Fed up with studio slickness and spoon-fed hits, the introspective songwriter releases the year's most honest album
By Marissa R. Moss August 21, 2015
It's a little after 11:00 am on a Tuesday, and Kip Moore is sitting at a table in the back of a chicken restaurant called Party Fowl near downtown Nashville, sipping a glass of water and thumping out the bassline to the Temptations' "My Girl" on his inky denim-covered leg.
He sings the famous intro in a pitch one or two notches higher than his unmistakable sandpaper howl, dipping his chin up and down to the beat as his brows — brown, with little specks of errant gold — rise. "I got sunshine. . . "
For all the gritty anthems on his much-anticipated second record, Wild Ones, released today, and all the Asbury Park-inspired licks that turn those Western collars blue, Moore, 35, has a diehard dedication to Motown. "Sam Cooke is probably my favorite of all time," he says in his tight, South Georgia drawl. "If I had my go-to desert island artist, it would probably be him." Mostly, he admires those basslines — the way they swivel and curve, not just follow the groove like most songs that currently reign on country radio. If you listen to tracks like "Magic" and "That Was Us" on Wild Ones, there it is, loud and clear: a throbbing pulse, walking a different path entirely from the melody.
There's no Cooke on the P.A. at Party Fowl, but there is Top 40 — a medley of hits like Brad Paisley's "Crushin' It" and, at one point, Moore's own single "I'm to Blame" — the latter met with a subtle eye roll. It's early, and Moore's not particularly hungry yet. After some studying of the menu, he decides to stick with water but feels a little guilty about not ordering anything. Guilty enough to ask the waitress to charge him for a Coke he didn't drink so he can leave a tip, but not guilty enough to ask for a basket of fried chicken skins just for appearance's sake. That's not his style.
"It all sounds great, but this is very fattening stuff right here," he says, turning around in his chair to ask his publicist if they can swing by the local health food store when he's done. It's not that Moore doesn't have bad habits: he has plenty, indeed. He smokes cigarettes (though only when he's writing); he drinks his share of whiskey; he's been known to sabotage a relationship or two. But he just isn't in the mood for greasy snacks — he's already feeling the physical effects from the promotional mayhem surrounding the release of Wild Ones, the constant touring and the long, uneasy road he travelled to get here. It's all taken its toll.
"My body is just pushed to the very end," he says. "I've done two-hundred-plus shows a year for three straight years, and I'm on track to do it again this year. I talk to my other [artists] buddies and they're like, 'Naw, we're not doin' that.' What am I doing to myself?"
He's speaking sarcastically, but there have been many times since the release of Up All Night — the best-selling debut for a country newcomer in both 2012 and 2013, buoyed by the Number One "Somethin' Bout a Truck" — where Moore had been pushed to the limits. There were nights spent sitting in the car outside the studio, puffing on cigarettes and thinking about lyrics to songs that he feared no one might ever hear. Personal relationships crumbled, and a single that was supposed to yield a second record, "Dirt Road," failed to crack the Top 40. This didn't feel like sophomore slump — it felt like sophomore splat.
"You start hearing the chatter: 'That's it, he's done,'" Moore says, looking off towards the corner of the restaurant for a minute, as if that choir of evil naysayers could be lurking anywhere. "Oh, I was hearing it. From other record labels, other people telling radio things: 'Why are you playing him now? He's done.' You start getting in your own head. It was a very vulnerable time, and there then are songs that came out of it, like 'Heart's Desire.' They're complete desperation."
"I will not stand on stage and pretend to be something I'm not."
"Desperation" is a word that comes up a lot in conversation with Moore. It's how he felt when the poor radio impact of "Dirt Road" forced him to scrap an entire record's worth of songs; how he felt when he realized those songs were tinged with a darkness he couldn't shake; how he often feels when days upon days on the road have made it all but impossible to have a proper romantic relationship. But for Moore, the word "desperate" means something different than its standard dictionary definition — maybe a little bit like how Bruce Springsteen, one of his idols, often painted pictures of a desperate American dream, where letting go is never an option, even as the rope he's clinging to frays.
Wild Ones is a combination of this desperation and an aggressive quest for victory. Songs like the title track balance an almost menacing drum call with triumphant choruses; others, like "Magic," capture that chugging sweet spot between ballad and midtempo rock done so well by the likes of Bryan Adams and Springsteen himself. Even down to Wild Ones' cover art of a fluorescent-tinged Moore with a fist in the air, he's teetering that line. He fought for the image like everything else: he didn't want to smile. He thought of William Wallace, rolling into battle, his face covered in blue paint in Braveheart (Moore likes movies — another song that didn't make the final cut, "Just One Beer," was inspired by a scene in The Wrestler).
It's still hard for him to shake the war he didn't win with "Dirt Road." To this day, he wonders what exactly kept it from becoming a radio success.
"I struggle with it all the time," he says. "It was during a time, I guess, where there was a lot of stuff being written about tailgates and beer, and they saw the title and expected it to be about a certain kind of thing. But it wasn't at all — it was about the angst of being a kid in that Southern Baptist town and always having things shoved down your throat and making you feel horrible about the person you were."
