When Kip Moore released his debut album, Up All Night, in 2012, it was a success almost out of the gate. With hits like “Something ‘Bout a Truck,’ which Moore’s sexy, raspy delivery managed to elevate out of country’s truck rut, “Hey Pretty Girl” and “Beer Money,” the album put the Tifton, Georgia, native in the spotlight. But despite critical kudos, his sonically ambitious second album Wild Ones underperformed, and suddenly the town that hailed him as a new original voice got busy writing his swan song. It was, Moore tells PEOPLE, “a kick in the teeth.”
But the singer’s had a few knocks before — it took him nearly a decade in Nashville before he was signed to a record deal — and besides, he was seeing something at his live shows that wasn’t showing up on the record charts. “Wild Ones was gaining a massive, underground cult-like following and we were tripling our fan base,” Moore says. His musical convictions confirmed, the singer began writing for a third album, finding inspiration far outside Nashville. An extended adventure hiking across Iceland and exploring Costa Rica cleared his mind and fueled his new effort, Slowheart. It’s a funny, defiant, romantic, raucous collection (produced mostly on his own) that also serves as a middle finger to anyone who counted him out.
Moore, 37, is an artist comfortable on the outside of Nashville looking in, whether he’s taking a stand after the tragedy in Charlottesville when most of his country contemporaries stayed silent (“If your parents taught u 2 hate people of color they’re idiots,” he Tweeted. “If you’re an adult & still spewing their hate, that makes u a bigger idiot”) or crashing in a hostel when he could afford the Ritz. The musician talks to PEOPLE about his new album, why red carpets make him anxious and why his free spirit might be willing to settle down … someday.
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PEOPLE: Before you finished this album, you took two long trips to Costa Rica and to Iceland. Why did you need to get away?
KIP MOORE: At the end of the tour last year, I was completely fried. I felt my soul was begging me to give it a release. It was the best thing I could have ever done for myself and you see it with the songs I wrote before I left and the songs I wrote after – there are two different Kips in there.
PEOPLE: How so?
KM: The first half is the aching and vulnerabilities I’m feeling and the second half is more hopeful. “Plead the Fifth” was written before I left and has a stubborn quality, but “Try Again” is a more hopeful song. It’s written from the standpoint of, “The next time I’m holding something I care about so much, this is how I hope to treat it.”
PEOPLE: Why was it inspiring to get out of Nashville?
KM: I’m not afraid to talk about God and it’s something I have a faith in. But I feel his presence more in those really profound, quiet moments of solitude. I can’t seem to get those as much around here, so I go to seek them out. Iceland is probably the closest I ever felt to it. That place did a lot for my soul.
PEOPLE: Did any crazy adventures on your travels make it into the songs?
KM: “I’ve Been Around” came after the travels, but that’s more poking fun at where my life has gone. I’ve always been outspoken about the fact that I have no care for material things. I’m not going to post a picture of being inside a fancy jet. It doesn’t mean anything to me. But I find it funny that – in an organic way – sometimes I find myself in this room with these wealthy businessmen drinking thousand dollar bottles of wine because of where I’ve gotten in my career. It’s really a song about how silly my life has gotten at times, cause you can give me a $10 bottle of wine and I’d be just fine.
PEOPLE: After the success of “Something ‘Bout a Truck,” you were still sleeping on the couch in your music publishing office. What’s life like now? Do you have a big house? A fancy car?
KM: I still live very, very simply. I’m afraid to get comfortable because I’m scared to lose … I’m scared I might become … civilized? Not civilized … but I’m afraid I’ll lose that sense of where I’ve come from and that drive that’s gotten me to where I’m at. When I travel, I still bounce around in hostels. All through Iceland we did hostels. I could stay at the Four Seasons, but it doesn’t do as much for my soul staying in those places. When I stay at a hostel, it keeps me centered and I love the people I meet. There are great people in those nice places too, but I’m going to relate more to that backpacker in that hostel who is super excited about life and seeing beauty in the small things the way that I am.
Here in Nashville, I have a little two-bedroom house and that’s the way I like it. I do have a nice car, but I’ve got a deal with Chevy, so I didn’t buy it! That’s about the only really nice thing I’ve got. I know this is going to get me in trouble, but it’s the way I feel: we live in a time where it’s cool to present this luxurious lifestyle on social media. I don’t want to be a part of something that makes people not be happy with their own life and crave this false sense of reality. I don’t want people who are working that 9-to-5 blue-collar job and barely getting by to feel bad. I know how they feel because I did that for so many years. I don’t want those people to feel like they’re not doing something right because they’re not flying around on jets or driving fancy cars. I never want to make them feel like they’re not worthy.
PEOPLE: I’m guessing you’re not a fan of the prosperity gospel!
