Oklahoma songwriter emerges from isolation and casts off the tortured-artist delusion
“If we don't bleed, it don't feel like a song,” Oklahoma songwriter John Moreland sings on “Old Wounds,” a standout track from his most recent album, 2017's Big Bad Luv (4AD).
As Moreland wrote “Old Wounds,” he examined his own creative process. Why did he have to bleed to make it feel like a song? Why do people put themselves through the ringer to create? And is that self-torture necessary?
“I don't know if I have a concrete answer, but I've learned that I don't have to do that,” Moreland said recently by phone. “It's OK to chill and be happy.”
Arriving at that realization didn't come easy. While writing songs for Big Bad Luv, which followed on the heels of Moreland's 2015 breakout album, High on Tulsa Heat, Moreland reflected on the year he lived in the small town of Norman, Oklahoma, after moving from his hometown of Tulsa.
“I felt like I'd been trapped in this bubble, and I wanted to bust out of it,” he said. “I also went through a few years in my early 20s when I didn't leave the house much and I had some crippling anxiety issues. It really was interfering with my life in a lot of ways. … I was living alone and touring alone. There was a lot of going down rabbit holes in your head by yourself.”
Moreland sings about coming out of that self-imposed isolation on “Lies I Chose to Believe.” “Do you ever wish you could just back out? Take your nickels and go cash out? Forget the faces you've been crying about, and see where forgiveness takes you?” he sings.
“I think the lie I chose to believe was that that's what a songwriter's life was supposed to be like — alone and depressing,” said Moreland, whose thoughts turned to some of his songwriting heroes, like Townes Van Zandt. “They were brilliant, and they were amazing songwriters, but … they didn't have happy lives. You have to start asking, ‘Is that what I want for myself? What am I doing here? What do I want in my life?'”
Tired of being alone and depressed, Moreland moved back to Tulsa and got himself into a better headspace, which also enabled him to pursue a relationship with the woman who would become his wife. He could finally chill and be happy. “I've found a love that shines into my core/And I don't feel the need to prove myself no more/And when I look into the mirror, now I see/A man I never knew that I could be,” Moreland sings to close Big Bad Luv's final track, “Latchkey Kid.”
Signing to 4AD to release Big Bad Luv was merely icing on the cake. “I don't live in a house that's falling down and infested with spiders anymore,” he said.
Moreland used to find catharsis through songwriting more than touring, but these days, touring with a full band has enabled him to embrace and enjoy performing in a way he wasn't quite able to when playing solo gigs. (Moreland and his full band will co-headline a show with fellow songwriter James McMurtry at Skully's Music-Diner on Saturday, March 24.)
For his next record, Moreland is also taking a different approach to songwriting. “I feel like I've reached a point where I can't continue to do it in the same way, like writing a song in [a major key] and just sitting down with an acoustic guitar and singing some lyrics,” he said. “I mean, that's beautiful, but I've done it for so long I can't [anymore]. If I try to sit down and do that, I just hate everything that comes out. I can't bring myself to do it.”
To mix things up, Moreland has begun using the demo process as a way to write, recording songs before the lyrics and melodies are defined. “That way I can put drums on something and be like, oh, actually now I'm feeling this. When it was just guitar chords it was whatever, but now that it has drums it feels like a real song and I can see where I can take this,” he said. “It's helping me write in a different way than what I've been doing the past few years. That's been really fun, but it's also new and I'm not as efficient at it. It's trial and error.”
“It makes me more excited and more nervous,” he continued, “because I don't know what it's gonna be like. All I know is it can't be the same as in the past.”