Some days, being John Moreland has to hurt. As others bury experiences and stifle regrets, Moreland pokes old wounds until you’re sure they’ve got to be bleeding again. It’s painful. But in Moreland’s care, it’s also breathtakingly beautiful.
Moreland started writing when he was 10 years old, the same year his family moved from Kentucky, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he still lives today. He started fronting local punk and hardcore bands in high school. After graduation, he had an epiphany. “I’d just overexposed myself to punk and hardcore to the point that it just didn’t do anything for me anymore,” he says. The remedy? He ditched his music for his dad’s: CCR, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Steve Earle.
“I think what appealed to me about it was lyrics,” he says. “In hardcore, there might be great lyrics in a song but you have to read them off a piece of paper to know it. I was 19 in 2004, and Steve Earle had put out ‘The Revolution Starts Now,’ and I remember hearing the song ‘Rich Man’s War’ and totally feeling like somebody just punched me in the chest.”
Moreland’s been chasing the chest punch ever since, composing pointedly and prodigiously. “I’ve always written to make myself feel better, I think,” he says. “It’s my way of figuring stuff out — figuring out where I stand. You can’t do that without emotion. You can’t do that insincerely.”
When Moreland released In the Throes in June of 2013, the album didn’t just charm listeners — it stunned them. American Songwriter proclaimed that “[t]hose not familiar with the Oklahoma City singer-songwriter should remedy that pronto,” while No Depression declared the collection “isn’t so much songwriting as alchemy with words and music.” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow heard his songs and joined the chorus, tweeting: “If the American music business made any sense, guys like John Moreland would be household names.”
If In the Throes ignited Moreland’s 2013 summer, FX’s Sons of Anarchy poured gasoline all over the fire that fall. The hit series featured three Moreland-penned and -performed gems: “Heaven,” off of his Earthbound Blues, the second of two full-length albums he released in 2011; and “Gospel” and “Your Spell,” both from In the Throes.
As word continued to spread and Moreland played more and more shows, a pattern began to emerge: his songs hit listeners hard. While his precise, evocative lyrics often get the credit, his voice — a scritchy-scratch baritone capable of soul-shouting but especially potent in its subdued default register — ensures his lines linger.
“I got so used to playing in bars where you’re just kind of in a corner,” he says. “You’re just background music, and nobody gives a fuck about you. It was so soul sucking. I would try to sing in a way that would get people’s attention.”
For Moreland, that didn’t mean screaming or gimmicks. “If you just sing it like you mean it — like so hard that people can’t ignore it…” He trails off for a second, then concludes: “That’s what I was trying to do.”
These days when Moreland performs, rooms ordinarily buzzing with drunken chatter and clanging glasses fall silent.
In the Throes