John Calvin Abney’s new album Safe Passage meant one thing when he finished recording it. However, things changed markedly when the Oklahoma singer-songwriter-guitarist’s father passed away during early July, on the day he announced the album’s Sept. 27 release.
“The name of the record and a lot of these songs took on brand new meanings after my father passed,” Abney, who’s also the full-time guitarist in fellow Oklahoman John Moreland’s band, tells Billboard. “It almost felt premonitory. Even the title took on that idea of a person changing from live to dead, a passage of a spirit. All of a sudden I was just hoping my dad made it to wherever he was going, which is such a wild thing to think about.”
The death of a friend had already informed many of the 10 tracks on the melodic, acoustic-flavored Safe Passage, his fourth full-length album, which Abney recorded during two different sessions after a batch of additional songs came along. “It wound up being a rather perilous journey through one’s own mental architecture,” Abney notes, but that wasn’t necessarily a negative exercise, either.
“I was trying to the best of my ability to process how the world was carrying me,” Abney explains. He adds that those later tracks — “Kind Days, “Typeface in Bold” and “Soft Rain After All” — were intended to look outside himself for a more universal experience.
“As somebody who writes from personal experience, sometimes it’s hard to get into a story or something beyond that. The first session, most of those songs were very, very personal. But with the amount of people looking for safety for themselves and the ones they love in this world today, I also wanted to write about better days for everybody. So it wound up being an amalgamation of a lot of different ideas all on this one record.”
Abney came up with the lush, ringing music for “Maybe Happy,” the album’s closing track which Billboard premieres below today (Aug.28), about a year and a half ago on a piano at a friend’s house in Austin, Texas. He later penned the lyrics in Utrecht while on tour in Europe with Moreland. “When the words hit the page I thought it was more about a personal experience, like me talking to an old friend,” Abney says. “But now I felt taken by this recording because it feels like I’m almost talking to my dad. It feels good and kind of harrowing at the same time.”
The song’s placement at the end of Safe Passage also lends “Maybe Happy” a tone of fare thee well — for the listener as well.
“This is really what gets me about the way music is headed in this ringtone generation,” Abney says. “Everybody wants to hear a clip or a song, never, like, the whole record. I’ve always been enamored by the album format, going from point A to point C, the telling of a story throughout the entire record to a final song that’s like the last chapter or an epilogue. That’s so important, but I’m afraid we’re really losing that anymore.”
Abney, who also serves as a sideman for Samantha Crain, will be playing with and opening for Moreland during fall tour dates starting next month and is also eyeballing some dates of his own, probably during October and November.
“I’m good at strategizing for when [Moreland’s] got time off and it usually works out perfectly fine,” says Abney, who also turned 30 amidst the loss and tumult that inspired Safe Passage. “I feel pretty good. A lot of shit’s already happened. You just learn now ways on how to live and how to tour better. I feel like I’ve gained some necessary knowledge and experience living out of my car or a van 200 days out of the year.”
Hear Abney’s “Maybe Happy” below.