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Simon Joyner: Talking with Ghosts 

Songwriter and perennial outsider embraces the dour side of Nebraska

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From the moment I put the needle on Ghosts, which begins with the song "Vertigo," I was instantly reminded of your album The Cowardly Traveller Pays His Toll. Are these two records connected?

Yes, definitely. Chris Deden and I deliberately set out to approach the recording of this album the way we recorded The Cowardly Traveller. Rather than go into a studio for a short period of time, we wanted to work on it over a period of months, on the weekends, in a warehouse space. That's how I recorded all those early albums up through Songs for the New Year, but the subject matter of this album seemed to demand the noisier elements we were working with on The Cowardly Traveller. So we applied more of the dissonance and jagged experimental sounds we used on that album. For this record we took that approach further — it's not as spare as The Cowardly Traveller, so there's more ambient sound and more experimentation, but it definitely draws from the same well.

With your 1998 single "One for the Catholic Girls" you sing about a cicada with a hard C. In "Last Will & Testament," from Ghosts, the cicada returns but with a soft C. Are these two references meant to mirror each other in some way?

I love the cicada and it's part of my Midwestern environment so it's worked its way into some songs over the years. No direct mirroring going on between "One for the Catholic Girls" and "Last Will & Testament," though, except that I use imagery from life in Nebraska in both songs. When I recorded "One for the Catholic Girls" I mispronounced "cicada," using that hard C, not sure if I didn't know how to pronounce it at the time or if I was reading and singing at the same time and just did it wrong in the moment. I don't think it's pronounced that way anywhere, it's just a flaw in the song, unfortunately.

On Heaven's Gate there's an allusion to searching for a dead girl in the song "Prometheus," which recurs in "Sing a Little Lullaby" from Ghosts. Is this imagery based on real incidents that you've synthesized into songs?

I'm usually writing about subjects of universal concern but from my experience and my particular environment, so I'll use specifically Midwestern imagery in the songs to give the action of the song a sense of place. That being said, the discovery of a dead child in a cornfield in the winter or an FBI search for skeletal remains in a SoHo basement are equally harrowing and bring up the same terrors and questions. I borrow events from my surroundings as well as news that I've read to give the characters in my songs dilemmas. In the case of "Prometheus," I was writing obliquely about Candice Harms, a student who was abducted, tortured, and killed and left in a field, but the song uses that event to ask questions about the human need to make sense and give order to what's essentially random and cruel. Religion takes the heat in that song but we have all kinds of crutches to get us through our days. It doesn't mean you don't care; it's just that your brain knows it's got to see you through to the end of the day and that means filtering out and explaining away all manner of material too difficult or too simple to process. So, to answer your question, I set the stage with real-life incidents to create something fictional, if that makes sense.

Do you revisit these same events from different perspectives?

In the case of "Sing a Little Lullaby," I've revisited the John Joubert kidnappings that haunted my middle school years. I wrote about that in a song called "He Can't Kill Me" on my first tape but the song itself was nostalgic in the sense that it was really about coming of age and invoking all the innocence left behind during that year or so when these kids my age in my neighborhood were getting kidnapped and sexually abused and killed and the police hadn't caught the guy doing it. One of the verses in "Sing a Little Lullaby" re-imagines one of those kidnappings but from the experience of a search party looking for the body. Like "Prometheus," the act of uniting to bring closure and solve the case is a way of imagining order and meaning where there is none. But it's a necessary, empathetic gesture that keeps us going. I return to other events time and again from different angles. There are many cases of relationship story lines, which I visit and revisit to get new understanding by looking at them in different ways.

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