Let Mike Young Tell You About “Only Love Can Bring You Peace” by Simon Joyner
Here’s a song by Simon Joyner:
Here’s a picture of his new book:
Only Love Can Bring You Peace is freshly published by the small press (from our own Mike Young everybody) Magic Helicopter. Mike went to where the stops were and pulled them all out in order to make this book. I mean it’s really beautiful. The cover is printed on a fabric-y laid paper, very soft, and it has flaps. And at about 300 pages, it’s girthy. There’s art inside, like this page, which is in color:
And what the book is, you see, is a selection of Simon Joyner lyrics. Joyner is a songwriter out there on the Omaha, NE scene. He’s been at it for 25 years (so, there’s lots of lyrics to select from). And, you know, just play this song and I won’t have to introduce him any more:
If you want to encapsulate Joyner’s whole je ne sais quoi, I like what Tobias Carroll said at BOMB, “He’s equally adept at channeling characters who live with the long-term consequences of quotidian decisions and getting inside the head of those in darker territory.” That surely comes out in the book. And also I like what the publisher (a songwriter himself) says in the interview I just did with him: “Joyner can zing a line, but it always feels like it’s right in the heat of the drive.”
If you can handle the bias, I think publishers write the best reviews of their books, especially when the publisher is Mike Young, who is as uniquely perspicacious as he is expressive in a way that, uncannily, makes sense. Watch as he figures out why Joyner’s lyrics work on the page, below, in the transcription of our chat, which was more of an email where I sent Mike a bunch of questions all at once, starting with “When did you first get into Simon Joyner’s work?” and he replied like this:
MIKE YOUNG: Late high school, as my brain got bigger / grayer, I started realizing that all the musicians and writers I loved were not self-swirling novas and were in fact interconnected in networks of influencing and back-talking and chasing and praying and roundtabling. Pretty late, I know. One day I saw Conor Oberst hyping Dave Dondero and Simon Joyner, so I checked them out. The first thing of Simon’s music I listened to was his singles compilation, Beautiful Losers, which I downloaded on Soulseek because I really liked Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers. Then I listened to Hotel Lives, which is what really got me.
The raggedy insistent ache of the songs, just as poetic but a little more bitter than Leonard Cohen, who was so demure, maybe too demure for my seventeen-year-old self—it really hit me. I feel like it encouraged a rawer engagement with feeling than I’d been allowing myself with the kind of shit I liked at the time. Without sacrificing the bon mot index, I mean—Joyner can zing a line, but it always feels like it’s right in the heat of the drive, like staircase wit in a train tunnel.
And I go back and listen to all of Simon’s songs, and I read all the lyrics now, and I feel the same way. And when I track the songs over the twenty-five years he’s been writing them, I love the way the weariness or wisdom that shows up later down the road never stops feeling that interesting mix of sob and snarl.
How did the idea to do the book come about?
Well, before we get into the specific narrative, we have to do one of those “maps of the area” you see in the beginning of fantasy novels, and in this case the map would be Omaha and the novelist would be Gene Kwak. Which is a very convoluted way to say what I’m always trying to come up with new ways to say, which is that Gene Kwak is an amazing human being, and for some reason I’ve found myself in the orbit of Omaha thanks to him. He has more to say about Omaha here: http://therumpus.net/
Then many months later Simon came through Western Mass to play a show at our dearly departed Flying Object. He and his band slept in Guy Pettit’s apartment in the back and ate burritos from Veracruzana. Later Simon lectured me on using “literally” and tried to talk to a burnt out local musician we all warned him not to talk to.
The last thing I remember is Simon and his band and I really drunk in Simon’s hilariously impressive SUV, laughing a lot, getting dropped off at my house near the cemetery while they zoomed ahead on their adventures. I have it on good authority from a dark green poet who now lives in the Bay Area that Simon’s music show was the best poetry reading of the season.
What happened was he was very impressed with the letterpressing and general operation of Flying Object (who wouldn’t be?) and contacted me and Guy about doing some kind of project. Sadly, Flying Object closed, but it wasn’t Simon’s fault. Happily, the project turned into this beautiful and ambitious book of selected lyrics that is now in the world.
