Oklahoma’s John Moreland has steadily been carving a name for himself over the past few years, wowing the critics and mesmerising his audiences with maximum impact. This Friday sees the release of his fifth long player, LP5, and arguably his finest work yet. I had a frank and open chat with him about John Moreland – the man, the music and the mindfulness.
God Is In The TV: A lot of the songs here seem to have been informed by the mindfulness sessions you’ve been taking part in of late. Now, you’re a successful artist, critically acclaimed with an ever-growing fanbase, and you’ve seen several of your songs featured in the hugely popular TV show Sons Of Anarchy. Why exactly did you find yourself feeling the need to embrace mindfulness?
John Moreland: Oh, um, well, just really, I kinda wasn’t enjoying my career very much. I wasn’t enjoying touring, and I was in a place where I didn’t really wanna write songs, or even feel creative. I guess I just wasn’t very happy because of that stuff. The mindfulness, it’s still a process, like, particularly with the touring thing, when you’re going from, like, music being your hobby and your passion, to then becoming your job, it’s kind of a tough transition – or at least it has been for me – and just kinda finding that balance of “How do I do this now?” and not let the fact that it’s now my job let me start to slowly hate it, you know? So yeah, that’s still a process that’s ongoing. But just to make an album like this was very recreatively satisfying, you know? So that went a long way to helping me like it again.
I saw you supporting Jason Isbell at the O2 forum a few years back, and I’ve never seen a performer armed with just an acoustic guitar manage to captivate an audience like you did. I’ve seen people try, but by and large they just get increasingly frustrated by the constant barrage of chatter from the crowd. When you played though, you could hear a pin drop. So what IS this magic you possess?
JM: (chuckles) Oh I don’t know, man! I just go up there and try to play the songs the best I can, you know? I don’t think it would do me any good to try to, like, analyse it any further than that, you know? But yeah, I know what you’re talkin’ about, and I feel real grateful that I get to play to really great, attentive audiences a lot, and that’s really a privilege.
You normally produce your own albums, but this time you brought in Matt Pence. In what way did he shape the record and get the best out of you?
JM: Well, you know, at first, I figured I would still produce it, kind of, and I just wanted to go to a really good studio and work with a really good engineer. So I knew that Matt would fit that bill perfectly, and then once we got there, I think we just quickly realised that we were really on the same page, so things just started coming together…and Matt was really great at taking ideas that I had and then just sort of expanding them, or sorta like, bringing them up to the next level. It just became clear within the first few days that HE’S the producer, so we just went with that.
‘When My Fever Breaks‘ is a beautiful love song to your wife. Now I know from experience that there’s a fine line between ‘dreamy and romantic’ and ‘twee and saccharine’, so how do you write something like that without falling into the latter category?
JM: Well, it’s the only time I’ve ever done it, you know, and it took…I think I started that one about three to four years ago…it’s just one of those things that took time to, uh, become clear to me, you know? I mean, I didn’t write stuff that I erased from it or went back on – I just kinda would write a few lines and then would reach a kinda lull on it where it was just like “Well, I don’t really know where to go with this now“, so I would just leave it alone for a while then go back to it. So yeah, there was about a three year period between starting and finishing it!
That kind of ties in with the PR blurb, where it says you went through a difficult spell where you felt like you HAD to write something great, and if you didn’t, it stressed you out. How did you get round that?
JM: Really I just started to try to give myself the freedom to, like…I’ve got my little home studio and I just started to go in there every day and make it a point to mess around with an instrument but NOT write a song – maybe just play around with a new piece of gear that I’d got, or a new pedal or new guitar tuning, but not worry about writing something. Like, I’m just gonna fuck around. Once I gave myself the freedom to do that, and not have this pressure to do something great, but just to have fun with it, then it just started to come naturally.
I’m sure you’ve heard this a thousand times, but ‘Harder Dreams‘, which opens the album, really puts me in mind of my favourite Springsteen album, Nebraska, albeit less bleak. It feels to me like someone trying to find the positives in a difficult world. Am I anywhere near?
JM: I think so, yeah, I mean, I’ve been asked about that song a few times, and it’s one of those that, I don’t really know WHAT it’s about, it’s just one that spilled out and felt good, so, you know, I just went with it. But I think that’s the best guess that I can come up with too, what you said about it, trying to find the positives in a brutal world.
Do you write primarily for yourself, or is there part of you that tries to cater for your fanbase?
JM: Oh no man, I just write for myself. I think it would be a waste of time to try to predict what other people are gonna relate to, or feel, you know? So I think the best thing I can do is just to make music that feels good to ME, and just hope that other people like it too!
People sat up and took notice of you more after your last album, Big Bad Luv. Would you say that record opened many doors for you?
JM: I don’t know, I mean, um, that’s hard to say, man! It’s just like, when you’re in the middle if it, you have to just have your head down, and you’re just ‘doin’ it’, you know, you’re just doing the tours and playing the shows and…I haven’t ever really tried to gauge where I’m at…
You just go with it?
JM: Yeah! I’m sorry if that’s a disappointing answer! (chuckles)
Not at all. Are you starting to enjoy touring more now though?
JM: I do, yeah. I just found if you start doing things other people want you to do, and the way you think is, like, ‘normal’ for the music industry…well, I sorta realised that “I gotta do this MY way, otherwise I’m gonna be miserable,” So I’m kinda getting back to that now, and yeah, it’s been better.
..,because you were/are one of the hardest working artists out there, adopting very much a DIY approach before. Has that been difficult to maintain?
JM: Yeah, that’s kinda what I’m talkin’ about. You know, you get the van, the trailer and a band, and you think, “OK! Let’s move on to a tour bus!” and there’s all this pressure, and then I got to this point where I thought, “I don’t actually GIVE a fuck about any of that. Why am I being so hard on myself over it?” So you end up going back to basics. When I REALLY enjoyed doing this, it was when it WAS a totally DIY thing and I was just driving around, playing shows, you know? So yeah, it’s bigger now, and I don’t know if it’s possible to do it like I did five, six years ago, but I am trying to kind of, like, bring back pieces of that in whatever ways I can, to make it feel more comfortable.
Well I hope you can do that, and LP5 closes with ‘Let Me Be Understood‘, which, similarly, seems defiantly positive to me when you listen to the lyrics. Obviously a lot of folk are concerned for the future, given the current political climate, so, where do you get your optimism from?
JM: Man, I don’t know, I just think that, like, maybe it’s not warranted, but I’ve ALWAYS had that hope. I always feel like shit is moving forwards..,oh man, I don’t know if I even wanna SAY that, while Donald Trump is the president! I CAN’T say (adopts dumb voice) “Shit’s getting better!” because no, it’s not! But I do think humanity is always moving towards getting better, at least.
So, if you could pick a career highlight to date, just to finish off?
JM: I think LP5 is the highlight for me so far! It’s my favourite album I’ve made and, you know, touring is touring, but making albums is really…it’s always been my favourite thing and it’s what draws me to do this, you know, so yeah, I’m really proud of this one.
And so he should be. It really is a tremendous record, which ought to make the end of year top ten of any self respecting music fan in my own humble view. But don’t just take my word for out. Check out the videos here and if you like that, you have but a few days to wait until the album’s official release. Win win.