This Land is Moreland’s
for The Oklahoman / NewsOK / LOOKatOKC
“This is a record about home. Whatever that is.”
The dedication in the liner notes of Tulsa songwriter John Moreland’s new album is a fitting introduction. “High on Tulsa Heat” was mostly recorded on a whim in a few days in July 2014 at Moreland’s parents’ Bixby home, while they were on vacation.
Produced by Moreland, with engineering and instrumental assistance from fellow Tulsans John Calvin Abney and Jared Tyler, the record is filled with pop rock, Petty-esque gems cut with plaintive ballads, ruminations on being lovesick, loneliness and, above all, the idea of home.
The concept of home is something he’s explored before, a bit more subtly. A line in “Your Spell,” from 2013’s “In the Throes,” lilts, “We knew emptiness like a panhandle road.” And then there’s the title track from 2008’s “Endless Oklahoma Sky,” a line repeated on “Tulsa Heat’s” “Cleveland County Blues.”
“It gets weird after a while. You can’t do that forever, and I need some balance,” Moreland said. “But I’ve been off for a while, and even just driving to SXSW (in Austin, Texas, in March) felt really good. Just getting out of town and driving down the highway, listening to ‘Exile on Main Street.’”
Upon the release of “High on Tulsa Heat” Tuesday, Moreland will once again pack up for sometimes-greener pastures, with tour dates booked nationwide through the summer. And when he does, crowds can expect the same gravity, the same pin-drop silence that has marked many of Moreland’s recent performances.
“I think I want the words to be the focus,” Moreland said. “I don’t think I’m a very good guitar player; I can’t do anything flashy to grab people’s attention. I would rather the words do that.”
Moreland isn’t a traditional front man and doesn’t seem terribly interested in putting on a show. Instead, he’s a heartbreaker of a different color, possessed of the gift of articulation — whittling the weight of despair, lost love or homesickness into a few choice words.
“I write a ton and then figure out what doesn’t need to be there,” Moreland said. “I just take stuff out until I feel like it’s simple enough.”
The resulting sadness is pointed, palpable — and the assumption is often that all the sadness is his, and that the sadness is all he is. With lines like “I guess I got a taste for poison / I’ve given up on ever being well” from “Tulsa Heat” track “Cherokee,” it’s easy to see why his songs, as Moreland would say, bum people out.
But, as he’ll tell you himself, he’s not really that sad.
“Somebody started a ‘Cheer Up John Moreland’ Instagram account,” Moreland said. “And I think it’s funny, but it’s also like … man, I’m not really that sad. I don’t know what you think I’m like. That happens a lot.”
His friends know this about him, and many of their additions to the record — namely Abney’s late-night synthesizer riffs on “High on Tulsa Heat,” and Kierston White’s whiskey-laden background vocals on “Heart’s Too Heavy” — lift the record’s spirits in unexpected ways.
Hitting his stride
In tandem with this misapprehension about him being a bummer, Moreland agrees that in “real life,” he’s generally a private person. He also recognizes that this makes his career, his art, seem a bit counterintuitive.
“Being a songwriter is weird. You have to be introspective and maybe even self-loathing enough to write the songs, but then you have to be audacious enough to think that the songs you wrote are worth people’s attention,” Moreland said. “And people have asked me if it’s weird to sing this stuff in front of people, but it doesn’t feel weird. This is only context where I could say this stuff.”
He’s made a lifelong commitment to the outlet, though, with his earlier Tulsa bands rooted in hard-core and punk rock because of the same lyrical honesty. Moreland said, when I interviewed him in 2009 with his Black Gold Band, that he got into punk rock because of the “straight-ahead, good songs with no gimmicks,” where the words mean something.
Despite his earlier stabs at this style of song, it wasn’t until 2011’s “Earthbound Blues” that he feels he hit his stride.
“When I was writing for ‘Earthbound Blues,’ there was a moment where I knew I actively wanted to get better, and I was writing with that in mind,” Moreland said. “Everything I wrote before that, there’s a lot that makes me cringe, but nothing really since then. I’ve kept in mind that I want to be able to be proud of these songs down the road.”
What lies ahead is the release of “High on Tulsa Heat,” where Moreland for the first time finds himself with a marketing team (Nashville’s acclaimed Thirty Tigers) and a booking agent, the latter a luxury he’s only enjoyed for a few weeks.
In that same 2009 interview, Moreland discussed the difficulty of booking after crossing over from punk rock into Americana — that, at first, people weren’t ready to buy in, forcing him to work all the harder to find his market with later records.
Having a team behind him, despite his success so far, is relatively new to Moreland, and while he’s learning to hand control over to people who are working in his interests, he hasn’t lost sight of the work he’s put in so far.
“I’m thankful that I came from this musical background where you learn how to do stuff with extremely limited resources. You do everything yourself that you possibly can. You don’t wait for a break; you just do it,” Moreland said. “I wouldn’t have a career if I hadn’t known how to do that. There was nobody on my team making calls or pulling strings for me for a really long time.”
Moreland wasn’t waiting for a break, but it appears that break may have finally come anyway, and the road ahead looks promising. And in the near future, he’ll be on that road constantly, likely earning plenty of fodder for future songs.
As he sings on “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars”: “I know this life will leave you cold and drive you mad / make you homesick for a home you never had.”
But after all the exploration, the heartache, the leaving and returning, Moreland seems poised to forever hang his hat in Tulsa.
“I think if you’re going to make a living going to strange and unfamiliar places,” Moreland said, “then it’s probably good to come back to the most familiar place on Earth. Tulsa’s just home.”