Abney Howls at the Moon

Fresh off a nationwide tour with John Moreland, with much national acclaim, OKC's beloved songwriter releases his solo project, "Coyote." We take another look at this songwriters process and particulars.

story by Justin Fortney | photos by Lindie Northup

We've been thinking about John Calvin Abney a lot in the last year--and especially this week, since his new LP, Coyote, drops 5/18. His tour with John Moreland last year brought appearances on NPR's cultish "Tiny Desk" concert series + "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert." But it's the season for Abney to again step out on his own. On Thursday 5/18, he got a heck of a boost when he was named a "Rolling Stone" magazine "Artist to Know." Said "RS," "it's a tender set of songs about the dark side of growing up and realizing that these realities will keep getting sharper and more urgent as time goes on, but without the music resting on melancholy. Instead, there's wisdom in acceptance." We figured it was well time to revive our interview with John Calvin Abney by another gifted Oklahoma musician, Justin Fortney.

All across the Oklahoma music scene, John Calvin Abney puts in work. In between tours around the country, he wears a familiar path between venues all over the state. He is musical energy; maybe he’s the Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma bands. The guy just doesn’t seem to get tired. 

A couple years ago, as I walked from stage to stage at Norman Music Festival, I had to shake my head at how many sets I saw Abney play. If he wasn’t on every stage I watched, he was pushing his gear down the sidewalk toward it. 

As an instrumentalist, he’s helped shape the sound of many of the most gifted current singer-songwriters in Oklahoma. But with his newest album, Far Cries and Close Calls, Abney’s making a mark with his own songwriting. It’s an album that feels natural and the good kind of familiar; not a throwback sound, but a reminder that new music can hit our ears in ways that we might have forgotten.

You recorded these songs in March, and with the album now released, do you feel like these songs are still changing as you play them live? Since most of the songs on the album were recorded with a full band, and I tour predominantly as a solo artist, you have to go out there and find interesting ways of presenting those songs. They grow, man. I’m playful with the lyrics live, depending on how I’m feeling or what’s going on that day or something I’m currently persevering through. The band on this recording was really intuitive, and we hadn’t rehearsed anything. I just sent them demos, and we recorded the whole thing in three days, and mixed it in one. 

You recorded this album to 2-inch tape (as opposed to an easily-edited digital file). What was the significance of that, and did it affect how you wrote and arranged the songs? Every one of my releases has been done to analog tape. It is an unbelievable experience. It’s harrowing. If you’re used to digital cut/copy/paste and pitch correction, that stuff is completely non-existent. You aim to nail your sound before you put it to tape. You’re capturing fleeting performances, whatever’s going on in that room. You can’t remove it. You become … ok. You learn to become satisfied with your performances, and you become more interested in first takes, second takes. It’s a beautiful experience. It cured me of perfectionism. The word intuition keeps coming to mind, because there was very little verbal communication with the incredible band. We just slammed it live. It was cosmic. Completely strange.

If you listen to any of my recordings, you’ll hear mistakes, and I think that’s beautiful. That’s human. When you heard an old recording from the ’70s, and there was a little mistake, you don’t think, “Oh, gross.” You think that person must have had red blood and lungs just like the rest of us.

Listen to Beggar’s Banquet (Rolling Stones) or Nebraska (Springsteen). Listen to Highway 61 (Dylan)—that was done on two-track—two microphones in a room, you know what I mean? It’s because performance was king.

By no means am I condemning either way of recording (digital or analog). I just love recording to tape because I think maybe it captures not just the music, but the person’s spirit and behavior and tendencies. It makes the tracks relatable to other human beings. The warmth of tape is unbelievable, and the noise is always present, and I love it. 

As an instrumentalist you’ve accompanied so many fantastic musicians like Samantha Crain, Kyle Reid, Levi Parham, John Moreland. As a songwriter, you’ve been prolific as well. Talk about how those two experiences are different on stage. As a side man, a Fleet Foxes lyric comes to mind: “a cog in some great functioning machinery.” I feel like I’m a soldier in an army that’s charging forward. I feel like, “Wow, we all need to be here together!” I feel a super sense of camaraderie as a side man. You’re on their side. You’re part of a team. Playing solo … I have to think about a lot of things. Interaction with the crowd. I think far too much when I’m playing my stuff. Sometimes, though, I hit my stride, and it’s a state of mind that’s instantaneous and fleeting, just a moment in life where everything is clear.

When I’m a solo artist, I’m also speaking my mind. I’m expressing personal opinions and battles, and I have to connect with an audience, and maybe I’m having a less than perfect day. If I’m a hired gun, I’m still expressing myself, but it’s within the context of someone else’s art, so I don’t have to think about it as much. Playing my own stuff, I have to dig deeper down within myself, and that’s not easy. 

What’s on your musical wish list right now? I wanna keep doing what I’m doing. Just make enough money to keep doing this. Oh wait, I got one. I want to play with a full 20- or 30-piece orchestra. I tried out for the OU music school. I tried out for guitar performance and music composition on piano, and I didn’t get in. I spent my entire freshmen year—I skipped math class—teaching myself piano and music theory. I learned so much and failed math simultaneously, and they still wouldn’t let me into the music program! I’d love to score some films, score some independent video games. I’m a huge fan of Yasunori Mitsuda, Keiichi Suzuki, Nobuo Uematsu, who are prominent Japanese video game composers.

What are you listening to right now that you think is extraordinary? I’m listening to Scott Hirsch. Unbelievable dude from California doing Tulsa sound kinda stuff with a Beach Boys vibe. The record’s called Blue Rider Songs. The Beachwood Sparks’ record from 2012 (The Tarnished Gold) is another alt-country, soft, psychedelic folk pop album that I just can’t stop listening to. Covered in pedal steel. So many of my friends are putting great music out, too. You know, some people say we’re just becoming inundated with music, and everyone’s a songwriter in the digital age—like that’s a bad thing. Who cares? There’s more people on earth expressing themselves than ever.

Check out Abney's new release, Coyote, which drops Friday 5/18 on the Black Mesa Records label. You can pre-order and read more on his website. Also, check out our events page for info on his Saturday, 5/19 show at Blue Door.