by: Thomas D. Mooney
A few weeks back, we caught up with singer-songwriter John Moreland to discuss his latest album, the critically acclaimed High on Tulsa Heat, songwriting perspective, and his ever-evolving songwriting process. Moreland is part of new wave of Oklahoma songwriters who are making waves for their tender, heartfelt songs filled with sparse, yet rich arrangements and clever and honest lyrics.
Moreland’s High On Tulsa Heat is a testament to that notion. He picks right up where In The Throes left off and expands sonically while focusing even further on the subject of home–what is, where is, and who is home. He brings out stark and clear imagery sparked by just a handful of words with the best of them. The ten tracks he shares on Tulsa Heat are intimate compositions that feel as though he is singing directly to us, even when they’re meant for himself and others.
Moreland will be joining fellow American country-folk singer-songwriter BJ Barham of American Aquarium tonight at The Blue Light for a night of acoustic balladry and intimate storytelling. As of now, presale tickets are still available here.
Watch/Listen to “Cherokee” below.
New Slang: You released High on Tulsa Heat earlier this year. I guess one of the major differences between this and your previous two solo albums was just the anticipation of you releasing a new album after In The Throes. I don’t know if you’d classify In The Throes as coming out of no where, but it certainly did make some waves. This time around, there wasn’t much sneaking up on folks. People were expecting you to make a great follow-up. Did any of that pressure creep up on you while writing or making the album–or did you just try your best to block all of that out?
John Moreland: I tried to block it all out and just make music. I don’t know if it’s possible to do that 100% though. It might have had some influence on the record, but the goal, it was just to make a record that I was happy with.
NS: Tulsa Heat is a little more filled out than In The Throes was. The arrangements are a little more bare on your previous. There’s a little more varied instrumentation this time around. Was that something you knew going in that you wanted to expand on or was it something that just organically happened once you guys started actually recording?
JM: It kind of happened naturally. I wasn’t specifically thinking that I wanted more band or rocking stuff. The only thing I had in mind when we started was I didn’t want to stray super far from In The Throes, but also didn’t want to make the exact same record again. I wasn’t sure how that would look, but it’s what I wanted. I think we achieved that. I’m happy where we landed.
NS: Yeah. There wasn’t a 180 degree turn with these songs as far as instrumentation goes. There’s nice subtleties within each song. For you, what’s your favorite small or subtle part on the album?
JM: I really like the way “Losing Sleep Tonight” turned out. It’s one of the bigger songs with drums and stuff, but like you said, it isn’t over the top. It still feels like it has this slow burn to it. Most of the album, it was like it happened on accident. A lot of the stuff, it was spur of the moment. A lot of “Let’s try this” moments. There wasn’t a whole lot of prior planning involved. Like dobro on it, we never talked about having dobro on the album, but our buddy who plays dobro, he came over to let us borrow some microphones and we got him to play on a few songs. That’s kind of a good representation on how the entire record was made. Off the cuff and making a record with buddies.
NS: As a lyricist, you’re a proponent of self-editing and necessary revising. It’s the craftsmen take on songwriting. It shows when you hear the final version of a song. On High on Tulsa Heat, what song took the longest journey?
JM: “Heart’s Too Heavy” was one that went through several different incarnations before it ended up being what it is. I know “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars,” that one was. I was staying in Nashville and started writing some of those words and the music was way different. It took coming back to it repeatedly for several months to figure out what the melody and chords would be to make it all work together. Some of them–I mean the lyrics were edited a lot–but musically, songs like “Cherokee” and “American Flags in Black & White,” those pretty much started out in the form they appear on the record. But “Hearts Too Heavy” and “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars, ” those definitely took a long time–they took a lot of chipping a way.
NS: I was speaking with another great songwriter a few months back, Ryan Culwell. One of the things that he said that really struck me was that in a lot of his songs, he’s looking for a place to rest. There’s looking for a sense of ease–peace at mind. You’re always kind of looking for that in a way in life. When listening to you, I feel there’s that search as well. Is that something you’ve thought about when writing your songs?
JM: Yeah. I think there is. I don’t think I’ve consciously thought of that or in those words, but that is true. I’ve always said that I write songs to feel less restless. When I finish a song and I feel less restless, I come away feeling like I did something good. I think it’s just another way to say it. I think it’s true.
NS: Less restless. That’s another great way to put it. A lot, if not all, are from that first-person perspective. Have you toyed around with writing from third-person or anything else?
JM: I don’t know, man. Not off the top of my head. They’re usually something that starts from my own experiences. But even if I did that–I’ve always felt weird telling a story about different people in the third-person. I feel like it’s not for me–at least right now at this moment. Who knows what I’ll end up doing in the future. But when I’ve tried in the past, it always felt there’s less sincerity. For me, it feels more honest when I’m telling it. It’s just one of those things, figuring out what you’re good at and what works best for you. For example, I’ve not really written any political songs either. There’s a lot of political songs other people have written that I think are great and wish I could do it. I’ve tried, but it’s just not my thing.
NS: One of the interesting things I saw you say about this album was that this was, more or less, about home. It was about Tulsa. I guess why it was a little surprising was because I’d always thought of your songs as about home. I guess, for you, what is it that really makes the distinction between the High on Tulsa Heat and other songs?
JM: Yeah, there is one. I get what you’re saying and why you would think that. There definitely is images and references to Oklahoma on the past records, but I think this one is more directly about the idea of home–where home isn’t tied to geographical boundaries necessarily, but the question of what is, where is, and who is home. I feel there’s more a search for a sense of belonging. That’s always been present in my songs, but High on Tulsa Heat, I think it was more at the forefront.
NS: What’s your favorite phrase or line on this album?
JM: I like on “Heart’s Too Heavy” the line “What if faith is just a false god’s verse?” Not that it’s some mind-blowing shit or anything, but where it fits in the song, it feels cool every time I sing it.
NS: One of the things about your writing–I’m not the first to point this out–is how you’re able to create a vivid image, often with just a few words. Even just the song titles on this album are like that. “American Flags in Black & White” for example. You’re not overly creating the image though. You’re letting people fill in the spaces. Do you think as you’ve grown as a songwriter, you’ve become less wordy?
JM: I think so. I think maybe I’m getting less wordy and use less chords. One thing I’ve thought about is this. You know when you’re listening to a song and there will be this one big grand line that just really punches you in the chest? You’re like “Whoa!” I feel like the stuff that does that to me is becoming increasingly more simple. Instead of some heady or complicated thing, it’s something real simple. I was listening to that Lucinda Williams record the other day, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. That “Metal Firecracker” song, the chorus is “All I ask, don’t tell anybody the secrets I told you” and it just hit me in a way I hadn’t felt before. It’s so good. It’s a simple line, but I’d have never thought of that. I really hope that’s where I’m moving as a songwriter as I’m getting older. Simple, but good.