July 7, 2017
John Moreland speaks in cordial tones, like he’s known me for-almost-ever. His down-home aesthetic is bolstered by the way he approaches conversation with a writer he’s never met before and one who is over a thousand miles away. That is to say genteel, thoughtful, and insightful, yet candid.
In short, he made me feel very, very comfortable. Perhaps this inviting nature has transcended the person he is and has begun to permeate through the music he creates. Perhaps this is why Moreland is riding a wave of critical and cultural approbation so intense that it has landed him, after years of grinding his knuckles in the DIY world, in the lap of legendary record label 4AD, who recently released Moreland’s fourth album Big Bad Luv.
Like he does with most topics, though, Moreland reacts to the subject of signing a recording contract with one of the most influential record labels of all time with quiet aplomb.
“It was pretty unremarkable, really,” he told me from his home in Tulsa. “They just got in touch with my management, came out to see me a few times and then offered me a deal.”
Pretty unremarkable that an artist so far outside of 4AD’s historical wheelhouse of hyper-styled outsider jams (see: Aldous Harding, U.S. Girls, Future Islands) and standard-bearing indie rock (see: The National, Deerhunter, the Pixies) has found a steady home with the London and New York-based label. All of that history means little to Moreland, however. Rather, a sense of home and stability is how he sees 4AD.
“I’m mostly looking forward to sticking with the same label for more than one record,” he said.
After a self-released debut and its follow-up, which saw release on small Arkansan label Last Chance, Moreland’s national profile skyrocketed upon the release of his third effort, High On Tulsa Heat. The album, released via Nashville-based label services company Thirty Tigers, received resounding press and found its way to listening stations at record stores across the country and eventually landed Moreland on stage with Stephen Colbert. What he did there has become something of quiet legend.
Eschewing the conventions of playing a song from the album he was aiming to promote or filling the stage with a backing band, Moreland, employing only his voice and his fingerpicked guitar, dug into his ever-deepening songbook and performed “Break My Heart Sweetly.” A winsome solo ballad from his 2013 album In The Throes, the song was the perfect vehicle for Moreland’s voice, which is some amalgam of Tom Waits, Springsteen, John Hiatt and Delbert McClinton, and his haunted yet tender song subjects. The performance found Moreland seated alone beneath a lone blue light on Colbert’s stage, as vulnerable as the spare song he sat there singing. It was the most important moment in his young career.
With this new profile, Moreland’s finely honed one-man operation of booking shows, selling and shipping merch, and maintaining an online presence, on top of touring while writing songs for the album that would soon become Big Bad Luv, soon became too much for a solo operation.
He readily cites this as the most exciting thing about signing to 4AD.
“Just to have all of that off my plate, it’s nice,” Moreland said. “And to have all of their resources at my fingertips.Other than that it’s all status quo. My career has always been just a slow build, so nothing’s really ever been ‘life-changing’ kinda out of nowhere, you know? Well…”
“That’s not entirely true. Tchad Blake mixed the album. That was a moment where I was like, ‘Holy shit. I can’t believe this is happening,’” he continued, his voice bursting with wonder at the idea of working with Blake.
“When we were talking about mixing, Tchad was at the top of the list, so to get him was amazing.”
Blake–the Grammy-winning record man who has cut with artists ranging from Peter Gabriel, U2, Al Green and Pearl Jam, to Cibo Matto, The Bad Plus and Travis– helped Moreland harness the home-cooked sound of Big Bad Luv and deliver an entirely fresh feel from Moreland’s longtime backing band.
A working man’s musician, Moreland treats his nascent success as he would any other job. That is to say he’s just chipping away, showing up to work every day and doing the best he can until more opportunities present themselves.
“Priority right now is to get to a point where I can bring a full band on the road,” he said. “I’ve been playing solo for so long. Right now we’re doing this duo thing and it’s been really fun to play with another human. But we have to get to a point where we’re touring with a full band because it’s a pretty rock and roll record and I want to do it justice.”
Until that day, which will surely come soon, Moreland will continue to grind away, letting his lonesome bellow and the wistful brilliance of his music guide the way through an historically unsettling industry and one in which he feels comfortable, and very much at home.