Oklahoma musician John Calvin Abney forges a hopeful tone with new album 'Safe Passage'
A version of this story appears in Friday's Weekend Life section of The Oklahoman. To read my interview with Beau Jennings, click here.
John Calvin Abney sets hopeful tone with second album in two years, 'Safe Passage'
John Calvin Abney's brain sometimes just gets full.
"I just felt like I needed to get another collection of tunes out. I had a lot to say, and I write all the time, wherever I am. There's only so much brain space, so you just write it down and then fill it up again," Abney said by phone from a New Jersey hotel.
"You just keep writing and then you keep getting more ideas, and if you don't write 'em down, you lose 'em because new ideas flood in and push the old ones out. People have been requesting songs from older records ... that I just can't recall because I've been saving neural space for new songs."
The Oklahoma singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist last month released his second album in as many years with "Safe Passage," the follow-up to his May 2018 collection "Coyote."
"I just felt like it was time. It's more of a feeling or an intuition. I don't feel like I need to constantly produce material for anyone, even myself. I just enjoy the process of being in the studio, and I enjoy the process of creating music, recording music. Because I compose and I write all the time, but to record and produce and arrange music on the fly when you're in the studio is the best feeling. It's not exactly cheap sometimes, but it's fun."
The fun will continue when Abney plays home-state shows Oct. 18 at Tulsa's Mercury Lounge and Oct. 19 at Oklahoma City's 51st Speakeasy. He will split the bill for both concerts with fellow Oklahomans Beau Jennings & The Tigers, which recently released their new album "The Thunderbird."
Abney soaks in a wide variety of musical influences, from Tulsa Sound pioneer JJ Cale and nine-time Grammy winner Sheryl Crow to Japanese pop godfather Haruomi Hosono and virtuosic guitarist Molly Tuttle. Even acclaimed video game music composers Shogo Sakai and Yasunori Mitsuda make the expansive list.
The Tulsan also is influenced by the musicians he performs with on the road or in the studio, including fellow Oklahomans John Moreland and Samantha Crain as well as Lee Bains III & The Glory Fires. He plays guitar in Moreland's band, a gig that has taken him all over the world, with high-profile stops in Washington, D.C., for NPR's Tiny Desky Concerts, New York City for “CBS This Morning” and England for “Later … with Jools Holland."
Abney said he wielded multiple instruments on Moreland's upcoming album, while Moreland played guitar on his "Safe Passage."
"This album was particularly influenced by '60s pop music and '60s cosmic country stuff. I was listening to a lot of Gram Parsons and the Beach Boys and the Traveling Wilburys. I've always been a huge Tom Petty fan, and 'Days of Disconnect,' Moreland played this 12-string line on the chorus that was particularly Petty-esque that made me smile. I also started listening and rediscovering the Beatles ... and I've always been a lifelong (Bob) Dylan fan, too," Abney said.
For "Safe Passage," he penned 30 to 40 songs, recorded 18 and put 10 on the final record. Since he penned the songs months after releasing "Coyote," he isn't surprised that the new collection has its own distinctive earthy vibe.
"I loved 'Coyote.' I loved making 'Coyote.' Each of the records have their own voice ... and as the albums come, you just get to know yourself better and that helps you get to know the world around you better. I don't feel like any of it's one-offs. I feel like they're all strung together with a thread of heart, with a thread of humanity," Abney said.
"I've been a part of a lot of different genres and I love a lot of different types of music, and I just find myself changing and evolving from record to record. ... As I create, I'm pulled or pushed in directions that are influenced by where I'm at, what I'm doing, who i've been playing with, records I've been spinning, where I've been touring, the general climate of where I'm at and who I'm around and what I'm doing. Everything."
Although he has experienced some career highlights over the past few years, Abney also has dealt with tragedies like the deaths of his grandmother and a close friend. On the day he announced "Safe Passage," his father passed away suddenly.
"'Safe Passage' is a hopeful record. It carries with it a tone of light and of healing and of compassion. ... Incidentally, there were songs that were going to go on this record about my father that i did not put on this record. But I might put them on the next record," he said.
"The whole record is about recovering from grief and these things that have taken our lives over like addiction and social media, just inunadating ourselves with crap all of the damn time and beating ourselves up and not giving ourselves enough grace. ... This record is a big book of self-reminders, honestly. I could sing all these songs to myself every day just as a mantra, to say it's OK."
Abney said he doesn't consider music a therapeutic tool because writing songs is so difficult. But he does view it as an "emotional practice."
"The more that we live our lives, the more emotion that entails and the more we have access to those kind of darker depths and those brighter highs," he said. "It's a dark reality, but we are finite. We only have so much time, and we find the best ways to use that time. And I feel like that has to do with being someone who is helpful and selfless and compassionate."