Back in 2016, when Oklahoma singer-songwriter John Moreland headlined the Sing Out Loud Festival Stetson Kennedy Showcase, Folio Weekly celebrated his “stark, severe and isolated” songs like “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” and “Sad Baptist Rain.” Two short years later, Moreland has completed a significant shift: He’s happily married, highlighting domestic bliss on his boisterous 2017 album Big Bad Luv. Recording with a full band for the first time in his career, Big Bad Luv was released by taste-making English label 4AD Records, which has never signed a heartland Americana artist like Moreland. As he sings in his evocative trademark baritone on standout Big Bad Luv track “Slow Down Easy,” “I’ve been hauling a heavy soul.” It finally feels like he might be letting some of that sorrow go in favor of the mainstream success he knew he deserved but never demanded. None other than GQ recently named Moreland “the new face of folk-rock.”
Folio Weekly: These last two years have really seen a shift in the perception of you as an artist. Instead of highlighting your “sad bastard” status, GQ, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker are singing your praises. Do those accolades feel natural?
John Moreland: I don’t really think about it much. I’m afraid it’ll make me weird or trip me up. It’s better to just keep my head down and keep working. All the marketing and PR has been a help, though it’s hard to pinpoint what makes, say, the shows get gradually bigger. In that sense, I think word-of-mouth is still important.
Big Bad Luv was recorded with a full band, a first for you. Does that affect how you perform songs from the album on the road?
There are definitely songs off Big Bad Luv that I couldn’t play without a full band. Last year, I toured as a duo with John Calvin Abney, and him playing electric guitar, harmonica and piano helped open us up to do more of the rock ’n’ roll stuff. But there were still songs that, without drums, were not doable. Now we get to do those now, with Abney on guitar and piano, Aaron Boehler on bass and Andrew Bones on drums. They’ll all be with me in Florida, but I’ll still perform a solo acoustic portion of the set.
When we interviewed you in early 2016, you talked about shying away from politics. Do you feel the same about it now in 2018?
I feel like I’m reeling like everybody else. Like, what’s going to happen next, every single day. It’s really taxing. You try to be like, “Fuck Donald Trump, I’m still going to do my thing and not let the bullshit get me down.” But that’s white privilege. It’s starting to wear on me. This shit’s so intense, how can you not talk about it? I’d like to address that in my art. I’m just figuring out how to do that—or if I even can do that, without sounding like a dickhead. I don’t feel like everybody is necessarily meant to make political art.
There’s always the worry that, if you do talk about politics, it might not go over so well in a place like Florida.
Florida’s pretty punk. No Idea Records, Against Me! ... that’s what comes to mind when I think of Florida. I see a lot of that influence at my shows; I get more of a punk-rock crowd when I’m down there. Rumbleseat, Chuck Ragan’s band [formed in the late ’90s], came way before country-punk was a trend at all.
Have you been writing new material since Big Bad Luv dropped? If so, has your writing process changed significantly?
It has for sure. It’s never been a thing where every song gets written the same way. I’m open to whatever gets results. I used to just grab an acoustic guitar, write a rhythm part and some lyrics, and that was the song. That was primary method for so long that now it feels super-boring. [Laughs.] It had to change. Nobody wants to stay the same forever. Now, I couldn’t write another acoustic folk song to save my life. So I’ve been writing full-band electric demos: a guitar part, then drums and bass, then more guitars, then some piano. That way, I can see what the song is before I write lyrics for it.
Are those lyrics still as personal as they were on early albums like Into the Throes and High on Tulsa Heat? Is songwriting still as cathartic as it once was?
I don’t know if it’s as necessary as it used to be. I definitely go longer stretches without writing these days, and that feels fine—I don’t worry about it. It’s still the way I sort out my shit, but maybe I don’t have as much shit to sort out as I used to.