The back cover compiles an impressive list of endorsements. Gillian Welch, Bright Eyes, John Peel. Joyner must have some big fans.
Yeah! He’s been at it for a long time. And one thing I just want to say about all that is also that Simon also strikes me as somebody who’s remained really generous and all-hands-on-deck about do-it-together sorts of aesthetics over his whole career.
Like I don’t live in Omaha, so I don’t see it firsthand, but it strikes me from an outsider’s perspective like he is just a very graceful and big-hearted booster, and by all accounts without being slick or self-shoulder-rubbing about it, just doing his thing for years and years in an earnest and honest way with maybe only a few garish cowboy shirts along the way, which is totally a weakness I share.
So how does this book fit into what you’re doing with Magic Helicopter in general?
There are a couple things I’ve wanted to do with Magic Helicopter that I have struggled to incorporate. Basically it’s about trying to catch up to myself as a teenager when it comes to diversity of aesthetic experiences. Like not just books but music and computer games. And not just categories, like having a lot of different toys in the shed, but finding a way to publish and broadcast and you-gotta-check-this-out things that bring all those forms together. Like having a lot of pool toys in the shed.
So doing a book of Selected Lyrics as opposed to a book of poetry is a nudge in that direction. I’d like to keep nudging.
“I think the book’s beauty is another way to sing these songs, maybe.”
Normally I think lyrics are really awkward when they’re separated from the music. Why do you think Joyner’s work avoids that?
We highlighted a few songs from the book on the MHP blog during its release week: http://magichelicopter.tumblr.com/. And in picking songs and pairing lyrics with full music renditions, I had the chance to think again about this question, which is of course a question that hangs around and eats your cheese and does pull ups on your shower bar like a strange but not entirely unwelcome subletter during the entire process of making a book like this. Really I guess all books come with their own versions of these form-based anxieties, right?
But I think the very simple answer to why so many of Simon’s lyrics work “on the page” is the same reason I’m able to construct this sentence the way I just did without feeling intellectually dishonest. “So many of Simon’s lyrics.” They really do feel that way: discrete units, many of them, interesting LEGOs poured out on the floor and assembled into great verses into great songs. You take a song like “Parachute” and it’s got a line like “I miss the way she said my name / like it was a distant city.” And it’s such a gorgeous memorable line—like I guess a contemporary social media way of saying that is I could very easily imagine that standing alone as a Tweet or whatever.
But it also is just one part of a great song with people and feelings and places and history and even its own internal architectural repetition, its own style of wainscoting, like there are a couple early similes, and then the simile engine shuts down for a while before returning with the echoy “I miss the way she held on to me / like I was a parachute.”
And the singing of that line, the music making—because the line has such integrity within the song and the song treats it like such a line, the song treats itself like it is made of lines—becomes something you do to the song. You sing those lines. And I’m very curious and excited to hear how you’d make the music and sing the lines. But they’re lines. And that’s why they read just as well. And it’s different than the way other equally “great” lines can work in other kinds of amazing songs where maybe the lines and the song don’t function with the same “relationship” or whatever you want to call it.
I know in picking the songs that Simon and his wife Sara definitely left out songs they thought worked better off the page. Like Simon talks in his intro about leaving out the title song! Even though I think it has some great lines itself, like “They pull their shades / to watch parades / Where the veterans are wheeled behind inflatable mice / Looking like heathens / stricken / by lightning twice.” Then again I just invented new linebreaks for those lines very much based around Simon’s very particular way of singing them in a recording, so maybe he’s right.
[Let’s take a break and listen to another song by Simon Joyner. —ed.]
The book is beautiful. Can you tell me about designing it, choosing the colors, choosing the materials?
