John Moreland on Why His Songs Aren’t Sad and His Badass Tattoos

Courtesy John Moreland

John Moreland is only three records into his career, and he’s already being called a songwriting savior. His most recent release, High On Tulsa Heat, explores the concept of home — what it is, what it isn’t, and if it’s really even a place at all. But he hasn’t been home much since it came out.

The Tulsa native just completed a tour that took him all across the East Coast, into Canada and eventually through the Midwest. In January, he’ll open for Jason Isbell on a three-week tour of Europe.

WOC: A lot of people call your music sad, but I don’t connect with that. To me, when people say the songs are “sad,” what I think they’re really trying to say is, “This music makes me feel something.”

JM: I’m glad you said that, cause I don’t think they’re sad either. And I think you’re right, people may say, “Oh you made me cry,” but that doesn’t make it a sad song. People always tell me how sad they think the songs are, so I’ve come to expect it. It used to bother me. I just try to dig beneath the surface. When people go through the motions of day to day life and they hear something really true and heavy, they tend to equate it with sadness. But especially with this record, I think it’s an arc. With the last track, it sounds redeeming to me. But it’s not like they’re happy songs, either. I don’t know what they are. Nobody writes happy songs. Nobody good, anyway (laughs).

John Moreland performs at Stagecoach, California's Country Music Festival. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
John Moreland performs at Stagecoach, California’s Country Music Festival. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

WOC: Critics have come to expect great things from your records. Do you have expectations for your music?

JM: Not in terms of sales or anything like that — I just want to feel really good about it when it’s done. So really, I know whether I reached the goal the moment it’s finished. And I still like this record a lot and enjoy playing it six months later.

WOC: Has your recent success changed the way you approach writing?

JM: No — I still write like I always have, but maybe I’m tougher on myself than I used to be. Which is good and bad. But I don’t think it’s because of success or whatever. I just think the longer you do something the more discerning you are about your work.

WOC: So far you’ve produced all of your own records. Do you always want to keep your music close to your chest, and what are the benefits and challenges of being your own producer?

JM: Nobody knows how your songs should sound better than you. I guess that’s not always the rule, but there’s so much that goes into it. Production is an extension of writing the song and how you want to portray it: it’s the lyrics, the chord progression, the melody, but also the guitar tone, whether a solo is cut live on the floor or overdubbed — all these things come together to create the overall vibe. It feels weird to me to place that completely in somebody else’s hands.

WOC: Would you consider working with a producer in the future?

JM: Down the road I’m open to collaboration. It would just take an awful lot of trust to get to that point. But I really like when a producer has a signature sound. On the road my tour manager and I were listening to a lot of Tom Petty and the Traveling Wilburys. We were geeking out about that [producer and founding member of Electric Light Orchestra] Jeff Lynne production sound. Hearing Bob Dylan sing with Jeff Lynne production is special. He’s got a signature sound. I think Buddy Miller has that too.

WOC: You recently got a tattoo of a tiger while on the road. Do you make a habit of getting tattooed while on tour?

JM: Growing up in punk bands, tattoos were always part of the culture. I have a lot of friends that tattoo so I’ve accumulated them over the years. With that tiger, we were in Chicago and had a late load in, so my tour manager and I went to check out this shop I’d heard about. It turns out one of the guys there had been listening to my records, so he came to the show that night and the next day I went in and got that tiger tattoo. It’s a very traditional tattoo, and I just thought it was badass. We don’t seek it out but it just kind of organically happens.


WOC: Some people collect paintings for the wall, and you collect it for your body.

JM: (Laughs) Yeah, and I’ve got serious stuff, goofy stuff, and stuff just cause I think it looks cool. I’ve got a heart with the initials “A.L.T.” on it for Aaron Lee Tasjan cause that dude’s my friend, and I think he’s awesome.

WOC: You mentioned you grew up in band punks. Would you ever consider playing punk again?

JM: I’m open to anything if I have time to do it and if it would be fun. I just got to a point where it didn’t feel that interesting to me anymore. But I’ve been listening to some bands like Banner Pilot and Red City Radio that started in the gap when I wasn’t paying much attention that it turns out I like a lot.

WOC: Good luck in Europe opening for Jason Isbell — not to put any pressure on you, but that seems like another great chance for a tattoo.

JM: (Laughs) Yeah I hope so — that would be awesome to get a tattoo while over there.

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John Moreland on Why His Songs Aren’t Sad and His Badass Tattoos