John Moreland

MOKB Presents

Sold Out: John Moreland

Will Johnson

Fri, June 2, 2017

Doors: 8:00 pm / Show: 9:00 pm

White Rabbit Cabaret

This event is 21 and over

John Moreland
John Moreland
The replay of John Moreland's network television debut is...glorious and affirming and a
sucker punch. He is announced by Stephen Colbert, lights dissolve, and the camera
slowly focuses on the person midway across the unadorned stage, revealing him
beneath muted blue lights.

He is a big man.

Seated, alone, cradling his acoustic guitar.

He looks like nobody who is famous.

Then he begins to sing, to caress the song “Break My Heart Sweetly,” and all that
remains is to whisper, “Oh, my god.”

In Colbert's studio everybody stood, like they were in church.

Big Bad Luv is the record John Moreland made after, after everything in his life
changed. For the better.

He sings in one of those accents from flyover country that's impossible to locate and
implausible to mimic. (Texas, by way of Northern Kentucky, but mostly Tulsa, as it
happens.) He sings directly from his heart, with none of the restraint and filters and
caution the rest of us would apply for public protection. He sings with resolute courage.

He sings.
And writes. Writes with simple eloquence about love and faith and isolation; the human
condition; what every song and poem and novel is about, at the core: Life.

“Break My Heart Sweetly” came from his second solo album, released in 2013 and titled
In the Throes. High on Tulsa Heat, released through Thirty Tigers, landed him on
Colbert's stage (that's the LP Colbert held up). Song placements on “Sons of Anarchy,”
an emerging artist nomination from the Americana Music Association.

Enough sales to compel Moreland to give up his DIY label operation, and sign with 4AD.
“It grew to the point where I couldn't really handle everything myself,” he says. “Even
with a manager and a small team, I came to the conclusion that I'd like to play music
and not worry about the other stuff.”

Enough success to buy a measure of peace, and not more pain. “I expected to just play
in the corner of the bar and have people not really pay attention, make $100, go home
and go to work the next morning, doing something I didn't like,” Moreland says. “So,
yeah, I didn't really expect to be here. But, then, on the other hand, I did. I feel like I'm
good enough to be here. And I've always been confident, even when I probably
shouldn't have been. I knew I was an outsider. I didn't have a lot of faith in the music
industry to let me in. But I guess they have. To some extent. That's what I hoped for, but
I wasn't sure that would be how it worked.”

“In churches learning how to hate yourself/Ain't grace a wretched old thing” he sings,
the song called “Ain't We Gold.” Big Bad Luv is unmistakably a rock 'n' roll record. If,
that is, one understands the term to include Ray Wylie Hubbard, John Hiatt, and Lucero.
Or The Band, maybe. Insistent songs, coming from a voice as elegant as unfinished
barn wood, songs which insist upon their words being heard.

His fourth solo album, not discounting two records with the Black Gold Band and a third
with the Dust Bowl Souls. Nor discounting early excursions into hardcore which were
not youthful indiscretions but crucial training in the emotional honesty of confessional
songwriting. A rock album, to be performed by a rock band. A partial break with the
solitude of solo touring.

“Two or three years ago,” Moreland says, “it would have been impossible to picture
touring with a band. Now that's changed. I think I'll still do some solo or stripped down
shows, but I have the option to bring a band with me if I want. Ultimately it's just what
the songs felt like they should be.”

Big Bad Luv was recorded down in Little Rock, mostly with a crew of Tulsa friends: John
Calvin Abney on piano and guitar, back from Tulsa Heat; Aaron Boehler on bass; Paddy
Ryan on drums; Jared Tyler on dobro. And then Lucero's Rick Steff on piano, which
ended up being the catalyst for completion.

“I always start off writing whatever comes naturally,” Moreland says. “Once I've got
seven or eight of those, then I'll take stock and look at what I've got, figure out what
belongs on a record together, and what might not. Then I'll figure out what kind of songs
I need.”

Three sessions over ten months, sandwiched between touring dates and life. The final
sequence roughly approximating the order in which songs were written. “I chose the
sequence for what I thought worked best musically,” he says, untroubled.

“Quick bursts of recording,” Moreland goes on. Gives off a quick laugh. “It's not like
we're sitting there over-thinking the performances, I'm definitely a fan of just hit record
and play it. But then there's long stretches where I'm not in the studio, when I'm listening
to what I did, asking how do I turn this into a record?”

The key turned out to be Rick Steff's promise to record next week, even though
Moreland didn't have songs, not a one. “I went home and wrote five songs in four days
and finished up,” Moreland says. Another deep, wry laugh.

Big Bad Luv is, at least by comparison...maybe...a happier record? “I don't think I'm
writing songs that are that much different,” Moreland says. “It's always been a positive
thing at heart, even if a song isn't sunshine and rainbows. At the very least my songs
have been a way to exorcise negative feelings so that I can move on. And hopefully
they provide that same experience to listeners. So that's what I'm still doing. I think it's a
positive thing. I think this record, there's definitely a change in attitude, but it's the same
point of view.”

Oh, yeah. And Tchad Blake mixed it. “He's also the only person I've ever worked with
on a record whose name I can drop.”

“Slow down easy, I've been hauling a heavy soul,” he sings, this song titled “Slow Down
Easy.” Carrying it for all of us, but no longer alone.
Will Johnson
Will Johnson
Will Johnson's latest solo album, Swan City Vampires, is distinguished by its immediacy and intimacy. Crisp, measured acoustic guitars cushion the Austin-based singer-songwriter's equally precise, conspiratorial vocals, while keening pedal steel, droning electric guitars, and the occasional askew keyboard add color. The results fall somewhere in the cracks between Neil Young and Crazy Horse noise hurricanes, road-worn folk songs, and low-key alt-country barnstorming.

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."
Venue Information:
White Rabbit Cabaret
1116 Prospect St.
Indianapolis, IN, 46203