"I don't purposefully go against the grain," says Kip Moore, seated in a Nashville conference room in a Dakine hat and a little more scruff than his usual five o'clock shadow, looking up after a long and heavy pause. It's something he tends to do a lot over the course of a conversation when things turn more personal — it's not that he's hesitating; he's just taking a moment to make sure he articulates himself just as he likes. "A lot of times, my team gets frustrated because they think I am trying to buck. I'm not trying to buck. I just see things in a different way."
It's not always easy, in today's country climate, to follow an alternative point of view. The Georgia-born Moore would know, after the entire follow-up to his now gold debut LP Up All Night was shelved when its lead single didn't make an impression on radio. It was an experience that spiraled the singer into a period of depression, but also birthed the excellent, emotionally charged Wild Ones. Since the album was released in August, it's scored heaps of critical praise, reinforced his near cultish fanbase and allowed him to extend his headlining tour as far as Australia, where he'll play a series of dates Down Under beginning this weekend.
But there are things it hasn't yielded, too, like a Number One single, massive record sales (it's moved around 75k so far) or nominations at the CMAs, ACMs or Grammys — and one could make a case that the often introspective, Nineties-glossed Wild Ones deserved to float in the same category as albums like Kacey Musgraves' Pageant Material. Or that his powerful, raspy howl warranted a best vocalist nod. But Moore passed through awards season largely unrecognized, something he'll only really talk about with more of those weighted pauses than words.
"On this one, I probably need to hold my tongue," he says after several seconds of silence. "All I can control is my art. I didn't get into this to win awards. I got into this because I love to write and play music. But I'd be lying if I didn't say that any artist, when they are putting their heart into something, they want people to appreciate their work. So, you know, it is what it is. That's my answer."
While it's true that country radio and awards shows have both become somewhat friendlier to those who roam away from pop or bro-country (Chris Stapleton, case in point), it has also created a strange gray area for people like Moore. Stapleton and Musgraves have both benefited from the ability to balance indie-cred with mainstream appeal — they're "cool country," so to speak, and along with Sturgill Simpson, have been able to resurrect a modern spin on that pure, vintage twang lost in the Auto-Tune, party-song clouds. Moore doesn't quite fit there, but he's not your typical leading man of the genre, either — compared to Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, Moore is borderline emo, singing, perhaps, with far more visceral passion in his voice than many radio programmers might be comfortable. Moore's no hipster poster boy, but he's certainly evolved away from anything "bro," and it's made for a difficult ride.
"I try to be authentic in everything I do, because I never want to put on another hat," he says. "And it bites me in the ass sometimes. People will say, 'If you do a collaboration with this pop or R&B act, you'll get to play on this show.' No. It's not like I dislike what that other artist does, it just doesn't fit with what I do. I don't want to go up there and do some song and dance and play some character just to get a couple million people to see me on TV. I'll just do it the hard way. "
"I'm the guy playing the songs, but we all face the same internal battles."
Though some of this has made airplay a struggle (though, for the record, Moore is very diplomatic on the topic of radio), it hasn't posed a problem when it comes to touring. His Wild Ones run sold out consistently, creating so much demand in Europe that he had to upsize his venues, and he managed to lead a 20,000-capacity crowd at London's O2 Arena, part of 2015's C2C: Country to Country Festival, through a sing-along of "Don't Look Back in Anger." But the 1996 Oasis hit isn't the only song crowds chant along with. Moore was surprised when fans both home and abroad seemed to know every single lyric of Wild Ones, album tracks and all — and the fact Moore wrote or co-wrote the entire album seemed to propel the obsession even more.
"When people would come up to me in bars, they were always talking about my lyrics," he says of his experience in England, where the fans seemed to tap into his confessional side. "I thought it was very interesting that over there, they really made a connection with the passion and the lyrics. They'd start talking to me about them and telling me what they think they meant. They appreciated the singer-songwriter side of things."
Though there's a lot of big-show, arena-rock presentation in Moore's stage presence and on Wild Ones, at his core he considers himself to be that very singer-songwriter. His newest single "Running for You" is a vulnerable power ballad, happy to confess his romantic weaknesses, and he's been open about that depression — a tactic that might be status quo for, say, Conor Oberst, but it's not exactly something recommended to project a country-star machismo.
"No, I haven't been shy in opening up about the depression I fell into between Up All Night and Wild Ones," he says, "where I would keep myself locked up for a couple days just writing music and couldn't sleep. I'm the guy playing the songs, but we all face the same internal battles. I realized through the conversations fans have had with me about songs like 'Complicated,' saying they had divorce papers ready but that song kept their marriage together — you realized the power of what you're doing."
So for now, he's focused on the road and reaching those fans, joining Miranda Lambert's Keeper of the Flame Tour alongside Brothers Osborne, and continuing with headlining and festival dates at home and overseas. But he's also writing, and though he won't share exact details yet, he has plans for a new project (or projects, perhaps). "I definitely have something up my sleeve that nobody knows about," he says, cracking a smile. "We're going to try and do something different, and the record itself, we're going to do it in a very different way. I have about three different projects, three different bodies of work in the can, and they are all completely separate from each other. I'm just trying to figure it out."
"Different" isn't always good when it comes to the mainstream country game, but Moore shrugs. "I may never be the guy playing arenas," he says. "I may never be the guy with the Number One songs. And I have come to this place, where as much as I hope to have hit songs, and as much as I always hope radio is going to play them, I now feel comfortable writing the kind of music I want to write. I'm more comfortable knowing I can be me. And that's enough."