John Calvin Abney

After nearly a decade touring—playing 150 to 250 shows depending on the year—Tulsa’s John Calvin Abney is sitting and savoring the small moments. “I mean, just making your own coffee in the morning can be a profound process to begin your day,” he says with trademark ease in his voice. 

His fifth studio album Familiar Ground, the first he’s written since his father’s passing, percolates this idea like an old coffee pot. Abney mulls over just what it means to pass the time and fully experience our fleeting lives on earth. Pulled by pangs of steel pedal guitar and buoyed by his gentle vocals, his new record takes us on a meandering journey through cities of the mind. Though Abney’s influences are far-reaching, from the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to contemporary peers like Laura Marling and Christian Lee Hutson to the surreal writing of Haruki Murakami, his art has the intimacy of a conversation with an old friend.

When the tour for his longtime collaborator John Moreland’s latest record was canceled in March due to the pandemic, Abney began writing the songs that would soon comprise Familiar Ground. Using a ten-year-old iMac, Abney crafted the tracks piece by piece, writing on guitar, piano, and Mellotron then sending them over to Moreland, who would add drums and bass. They bounced the songs back and forth remotely between their home studios, with Abney playing piano and synthesizers and composing the strings that lend the record a dreamy, expansive feel. Nashville’s Don Eanes played Rhodes and B3 on several songs, while session musician Whit Wright contributed steel guitar to the record.

Longtime Abney fans will notice a markedly softer sound from the Oklahoma musician, who’s traded in aural urgency for tender moments. “I feel like I had spent years accidentally obscuring parts of who I am through constant work and now, every single day heading forward, I find out a little bit more about myself,” he reflects. “Familiar Ground’s a good step towards that because I’ve found that the softer, more contemplative compositions speak more to me as a person than earlier records I’ve made with bombastic arrangements. Those don’t speak to me as I am now, but of course, these things can always change.”

“Shine Like A Friend” is one such song that drifts through your mind with unhurried tranquility. “We're stuck between / coming and going / forever taking leave, saying goodbye,” Abney sings, finding a bittersweet beauty in the transience of life, as the track dissipates by the end into gossamer ambience. “Evening Tide,” though a “sweet feeling” in execution, proved one of the most difficult tracks for Abney to write. He aimed to help listeners feel comfortable with death: “I wanted to tell people that one’s memories of those people really allow them to thrive well past their transition.” 

Beyond an acceptance of our own mortality, Abney also contemplates what it takes for us to weather the storms of life on album opener “When This Blows Over.” He paraphrases the beloved Irish poet Seamus Heaney on the bridge, reminding us over a twangy soundscape that “We can summer together / if we can winter this.” 

Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, an imaginative exploration of fantastical places, proved another seminal literary influence on Familiar Ground. “I love the natural world, but there is something majestic and alluring about being in the city,” Abney shares. “There’s something that occasionally draws me to it, the wonders of architecture and the ability to grow these massive metropolises from concrete and steel and people inhabit these wildly compartmentalized places that stood where there was nothing once.” His love for these urban spaces was part of what drew him to Japan for a whirlwind, weekend-long trip that inspired the final track “Tokyo City Rain.” Touring nearly nonstop had left him little time to simply exist in a place, so Abney spontaneously maxed out his credit card so he could pray at the steps of Meiji Shrine and meander through Ueno and Harajuku without worrying about set times. The song itself draws upon city pop, capturing the vibe of Tokyo through found sound and bright, zippy synthesizers. Abney’s experience had something of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation to it in its brief yet impactful nature: “When I returned / it felt like a dream / tracing tall buildings / in the summer steam.”

Familiar Ground is Abney most comfortable with himself, taking the time to soak in elongated chord progressions and absorb the world around him. In nine songs, he manages to plumb the melancholic depths of existence while still imbuing the album with life-affirming optimism. This isn’t the blind positivity of someone unwilling to explore the darkness, but the hopeful words from an artist who’s been to the other side of the moon and back. After your first, fourth, or fortieth listen, you’ll come away “more in tune with today than yesterday or tomorrow."