For music fans rooted in the independent Americana music scene, singer-songwriter John Moreland continues to balance “bummer tunes” and staying clear of soul-sucking jobs by gaining national acclaim.
One large man in a baseball cap, backlit and strapped with an acoustic guitar, pours his heart out in a gravelly, soulful roar and leaves a studio audience in silent awe. That’s the impression left on a national audience when John Moreland made his national television debut Feb. 1, 2016, on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
Moreland’s performance that night held a television audience (not to mention the live, studio audience) in rapt attention and asking themselves: who is this guy?
The song he performed, “Break My Heart Sweetly,” wasn’t even featured on the album he was currently touring in support of (Big Bad Luv), instead appearing on his prior independent album, In the Throes.
That very well may have been a turning point toward bigger things for Moreland, and a moment in time that the media and publicists continue to focus on. For Tulsa natives and music fans rooted in the independent Americana music scene, however, it was just another performance in a long stream of soul searching performances that Moreland’s fans have come to know and expect. Ask anyone in Tulsa who follows local music, and they will probably tell you it was not a matter of if, but when Moreland would break through and find a larger, national audience.
How much of a change may depend on how far back you can recall his career. There are a handful of people who remember Moreland in his youth and time spent in the hardcore band Thirty Called Arson. Most are more likely to look back to the Black Gold Band and the Endless Oklahoma Sky album that won over local critics and music fans alike in 2008. At the time, Jay Pitts, who was a DJ at Z104.5 The Edge (now at KATT in Oklahoma City) unabashedly touted Moreland as Oklahoma’s version of Bruce Springsteen. Giving that album a fresh listen, that’s not a bad call, although it was probably more The River-era Springsteen with a hint of Nebraska.
By the time Moreland released Everything the Hard Way with the Dustbowl Souls in 2011, he was really finding his voice as a songwriter. But the band found him balancing somewhere between Springsteen and Social Distortion. For many, Earthbound Blues (released later in 2011) signaled his transition into a comfort zone as a singer-songwriter. A bit more intimate and bluesy, it stood many listeners on their ear. By the time In the Throes arrived in 2013, many Tulsa listeners were straight up disciples. The way he wrote songs and approached his craft never really changed, but merely stepped up to the next level with 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat, distributed through Thirty Tigers, and his finally signing with 4AD records for 2017’s Big Bad Luv.
“It was really just a logistical necessity,” says Moreland when discussing what led him to finally sign with a label. “Back in the day, it was really cool and I liked doing the independent thing. I liked doing it all myself. I took orders and shipped the product out, but as I toured more, it got harder. There were just more things involved.
“Now I’m at a label with sync licensing, which can handle requests for commercials and TV placement. When I got a manager and went to Thirty Tigers, it was like a ramped-up version of the independent thing. They take care of distribution and getting your record out and give you a little budget for a publicist, but the rest is on you. Going to a label like 4AD gives me more time for the music. Now, I’m touring so much it’s hard enough to manage my time to get to the shows and write songs. I was really lucky to find people that I can trust and who believe in what I’m doing.”
On Big Bad Luv, many critics took note of a change in tone. Although Moreland has joked in the press about getting away from being known for writing “bummer tunes,” it’s not a far cry from the rest of his catalog.
“It’s probably somewhere in between. It was a little bit of a conscious decision on my part, because I feel this record kind of documented a transitional period in my life,” he says in regards to the perceived change in tone. “When I started writing, I was in one place and when it ended, I was in a different place. When I started, I was still writing about the past, but it wasn’t really resonating with me, and I really struggled with it.
“I think ‘It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)’ was the first time I acknowledged that transition, and I felt like this is what I need to be doing. After that, it was a semi-conscious effort to follow that path.”
The critical acclaim for his past two albums, not to mention the exposure from that Colbert appearance, has ramped up the process, seeing Moreland tour extensively across the country — both playing club gigs himself and opening for artists like Jason Isbell, as well as traveling to Europe.
“I’m still just approaching it [touring] like I always have. I do it because I like it. I never had any set goals like ‘I want to be at this point in three years.’ I just wanted to play music and not have a soul-sucking job,” he says. “I never thought anything of playing clubs or sleeping on people’s floors.”
As Moreland has continued to grow as an artist, he’s starting to transition back to playing with other musicians. After a few years of playing solo shows, he’s also currently transitioning toward a band format again.
“I really started playing solo out of necessity,” Moreland says. “I wanted to play with a band, but I was still writing songs and people kept giving me these opportunities, and I ended up really liking it.
“When you’re with a band, people experience things in a different way. It’s like this big noise and sometimes it can cover up the subtlety in a song, so it was cool to play solo and have people come up to me after and comment, ‘I really like that one line…’ I appreciated that, because I really pay attention to the words and may have struggled with getting that line right.”
After spending much of the year on the road, Moreland returns to Tulsa Dec. 1 for a show at Cain’s Ballroom in what should be something special for all in attendance.
“Being on tour so much, I still live in Tulsa, but I just don’t get to play here very often anymore, so it will be something special for me,” he says. “As far as bookings go, it’s just another tour date, but I only get to play Tulsa once or twice a year now, so I’m looking forward to being home and playing this one.”
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