John Moreland, who’s scheduled to perform a Jan. 14th headlining set at the Camel, writes folk rock songs that are arresting and powerfully affecting — the kind that command your attention and open doors to emotional worlds you didn’t know were living inside you.
Big Bad Luv, the album Moreland released last year, continues a trend set by its similarly outstanding recent predecessors — 2013’s In the Throes and 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat — in diving wholeheartedly into self-examination related to home, belonging, death, guilt and love, with lyrics incisive enough to level you with a single phrase.
I recently spoke with the Oklahoma-based singer-songwriter over the phone about connecting with listeners, the role religion plays in his life and work and the neon sign that didn’t quite make it onto the cover of Big Bad Luv.
How do you know you’re dialed in with an audience? Is it “silence is golden” in that respect?
You can just feel it. Sometimes silence is amazing, and there’s certain songs where it’s almost like silence is like an instrument in the song, and you need it. But then, I’ve also played to silent crowds who felt really stiff, and you’d make a joke between songs and nobody would laugh. The atmosphere is so reverent that it’s really stiff and awkward. So it can go either way. And then a louder audience can be really cool, or really difficult. It’s one of those things [where] you can feel it when you’re up there doing it.
Do people often approach you after shows to tell you about how they personally relate to your music?
I do get that a lot. It’s really cool to hear and really humbling.
Can that be a burden, given that the songs they’re connecting with often handle difficult emotions and themes?
No. I wouldn’t call it that at all. There are times when somebody will tell me a heavy story and I’m not sure what to say… because what can I do? What can I say? But it’s always nice to hear. I wouldn’t call it a burden at all.
Is it rewarding knowing your music helps people sort out their own dormant emotions?
For sure… and I think I have a similar relationship to songs. I can’t really write when I’m depressed or going through heavy stuff. I try to, but it’s never good. And then later, I’m able to look back and reflect with some clarity and say something about it. But yeah, those emotions are kind of dormant until you get enough space to be able to articulate something about it.
Thinking about carrying things forward, what relationships have grown out touring in support of your recent releases?
Playing with John Calvin Abney is one of those things for sure. I’ve played solo for such a long time, and then this year we’ve been doing a duo thing. We’ve played together before, but we didn’t get to do it often. So that’s been really cool to get to play with him on a regular basis all year. We had a friendship, but now there’s a different musical relationship that happens when you play with somebody every night for a year that we didn’t have before that we do now.
So many of your songs reference religion without being entirely focused on faith. Was religion a constant presence when you were growing up?
In a way. It was in the background, sometimes, but it was always there. There would be days when it didn’t cross my mind, but it was always in the background. And it always, sort of, will be… I don’t practice a religion now, but [it’s] something that I grew up with and that will always be a part of me. It’s always going to be in the background, and there’s a way of thinking that I learned from all that, and there’s even certain language that I learned from those experiences that is probably always going to be there. And yeah, it tends to show up in songs, even when I don’t mean for it to.
Is there anything you learned from touring in a hardcore band in high school?
Maybe. I don’t know. I was so young back then, it was just all exciting. I don’t know if I was paying enough attention to actually learn anything. It definitely was an eye-opening experience to see, at 16 or 17, so many different parts of the country and different kinds of people from different backgrounds. I remember having my eyes opened that not everybody was like me… All my friends, when I was that age, I met at school or at a hardcore show or whatever, and we were all from the same place and from a similar background. That was my first exposure to the real world.
What’s the story behind the amazing photo on the cover of Big Bad Luv?
We had an idea for the cover that involved a neon sign that said “Big Bad Luv,” and we had a neon sign made. So I asked my [Little Rock-based] friend Matt White to shoot photos of the sign, and I had this whole idea of how it was going to look. We took the sign to Little Rock and dropped it off with him, so he could shoot for a few days. And every time you would try to load it in a car, the sign would break, and we would have to take it to a neon shop to get repaired. It broke three or four times. One time he got it repaired, and the shop called him and told him it was ready to pick up, and he was on his way there to pick it up, and they called him again and told him they’d just broke it again. So we were coming up on [the] deadline, and we didn’t have any of those photos to use, and we needed something, so Matt [said] “Here are tons of my photos that I’ve taken throughout the years…” We found that one of the Monte Carlo, and when we saw it, we said, “That’s an album cover.”