wouldn’t last / And I should have been there by her bed / Tonight I caught myself considering heaven/ ’cause today I realized she is dead.”
Taken as a whole, Cowardly Traveller was sort of a concept album about coping with life in the face of uncertainty, consequence and inevitability. “In my mind, the theme of the record — the title — can be interpreted as a story about a cowardly traveler who pays his toll for being cowardly; or as a warning, like an Aesop fable,” Joyner said. “Here you are and these are the things you’re dealing with. If you’re not courageous, life is going to be bleak. Dealing with it makes you a stronger person.”
In that context, what many consider to be depressing actually is a message of hope. If there’s a common misinterpretation about Joyner’s music, it’s that it reels in despair. “I’ve never been into music that is pathetic or wallows,” he said. “Music that is ‘Woe is me’ is not interesting to me. There’s always tension and conflict, and the characters don’t always make the right decisions.”
The entire album was recorded in the living room of a tiny house in Benson. Collaborating was Chris Deden, who supplied the drums and inspiration. “Chris was responsible for talking me into doing an electric record,” Joyner said, “and for he and I recording it ourselves and playing all the instruments.”
Joining them on “scratchy fiddle” was guitarist Alex McManus. “Alex wasn’t a violin player,” Joyner said. “So his approach was just what we wanted. I wasn’t a guitar player but was playing guitar, Chris wasn’t a drummer but was playing drums. The violin part on ‘Cole Porter’ is one of the best things I’ve heard in the last 20 years. Once he had done that, I knew this was going to be okay.”
Deden and Joyner pressed 500 copies of the vinyl-only release on their own label, Sing, Eunichs! Joyner said some in Omaha “wrote it off” as an experiment, while others recognized it as a big leap forward. Those outside of Omaha considered it Joyner’s debut. Especially in Europe, where famous DJ John Peel played the entire album on his widely respected radio show — something he’d only done one other time. Much has been made of the so-called “Peel incident,” but how much did it really impact Joyner’s career?
“I didn’t really take advantage of what it could have done for me,” Joyner said. “(Peel) had done similar things for P.J. Harvey and other bands, telling listeners to check them out. He did that for me, but I didn’t make it easy for people. It’s hard to check out something when it’s only on vinyl. Where are you going to get it? This was before Myspace and access to music downloads.”
The first 500 copies of Cowardly Traveller sold out quickly. The label pressed another 500, which also quickly sold. But that was it. Joyner and Deden decided to press no more.
“We had moved on to recording (follow-up) Heaven’s Gate and the label was just so nascent that we had to put all our funds into the next project,” Joyner said. “Repressing it seemed wasteful when we could put money into something else.”
Over time, not repressing Cowardly Traveller became “this symbolic thing for Chris and me. Chris always said that anyone who matters had it already.”
That attitude would change after the album began to fetch high prices on eBay, and when Joyner turned to old pal Conor Oberst and Team Love Records to handle the digital rights to his catalog. When it came time to digitally master Cowardly Traveller, sound engineer Doug Van Sloun created a new master from the original 1-inch tape that would end up also being pressed on 180-gram vinyl.
Joyner won’t be touring the album. In fact, its only performance was a one-off house show held a few weeks ago. “When it was originally released, I was playing these songs at house shows and Kilgore’s and places like that,” he said. “Anything beyond a house show would go from being a celebration to exploitation.”
Still, expect to hear songs off the album dropped into his live sets from time to time. “I know when I’ve written a good song when I still want to play it,” Joyner said. “And I still love playing those songs.”
As I mentioned in a recent collection of CD reviews (here) Joan of Arc’s new album, Boo Human, is the first thing in years that a Kinsella has been involved with that I could listen to more than a few times. It has its wonky moments; it also has some rather startlingly beautiful moments. Get a preview of it tonight at The Waiting Room when Joan of Arc plays with Future of the Ghost and Omaha’s own Capgun Coup. $10, 9 p.m.
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