Most Songs Are Sad, And John Moreland Writes The Best Of Them

We Talk To The Tulsa Songwriter About His Stunning New Album

On February 5th 2020 » By Susannah Young

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In the nine years and four albums since his first solo effort, John Moreland has grown and evolved personally and professionally. His body of work traces a familiar late 20s/early 30s trajectory: moving through trauma and discovering along the way that the healthier you become and the better you know yourself, the less fascinating you become to yourself. Today, he’s still the same accomplished musician, still simultaneously self-effacing and straightforward, tender and tough, imbuing every song with “Tougher Than The Rest” Bruce Springsteen Energy. But he’s also happy — and from this newly content place, eager to stretch his wings. His excellent fifth album LP5 embodies this moment.

With accomplished producer/former Centro-matic drummer Matt Pence behind the boards and drum kit and frequent collaborator/fellow Tulsa musician John Calvin Abney playing instrumental polymath, LP5 finds Moreland giving his songs a technicolor treatment. Stylistically, they’re polished, intricate without feeling fussy, warm like a memory. Substantively, they look to the world around them for cues and answers, rather than the contours of his own mind. On LP5, stars show up time and again in lyrics and song titles. It’s fitting, given Moreland’s ability to write so evocatively about grief — because starlight itself is such an apt metaphor for healthy grieving: it reaches across space and time to touch us; powerful enough to make itself known, but not powerful enough to completely illuminate the world. Affecting, but not too affected.

VMP: As I was preparing for this interview, I found myself getting annoyed at how often people ask you about being sad, or why you write sad songs — like 99.9 percent of songs aren’t about being sad.

John Moreland: Exactly.

What do you think it is about the way you write through — or write about — sadness that makes everyone fixate on it?

Maybe because I don’t… look like other musicians? Maybe it’s a little alarming [to them], and they actually pay attention to the words, and listen, and then they’re like, “Oh, this song is about heavy stuff.” That’s my best guess, but I don’t think that’s a very solid guess. (laughs)

It’s interesting that you brought up the way you look. My guess was that it’s the specificity with which you write about sadness — how honest and raw it is — and because it’s so specific, people are better able to see their own experiences and themselves in your songs.

True, that could definitely be the case. But yeah, I’ve always thought the same thing. Like, aren’t all songs sad? Isn’t every good song sad? What the fuck? (laughs)

I understand writing this album didn’t come easy, and it made me think about the way that novelists talk about following up their first novel: that it takes a lifetime to write that one and then you’ve got, like, a year to write your next one.

Totally. I think, for me, when I got to the point where music was no longer — where making music became my job — it took a couple of years to figure out how to do that, how to navigate writing in that way without it becoming something I hated to do. When it’s your hobby or your outlet, you can approach it on different terms and then when it becomes your job, you have to adjust to that. During that adjustment period, I wasn’t super happy: it was hard to be creative and write songs, and it took a few years to just get comfortable with where I’m at now [and] to get the creativity coming back.

When you say “comfortable with where you’re at now,” do you mean figuring out how to be creative or get inspired on demand? Or are you talking more about the way that your life has changed personally over the past couple of years?

Both. I think I did have to learn to be more creative on demand, because one of the things I would run into is that once you’re touring constantly, you get home and you don’t really want to write songs because you’re just exhausted. I don’t even want to look at a guitar once I get home from tour. So part of it was just not letting that be a stumbling block, you know? Also, just all the life stuff that changes that you’re not used to when you used to do this for fun, and now it’s your job, and you do it all the time, and people know who you are now — it’s a different headspace.

You were home a lot over the past year and while writing the album, and I am curious to hear how being at home and the mindset that puts you in influenced not just the process we’ve been talking about, but the actual material you’re writing about. Because I think while LP5 is a stylistic shift, it’s also a shift in terms of what you’re writing about and how you’re grappling with things.

Going back to the whole adjustment thing, having a less-busy schedule the last year or so was absolutely necessary to just recalibrate and get my head on straight again. I think I was in a very peaceful, mellow place, where my primary concern was mental health.

I think that definitely comes through in both the lyrics and the sound. It feels like an album written by a content and balanced and happy person. Does it feel totally different to write from that place of contentment and happiness versus writing through pain or writing to process things?

That was another thing I had to get used to. (laughs) My life is a lot different now: I’m married, and I’m extremely happy, and I think in the past, the pain was a little closer to the surface, so it was easier to just say, “Well, obviously I’ll write a song about this” or whatever. It’s something else I’ve had to navigate: How do I write lyrics now? And how do I do that in a way that resonates like what I’ve done in the past, but is relevant to me and my life now?

So what would you say you’re writing about now? I think there are big themes that run through each of your previous albums: like, In The Throes grapples a lot with relationships and religion, and High on Tulsa Heat felt like an album about home — or at least the idea of home — and Big Bad Luv sort of shifts into this kind of idea of acceptance. What is LP5 about?

Maybe acceptance again? But more broadly, I think. Like, really learning to accept yourself and love yourself.

I think that comes through, too. I think it picks up where Big Bad Luv left off, but in a way that feels more outwardly focused, rather than inwardly focused.

It’s not something I was thinking about or conscious of, but looking back, I definitely was in less of a self-centered place while writing this album than I was when writing Big Bad Luv, so that makes a lot of sense. I’m actually really glad to hear you say that.

Oh good! It really struck me. More than any of your other albums it really feels more Of The World versus In Your Head, like you’re putting your feelings in the context of something bigger than yourself, which… with everything going on in the world today —

Yeah, it’s like, how can you not do that? (laughs)

On that note of removing yourself: even just the decision to call it LP5 rather than some more evocative or personal title, or to make the cover just this the stark visual progression of color blocks on it is so different.

