On his new album, High on Tulsa Heat, John Moreland explores the idea of home — what it means and doesn’t mean, what it is and what it wants to be. He questions the faith that some folks rely on and questions the love of others. It’s a deep, rich exploration of where he is, geographically and otherwise, in his life. And it’s set against an Americana backdrop that is smoother than on albums past, though never exactly smooth. Moreland leaves plenty of loose threads and ragged edges to reflect the fact that this particular journey is one that he’s still on … maybe always will be.
What does your music mean to you? It certainly seems like it’s more than just a job.
Definitely. It’s something I would do anyway. Writing songs is how I deal with life. It’s my natural way of figuring out how I feel about things and where I stand. So, it’s kind of necessary. If I don’t do it for a while, I start to not feel very good.
Do you feel like you’re floundering — like a lost feeling when you don’t have that tether?
Yeah. Or like there’s a weight on my shoulders or something. And I start to just feel lazy, too. Like I should be making myself work more.
[Laughs] Got it. I always wonder, what in the world do people do with themselves if they don’t write or love music?
[Laughs] I don’t know. There’s got to be some kind of an outlet, I would hope.
Right? That kind of tethering. I don’t write music, but I sure do lean on it a lot to get me through.
As a fan yourself, can you like a song just based on the musical vibe or do you really have to have some lyrical heft, too?
There are certain types of music where the lyrics aren’t the thing — that’s not the point. And, yeah, I can totally appreciate that. When I hear stuff and I feel like the lyrics are just bad … that bums me out. But sometimes a song is supposed to just be fun and sound cool. It’s not supposed to punch you in the face with lyrical content. So, I can appreciate that.
I don’t have it in me to write that stuff. I wish I did, sometimes. I’ve tried to, but … I don’t know. I can’t do it.
One piece of your psychological puzzle was growing up in the Southern Baptist way. I did that, too, for a while, though I never got Baptized because I was too creeped out after my sister did it and had to carry her wet underwear home in a sandwich bag. [Laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah. Yeah.
How does that heritage and all that you were steeped in come into your songs these days?
I think it’s just still in my psyche or whatever. I don’t really think about it or try to write about it, but it creeps in there sometimes. You grow up with this subtle intimidation, I think. The fact that I’m a grown man and I still think about, “Oh, I don’t want to go to Hell” … as if that’s a real place. That makes its way into songs, sometimes.
Right. I would imagine, too, the idea just living values versus imposed morals …
The other big piece that’s in the liner notes on the new record … something like, “This is a record about home. Whatever that is.” Dig into that a little bit more. What does home mean to you? What does it feel like?
I don’t really know still. All this stuff was written after I started touring a lot and had been in my hometown for too long, I think. So I moved from my hometown of Tulsa to Norman, OK, which is a couple of hours away. It’s kind of a weird, small college town. But then that didn’t feel like home, either. It’s just a weird thing to go on tour to all these unfamiliar places … to be lonely on the road and then come home and be lonely at home, just sort of searching and trying to figure out what home is or what it’s supposed to be. I still don’t really know, but I feel better after writing all that stuff.
[Laughs] Sure. So you’re not one of those guys who feels like your home is actually on the road, that when you’re constantly moving is actually the place you’re looking for?
Well, maybe. It does feel good. But I think I’d like to have some sort of balance. But, yeah, I’d been off for a while before I started this tour and the first nights, getting out on the highway, felt really good, felt like, “This is for me.”
Also, what I’ve come to understand about home from moving around a bunch and being on that same seeking journey … it really is more that just a place. That certainly has a part in it, but it’s also just a state of being.
Yeah. Yeah. Sure.
Do you feel like these songs helped you unpack that a little bit?
I don’t know if I really figured anything out yet, but I definitely feel a little bit less restless about it.
You’ve lived in a few different states and every place has a different feel, a different sound, a different vibration. I’ve driven across Oklahoma and this record matches up to the spirit of that place. Was that sort of an after-thought or a byproduct?
I don’t know if that was even an after-thought. I don’t think I thought about it until you just said that, actually. [Laughs] That’s just a completely unintentional thing that happened because I’m from there, I guess.
The New York Times said some really nice things about the record recently. And one of the things that struck me because I caught it, too, was that your songs are packed with emotion, but not a lot of sentimentality. Is that just part of how you see and feel things? Or is it somehow related to your punk days?
Yeah, maybe. Maybe it is. I feel like, in general … it’s weird, coming from punk rock, you’re supposed to always be looking forward and moving forward. Like you said, there’s very little room for sentimentality. But, then, I feel like, in Americana and roots music and what not, it’s kind of the opposite. There’s a lot of reverence for the past. Sometimes I feel like it’s too much and it makes me uncomfortable. I guess I’m always trying to find a balance between the two extremes. Maybe that comes across in the songs. I don’t really think about that when I’m writing, but I guess that’s part of it.
So what do you think about when you’re writing? Do you kind of go outside yourself into a different state?
When I start, I don’t really think about anything. A line or two will just sort of come to me that fits into a melody that I had, maybe, and I try to just write stream of consciousness, just for a while until I feel like I hit something. Then, maybe, I’m like, “Okay. I see what this song’s about now.” Then I use that as the direction to finish it up.