Why John Moreland Released a Surprise Album

Listen to a track from Visitor, and read our interview with the Oklahoma singer-songwriter on unplugging from his phone and staying true to himself

A portrait of a man with a sunset behind him

Photo: courtesy of john moreland

John Moreland.

For six months in 2023, John Moreland did something many of us have thought about: He got rid of his smartphone. The year prior, Moreland released Birds in the Ceiling, an album with a fuller sound than the esteemed singer-songwriter is known for, including drum machine beats and electronic squiggles filling the typically stark and silent spaces. The album drew a mixed reaction from fans, and the naysayers became the loudest voices in his head. He says he spent so much time doom scrolling through various news sites and social media apps that the digital noise began to affect his mental health. “Eventually, I knew that I was at my capacity and couldn’t do anything for a while,” he says from his home in Bixby, Oklahoma. “I had to figure out how to be a person and be okay again.”

John Moreland’s new album, Visitor.

Carrying an old flip phone in case his wife needed to reach him, Moreland focused on his well-being, taking long nighttime drives to clear his head, sometimes bringing his guitar along and making field recordings out in the expansive Oklahoma plains. And he began crafting songs for his exceptional new album, Visitor, released this month with no advance notice or promotion. He recorded the album at home, playing almost everything by himself, and it marks a return to the sparse, exquisitely melancholy yet also hopeful songs that have made him one of contemporary music’s most compelling voices. Listen to “Gentle Violence” from the album below, and read our interview with Moreland about going digital-free, a new way of touring, and what apps he won’t download on his new iPhone. 

Visitor is available to order here, and see Moreland’s upcoming tour dates here.

Many people would love a return to analog. I know I would, at least. Was it easier or more difficult than you expected? 

The first few days felt really weird. But after that, it became like, “Oh my God, this is awesome.” It felt liberating. I stopped getting so many texts because I couldn’t easily send as many texts. My wife did it, too. She started before me and encouraged me to try it. She found some old-timey flip phone that you can still buy, so I got one, too. We were surprised because we expected to get a more “You guys are weird” vibe from our friends, but everybody we told was like, “That rules!” 

You’ve mentioned 2022 was a challenging year. How so? 

The grind of touring reached the peak of what my capacity is. I was getting body-shamed on the Internet often during the tour. It was random people being assholes, but it put me in a state where it was scary to play. I play solo, whether it’s just one person or three hundred, and it can feel vulnerable. I was scared that I was gonna be attacked from every angle, and it just made it hard to go in front of people.  

Obviously, getting rid of your iPhone changed your life. Did it impact your creativity and songwriting?

It opened things up because the noise was out of the way, and there were fewer distractions. To write songs, I need to be by myself. I reflect a lot. That’s always been a part of how I do it. The crazier the world is, the less I get that. 

When we talked a couple of years ago, you mentioned that you had already written six or seven songs for the next album. Did some of those make it onto Visitor? 

The first three came from that time. And another one is older, but other than that, everything else was written last June and July.

So maybe you’d already been thinking somewhat about digital detachment.

Yeah, I think I’ve wanted to hide from the world for a long ass time [laughs].

Do you still prefer to write at night?

Mostly. Sometimes I get on a wave where I’m writing more intensely or frequently, and I’ll write throughout the day for a period. But usually that’s just a week or something. I don’t write all that regularly. People always ask me for advice for young songwriters, and I tell them to write all the time. But then, I don’t do that [laughs].

Some of the new songs are very personal, but others have more of a social bent on the state of the world.

I have to be really careful with news and social media. I don’t have many of those apps on my new phone. I’m not pointing fingers, but I think when we don’t look at ourselves honestly, we don’t take care of our own shit. We can be really terrible around people and ourselves. But I’m not judgmental. I had some more pointed songs, but I didn’t use them. I was writing, doing the best I could to express where I was at and what I was feeling, and in the end, the ones that weren’t judgmental were the ones that felt the best. 

Some of your hardcore fans weren’t expecting you to dabble in electronics on the last album. Did that play any part in your return to more sparse, acoustic sounds?

None. It was what I felt like doing [at the time]. During the last year, when I stripped everything away, it was in line with my gravitation toward acoustic instruments and live performances. I overhauled the way I was touring. There were two vehicles at one point, and I had too much of a crew. But now it’s just my wife and me, and I’ve been playing solo. And that’s a nice way to tour for me. 

You said being solo onstage was sometimes challenging. Has working through the mental health aspect made you more comfortable?

Oh, yeah. But I also got some medication. I was telling my doctor about all the anxiety and stuff, and he prescribed me some beta-blockers. I didn’t know about them at all. If I’m nervous and worried about how I might screw up a song that night, my mind might still be anxious, but the medicine blocks the adrenaline response. My body isn’t jacked up all night, you know? I have played a few shows recently, and it’s been way easier than before. I’m excited to play shows again because, for a while, it was just brutal. Now, I like being out there and playing, doing stuff, and seeing the world with my wife. It’s much more enjoyable.