Change, in its myriad forms, is at the center of Allison Moorer’s extraordinary new album, Down to Believing. A subject she has become intimately familiar with, especially since the release of her previous LP, Crows, in 2010, Moorer addresses life-altering circumstances with a range of emotional responses on the 13-song set, tempering deeply personal expressions of guilt, confusion and melancholy with jarring moments of rage, bitterness and, ultimately, grace.
Now divorced from fellow musician Steve Earle, who recently released his own album, the bluesy Terraplane, Moorer is chiefly focused on raising their son, John Henry, who turns five early next month and was diagnosed with autism three years ago. Lyrically, those subjects are dealt with throughout the new LP in startlingly candid fashion, but Moorer and her co-writers have also crafted tremendous melodies and rich, soulful grooves. While it’s still early in the year, Down to Believing could stand as one of the finest albums of 2015. Her eighth studio release since 1998’s Alabama Song, Down to Believing will be released this week on eOne Nashville. (Stream the album in its entirety below.)
Moorer spoke with Rolling Stone Country about her new album, inspired by what she simply says is a life spent “keeping all the balls in the air.”
With this new album being such a personal account of the things that have affected your life over the past few years, how did you prepare to open up and talk about it all?
I was really scared about it, to tell you the truth. It was one of the reasons I wasn’t sure for a while if I was going to make another record, or if I wanted to make another record, because the material was going to be really sensitive and really personal. Just being very familiar with the process and having some things in my life already that were painful to talk about, I didn’t know if I was ready to rip the scab off every day. So I had to go through a process of thinking about that and trying to figure out if I was ready to do that.
Especially in terms of talking about your son’s autism?
And thinking of it as a positive thing, ultimately, if there’s anything I can do to bring awareness to it. But there’s a fine line there. I don’t want to put too much out there about my son’s life. It’s not my life. I’m trying to shepherd him through the world, but it’s his life. In the age of Google, nothing ever goes away. I want to be really careful about revealing specific details about him. But what I do want to say is that it has affected my life very much. It’s something that is a growing problem that needs more attention paid to it and if there is anything I can do to stand up and raise my hand and say, “Hey, this is affecting my life and anyone out there who’s feeling that, I feel it too.” That’s why I wrote “Mama Let the Wolf In.”
It was my own experience, but maybe seven or eight years ago I wouldn’t have put something like that out, because it’s so personal and it’s so angry. I think it’s OK to be angry. It’s OK to say I understand intellectually that this had nothing to do with me, but in my darkest dark at 3 a.m., when I wake up in a panic, I have my moments of wondering what I did wrong. I know I’m not alone in that. I know other parents of children who have special needs, I know other parents who have children who have autism. There’s a helplessness there that’s just heartbreaking. If anything, I want to just say I feel it and maybe if you sing along to the song for three minutes you might feel better.
There is a lot of anger in that song, but you start the album off with “Like It Used to Be,” which suggests that change is inevitable. Is it easier now, having faced so much of it, to be sort of matter-of-fact about things changing?
Well, you can either change and roll with it, or you can struggle through the other way and not accept it and be miserable. I prefer at this time in my life to go with it because the only thing I know that’s coming is change. That’s the hardest lesson for human beings to learn. We’re sold the notion that things are supposed to last forever. We spend our lives fighting mortality which is pointless. I try to wrap my head around the concept all the time, daily; that nothing is going to last forever. I’m going to look up in a year and things are going to be different from the way they are now. But, hopefully, I’ll get better at being more graceful in my acceptance process. That’s what I’m trying to get to.
You also address that same subject, in a different way, with “I Lost My Crystal Ball,” where instead of trying to see what’s ahead, you’re looking at things falling down around you. How did that song come about?
I got together one afternoon to write with Angelo Petraglia [well-known in Nashville for his work with Kings of Leon and songs he’s written for Trisha Yearwood, Patty Griffin and Kim Richey, among others]. He’s just a great guitar player and a great writer. I started singing over this groove he was playing and it fell out pretty quickly. It’s just about not knowing where you’re going, which none of us do.
