Over the past few years, John Moreland has often, and somewhat unfairly, found himself pigeon-holed for penning "sad bastard music," thanks to his lightly graveled voice paired with a penchant for storytelling that's emotional, heavy, and honest. The first three records from the Tulsa, Oklahoma, singer-songwriter featured him accompanied by a raucous backing band, but more recently he's issued sparser solo affairs. His latest, May's Big Bad Luv, may not be an overt effort to change the public's perception of his work as morose, but the record might just do it anyway as a post-marriage Moreland finds himself over bright arrangements that blur the lines between folk, country, and roots rock. Fortunately, Moreland's direct lyricism—which he credits to his upbringing in punk and hardcore circles—still resonates as powerfully as ever. He caught up with us about his winding career path and getting beyond the idea that he's a permanent moper.
INDY: How did it change your approach to record Big Bad Luv with a full band rather than playing most instruments yourself?
JOHN MORELAND: Recording felt way easier, almost like we were cheating. I'm used to spending a whole day trying to build up one song, so to go into a studio with a band and just play a song once or twice and be done was really amazing. I found myself wanting to keep adding stuff and keep messing with the songs after that because it felt too easy, but it was really nice to just realize that it was done. It also just changed the feel of the record to have other players on there, playing stuff that I'm not capable of playing or that I wouldn't have thought of playing. They all have their own experiences and reference points as musicians that are coming into play without me knowing about it, so it changes the feel a lot, but I couldn't be happier with the way it turned out.
It seems like you're shifting more away from your DIY roots with the new record on 4AD. What's your rationale in that?
It's just grown to the point where I can't be the one in control of everything that I was in control of in the past. I love the DIY approach and that's what got me where I am, so that rules, but it's also a really nice luxury to just be able to focus on the music and not worry about the other stuff, which is really awesome. I've been slowly doing that over the past couple years and it was hard to relinquish that control at first, but at this point, it feels fine.
How much do you attribute what you do today to your beginnings playing hardcore and punk music?
In terms of songwriting, I think the main way I see that influence now is that I want to be really concise. I'm used to like minute-long hardcore songs, and mine may be four minutes, but that's just because they're slower. It's the same level of getting in there, making your point, and be done. I think that's that way that I can say consciously that I'm still being influenced by punk and hardcore, but I'm sure there are other ways that it influences me that I'm not even aware of. It's definitely still an influence as far as my guitar playing goes. I'm a punk rock rhythm guitarist through and through. It's really shaped my guitar playing, and when I play with people like [current touring sideman] John Calvin Abney, he's just coming from a whole different world where he learned how to play guitar in a completely different way and it's really fascinating to me.
Who are some recent songwriter discoveries that you've had?
I don't know that I've gotten into any singer-songwriters recently. In the scene that I exist in and tour in, I kind of feel like I'm drowning in Americana shit, so for the past year or so, I've been trying to listen to other stuff that I've neglected. I've been appreciating hip-hop a lot more lately, like the Kendrick Lamar album that came out this year, which is phenomenal. In the past week, I've really gotten obsessed with the Swet Shop Boys. I'm playing [Outside Lands] in San Francisco, so I was just checking out the lineup, and now I'm super into them. I've also been going back into hardcore stuff that I haven't listened to in a while and catching up on the new stuff from bands that I listened to ten or fifteen years ago, like the new Terror EP, which I like a lot.
Have you ever seen the "Cheer Up, John Moreland" Instagram account?
[Laughs] Yeah, I've seen that. I haven't looked at it in a long time so I don't really remember anything specific, but I remember a lot of cats and unicorns and rainbows. Now I'm more used to that kind of stuff and I just brush it off as funny, but when it first came out, I was like "Whoa," because nobody knew who I was, you know? So I was like, Who did this? Am I famous enough to even warrant this? It's weird and it can get kind of meta. I know it's all in fun, but at the same time, I'm like, Man, do I really seem that sad that this is the appropriate response?
Do you think having your music exposed to a larger audience will make you more hesitant to write such personal, vulnerable songs in the future?
No, I don't think so. That's kind of been the case [where the audience has grown] with every album, but I don't really think about writing music from that angle and it hasn't ever really been a factor, so I don't think that will change now. I think I'm safe from that.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Oklahoma, OK"