Songwriters from Oklahoma seem to have a particular talent for melding lyrics of gut-wrenching honesty with melodies that stay wedged in our brains. With his new, self-produced album, High on Tulsa Heat, John Moreland offers 10 outstanding additions to that state’s rich canon. Like his last effort, Moreland recorded it in his parents’ Bixby, Oklahoma home, playing most of the instruments himself (with help from John Calvin Abney III, Jesse Aycock, Jared Tyler, Chris Foster and Kierston White). In-between performances at February’s Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, he discussed the origins of the album and his conversion from hardcore punk to sensitive singer-songwriter.
How did you get started?
I played in punk and hardcore bands when I was a kid. The whole deal is book your own shows and get out there and do it. Nobody’s gonna help you so you just do it yourself. At some point, I got burned out on that music and I went back to stuff my dad raised me on, like Neil Young and Steve Earle, and I tried to apply the same mentality and work ethic to a different genre of music. Just started booking my own tours and going out and doing it.
When did you start writing?
When I was about 10, I started making up songs, and that was when I started learning guitar. And the whole point of learning guitar was to make up songs. I didn’t want to learn many songs off the radio. I wanted to make up my own stuff. I just kept doing it. While I was in bands, I made stuff up so we had something to play. And when I was about 19, I had the epiphany that songwriting could be this whole different thing on its own. And I decided I wanted to do that. Getting into Steve Earle through my dad and then finding Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt after that was like, ‘Oh, this is a thing of its own. I want to learn how to do that.’
It’s interesting how many songwriters point to those two as the touchstones that set them on the path. And to even find them is, in some ways, unique.
It was for me. I was into punk rock, and you would occasionally find bands that were sort of in the punk scene that had kind of rootsy aesthetics, like Lucero, and I’ve loved that stuff. But there was a limited well of that stuff and I didn’t really know where else to look. It took a while. When you’re 18 and your favorite bands are ‘80s hardcore bands, how do you find somebody like Guy Clark? It’s kind of a complicated path.
So how did you?
Just my dad. My dad loves Steve Earle, and I remember I was watching CMT one day when they used to actually play videos and a Steve Earle video came on for that song “Rich Man’s War” from The Revolution Starts Now. I was 19 and I was like, “Oh yeah, that’s that guy from the ‘80s that Dad likes.” But the song just blew me away and I was like, “This shit is rad.” That started it for me.
So how were you able to build that into what you’re doing now?
I’ve been relentlessly just trying to be a better songwriter since then. I had been writing songs for bands I was in for so long that I had the audacity to hear something like that and think, “Yeah, I could do that” — even though that was totally not true. But that’s probably what kept me from giving up, too. I wrote 50 songs a year or more for the next three years after that.
When did you start to workshop and woodshed them?
I’d always just been the guitar player in a band and I was gonna start singing my own songs, but I was still really terrified of that. So I started a band and we played punk shows. I’d get offers for solo shows and it was kind of scary at first. Then I lost the band, so I had no choice. But then I found out I really liked it. I think just playin’ shows, just playin’ songs over and over and over and figuring out how to tweak ‘em and what works and what doesn’t.
When did you discover you could also sing?
I’d always sung, and I was really insecure about my voice. I didn’t think I had a very good voice, but I knew I could hit the notes. Just being real young in some of my first bands, 12, 13 years old, just learning how to sing pop-punk harmonies, that was where I learned.
Your songs are very personal. Where are you drawing those from? Is there somebody in particular or do you just find stories to tell in songs?
No, they’re all about my life. I mean, they’re about a lot of different people, but usually what happens is, when I’m in the middle of going through stuff, I can’t really write about it yet. And I try to and I just get frustrated because I can’t come up with anything worthwhile to say about it. Later on, when I have some perspective, I can look back and write about it. And it’s like writing about a character, but the character is me.
It sounds like you went through one heckuva heartbreak.
Yeah, one or two.
I’m sorry to hear that, but it certainly has led to some great songs. “I’m the kind of love it hurts to look at/Maybe we should take it as a sign … you don’t care for me enough to cry.” That just really grabbed me. What brought that kind of lyric out?
Um, you know, just having the kind of relationship where you clearly care a lot more than the other person, I guess.
Then you talk about how nobody gives a damn about songs anymore.
Yeah. It’s kind of funny to play a song like that at Folk Alliance. It really doesn’t apply here. And I always say playing a song like this at a place like this just proves I was full of shit when I wrote it. But that’s how I feel sometimes out in the real world, when you’re not at a hotel with a thousand folksingers (laughs).
You said standing up onstage in front of a bunch of people was scary at first. How did you overcome the fear?
Well, I’ve always had, really up until a year or two ago, really bad anxiety about playing shows. I used to get so nervous, I would puke before the show. I went through a couple of years where I didn’t play much because of it. It was just such a struggle. But there’s just nothing else I can do with life, or want to do. So I made myself stick with it. And it has gotten way better. I think part of it is just getting to the point where you know what to expect a little more going into each night. It used to be so hit-or-miss, like every show could be the most awkward experience of my life. Or it could be really great. And how it’s like, “I know there’s going to be a few people there and it’ll be fine.”
What kind of other influences did your father have on you besides musical? It sounds like that was a big one… did he teach you how to play?
He got me started playing guitar. He had an old Martin; he’s still got it. I actually still play it on records. But when I was kid, it was thrown in the closet; he didn’t really play much. But I knew it was in there. He took it out occasionally, and I thought it was really cool that he could make sounds on it.
When I was a kid, we lived in Kentucky. I had tons of friends in my neighborhood and was always playin’ with them. And then we moved to Oklahoma, and I didn’t know anybody and have anything to do and that’s what made me gravitate towards the guitar. It was something I could do by myself. So I asked him to show me a couple chords; he showed me a D and an A and I just took off from there.
Where do you see your career headed? Where do you want it to go?
I don’t know. I think my whole goal was just to get to where I could play music and not have a crappy job that I hated. And I’ve already done that so I feel pretty good. I’m hoping I can keep this up for as long as possible.