You know, I don’t know if there’s much rationale behind it, other than it’s just kind of what I felt like doing. It was more of an intuitive thing; it felt like the right thing to do. I kept trying to think of a more evocative title, and kept going through the lyrics trying to pick a line to use as the title, but the more minimalist approach just kept sounding like the right one to me.

I think with an album that’s this much of a shift tonally and musically, it doesn’t need any big, obvious “this is something different” flourishes.

That’s what it was: I just want the album to be the thing. And to let the music speak for itself.

Speaking of, I’d love to hear more about the decision to work with [producer] Matt Pence to bring your songs to life and what that experience was like? What made you want to bring in an outside producer — and more specifically, Matt?

I’ve always been a big fan of his. As an engineer and a producer, the sounds he gets are just insane — especially the drum sounds. That’s my biggest thing when I’m thinking about where to record a record: “What are the drums going to sound like?” Matt’s a great drummer himself; I kind of thought, “Oh, maybe we could get him to play drums too.” Anyway, back in 2001 or 2002 one of my favorite bands from Tulsa, Ester Drang, recorded an album with Matt at his studio. I remember hearing about that, and hearing their record and thinking it sounded amazing and then finding out they recorded this album at a studio in… Denton, Texas — and thinking, “that’s crazy!” Since then [Matt Pence’s studio, The Echo Lab] has been in the back of my mind as a place that would be cool to go record, and this time, I just knew I wanted somebody better than me to engineer the album, and Matt is way, WAY better than me (laughs). When we got there, everything clicked, and he ended up producing the album. We didn’t discuss it beforehand, but when we got there, that’s what started happening, and everyone was happy, so it was like, “OK, cool, this is what we’re doing.”

Is it difficult to bring someone else into your vision, or collaborate creatively in that kind of way? Or is that something that comes naturally to you?

It’s always difficult for me to do that initially — I think I just have to get to a place where I trust the person first. It became pretty clear the first day we were recording that me and Matt are totally on the same page when it came to the aesthetic vibe and the sound of this album. Once I realized that, it was easier to let him do his thing because I knew that whatever he did was most likely going to be awesome.

Was there a particular moment that made you think, “OK, I can work with Matt; I made the right choice?”

It’s those drum sounds! That was the first thing we did, and I was like, “Yep, that’s it! This was a great decision.”

On that note: this album is WAY more “produced” than your earlier albums. Has that been received well by your longtime fans, or is this your “Dylan goes electric” moment?

(laughing) I don’t know. I’m expecting some people won’t be into it, which is fine — but honestly, when I put out High on Tulsa Heat, people said it was overproduced, and I was like, “What the fuck are you talking about? That album was recorded for free in a living room; you can hear the air conditioner running in the background of half the songs. That shit is NOT overproduced.” I think that’s just something that people say when they don’t like an album. (chuckles) You know? So I don’t really care.

That’s the right answer. It can definitely take a while to bring people along if what they love starts to sound different from what they originally loved. I’m assuming the recording process for LP5 was more protracted than the albums you were recording by yourself or recording in your living room. Are you a person who likes to tinker forever or are you someone who’s like, “First take is the best take, moving on?”

I’m the guy who always wants the first take, even if it’s not the best take (laughs). This time, we spent more time getting the sounds, but the takes are all still pretty spontaneous, like the performances on the album. I’d say what we ended up with is the best of both worlds.

I’m usually pretty hasty when I work, so bringing in someone like Matt was a good counterbalance. I’ve never met anyone more diligent: He’ll spend 30 minutes dialing something in, and you’re like, “Man, what’s going on?” but then you hear it and immediately think, “OK, worth it.”

Are you bringing a full band on tour to reproduce the album sound or playing stripped down?

It’s just going to be me and John Calvin. We haven’t rehearsed and figured out how we’re going to play the new songs, but we’ll figure it out.

I’d like to talk about the two instrumental tracks on the album. They’re super evocative, like all your music, but I think of you first and foremost as a lyrics guy.

I wasn’t always a lyrics guy. When I was younger and played in bands, I was always the guy in the band who would arrange the song — I wrote music, but not lyrics. Probably because I was never the singer. I would write the chords, and I’d maybe come up with the melody and some cool guitar parts, and I would kind of direct: “you play this part; you play this part.” It was more like composing and arranging. And then when I was in my 20s, I got into Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, and I wanted to learn how to do what they did. What struck me about their music is that it was something entirely different than the way I viewed songwriting before — and I was so into learning how to do what they did, but it was musically not as satisfying. You know, the lyrics are the point, so the music and the production choices kind of take a back seat. So now, I thought it would be fun to get back to doing something a little more compositional.

So much of writing the album was learning how to be creative again. [For so long], every time I would go into my writing room to sit down and work on music, I felt this immense pressure to come out of there with a good song. I had to re-teach myself how to throw that expectation out the window and allow myself to just sit down and mess with an instrument: no pressure; it doesn’t even have to be a song; it can just be whatever. Those two instrumental tracks are things that I came up with during that time.

That to me is the toughest thing about creating… anything: letting go of the expectation that you’ll do something good every time you sit down to work on something. It took me years of creating for myself and for others to internalize, “It’s OK if it’s bad; you can always go back and fix it.”

Totally. I feel like I’m just now in the last year or so getting comfortable with that, and I think writing LP5 is where that started for me.

Susannah Young

Susannah Young

Susannah Young is a communications consultant for nonprofit organizations by day and a music critic in her free time. She lives in Chicago with her boyfriend — who, like her, is a Tennessee native — and their bossy rabbit. All three of them love collard greens.

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