Like many of his peers, John Moreland figured he’d write new songs nonstop when the pandemic first hit in the spring of 2020. After all, he couldn’t tour anymore and was basically stuck inside his home in Oklahoma like the rest of the world.
“Once I got over that initial ‘Holy shit, what the fuck is going on’ moment, I thought I was going to be really productive,” Moreland admits to The Boot. “That totally didn’t happen because my mind was so fucked by it all, it took a year before I could even really talk about it.”
It was an especially strange experience for Moreland because on Feb. 7, 2020, he celebrated the release of his fifth studio album, LP5, and then just a few weeks later, COVID-19 changed everything. Though it took him longer than expected to get settled and begin writing again, when he did, he knew his next record was taking shape.
“The bulk of Birds in the Ceiling was written in July of 2021,” he says. “That was the point where it became clear to me that this was actually going to be an album.”
While the pandemic no doubt influenced his writing, Moreland admits the “political climate” was a huge part of the creation of his songs, largely because he was born and raised—and continues to live—in an area that leans much more conservative than he himself prefers.
Though listeners will find the political climate’s effect throughout Birds in the Ceiling, it comes through crystal clear in “Claim Your Prize,” a song in which Moreland sings the incredible lyrics, “I guess it’s a comfort, living your delusion / It makes me sad to see the kind of drugs you’re using / The fear and anger, waves and waves of grief / I don’t know how you missed it, your hero is a thief.”
“It’s such a mindfuck that the people who taught me right from wrong support all of this madness,” he says of the far-right language and actions of millions of Americans. “How do I make sense of this? I can’t, really, and that was something that kept seeping into the lyrics in several of the songs.”
The biggest “mindfuck” is the fact that the people who taught Moreland right from wrong are still his family and neighbors. Though some might question why he remains in an area like that, he doesn’t seem to stress over it—too much.
“It’s definitely discouraging to drive around and see everybody’s signs and flags and be exposed to the sort of aggressive hostility that is out there,” Moreland admits, “but at the same time, it’s really humbling and grounding to see the gray areas. You see so many things that aren’t as simple as people want to make them. It’s easy to go out there and get pissed at all this bullshit, but also when you’re living here, you’re dealing with people on a one-on-one basis. You see that everybody really is the same. That part is good. That part is grounding and humbling. Yeah, it’s hard, but I think it’s better than being in a bubble where everybody is like me.”
As is evident in the conversation, Moreland is never without hope. That may seem like a strange statement for fans who are familiar with Moreland’s brand of heartbreaking, truth-telling, gut-wrenching songwriting, but it’s a reality he happily embraces.
“I find a lot of comfort and hope in the asking of questions,” he confesses. “That feels like the most honest thing we can do. I think after a lifetime of being prescribed answers that weren’t real or true and being exposed to a lot of people who claim to know what happens after you die and claim to know this or that about all of these divine things, the most honest thing we can do is say, ‘I don’t know,’ and ask the questions. Yeah, I find a lot of hope and comfort in that.”
Birds in the Ceiling is packed with that kind of question-asking comfort, from pondering the automatic faith of a friend in “Neon Middle June” to the iridescent lies in an examination of the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol Building on “Truth Be Told.”
Throughout it all, though, Moreland is never afraid to confront the very thing that he’s distanced himself from throughout his life: faith, and the faith he was surrounded by as a child.
“That’s really one of the major things that I’ve been trying to make sense of,” he says. “When I started writing songs, I was transitioning into adulthood and starting to try to make sense of where I come from and who I am and who am I gonna be. Who am I really? It’s been consistently…I wouldn’t call it a struggle, but it is definitely the journey that I am still on.”
Though Moreland asks a lot of questions—and his new record is full of them—he finds a sense of tranquility in not having many of the answers.
“I’m at peace with it,” he admits.
As fans will hear on Birds in the Ceiling, Moreland’s journey isn’t just one that has pushed him toward more questions than answers in his songwriting, but it’s also one that’s opened him up to a more diverse musical expression of his songs. There were definitely moments of branching out from his typical acoustic-driven style on his fourth LP, Big Bad Luv, but it became clear on LP5 that he wanted to ensure he wasn’t simply fitting into a formula or mold.
“I don’t want to do the same thing over and over, ever,” he says. “That is becoming increasingly important to me. Earlier in my career, I just enjoyed exploring songwriting, but now, it’s been really cool to re-connect to the musical interests of my past. It’s become really important to me to make music that is interesting and exciting and moving to me and not fall back on the same presentation repeatedly.”
Birds in the Ceiling is a perfect encapsulation of that mentality and is a powerful continuation of the spaces Moreland explored on LP5. This makes sense, especially given that he teamed up with friend and LP5 producer, Matt Pence, for his latest record.
Moreland has long been a fan of Pence thanks to his band Centro-Matic. When he was working on LP5 and he learned that his manager was friends with the band, Moreland asked if she would reach out to see if Pence would be interested in collaborating.
“I admire him as an engineer, producer and musician,” Moreland says with an obvious smile on his face. “I learn so much from him every time I get to hang out with him and work with him. He’s been able to make my records sound better than I ever could and he helps me with ideas that are good but I don’t quite know how to execute. It’s just a natural fit. The thing I think should happen next in a song is almost always the thing he thinks should happen next—we’re kind of effortlessly on the same page. From the first day working with him, we just clicked.”
As Moreland celebrates the release of a new record, he’s not one to slow down. Though he’s not sure what his next record will sound like, he is willing to admit he’s already working on it.
“I’m always kind of writing down and keeping a list of ideas and lyrical fragments as they come to me,” Moreland confides. “Right now, I actually have some time booked to record the next album in December, so I’m going to be writing for the rest of the year. I’ve already got like six or seven songs, so I’m pretty well on the way and I’m going to keep writing until then and, well, we’ll see what happens.”
Will it be a continuation of the musical diversity found on Birds in the Ceiling, reflecting Moreland’s appreciation for ’90s pop? Or could his next album explore his love of punk music, taking Moreland back to his early records with his bands the Dust Bowl Souls or the Black Gold Band?
“My first band that I started was with friends from church, we were like little Christian punk kids,” he says, laughing. “MxPx was our favorite band.”
He thinks back on that time—a time when he was creating music that he admits the church he grew up in wasn’t that interested in—and where he’s at today, all the while considering his own sentiments of never wanting to “fall back on the same presentation.”
“Sometimes I think about making a punky record. I want to make a lot of records of all kinds of music, so yeah, I think that’ll happen at some point.”
13 John Prine Lyrics That Prove He Wrote Like No One Else
Prine’s lyrical stories were both fantastical and simple; he wrote with a Midwest-bred honesty and humor that kept listeners on their toes. His catalog, spread over 18 albums, contains vivid stories (“Lake Marie”), insightful looks at the human condition (“Hello in There”) and sweet love songs (“Aimless Love”).
These 13 Prine lyrics — largely pulled from his songs’ choruses — are some of his very best:
10 Fascinating Facts About the Ryman Auditorium
The Ryman Auditorium is revered for its world-class acoustics and long, storied history within country music. The venue began as a church — hence its nickname, “the Mother Church of Country Music,” and stained-glass windows — and quickly became a destination for live country music, helping popularize the genre and mold downtown Nashville into a rowdy, honky-tonk-filled destination.
Today, the Ryman Auditorium hosts residencies and concerts from not only country legends and hitmakers, but pop artists, speakers and more. However, there are some dark years in the building’s history; it was a now-legend who helped bring the venue back to its former glory.
How did the Ryman Auditorium become so iconic? Check out this list of 10 facts about the Mother Church to find out: