From Woody Guthrie through Jimmy Webb, the state of Oklahoma has provided American music with an impressive roster of influential songwriters. Add 29-year-old singer/songwriter John Moreland to this list.
On this morning, Moreland is recovering from what he recalls was a rough night out cheering on some musician friends at the local club. The songwriter speaks with a frankness that mirrors his spare lyrical approach as he speculates that the wealth of Oklahoma songwriters could be partly due to its geography. “Maybe that songwriting tradition from Texas bleeds up to Oklahoma. There is this generation of people now in their 20s that are looking back to guys like Bob Childers and the Red Dirt Rangers and Jimmy LaFave who were doing it in the ‘80s. There has always been this Oklahoma-Austin connection.”
Prior to his acoustic career Moreland played in hardcore bands and became a songwriter by default. “Everything in that genre is so riff based that it takes a guitar player to come up with it. There’s not a lot of melody vocally.” Language, he says, is what made him change his focus. “The way a song can hit you if you understand what’s being said. Not that there’s no validity to just screaming things at people, but a song can have a different kind of emotional impact if it has a melody.”
In his songs, Moreland draws a sharp bead on people, places and small towns. “There’s something about tying music together with geography. I remember talking to my sister when I was a teenager about punk rock, these bands and where they were from. She said, ‘It’s really weird that you know where every band is from.’ I don’t think most people care. It’s always been interesting to me.”
Three of Moreland’s songs were utilized to add musical atmosphere to the FX biker drama Sons of Anarchy. He acknowledges that because his lyrics are so specific, this makes them difficult to pair with the visual medium. “I always figured I would have a hard time getting on TV for that reason, but Sons of Anarchy is the only show that has shown interest, so maybe I was right. I was just glad they would have anything to do with me.”
Moreland is set to release his latest full-length project, High On Tulsa Heat, on the indie Thirty Tigers. The project was recorded in his parents’ house. “They were going out of town for a couple of weeks. I called a couple of buddies and said, ‘Let’s go up to Tulsa and record.’ They have this real big living room where we did the drums; the main thing was I couldn’t record in my house in Norman because I’m pretty sure my neighbors would have called the cops. It was done on a day’s notice; a record made on a whim.” For audio quality control, Moreland prefers to listen in the car. “When I’m mixing, that’s my gold standard test because the car stereo test is extremely average.”
If Moreland’s recording process seems slapdash, his songwriting is anything but. He adheres to the process of an extensive rewriting regime, sanding down his lyrics to their essential core. “I will generally write a whole lot, then edit what I want to take out. And I’m usually left with lyrics that I like.” Leaving a song open to interpretation, even by its creator, Moreland continues, is an indispensable part of his songwriting awareness. “I don’t want to limit people’s perceptions. I don’t know enough of what it’s about to be specific. The goal is to channel something from your subconscious. Maybe after I play a song 100 times, then I will know what it means."
The modest songsmith reaps effusive praise from Americana journals and media pundits. His live shows attract a multi-generational following and he tours regularly. Although his latest collection reveals the deepest issues of life, love, home and heart, he maintains humble aspirations. “I just want keep doing what I’m doing. I’m still in disbelief that I get to make up songs and play music and not have a really shitty job that I hate.”
Contact Donica Christensen, All Eyes Media, LLC
By Dan Kimpel