As part of late September’s Lincoln Calling festival, John Moreland played a packed Saturday night Zoo Bar set, captivating the crowd with spare versions of some of the band-backed rockers on his latest release, 2017's “Big Bad Luv,” along with a selection of his intentionally quiet, piercing, efforts, like “Break My Heart Sweetly.”
In that song, found on 2013’s “In the Throes,” Moreland sings of the impossibility of moving on from a love until it’s damn near buried him: “I guess I can’t let go, ‘til you wreck me completely, break my heart sweetly, drape me in blue.”
He played that ballad alone upon the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” stage a summer ago, and an enraptured audience stood silent while the tatted Oklahoman who’d grown up fronting DIY punk bands sat and strummed his acoustic guitar, laying bare a heartbreak.
The quiet ones, Moreland said, don’t always work out that way during live sets.
“I guess maybe it is uncomfortable, and that's why there's always that one dude who, when you get to the most quiet part of the quietest of the song, will go, ‘Wooooo!’ you know?” Moreland said, laughing, during a phone call from London. “OK, that guy's here. He came again tonight.”
Once his set concluded at the Zoo, that’s when the woos flew.
“That was a lot of fun," he said. "I've never played in Nebraska before at all. I was glad that people knew who I was and showed up, you know?”
On Sunday, he returns to town, this time as support at the Rococo Theatre for Iron & Wine, a band that influenced Moreland's musical progression.
"When I was about 19 or 20, I really loved that 'The Sea and the Rhythm' EP," he said. "That was a time when I was still playing in hardcore bands, and getting a little sick of it, and trying to sort of find other things that interested me and that EP was one of 'em, for sure."
Here’s most of the conversation with Moreland.
Ground Zero: I remember reading in your American Songwriter interview from a few years back that you used to get some pretty bad anxiety before you'd play, and that it's gone away over time. (The Zoo Bar show) was the first time I'd seen you play, and I can't say one way or another whether I can tell if anyone's having anxiety, but what helped you get over it?
John Moreland: I don't know, man. I feel like I have a lot less anxiety in general than I used to. I went through some pretty rough years with that (stuff).
It was (messing) up my life. I went to therapy a lot, and that was really helpful. You kind of just have to sort of admit to yourself what you're afraid of. If you can't leave your house, what are you afraid of? What's the worst thing that could happen. Well, you could die, I guess. That would be the worst thing that could happen.
You just have to accept, well, I might die then. In a weird way, that's really freeing to just be like, “You know what, I might die, and it's fine.” It's like anything else in comparison doesn't seem so bad. I don't have near as much anxiety in my life as I used to a few years ago.
But as far as live shows, it's just a lot more fun now. I used to dread playing shows, and now I truly enjoy it. It took a lot of work to make that switch, but it was well worth it. Because it's a lot less stress, and I just truly enjoy playing music again, too. It makes me feel like I'm 14 again, which is awesome.
GZ: You've played in different iterations of a band with your music, kind of like Iron & Wine's Sam Beam. He's come here three or so times in the last seven or eight years and I think just about each time it's been a different structure. What do you like about the different versions of the band backing you, and in particular, since it's you and (guitarist) John Calvin Abney on this tour, what do the two of you have that makes it feel good?
JM: What I like about playing solo is you can kind of be really, really dynamic. It's harder to be dynamic with a band because the more people you have, it's harder to get quieter. So I find it really easy to be dynamic when you're playing solo, and you can make things sound really dramatic that way. So I think that's probably my favorite part of playing solo.
But it's also kind of terrifying to play solo, too. I don't have anxiety anywhere near the level that I used to. But I do still have a bit of it when I play solo, especially, because the thought of carrying a whole show by yourself for however long is kind of daunting. So playing with a band, it just feels like a breeze. Plus it's just fun to play rock 'n' roll with your friends. That's (incredibly) fun. And it feels like you're going onstage with your team, your crew, you know? It's not all on you. It just makes for an easier experience in a way.
Playing as a duo is just kind of the best of both worlds in a way. You can do that dynamic thing a little better because it's not as loud, but then at the same time, it's fun just to listen to what John Calvin's gonna play. And especially with him, because he's the kind of player that he never plays something the same way twice. Every night, I'm like, "What's he gonna play on this song?" It's really cool in the solo sessions to just sit back and listen to him.
GZ: What you mentioned, that he doesn't play the same thing twice and you have to adapt to that, that's a great thing for someone who's going to see you twice in the course of three weeks to be in tune to.
JM: Totally. The school of playing that I come from, I learned to play music from playing punk rock. And playing hardcore. So I do the exact same thing every night. (Laughs). I'm not from the school of improvisational, jamming out with people and (stuff). He's that kind of guitar player, so it's cool for me.
