“Since I was 18,” says John Moreland, “I’ve made a lot more hip-hop music than folk music.” For longtime fans of the 34-year-old songwriter, who has become known for his desolate acoustic finger-picking over the past decade, such a statement may come as a surprise. But it’s true: For many years, the Tulsa native has been making beats on electronic drum machines “almost every day.”
It’s just that until his new album, LP5, out February 7th, Moreland never thought that his electronic music-making could ever have anything to do with the lonesome heartland folk narratives that he’s been writing and touring around the country ever since releasing 2011’s Earthbound Blues.
“For a long time, I felt like those two things should be separate,” the singer says. “Then it just reached a point where I felt everything I was writing was just not doing it for me. I thought, ‘Maybe I need to draw on some other influences that I have, other stuff that I like.’ It was eye-opening to realize that I could incorporate all these interests.”
LP5 is no abrupt departure for the Oklahoma native, who is self-releasing the album after a short-lived partnership with indie powerhouse 4AD records went sour. Instead, the album merely fuses light drum machine loops and electronic textures to Moreland’s well-established sonic template. It sounds a little more like something Moreland, who has recently been devouring records by everyone from Sheryl Crow and Shelby Lynne to Young M.A. and Vince Staples, just might listen to himself.
Rolling Stone Country recently spoke with Moreland about his new album, the danger in reading into his personal life from his songs, his label fallout, and Ichiro Suzuki.
What were your initial ideas for this album?
There were a lot of false starts. There was a time when we thought, after I did [2017’s] Big Bad Luv, that I should get a band and rock band thing. I knew I was ready to change shit up a little. But then I realized that wasn’t what I really wanted to be doing. I wasn’t writing a ton. I just had these vague abstract ideas in my head, like “I guess this record could be kind of like this.” It’s no wonder it didn’t work, that’s such a contrived way to do things. But everything I was writing, I just thought, “I’m sick of this. This is the same shit I’ve been doing.” I had to let go of the idea of, “OK, I’m going to work on music and that means sitting down to work on my next album.” I let go of that and was more just like, “I’m going to fuck around with instruments today and see what happens.”
Did that mean tinkering with sounds that weren’t from a guitar?
It was awesome because that’s something I haven’t really done for a long time. My interests and influences are more varied than a lot of people realize, but from the time I was 20 I got really into this idea of like, “I want to be the best songwriter that I possibly can.” That was really the focus until I sort of hit a wall with that and was like, “That doesn’t motivate me anymore.” I realized I don’t care about that at all. I just want to be creative and make music that I enjoy making, and that I think is cool.
You had mastered a certain type of writing at such a young age. That must have felt both boring and daunting.
Yeah. Am I just going to keep redoing this? Or, even worse, feel like I have to top it every time? It was a process of unlearning all that, and a lot of that has to do with ego and being kind of new in my career. As far as actually doing this for a job, and having people know who I am, it’s only been maybe five years. I’m still figuring out what I’m doing.
When you put out Big Bad Luv, there was sort of this narrative of, “John Moreland used to be sad. But then he got married, and now he’s happy.”
It’s absolutely true, man, because people get really weird and ridiculous about this shit. When my single “East October” came out, my wife had a friend ask her if everything was OK with us. Like, that’s insane. I’m not updating you on my marriage in real time on my records.
And yet commodifying one’s personal life, on social media or in your art, is increasingly something an artist is expected to do.
I fucking hate that, and I don’t really want to make art like that. It bums me out so hard when people think my songs are like a TMZ version of my life.
The only disappointment I had when listening to your record was realizing that the song “Ichiro” was an instrumental and not an explicit tribute to the right-fielder.
I’ve been writing more instrumentals, and that’s kind of the result of not feeling like I need to turn every song into this great folk song or whatever. We were recording, me and John Calvin Abney, making demos the day Ichiro played his last game in Tokyo, and I just happened to be up in the morning and saw the game live. I decided to give him a little shout-out.
What happened with your former label 4AD? Was that a good lesson? A dispiriting experience?
It hasn’t been totally dispiriting. I don’t really feel any type of way about it honestly. It just didn’t mutually work out between us. And that’s par for the course in the music industry. It did make me feel like, “Alright, cool. It’s 2019. There truly is absolutely no point to being on a label anymore.” So I think I’m not going to fuck with that approach ever again, probably.
What didn’t work out on your end? Was it an element of them having a say in your music?
They never tried to do anything like that, but I think that they were maybe bummed out that I gave them more of a rock record. They maybe wanted more of a folk record. I think they asked if I would re-record Big Bad Luv all acoustic. That was one thing. I think maybe the people that worked at the label maybe didn’t really get me, or get why I was on the label. I started to feel that way too, like, “Why did you guys sign me?” I knew it might be weird [signing with 4AD], but I thought it might be cool weird, but it was just weird weird. [In a statement, a representative for 4AD says that the label was “very happy with Big Bad Luv, and the style of the music was never raised.”]
Had you ever messed around with drum machines before this record?
Well, a little bit… I’ve always messed around with sampling, but I just recently got these super basic drum machines. That was another part of writing this record, realizing that the gear that really speaks to me is not necessarily always playing Telecasters.
That must have really changed the way you think about writing songs.
That’s really the thing that opened the door for the record. When I finished “When My Fever Breaks” and “Harder Dreams,” which I wrote on drum machines, that’s what it was, realizing, “Oh shit, I can do this.” It opened up a whole new world for me.