The words “real” and “authentic” are overused in just about any context, but they get an especially heavy workout when it comes to music. Sometimes it seems like anyone with a scruffy look and a battered acoustic guitar is considered the real deal before they even play a note.
But if there’s anyone who can live up to those descriptions, it’s singer/songwriter John Moreland. He’s a singer whose voice is some heavenly mix of John Hiatt’s wily rasp and Kings of Leon singer Caleb Followill’s soulful, gritty wail. He’s an unassuming, modest man who’s written some devastatingly emotional songs, like “Break My Heart Sweetly,” one of the most gorgeous heartbreak ballads of the last decade (his performance of the song on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” has been viewed almost 300,000 times). And up until this year’s “Big Bad Luv” album, Moreland was essentially doing all of his recording by himself, making albums in his home and building the songs up track by track.
“Big Bad Luv” is Moreland’s first full-band, studio-produced album, with Tchad Blake (Elvis Costello, Pearl Jam, Peter Gabriel) handling the mix and a more playful, roots-rock sound throughout. It’s a big surprise from an artist whose previous album, “High on Tulsa Heat,” was perhaps the most hushed and intimate of his career, and for whom that approach was paying off in spades, having landed three songs on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and garnered an Americana Music Association award nomination.
But Moreland, who will play an in-store show at Horizon Records on Monday, July 17, knew from the beginning of “Big Bad Luv” that it was time for a change. “The main thing was that I didn’t want to engineer it myself, which I had done on the other things I’d recorded,” Moreland says. “I was playing most of the instruments myself, and I knew that that was way too much work. I wanted to get a band and bring the band to a studio and have someone else engineer the session. And of course, all of that is going to make it sound different.”
Different, yes, but not entirely alien. There’s no excessive overdubbing on “Big Bad Luv,” and none of the songs seem too fussed over, despite Blake’s work in the past with some notorious studio perfectionists.
“It does have a stripped-down sound,” Moreland says, “and that’s because even though it’s a full band, it’s mostly recorded live by a lean rock ’n’ roll band. In the past, I would spend a whole day building the tracks up, and maybe after eight hours you’d have a song. For this record, we went in and played them through once or twice and that was it.”
Despite the new, more upbeat musical approach, Moreland’s lyrics are still poetically heartbroken. On the down-tempo, Dobro-spiked “Old Wounds,” Moreland sings that “Love’s a violent word, don’t you forget it. … I’ve seen my seasons change. I was cryin’ out your name,” like a man for whom passion and desperation have become inextricably linked.
And as it turns out, applying that same lyrical approach to his new music was more difficult than Moreland anticipated.
“I do sort of struggle with writing upbeat songs sometimes, because I’m afraid the lyrics will go unnoticed,” he says. “I’m afraid to use my really good stuff in my upbeat songs, which I became aware of when I wrote this record. So I tried to steer clear of that instinct and write the same lyrically as I always have.”
As for touring, which Moreland has always done as a solo acoustic act, he seems to be in a bit of transition there, as well. He’s not alone anymore, but his only accompanist is John Calvin Abney, who switches between guitar, piano, and harmonica throughout the show.
“This is like a segue into full-band touring,” he says. “After touring solo for a while, if we’d just thrown the band into it, I’d have been overwhelmed. I feel like we’re building up to that one step at a time.”
Horizon Records, 2 W. Stone Ave., Greenville
Monday, July 17, 7 p.m.