“Everything old is new again.”
This sentiment from Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager’s song of the same name feels apt against a background of familiar ground, which also happens to be the setting-based title John Calvin Abney gave to his latest full length album. Abney’s fifth in total and first following the death of the Oklahoma musician’s father back in early July, initially Familiar Ground sounds like anything but. Yet, stop to consider how Familiar Ground’s musicality and narrative foundations differ from their predecessors and it’s in that very difference that this album’s echoes of return and revival ring out the loudest.
“Stylistically, I don’t believe that I would have been able to see the, the more introspective and inwardly perceptive places that allowed me to write (Familiar Ground) if I had been bound to the highway,” Abney explains. “I’m very grateful for the introspective period that allowed me to write Familiar Ground, even though, you know, the lack of work (due to the world’s shutdown) was staggering. But I mean, I’m just becoming more in touch with the things that always mattered to me but (that) I couldn’t quite grasp.”
The thought of connecting the recognizable with the emergence of complete change sounds ridiculous at first. However, in terms of Abney’s realizations of both, it’s more a matter of re-prioritizing aspects of his own self that had always been there, rather than change being defined by entirely novel ideas.
“I still don’t think I’m, you know, close to uncovering any big secrets in our air any big you know inner revelations or anything,” Abney says. “I just, I just feel closer to my own personal truth, even if I’m still, you know, parsecs off. You know what I mean?”
Though known and deeply respected as the long time guitarist and supporter of artist John Moreland – who provides drums and bass, among other parts, on the album – five records deep, Abney is no stranger to wielding the power of his own voice and his individual reservoir of creativity. Having just released Safe Passage last year, one could even venture to say Abney has an energetic fervor for his solo work. However with Familiar Ground, the haste between projects did not foment from anxiousness or overflowing conceptualization. If anything, the rise of the music that would become the nine songs on this album was more natural and gradual than anything before it, with the tightly knit timing of its completion being more of a coincidence due to the unforeseen development of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Interestingly enough, this album has nothing to do with the shutdown or COVID or, you know, quarantine or any of these things. (M)ost of the songs had already been formed prior to the cancellation of the tours,” says Abney. “(John) Moreland and I just decided, like, literally the day that tours were canceled, he said, ‘Well, let’s just record the new record.’ So he lent me his old iMac and we ended up doing the entire record remotely from our own personal home studios.”
“The entirety of the record was more about trying to capture a feeling,” Abney continues. “But the feeling had less to do with the entirety of the (socio-political) events that were going on, COVID and the pandemic. The riffs came easy and a lot of the words came rapid and clear as crystal. There wasn’t any struggle with this album at all you know, I felt like with Safe Passage was I was tangling with that record a lot. But with (Familiar Ground), there was a smooth transference from mind the tape, which is a rarity, I think, in my in my case.”
Amusingly enough, the complete closure of the world – the utter standstill to which everything came – gave way to another set of coexistent opposites as Abney wrote: crowded singularity. While the individualism of social distancing and bubble life could conceivably leave limited options for Abney to ignite any inspiration and furthermore, would leave Abney much more by himself, his creativity was hardly left in an empty void.
“I had access to my library (and) I was able to read through a lot of stuff, you know, at home and a lot of things were resonating with me at the time, (like) Rainer Maria Rilke. I was reading the Duino Elegies, and I was reading Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (and) I was reading (author) Haruki Murakami. Gosh, man, there’s just so many (things) I was able to really dig into,” Abney shares.
It simply became a matter of gaining new awareness amid the loss of all previous routine. Rather than an artistic abyss, the peeling back of overly treaded layers in Abney’s everyday life made room for opinions, perspectives, emotions, and desires Abney either always had but could never properly nurture or, came to develop as a direct result of more focus on himself and away from bustling industry pressures.
“A lot of those (things) have to do with death, a lot of them had to do with memory, and perception of time, and strange routine. I mean, my whole life changed instantly. I spent 10 years on the highway, you know, and then all of a sudden, you know, everything that I had poured myself into, had turned.”
Beyond a renewed love for a straightforward bullet list of authors, writings, and concepts, however, it was the less tangible thing surfacing within Abney’s newly balanced sense of life that feel the most revelatory – particularly for those on the outside looking and listening in.
