John Moreland Takes Stock on Surprise New Album Visitor

The Oklahoma-based Americana singer stashed his smartphone in a drawer while he decompressed during a year-long break.

Music Features John Moreland
John Moreland Takes Stock on Surprise New Album Visitor

John Moreland’s new album, Visitor, arrives in much the same way as his decision to take a year-long break from playing shows—without prior notice. After returning from a grueling tour toward the end of 2022, Moreland decided to go dark for a while. He turned off his iPhone and stashed it in his sock drawer, where it stayed for six months. He ignored social media. A 10-year stretch had yielded a string of rootsy folk-rock records that brought critical acclaim and an expanding audience, but not much time off or to take stock. “You don’t want to take your foot off the gas because there’s always that fear that it could go away,” Moreland says. “It’s only been the last year or so that it really feels like I have become consciously aware of the need to process the last 10 years of my life, because it was a crazy whirlwind that kept getting crazier. I just knew I was tired and fucked up and needed to not do anything for a while.”

Though John decided to stay off the road, he didn’t stop playing guitar. In fact, he found himself enjoying it more than he had in a long time. “I had a hunch that falling in love with the acoustic guitar again and just playing for the hell of it was something that I really needed to do, and hadn’t really done much since my teenage years, probably.” Shutting out all the noise that had steadily crept in as Moreland’s career grew refocused him on his core strengths: writing songs potent enough to bring tears to your eyes, and singing them in a rumpled voice that leaves no doubt about his sincerity. At first, though, Moreland didn’t intend to write songs during his break from touring. After a while, they started coming anyway. Moreland wrote enough material without lyrics that he thought for a minute about making an album of guitar instrumentals. Then the words arrived in a flood. “Probably six months or so into that year off, I experienced a wave of just really wanting to write lyrics, feeling like it was really bursting out of me,” Moreland continues.

The songs on Visitor reflect that surge of lyricism, on tracks that can be searingly personal—“And my half measures, well they thrashed me half to death / So you just hang on to your half-truths / ’Cause I’ve got enough regrets,” he sings on the title track, over strummed acoustic guitar and a simple drum part—or pointed and unexpectedly topical, as on the somber, downhearted “One Man Holds the World Hostage.” “I was conscious about not wanting there to be too much of that, because I’m not an expert on social issues or political issues,” Moreland says. “But man, sometimes you look around and it’s just like, what the fuck? Shit is so fucked and I can’t really write about emotions without touching on that stuff.”

Visitor is Moreland’s fifth LP since his 2013 breakthrough, In the Throes. In many respects, the new album is a return to the sensibility of that earlier effort: Moreland recorded Visitor at home and played most of the instruments himself (his wife, Pearl Rachinsky, contributed backing vocals, and longtime collaborator John Calvin Abney played guitar on one track). Abney says by email that Moreland is “one of the most thoughtful artists” he knows—praising Moreland’s ability to assimilate and synthesize music that inspires him, including hip-hop and experimental and ambient styles that surely influenced the subtle electronic elements that augmented Moreland’s Americana aesthetic on 2022’s Birds in the Ceiling. “John is a matchless archivist of his own experience, and by proxy, of the world around him, and this is why people connect so deeply with his works,” Abney furthers. “They see themselves.”

Maybe now the reflection that John Moreland’s audience sees will include the image of a singer who stepped back from his career to relieve some of the pressure he was imposing on himself— to prove that he could put his needs first and say no when necessary. Eventually, Moreland felt ready to switch the iPhone back on, though he still sometimes takes breaks. “I’ve broken a lot of the bad habits that would get me down in the past,” he says. “But there have been a few times when I’ve put the smartphone back in the sock drawer and used my old-timey flip phone, and I’ll probably keep doing that when it feels like the right thing to do.”

Listen to John Moreland’s 2015 Daytrotter session below.

Eric R. Danton has been contributing to Paste since 2013. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and Pitchfork, among other publications. He writes Freak Scene, a newsletter about music in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut.

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