Interview by Sarah Ann Noel
Photography by Joe Friend
When I was a little girl, I used to imagine that I could take all of my very big feelings and put them into a song. I was envious of the poets who could bleed their heart, not just into limited words, but also into a melody. Music is something that can grip us all, and to be the one to do that, to create a mood, to make a feeling, seemed to me the epitome of artistry.
Certainly, it is something that John Runnels, the creator of Morning Bear, has mastered. His orchestral indie folk groove encapsulates the emotions behind growing up, letting go, and discovering oneself—exactly the sort of sound we all turn to when feelings run deep. Music has followed John through all of his life, most of it lived in Colorado; and now as Morning Bear sets out to tour through the fall, John sat down with me to explain his process, and how music has been for him what it was for me—what it is for most of us.
Your love affair with music has been lifelong.
You could say music has been a part of my life since before I was born. My parents would play records to me when I was in the womb, putting headphones on my mother's belly to share their favorite songs. It didn't take me long to start singing as a child. In fact, I was once disciplined in elementary school for singing too much. In parent-teacher conferences, my parents were told I was not allowed to sing during tests, nor while the teacher was talking. When confronted, my response, which my mother swears I said, was, "I always have a song in my heart, and sometimes it just pushes out of my mouth."
And eventually singing turned to writing as well.
It wasn't until puberty and teenage angst that I holed myself up in my room and taught myself to play guitar and write music. The very first song I learned was Creep by Radiohead, fitting for a melodramatic 14-year-old. Around 16 I started playing in front of audiences with my guitar, playing for change on the 16th Street mall in downtown Denver. I played as a singer-songwriter for a few years while studying Engineering at CU-Boulder, even took a semester off of school to record my first album.
You still became an engineer for awhile, though. What prompted your full-time music career?
After finishing my degree, I took a trip to visit my girlfriend at the time, who was studying abroad in Europe. That gave me my first taste of travel. I returned to the U.S. to work as an engineer, but I could not stop thinking about my time abroad—about how I wasn't pursuing my passion of music. Morning Bear was conceived during that trip, and it took until two years later for the project to come to term. By 2014, I could no longer stand to work a desk job and quit my cushy engineering position and bought a one-way ticket to the Old World. I returned to playing music in the streets, busking my way across a dozen countries and writing music as I went. In 2015, I returned to the US to tour, playing over 100 shows across the country.
Things took off from there!
I've managed to get on the main stage of most venues in Denver, including Gothic Theater. One of my proudest moments was receiving a call in November of last year from my cousin who had heard my music on my favorite local radio station, NPR-affiliate station 102.3 Open Air CPR. Another highlight has been playing in the off-venues of the Iceland Airwaves music festival to some of the most incredible audiences of my life. I cannot begin to express how lucky I feel, how happy I am to be able to pursue my music wholly, and how incredible it is to share beautiful moments with so many people.
It’s kind of a cliche thing to ask, but your music is so emotional, I'm going to ask anyway. What is the inspiration for your music?
Despite being a mostly happy person, I have never been one to write happy music; for whatever reason happiness has very rarely moved me to create. The struggles of a broken heart, the uneasiness of taking a risk, fighting to forgive—these types of feelings inspire me most. Music is one of the ways I process emotion and has helped me get through some of the hardest times of my life. Music allows the opportunity to communicate something much more deeply than words alone. Being able to share a catharsis with someone, and to help them get through a difficult time, that's what keeps me making music. It's about allowing yourself to experience the difficult emotions, to acknowledge them, and move past them. It's about rejoicing in the human condition, and in the moments that make our lives both difficult and meaningful. Those moments are what I try to capture in my songs and performances.
So how do you do that then?
I have never been one of those artists who can just sit down and write. I belong to the other camp of artists who rely on being stricken with inspiration. Writing to me is almost like channeling. Generally, this starts with me messing around on an instrument. Suddenly I'll hear something that I like, and will start to flesh out the idea. Once there's a basic foundation, I usually start improvising melodies and lyrics. It is a process of trial-and-error, of searching and testing until something sticks. I'll often try out songs in front of audiences while ad-libbing, and if something great comes out I will try to remember it. Sometimes I get lucky and the song comes quickly, and other times it takes over a year for everything to crystallize. Some of my best songs were written in an evening, bursting out of me like an alien. Those songs tend to be the most raw, emotional, and sincere, the types of songs that I aspire most to create. The problem is those moments can be far and few between.
I really like that you try out songs on your audiences!
Live performances are my favorite part of the musical process. There's no capturing the magic of a live performance on tape or video. Live performances are all unique moments that have never happened before and will never happen again. It allows for a different interpretation of the song every iteration. Songs can change over time, just like people. I've been amazed to see how my own songs have changed to me over the years. In particular, "Celeste" was written at a time of great despair in my life. When I wrote it, I considered it hands-down the saddest song I had written or performed. It was so emotional to me that it was sometimes a struggle to get through a performance. "Celeste" was about being driven mad by love and about losing yourself in the worst way. Now my interpretation has changed entirely; instead, the song is about making it through the toughest times in order to survive, about sacrifice for a greater good, about persevering for something incredibly important. I never expected that to happen, and perhaps in a few years, it will change for me again.
Do you feel you're more tied to a certain part of your music then? Or more to performing over recording?
My relationship with the music (rhythm, melody) is much stronger than with the words. In fact, when hearing a new song I sometimes don't even hear lyrics until the 3rd or 4th listen. Perhaps that is why I am such a fan of artists like Radiohead; their lyrics are barely intelligible, yet their textures and melodies are incredibly intricate and emotive. And as for recording [over performing], that's an entirely different process to me. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, which is a double-edged sword when it comes to recording. Recording is one of those disciplines where there is never a comfortable end point. You can always improve tone, always tweak the EQ, always mess with the details.
You’re heading out for the rest of the summer and fall, touring basically the whole country. What does it mean to you to be a Colorado artist when you’re globetrotting?
Having lived in Colorado since I was two-years-old, I consider myself a native. Colorado is an incredible place for music and art. Denver has a great balance of supply-and-demand when it comes to music. The scene is not oversaturated with people struggling to "make it," who are willing to claw their way to the top at the expense of others; yet, there are still enough local bands to have someone playing every night of the week, often with multiple fantastic shows happening at once. Denver is full of musicians who are in it for the right reasons: to create art, and to build and support a community. It’s less about competition and instead a surplus of collaboration.
I have thought about moving somewhere else for the opportunity, but truly Denver is a fantastic place for a musician at my level. It also feels disingenuous to move somewhere else for musical success; I'm a Denver musician, and I'd like to find my success out of Denver. The only reason I am thinking to move away is because I've never lived anywhere else. In a way, I'm afraid of not leaving because Denver is so great. I feel this urge to live somewhere else for a year, so I can return and settle in Denver knowing that it is the best place for me. Though things are changing rapidly around here, and though I may move away for a time, I will always consider Colorado my home.