John Moreland – Tickets – The Sinclair – Cambridge, MA – June 8th, 2017
Will Johnson (Centro-Matic)
Thu, June 8, 2017
Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 9:00 pmThe Sinclair
This event is 18 and over
Please note: this is a partially seated show. Seats are available on a first come, first serve basis. Tickets available at AXS.COM, or by phone at 888-929-7849. No service charge on tickets purchased in person at The Sinclair Box office Wednesdays-Saturdays 12-7PM. Please note: box office is cash only.https://www.sinclaircambridge.com/event/1440835/
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 turns 30 this year, but he's been slinging songs for more than half his life. 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 the 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.
When he decided to head back to the studio to record the follow-up to In the Throes, Moreland admits he felt more pressure than in previous sessions. "I just tried to ignore it because I figured it's probably not a good way to make a record," he says. "But yeah. It was in the back of my mind."
High expectations must agree with him. High on Tulsa Heat is a triumphant sequel, pulsing with the sharply drawn imagery and cutting vulnerability that his listeners have come to expect. Produced by Moreland, the 10-song collection features a strong cast of players including Jesse Aycock (Hard Working Americans, Secret Sisters), John Calvin Abney (Samantha Crain, The Damn Quails), Jared Tyler (Malcolm Holcombe), Chris Foster, and Kierston White.
Stripped-down arrangements rooted in gritty rock and roll punctuate and cushion Moreland's compositions. Tracks including "Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars," "Heart's Too Heavy," and "Cleveland County Blues" set the tone, trafficking in relentless honesty and folk.
Buoyant lament "Sad Baptist Rain" tackles internal conflict. "I was just trying to grab this scene of being a 16-year-old church kid in the parking lot of the punk rock show trying to reconcile having some fun with my Southern Baptist guilt," he says, with a hint of a laugh. If "Sad Baptist Rain" is about self-acceptance, "White Flag" warns of self-destruction. "It's a song about wanting or needing somebody so bad that you're willing to destroy yourself for it," he explains.
"American Flags in Black and White," grapples with nostalgia, and while Moreland initially seems to condemn it, he ends up acknowledging its comfort, framing the past as everyone's guilty pleasure. He never really condemns or judges anyone — except himself. "Anytime I do write a song that I feel like is more like pointing a finger at somebody, it never feels good and I always just end up throwing it away," he says.
The album also includes the first recording of live show staple "Cherokee." Based on a vivid dream, the song explores longing, shame, forgiveness, and love. "I want it to be open ended," he says of "Cherokee" and his songs in general. "I don't want to be told what happened or how to feel."
"You Don't Care for Me Enough to Cry" proves once again that Moreland does intoxicatingly sad as well or better than anyone, but the concluding title track rollicks victoriously, relishing the thought of a safe place — an idea Moreland says serves as a loose theme for the album. "A home is something I've really wanted," he says. "But that means you have to figure out what that really means and what it is. The record is about those questions."
More tellingly, Swan City Vampires begins with a bracing, two-minute instrumental track, "Paradise, Basically." Jagged electric guitar chords ripped apart by distortion and static dominate the song, aggression that's tempered by an unsettled, minor-key piano melody hovering just underneath the surface. It's not necessarily the easiest entry into an album, but make no mistake: This tone and sound—which Johnson describes as "pretty ugly"—is entirely deliberate.
"The album is a little reckless out of the gate, with the first song, and I wanted that to be the case," he says. "I wanted there to be some discomfort, some uncertainty and some oddity."
In one sense, this approach is the result of Johnson's diverse musical collaborations—including Monsters Of Folk with My Morning Jacket's Jim James and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst; Overseas with David Bazan and Matt and Bubba Kadane; and a duo project with the late Jason Molina. However, Swan City Vampires' tension and doubt more obviously reflect the changes Johnson himself went through, both personally and professionally, as the album took shape. In early 2014, his mother passed away, while later that year, his band of nearly 20 years, Centro-matic, called it a day.
Both of these events are referenced directly on Swan City Vampires. The melancholic, piano-curled "(Made Us Feel Like) Kings" is an elegy for his group's musical achievements, while "The Watchman" is a tribute to his late mother. The latter song is particularly poignant: It blooms from slightly frayed acoustic guitar and lilting sonic whirrs into a barrage of electric guitar pelted with distraught keyboard zaps—conveying the messiness of emotional catharsis, where grief and relief combine in imperfect ways.
"When the record was coming together, I was dealing with loss and a lot of uncertainty," Johnson says. "It was a strange time, emotionally. I didn't necessarily know what I wanted the album to transmit. There was a lot of raw emotion flying around. For the first time, I didn't have some sort of grand picture or plan for the whole record. I wanted to get as much down as I could and figure it out later."
Perhaps as a result, Swan City Vampire's recording sessions were brisk and economical. The album was recorded and mixed in two separate three-day sessions with different engineers—John Congleton (The Paper Chase, St. Vincent, Modest Mouse) and Britton Beisenherz (Monahans)—with additional contributions from Phosphorescent's Ricky Ray Jackson and Johnson's long-time creative foil, drummer Matt Pence. It marked the first time Johnson had ever done a record in this split-session fashion. "I was a little self-aware that it might have a patchwork quilt kind of feel to it," he admits. "But it wound up still feeling cohesive to me once I put all the songs together and sequenced them."
What makes this cohesion even more remarkable is that Swan City Vampire's songs were written during different points in Johnson's life. Several date from as far back as six years ago, when he was living in a little frame house in Bastrop, Texas, before he was married and became a father; others emerged more in the present-day, "right near the finish line" of the album. "There are some different perspectives, I suppose, in the writing," he says. "The writing itself came from different viewpoints—or different vistas."
However, Swan City Vampires does have some common thematic threads, including working through restlessness and major life changes, and trying to figure out what's next after the familiar's been displaced. Yet more than ever, Johnson is comfortable embracing the unfamiliar—as he does on the forthright "You vs. Off The Cuff," when he sings the lyric, "How perfect it is to see you again."
"I've never sung a line like that," Johnson says. "It made me uncomfortable demoing it for the first time, but in a good way—in a way that I was finally unafraid to sing a line like that. There have been a lot of phases of my songwriting life where I probably would've rolled my eyes and turned away from that. But for whatever reason, with all that was going on in my personal life, at the time it felt exactly right to sing a line like that."
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