GZ: I can't remember which piece, I think it was the New Yorker piece from this summer, mentioned that you lived in Northern Kentucky. I was born in Owenton, Kentucky. It sounds like you weren't there for very long.
JM: We were there for nine years, but I was a kid. I was a baby when we moved there, and then we moved away when I was 10 and we lived kind of back and forth between Florence and Burlington.
GZ: Florence, y'all. I moved away when I was 4, so I know very little about the area that I could have known a lot about. So I was wondering if there was any of that in your music that I should be listening for to learn about things I missed out on.
JM: I don't know, man. I don't know if I was really, geographically speaking or culturally speaking, I don't know if that makes it in the songs too much. I don't think I was old enough to pick up too much on that or have anything else to compare it to, you know? But my childhood specifically, I think, definitely impacts the songs in some way.
Some of my earliest memories -- the Cincinnati airport is actually in Kentucky, so we lived right down the road from it. My dad worked even closer to it, actually, and my dad loved planes. He wanted to be a pilot. He's an engineer, but his first choice was to be a pilot and he tried to join the Air Force but they wouldn't let him because his vision was too bad back in the day. So he loved planes and we'd go up in his truck to the airport and just watch the planes take off and listen to Tom Petty on the radio and whatever. We'd do that probably once a week when I was 5 or 6 years old. Stuff like that -- I've written a song that was about that or mentioned it directly years and years ago, but I'm sure that kind of stuff seeps in there in more kind of subtle ways, too.
GZ: There was a nod to Tom Petty’s "Wildflowers" in the Rolling Stone piece as influential in the recording process of “Big Bad Luv” a few months ago. Was "Wildflowers" your go-to Petty record or were you all over the place, all-inclusive?
JM: His whole catalog, man. He's just a juggernaut. I was in Kansas City (when he died). It was a day or two after that Lincoln show and we had a show in Kansas City and we had just gotten to the venue and we found out about it. It was the first celebrity death that felt like a friend died. It felt like I had personal feelings. It wasn't like, “Oh, that's sad when anybody dies; I loved his music." It felt like my friend died and I had to go outside and cry. My wife had to come get me and console me and (stuff).
His music -- I feel like I was born a Tom Petty fan. I can't remember a time in my life where I didn't know who Tom Petty was. It's just been since birth, you know. Because my dad was such a fan of his as well. He's truly been the soundtrack to my life more than anybody else. I haven't really known what to say about it; it's such a bummer.
GZ: Did you address it at all that night?
JM: I just said, "This is for Tom Petty," and we played our set. I really wanted to try and play maybe "I Won't Back Down" or something like that, but I was pretty sure I couldn't do it without crying at that point. So I just dedicated the set to him at the beginning.
GZ: His songs kind of feels like it’s always been on the wind.
JM: They're just so effortless. And you know, when I was younger, I didn't think he was that good of a lyricist because I would listen to somebody like Springsteen, "Born to Run," and it's a little more flashy, lyrically. To a 20-year-old, it's a little more impressive. And "Born to Run," it's (really) incredible too, so I'm not saying anything. But Tom Petty is deceptively simple, and the older I got, the more I realized how great of a lyricist that he was. He's saying everything with like five words, you know?
GZ: Are there songs in your catalog that felt like they hit that mark, or got to it in seven words?
JM: That's kind of what I'm always trying to do, so I don't know if I can pick an example. But I was definitely even more aware of it on "Big Bad Luv," where I was consciously trying to make it a point to write songs that were simpler, especially that had simple choruses. So like, "Love is not an answer, I don't need an answer I need you" -- just two lines. Or "Amen, So Be It," one line. Four words. I was trying to do that a little more. I feel like when I was younger, I feel like I was a little better of a pop song writer in that way. Just kind of direct and to the point and catchy. As I got more into Townes van Zandt and Bob Dylan and stuff, I felt like I got a little folkier and wordier and I would write songs with like five verses and no chorus at all. I felt like a little bit in a rut doing that and I wanted to get back to more of the pop thing.
GZ: In that Rolling Stone piece, it was mentioned that when you wrote, “It Don't Suit Me (Like Before),” it helped you turn a corner in your songwriting, and then you stepped away from songwriting for a few months. You hear a lot about how writers do the opposite when they get inspired. What made you pause?
JM: To me, that album (“Big Bad Luv”) kind of documents the transition between one part of my life and the other. I was coming out of that first period, which was a little darker and a little more of a bummer. And I was writing about that, and I got to a point where writing that wasn't resonating anymore. I was trying to rehash that a little more and it just wasn't doing it for me -- it wasn't resonating with me; it didn't feel right.
And when I wrote "It Don't Suit Me," that was kind of the first time I was able to write a song that acknowledged that transition and it felt like, OK this is the direction I need to go in. But now, I need to just live for a while, be a good person for a while. And then I'll have some stuff to say about that.