Thank you! Most of the beauty comes from Simon’s eye and asks. He really pushed it to be gorgeous, with the French flaps and the textured cover. He wanted it to look like an old Black Sparrow book, plus French flaps. It’s funny because I think about the relative lack of production on so many of his albums and songs and then the wealth of production that went into this book (in book terms), and it seems sort of like a dichotomy, but then I guess you have to think about singing the songs in the first place vs. just writing them down and leaving them in a napkin dispenser, right? I think the book’s beauty is another way to sing these songs, maybe.
Colors came by way of talking with Simon about what he wanted, and we hit on the idea of something sort of 70s singer-songwriter desert psychedelic, and then someone (I think Sara?) found a copy of this great anthology from the 70s with swirly text and bold yellows. And the cover designer Allyson Gibbs did a great homage / update to that anthology, replete with a beautiful set of icons (butterflies, arrows, skulls) that I mined for the interior, and Noland Bo Chaliha mined for the broadsides.
Also of course a shoutout to Spencer Printing’s Jess Repa for her team’s translation of “like an old Black Sparrow book” into the final texture stock of the book, which is great to ripple your hands across indeed.
What about the pictures, how do those fit in?
Simon again! This is part of that booster spirit I was talking about. He had all these illustrator friends that he wanted to bring in so the book didn’t feel monolithic. Which it wouldn’t have already because of the interviews and whatnot in the back, and the allusive nature of so many songs, but the illustrations really make it special. What’s striking to me especially about the illustrations is the diversity of styles — from watercolor paintings to sort of graphic novel panels — and the diversity of the crew itself. Not just pro artists but other musicians, other writers.
I think it makes for a testament to the way, like, “creative lives” and “creative communities” really play out. Which is that you might get “known” for doing one thing, you might have “your thing,” but really we all know so many people who are doing so many different things all the time, picking up guitars and paintbrushes, chainsawing ice sculptures, making little Vines or paper sparrows. And it’s fun to try to have an artifact that testifies as accurately as possible to that energy.
How did you choose to order the pieces, and to put them into sections?
We decided pretty early on that chronology was the way to go. If I were a teenager again, one way I would definitely read this book (to get a jump on your next question) would be as some sort of divining rod, instructional manual. Hell I still read it that way! In that vein it’s great to see the progression, see how the songs get better as they go, how formal experiments and phases crop up, how youthful energy ages.
That last section with the interviews and liner notes is also a boon. In editing it, I found some new names I’d never heard, got some new listening for the stack. Always always with that sense of interconnected history in all our artistic endeavors, right?
“I think it’s so true that seeing the songs on the page there is very different than looking up the lyrics on the internet.”
It’s also a very big book. What’s the best way to read it? Should people read these while listening to the songs, or are they meant to be separate, or are you not the kind of person who mandates how people should enjoy the things they pay $20 for?
Well, with my life as it stands, it’s definitely tricky to imagine sitting down with it and plowing right through. But again: I might’ve done that when I was younger! Hunger and free time, right? Definitely I think it’s a great book to pair with the music, to jump back and forth and get lost in a nice session of rabbit holing.
I’ll tell you my favorite way to read it now after spending a ton of hours editing and working on it: first, it’s super fun to just see it there in all its fat bright yellow glory on the shelf. And when I see it, I know from working on it that there are gems throughout. Like Simon isn’t a songwriter whose best songs came and went in the first two albums or whatever. So I like to grab it, fan through pages, maybe anchor myself when I happen on an illustration, flip a few random pages in one direction or another, try to find a song I forgot about.
I’ve seen people posting on social media about how it’s helped them understand songs in a new way, and I think it’s so true that seeing the songs on the page there is very different than looking up the lyrics on the internet. You see the songs next to each other in such a physical way, wonder why certain songs got “left out,” think about verse structure and linebreaks and how all these visual choices orbit the sonic choices of the song. It’s a big book but it’s a big experience.
Simon’s made a beautiful life out of writing so many songs with their own unique shapes and stories. One final thing that excites me when I’m done checking the book out is I look back at the title and remember again that it’s only a “Selected” and it’s only “1990-2014,” which means more songs to come, which makes the book feel like a great wedding or birthday party or something, an acknowledgment and a dive.