“I spent a lot of time just being – just existing. Like that was that was kind of the goal. I didn’t have to be (and) I didn’t have something to do. But I could create; I could be of service to others; and I could be of service to my loved ones and family and strangers in any way I possibly could,” Abney says.
“I started writing letters to fans if they requested one because it was a scary time for everybody,” he continues. “I started, you know, just trying to started doing like a Wednesday night live stream where, you know, I just talked with people and played songs by request you know, and that was early on, like 11 weeks straight. There was like a slight ego death all of a sudden because I felt like whatever money was coming in or whatever, you know, big publications, or whatever big shows I got, all that seemed so little when it seemed so big at one time. .And I wanted to understand myself and be there for other people because that was something that just couldn’t do as often (before).”
Though the album doesn’t fold in any timbres of dramatically unconventional quality from outside Abney’s instrumental arsenal of Rhodes, pedal steel, Mellotron, harmonica, organelle, acoustic guitar drums, bass, and piano, it’s the pacing, emotional energy, and unforced collection of reflections that give Familiar Ground its distinctly fresh character.
Boldly jumping from frustration with life’s transitions and a trudging acceptance of change on “I Don’t Get Excited Much Anymore,” to gathering up a slightly more emotional energy and optimistic patience to push forward the message of “When This Blows Over,” involves Abney tapping into sources of artistic passion that venture far beyond basic connections to, or alignment with, musical peers: All those authors breaching larger philosophical questions, poets considering the range of openness to one’s emotions, scenes in stories depicting places Abney enjoys merely because of what they represent with regard to human ingenuity, and the power of creativity that’s derived from parts of the brain completely separate from music making. Listeners come to experience and witness a palette of passions that color John Calvin Abney the human being, not just Abney the musical artist.
“A guitar and a song does not make John Calvin Abney. I mean, I defined myself that way but there’s so much more to John Calvin Abney than that,” he says.
Amid this observation and affirmation of Abney as a whole person, it would be a disservice not to acknowledge the loss of his father as a major component of emotional direction on this record, even though the album doesn’t go into specifics of his passing or even severely harp on death as a topic.
“I have been changed, you know? A lot of songs on the records include grief of not only people but grieving places that are not with us anymore,” Abney says.
“(The songs) are not all about grief (though) you know? Some of the songs are about acceptance.” Abney adds. “It’s almost as if, it’s not like ‘I’m sad so I’m writing a song.’ Instead of dwelling on like a dripping sadness or like a serious anger, it’s more of (saying) ‘Will this happen? I reacted to it. And now I have to accept that it happened and continue to move forward’.”
While “Evening Tide” does tackle the concept of death, aiming to bring a degree of comfort around discussing it and finding solace in cherished memories, the rest of the album merely allows the driving qualities attached to grief and loss to steer the core personality of Familiar Ground. Each song remains uncommitted to anything preceding or following them, leaving the album to exist as a free flowing journey in the present and Abney, for his view of the album, seems content to go with the flow of this open minded outcome for the foreseeable future.
“I was talking to (songwriter) Samantha Crain the other day and she made a really good point about how there’s a sense of relying on nostalgia to create music you know, instead of like creating music in the present tense. And I took resonance with that. There’s a positivity in acceptance and there’s also positivity in change. And so I feel as if, yes, going forward I will be making new and different music,” Abney affirms.
There’s a touch of irony – and herein lies a large part of where Familiar Ground’s sense of return and revival comes into play – to the fact that through Familiar Ground, Abney was able to grace the world with music so notably different than for what he’s become known. Any surprise after processing the album’s more introspective sonic profile or potpourri of experiential contemplations is a new reaction but only to that which is just Abney reconnecting with an unencumbered sense of creativity that often jumpstarts musicians at the very beginning of their journeys. In other words, an old creative space Abney had once been in long ago as an artist, is now seen and heard as novel, despite being part of his story all along.
“This year gave me some well needed perspective to mend some wounds, to deal with some grief, to write, and to express these strange and astronomically heavy things that we all have to deal with,” says Abney. “I’m one person, you know? I’m a drop in the ocean (but) that’s okay with me; that’s what I want to be. I’d rather be a drop in the entire ocean and be a part of it with everybody. Familiar Ground was, and is, just a way of me wading through that those waters.”