Moore seems most hurt that people didn't stop and listen to the story of "Dirt Road," and that it was so easily tossed into the beer-pong bucket of some of his more "bro-country" swinging contemporaries. Because as much as the fist-pumping, tailgate- loving trend hurt female airplay, it also hurt voices like Moore — damaged by simple association. "Dirt Road" was a victim of friendly fire.
It didn't help that his first major hit, "Somethin' Bout a Truck," slotted him easily alongside bro-country forbearers on title alone, but those who spent a little time with Up All Night discovered a different artist — a songwriter more in line with Eric Church than Luke Bryan, enamored with the restless spirit of roots-rock heroes like Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Joe Cocker and Bob Seger. "Dirt Road" was less about Coronas and more about contemplation, but it just didn't work on radio. And when he emerged with "I'm to Blame," it's almost like he was taking the fall not just for romantic failures, but for the course charted in Up All Night's wake. There's nothin' about a truck on Wild Ones — just stories spun from lovers' spats, broken relationships and an undying drive not simply to prove everyone wrong, but to stick with what's right.
"Kip is a rare talent in modern music, because he is pursuing music not for fame and fortune, but to express himself and to talk to the people he sings for," says Jewel, who took Moore on tour in 2010 before he was anywhere near a Nashville household name. Now, they're working on new music together. "He is the real deal. Writes what he sings, in it for the all the right reasons, and his heart is in every note he sings. This was obvious to me when I first heard demos by him before he even had a record out, and that's why I took him on the road with me all those years ago."
Moore moved to Nashville in 2004, after a stint living on pennies in a Hawaiian hut. Although he was born in Tifton, Georgia, he developed an affinity for surfing, something he likes to do on tour when the occasion allows. He's taken a little flak from some country diehards for a hobby that's more Jack Johnson than Alan Jackson, but he shrugs that off as dismissively as any genre talk.
"Watching Kip from the crowd last year, we were a block from Times Square," says Charlie Worsham, marveling at Moore's dedicated East Coast following, even in New York. He studied Moore first-hand as "Dirt Road" crumbled and he'd disappear nightly with his cowriters after shows. "All the walls are coming down, and it's going to be a great thing for Kip and his music. . . If there is a good thing about any trends happening today, with all of the complex situations out there, is that if you are a real artist, it forces your hand earlier in your career. It might mean a little more struggle, but that causes true artists like Kip to see things in black and white a little more. Ultimately that wins. As long as you are willing to do the marathon, and not the sprint."
But Music Row doesn't exactly love the slow game, and Moore, who crafts every song with a team of trusted collaborators like co-writers Westin Davis and Dan Couch, and producer Brett James, was offered a few surefire, spoon-fed hits post-"Dirt Road," written by others.
"It was so against who I am as an artist," he says. "But I replied in the nicest way, 'I''ll quit music before I do these songs.' I will not stand on stage and pretend to be something I'm not. I won't do it, and I never will. I've written four or five more bodies of work since I've finished this record. I'll never stop."
The mere suggestion of singing outside songs fueled the fire. Once Moore had a few new tracks under his belt, he decided to quietly release a live EP, Soundcheck, just to test the waters and show that he wasn't afraid, even with the laser focus on his career, to take a stance.
"I heard something on the radio and it drove me nuts, because I could hear how much effing Auto-Tune was going on," he says, "and how much shit was in the way. I called my manager, and said, 'I want to do a live cut of some of the new songs from the record before it comes out.' And not only live, but straight through the console board. No tweaking, bare bones. Now you cut and paste so much, you couldn't polish a turd back in the days of guys like Queen, everything going straight to tape. Now you can polish anything."
Wild Ones, while not recorded to tape, was made like a rock record instead of a mainstream take on country-pop. There are no drum fills or fuzzy ambiguous instrumental sounds that come from a click of a button. He was sick of albums being essentially "produced by session players," where the artist walks in, hands over a song and lets the "pros" do what they will with the music (hence those often boring, obedient basslines). This LP sounds like something made by a band, occasionally a little imperfect, with Moore's deep rasp more tender than ever. It's big and booming, sure, but also strikingly unadorned at times.
"I was always drawn to powerful voices that made me feel something," he says. Seger's greatest hits record was the first CD he ever bought as a kid. "People that had grit and tone in their voice. I've never been a fan of a really pretty singer. Even pretty female voices. I've always been more drawn to people like Stevie Nicks who had grit and heartache in there."
Moore clings to that heartache, too. If there's one thing he's really afraid of, it's happiness. The album ends with "Comeback Kid," a piano-driven moment of reclamation; but it's somber, too. "Just keep holding on," is the last line, as the record fades to black.
"I feel like I'm on a constant search for joy and peace," he says, admitting he may keep it at arm's length to fuel his creative fire. "I'll catch it in a few fleeting moments. I walk around — I'm good, I'm happy, I'm smiling. But I struggle behind closed doors a lot. I definitely find [happiness] on stage, but there are times when I'm hiding a ton of pain nobody knows. When I go surfing, I get up before the sun rises, before anybody else. And I find it in those moments."
It's not exactly the most common mainstream country image. A restless soul looking for contentment by himself out on the water, unafraid to admit that he's no joyful truck-driving, beer-swigging soldier, weary that too much happiness might kill his muse. But that's Moore: a pulsing bassline, following a different path entirely from the melody