Why did you decide to cover “Have You Ever Seen the Rain”?
Well, because my record label asked me to do a cover. I didn’t really necessarily think the record needed a cover on it, but I said, “If I’m going to do one, I’m going to do something that I’ve always wanted to do.” I always thought that song was a perfect country-rock song and would fit in well with the rest of the record. I think it took two takes, so that’s what you hear. I’m a big [John] Fogerty fan and I always secretly wanted to [sing] that “yeaaaaah.”
Three of the songs on the album, “Like It Used to Be,” “Thunderstorm Hurricane,” and “Blood,” you wrote solo. What determines whether or not you co-write a particular song?
If I have an idea and I feel like I can do it myself, I do. A lot of these songs are co-written because as a staff songwriter you get hooked up with other writers to write. I would just go in with the idea that I thought would be particularly good to share with that person and they help me flesh it out. I love writing with other people; it usually is a good experience.
Was there any incident or something in particular that inspired you to write “Blood”?
I wrote it for my sister [singer Shelby Lynne], plain and simple. That’s just for us. It’s about a bond that has always been and will always be there. It’s just a love song for her; for family in general, but particularly for her.
Has she heard the album?
Yeah, I gave it to her last fall. But she doesn’t share. I haven’t heard her new one. I’m dying to hear it and she won’t send it to me! [Laughs]
What about your ex-husband’s album? Have you heard Terraplane?
No, I haven’t. He played me one song on it called “Go-Go Boots Are Back,” which I thought was pretty cool and funny, but I have not heard the rest of the record.
Has he heard yours?
I asked him if he wanted to hear it and he declined. So I don’t know if he’s heard it or not. I’m sure it’s floating around and if he wants to hear it, he can. But I have not given him a copy, no.
“Thunderstorm Hurricane,” is one of the darker, more somber songs on the record. Where did that come from?
It came from feeling very frustrated and sad over miscommunication and not being able to get on the same page, so to speak, with someone that I love very much. It’s a funny song because it’s 13 lines. That’s all it is. It’s probably the most economical song that I’ve ever written. I got really lucky and didn’t need any more words than are there. Musically, I’ve sort of mined that territory before, but I feel like it’s probably the best I’ve done that particular thing to date. There’s no wasted energy on it. I knew what I wanted it to sound like. The day I recorded it I had a 102-degree fever.
It’s interesting that on the record you follow a song like “Tear Me Apart” with “If I Were Stronger,” because the latter is quite fierce and accusatory, while the former turns things around, blaming yourself for giving up. Was that sequence intentional?
Oh, yeah. Those songs are companion pieces. One is about “why” and the other is about “what.” Luckily it worked, musically.
Is it as easy for you to be as honest and direct with people as you are in your songs?
I’m pretty direct. I try to use tact but I have not always been a person who was direct. It’s taken me a long time to learn a lot of therapy to be able to say, “OK, here’s what I’m feeling and I want to know what you’re feeling. We need to get this out in the open, get things out on the table and talk about it so that everyone knows what’s going on.” That’s in every area of my life. I don’t want anything that’s not direct, whether it’s a relationship, romantic, friendship or whatever it is. Things go a lot better if you can make sure that everybody’s on the same page. If you’re not, figure out why, figure out if you can be, and if you can’t, you’re going to have to do something else. I’ve had to learn to do that. I didn’t grow up in a household where there was a whole lot of healthy communication going on. I think because of that I’ve had to really try and be careful and to learn how to do that. At this point in my life, I don’t have time to be anything but direct.
But then how do you go from doing that on record to actually doing it on stage?
It’s hard. You’re stripped completely bare, I won’t lie about that. But I wouldn’t want to do it any other way. I love to perform. I love to let those feelings and sounds go. That doesn’t mean it’s not nerve-racking! It doesn’t mean I don’t worry about it and stress about it. Of course I do, because that’s part of the job, getting that right so that people might experience it in the fullest way possible.