Interview: John Moreland Writes His Own Gospel on ‘Big Bad Luv’
"I mean, I'm in a different place in my life, I have a different perspective on things, and that comes across," Moreland tells The Boot. "I think it's an over-simplification to just say that the last album was sad and this one is happy. That doesn't really capture it."
Truth be told, though, there is something about Big Bad Luv that feels different than anything Moreland has done before.
"On the last couple of records, I played most of the instruments myself," he explains. "When you do that, you spend all day sort of building one song, from the ground up, and that takes awhile. On Big Bad Luv, I recorded with a band in the truest sense, and it almost felt like cheating. We'd play the songs once or twice, and we'd be done. It was a welcome change."
Besides who was in the studio, a major difference between Big Bad Luv and Moreland's previous works is the simple fact that the album was recorded in a studio (in Little Rock, Ark.). Moreland recorded his last couple of records himself at his home.
"I was just having so much fun in the studio, playing music with other humans," he admits. "That's something I don't get to do all that often, so that made it a really enjoyable experience. I think that kind of stuff comes through on the recording in subtle ways."
Moreland first started writing Big Bad Luv about two and a half years ago, even before his previous disc, 2015's High on Tulsa Heat, hit the streets. Needless to say, he's been ready to share it with the world for a while.
"It was written throughout a pretty transitional period of my life," Moreland says. "The tracklist is almost in chronological order of when the songs were written, documenting the transition of my life from one place to the next."
That transition found Moreland going from not having much of a career, touring by himself and being alone most of the time, to being married and touring the world with a crew that he considers family.
"I'm playing better shows and all this stuff is happening that I wasn't sure was possible for me," Moreland quips, with a clear sense of gratitude. "It's been a big change."
It's sort of like, I just start digging for something, hoping I hit something. Sometimes you dig around, and you don't find anything, but I don't remember ever holding back or censoring myself.
One thing that hasn't changed for Moreland, however, is the brutal authenticity with which he writes; that's something his fans have come to know and love over the years. Though he's only in his third decade on this planet, Moreland writes with a whiskey-soaked honesty that's experienced a hundred years.
"I don't know what I'm going to write about, and I just start writing and see where it takes me," Moreland says of his creative process. "It's sort of like, I just start digging for something, hoping I hit something. Sometimes you dig around and you don't find anything, but I don't remember ever holding back or censoring myself."
That kind of truthfulness is present on every track of all of Moreland's albums. Fans who go back through his catalog — even back to his more rock 'n' roll days with the Dust Bowl Souls or the Black Gold Band — will get the sense that Moreland isn't just writing songs -- he's writing his own personal gospel. And whether he's writing about guilt, addiction, glory, hell or heaven, that gospel is often tinged with one that precedes him by a few thousand years.
"I grew up in the church. Up until I was about 16 or 17 years old, I was involved in that kind of late-'90s, early-'00s evangelical Christian movement, or whatever you want to call it," Moreland explains. "I've definitely heard some horror stories from other people that I know who grew up in that same kind of environment, but I never had anything horrific happen to me; I'm not rebelling from anything. But I think that to take a 5-year-old and instill this sense of right and wrong and all these values, but also this sense of guilt and the idea of hell ... well, it is sort of traumatic in and of itself."
Moreland says that he was easily influenced as a kid, trying to do the right thing and make his parents happy. Though he still wants to make his parents happy, he admits that he isn't as concerned with that sort of thing, especially at the cost of his own life.
"I have to process that kind of stuff and where I stand on that now as an adult," Moreland confides. "I'm always trying to figure out those experiences as I'm looking at that world from the outside. I don't feel particularly conflicted about it anymore, but I think that stuff still comes through in my songs -- even just the language, you know? Referencing hell and the devil and heaven and glory, even if it's a metaphor, I imagine I'm using those words to create metaphors because I grew up with this religious language. There's something that those words represent to me, and that helps me make the 'feel' of the songs."
I just like listening to records, and that's always been important to me, and because of that, I've always tried to make sure my albums are released on vinyl.
Even more influential than his time in the church as a kid was the music that Moreland surrounded himself with, and how he chose to listen to that music.
"When I was 14 years old, I got some of my first punk rock 7-inches, and my dad had his old turntable up in the attic that I got out and got running and I put it in my room," he recalls. "I've always collected records, and punk labels never stopped pressing vinyl, even when everything went to CDs. I just like listening to records, and that's always been important to me, and because of that, I've always tried to make sure my albums are released on vinyl."
As fans keep spinning Big Bad Luv, they'll no doubt be excited to know that Moreland is already thinking about his next effort that'll end up in their stacks of vinyl.
"I've written maybe three of four songs," Moreland admits. "I'm not sure if any of them will end up making the cut, but I'm in the beginning stages. I've learned not to rest on my laurels, you know? The instinct is to put out an album, and then you feel like you can just chill a little bit. But that next album sneaks up on you."
That isn't just advice that Moreland has received over the years — he's learned it from personal experience: "High on Tulsa Heat -- I don't have any regrets about it, and I'm really happy about how the album turned out, but those 10 songs on there are the only 10 songs I had," Moreland confesses. "It just snuck up on me."
Just as he started writing Big Bad Luv before High on Tulsa Heat was released, Moreland has every intention of not letting his next album sneak up on him either.
"I have no idea what I'm going to do next," Moreland says, "but I am starting to try to figure it out."
There is one thing fans can count on, though: A staggering personal touch will always be present in the gospel of John Moreland.
"I think I'm doing the same thing I've always done," Moreland says. "All my songs are kind of a struggle to write, but what I've always done is make music that is real and true to my life at that moment, that resonates with me at that moment."
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