KM: I f—ing hate it. I mean my song “Blonde” is about people who are in the business of seeking fame just to seek fame, and just doing whatever it takes, by whatever means necessary to project that. I think it’s kind of sickening. The vanity is out of control and that’s what that song is about.
PEOPLE: You’re a major label artist, but you’re something of an outsider in Nashville — has that been a challenge?
KM: We’re at a time now where there’s a lot more “I’ll do whatever it takes” attitude. I’m not going to say or do what you want me to say or do just because it might help me or be the politically correct thing to do to help my career. And that may have hurt me sometimes. I think about different collaborations that have been brought my way – it might have meant I’d get to be on TV to do certain things, but I’ve said, “No. It doesn’t make sense. I’m not doing it.” And other people might jump at the opportunity.
PEOPLE: Is it hard for you to play the game when promoting a new album?
KM: I’m not comfortable walking on a red carpet. I think a lot of people actually love that part of it. I’ll never be a “look at me” guy. It’s not in my DNA and I struggle in those situations. What gives me anxiety is knowing I have to be honest with people, and as much as people say they want honesty, the minute you give it to them, they don’t want it. Sometimes I can tell I’m being baited for a certain answer and that’s not the answer I give and I can tell it upsets them. I remember somebody on the carpet at the ACMs asking me about Guns N’ Roses: “The guys are getting back together, so how excited are you to see them on tour this year?” And I said, “I’m not.” And it was not what they wanted. But I don’t know how to do bulls—.
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PEOPLE: How has that affected your reputation?
KM: I think there can be a misrepresentation of who I am a lot of times because I might be more quiet than other artists. I don’t walk in the room going, “Here I am!” I’m going to be the guy standing in the corner taking everything in. I think that can be taken the wrong way, as if I’m not interested in what’s going on around, but it’s not really the case.
PEOPLE: You didn’t write “The Bull” [by Jon Randall and Luke Dick] but you own that message of defiance.
KM: Yes! 100 percent. Nashville and the radio industry can be in this little bubble and they don’t know what’s happening in the real world. After the success of Up All Night, my phone was ringing off the hook, but the minute Wild Ones came around and I wasn’t having the same commercial success, the calls stopped. I heard the murmurs through town: “He’s done. We need to play this guy instead.” People thought because they weren’t seeing me on the charts, I was gone. But in the real world, Wild Ones was gaining a massive, underground cult-like following and we were tripling our fan base. I knew the real tickets that were being sold. The experience gave me that defiance and the faith in the music I wanted to write for this record. But I carried a chip on my shoulder for those two years, so “The Bull” made sense. We got punched in the face but I brushed myself off and picked myself up. And once I’m up, it’s a middle finger to anyone who was doubting me.
PEOPLE: Did the fact that you survived the commercial disappointment of Wild Ones free you from pressure in making this album?
KM: The fans have no idea what they did for me, mentally, at that time. Wild Ones was huge for us internationally, and I’d go to shows and people would be singing the entire album from start to finish, with the album cuts as loud as any hit I’ve ever had. It was a beautiful thing. It gave me faith: just write the songs you want to write. Stay true to that. If there are hit songs, that’s gravy. That’s great. Anybody’s lying if they say they don’t want a hit song. But I also realized that my career was not dependent on that.
PEOPLE: Your father died in 2011, just as your music career was beginning, but you’ve said he’s had a lasting impact on your music.
KM: I am my father’s son. My sticking to my guns and doing it my way, and standing firm – that’s definitely from him. And the music side, I was so lucky to have a dad that was as cool as he was. He was James Dean in the flesh. He was listening to Jackson Browne, the Eagles, the Little River Band, a lot of Motown, Sam Cooke – he’s my all-time favorite – Smokey Robinson, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, these people who are the great American poets to me. So that was in my bloodstream. A song like “Good Thing” on this record – it’s straight from the Motown bloodline.
PEOPLE: What would your dad think of your music?
KM: He could be a complex guy. There are definitely personal things I dealt with growing up that stem from our relationship and how tough he could be on us at times. But I knew at the end of the day how much he loved us and I was fortunate to have that. But I feel like I’m always chasing for that approval, even to this day. When I finish a song, I’ll think, “Would he like this? Is this something he’d dig?” So even though he’s not here in the flesh, I’m still doing that and wondering what he’d feel about what I’m doing.
PEOPLE: You’re a free spirit, but on “More Girls Like You,” you sing about finding the one. Do you think about settling down now?
KM: I’ve been comfortable with my own path and I haven’t fallen victim to the pressures of what society tells us is the next step. But as far as settling down, I’ll admit, I’ve had my window shut, even when I’ve really loved and cared about somebody. Music has been my only focus. Now I’m starting to crack that window. It’s not that I’m looking for it, but I’m looking forward to that chapter. I look forward to teaching my little girl one day to surf. And sharing my life with someone else. It’s 100 percent a possibility. If they can deal with my aloof attitude! God help them.
Moore’s Slowheart is available now.