John Moreland doesn’t have the answers, and he’s not sure anyone does. But he’s still curious, basking in the comfort of a question, and along the way, those of us listening feel moved to ask our own. “I don’t ever want to sound like I have answers, because I don’t,” he says. “These songs are all questions. Everything I write is just trying to figure stuff out.”
Moreland is discussing his new album Birds in the Ceiling, a nine-song collection that offers the most comprehensive insight into the thoughts and sounds swimming around in his head to date. A compelling blend of acoustic folk and avant-garde pop playfulness, Birds in the Ceiling lives confidently in a space of its own, enriched by tradition but never encumbered by it. The songwriting that has stunned fans and critics alike since 2015’s High on Tulsa Heat remains potent, while the sonic evolution that unfolds on the record feels like a natural expansion of 2020’s acclaimed LP5.
The New Yorker, Pitchfork, Fresh Air, Paste, GQ, and others have embraced Moreland’s meditative songs, while performances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, CBS This Morning, NPR Tiny Desk Concert, and more have introduced Moreland to millions. And yet, while the Tulsa-based Moreland is grateful for the respect and musical conversation he’s now having with people around the world, he is also more focused on the idea of just talking to one person––or even himself. “Through the years, I’ve felt like I’m increasingly talking to myself in my songs, more and more,” he says. “Maybe in the past, I wasn’t aware of it, but now, I am. I think doing that has helped me be less hard on myself, which makes you more generous and compassionate in general.”
That helps explain why even if Moreland is reaching out to someone else, there is no judgment. “I’m in the same boat with whoever I’m talking to,” Moreland says.
Moreland’s songs do feel intimate––like overheard conversations or solitary meditations. “I want to talk one-on-one to someone in a song,” he says. “I don’t want to address a group, really, because I think that’s when it’s easy to start pontificating––and it gets less honest.”
On Birds in the Ceiling, Moreland’s singing contributes to the feelings of hushed intimacy. Wielding a warm, sandpaper soul voice, Moreland got used to singing loudly as he began playing in bars, fighting to be heard over chattering crowds. “When I first started singing, I was very self- conscious about it,” he says. “I think I tried to affect my voice more. Singing loud could be a security blanket sometimes. On the new album, on a lot of the songs I was definitely making a conscious effort to sing quieter––almost whisper.”
Produced by Matt Pence and Moreland, Birds in the Ceiling is dynamic: a folk record that refuses to stay in its lane. It’s the second album for Pence with Moreland, who sees the former––a Denton, Texas-based engineer, producer, and drummer––as an ideal musical partner. “We have a lot of the same influences, and I have been really influenced by his bands,” Moreland says. “It feels really effortless.”
The album’s title track is the graceful closer, pensive, breathtaking, and brimming with hope and gratitude. “The last verse is really about learning not to impose your own essences and projections onto things, and to just let things be what they are,” Moreland says.
Letting things just be what they are is a powerful guiding force for Moreland, determining not just how he interacts with others, but how he treats himself. “When you remove boundaries and instead of holding back parts of yourself––when you say, ‘Okay, I’m going to put all of me into this,’” Moreland says, “You end up making music that nobody else could make.”