Under-the-radar Omaha musician continues to inspire peers


February 20th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – Though he’s remained under the radar, Simon Joyner has never stopped making music. As one of those who helped found the scene that put Omaha on the map, he’s watched peers rise to fame and glory – but as the internet makes geography less and less influential, and as fewer and fewer rise to the top, musicians are again looking to Joyner as an example.

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Simon Joyner is a pioneer musician in Omaha's music scene. (Photo by Clay Masters, NET News)

In the early 1990s, Beck listed Omaha, Neb., songwriter Simon Joyner in a personal top-10 list for Rolling Stone magazine. Famed British DJ John Peel, known for making careers for playing just one of a band’s songs, played Joyner’s fourth album in its entirety.

The endorsements boosted Joyner’s career. Tim McMahan, a music critic who has covered the Omaha scene since the 1990s, said Joyner was among the first to show what the city could do.

“Simon was among those early acts that influenced so many other people to see that someone from Omaha could record their own music, could do something that was uniquely in their own voice, that sounded like nothing else that was going on, could make some money off of it and could get some attention and national exposure,” McMahan said.

Simon Joyner works in his makeshift warehouse studio in South Omaha with guitarist Mike Friedman. (Photo by Clay Masters, NET News)

One of those Omaha musicians influenced by Simon Joyner is Conor Oberst, the man behind the band Bright Eyes.

“The way he structures his songs, the importance he places on lyrics and the phrasing really became the template for my music,” Oberst said. “It’s really something that stays with you, and he has such an incredible body of work that there’s a lot for somebody to digest.”

In person, Simon Joyner seems like an everyman. He’s a father, husband and owns his own antique business. He doesn’t seem at all concerned about fame or staying in the spotlight. But Joyner said he always finds the time for music.

“As my kids have gotten older, there’s less time because they’re so active, so the distance between my records has increased over the years,” he said. “But there’s a lot of time that you don’t know that you have until there’s something you want to do, and you just find a way to do it.”

Joyner manages both the music and the antique business out of a warehouse on Omaha’s south side. Amid old furniture, lamps and cardboard boxes, he has set up a makeshift studio. There are no computers in sight just a reel-to-reel tape machine, borrowed from Oberst.

Joyner recorded his last few albums in a proper studio, usually booking about a week’s worth of time to record the songs. He’s been on various independent labels. His latest project has become sprawling so many songs that he wanted to release it as a double vinyl LP. So he turned to the website Kickstarter, where artists ask their fans to pay for projects.

“Since record labels, especially independent ones, are in a tough spot right now, to me it made perfect sense to go that route and not put an undue burden on one of these generous independent labels that have helped me out in the past,” Joyner said.

He’s already surpassed his online goal for funding the mixing, mastering and manufacturing of this new album.

This will mark Joyner’s 20th anniversary of putting out records. But he said it’s not the artistic path he once envisioned.

“I had originally intended to write stories and books, and I just kind of got sidetracked writing songs,” he said. “I’m not interested in touring six months out of the year I prefer the way I’ve been doing it along, which is to sell enough records to be able to do the next record. That’s all that’s really mattered to me.”

While the focus has receded from the Omaha music scene, many of these musicians have gone on to make names for themselves. But Joyner was ahead of his time. Omaha music writer McMahan said the days of scene-specific music cities are gone.

“The ability for people to put out music and record it themselves and make it available to the whole world is now takes away that geographic boundary,” he said. “That being said, the fact that there’s this community in Omaha that manages to survive, though it doesn’t have the visibility it had in the early 2000s – it’s in many ways as strong as it ever was.”

Editorial note: This story was also broadcast on National Public Radio.

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