Josh Moore did not need a record deal, at least not in 2008.
For five years, he'd been the lead singer of Beloved, a Christian hardcore band he'd joined at the age of 16. He met the other members in the hometown church he attended with his parents, Kernersville's First Christian. They toured and enjoyed moderate success before splitting up shortly after Moore's 21st birthday.
He began writing his own songs—the acoustic laments of a solo singer-songwriter—almost immediately after the band ended in January 2005. It was a relief, he says, to write numbers that he felt like he "didn't have to crank."
Others agreed, including a small label that expressed interest in issuing those songs in 2008. But Moore declined. Not only was he uninterested in being bound to some long-term contract, but he reckoned, at the age of 24, he still had some living and thinking to do before making his official debut.
"I knew I had to give myself time," he says. "I knew I needed to learn more and to experience more and to process more before I was able to offer something under my name."
The new Parted Ways, Moore's nine-track debut, is that something: The end result of Moore's decade of living and learning since Beloved's demise, it exists in the fertile space where rock, folk, Americana and even a little bit of gospel mix, putting him in the company of recent locals such as Hiss Golden Messenger and Phil Cook. Moore's beautiful voice is smooth and strong, like a stone plucked from the bottom of a river. It anchors everything around it.
"The singing voice," he explains, "is the instrument for the soul."
The voice on Parted Ways is beautiful but fragile, the sound of someone who has lived just enough to have something to sing about without self-destructing. For several years, Moore flirted with crossing that border, slipping into alcoholism that stalled his productivity and ostracized him from some circles of his preferred collaborators.
But as he offers above weeping and winking saxophone and organ during Parted Ways opener "Mercy of the Rain," every new start requires a bitter end. Just as daylight breaks from the dark, Moore has pushed past his own dim period.
"Oh, true believers, all is not lost/ If we'll return the burdens we've carried," he sings, his voice wedged somewhere between sweetness and sadness. "Laying them down, gonna leave them behind."
Moore is tall and lanky, with red hair and a mid-length beard in the same bright hue. Often dressed in jeans, a button-up shirt, boots and a wide-brimmed hat, he doesn't walk so much as he lopes, moving with intent rather than ambling aimlessly. Now 31, Moore sits in the shady, deep green back yard of the small Carrboro house he's rented for the past four years. His orange tabby cat, Figaro, prowls the grounds, eyeing potential prey.
This year marks the start of Moore's second decade in Carrboro. In 2005, Moore moved here from his family's home in Kernersville. He quickly fell into the local music community, cultivating relationships and playing in a string of bands—Classic Case, Max Indian, The Dead Tongues and The Dogwoods among them. Those past collaborators tend to speak about him with a fondness that borders on reverence.
"He's not trying to bullshit with you. He's always kind of on this higher spiritual level," says Skylar Gudasz, who sings harmonies on three Parted Ways songs. "He's always trying to talk about the important shit—very much real and truthful."
Among Moore's friends, fans and fellow songwriters is Thomas Costello, who fronts the band The Human Eyes. Moore and Costello have known each other since their early teenage years in Kernersville. They were small-town kids who met through a mutual interest in skateboarding. Costello toured with Beloved, too, selling merch on the road.
When Costello moved to Carrboro in 2008, they resumed their friendship. They played music with buddies like Ryan Gustafson, Carter Gaj and the members of Mandolin Orange, some of the area's best musicians and songwriters. Alcohol became part of the fun-times formula.
"Josh was just drinking like anyone else was drinking—probably too much for our own good," offers Costello.
Nothing seemed too out of the ordinary. Costello points out that Carrboro's laid-back culture, especially that surrounding local music, doesn't exactly discourage leisure drinking. Moore's social habit gradually intensified.
"Josh had one group of friends that was not ready to encourage destructive drinking," he says, "and another group of friends that was, like, howling at the moon and ready to do it at their detriment. That certainly made it easy."
For two years, Moore spent most of his days drinking. He didn't eat, lost weight. Some friends voiced their concerns about his health and habits, but mostly, Costello says, Moore's kind, easygoing demeanor made it difficult to judge him. He wasn't necessarily destructive, either. Sure, he may have worried a few people, but he wasn't a Lifetime movie candidate. He held down a job at Carrboro's Open Eye Café, where he's worked since 2009, and seemed functional and fine.
"It's hard to come down on a guy like that and tell him not to do something, especially when the guy was going to work and had a house to live in," Costello says. "He was hurting himself, but he wasn't hurting other people."
But other friends, like local producer and drummer James Wallace, pushed Moore harder. After a handful of shared messy gigs in 2012, a frustrated Wallace emailed Moore and a few others to say he would no longer play music or associate with them unless their habits and behavior changed. Wallace knew he would anger some old friends, but he no longer wanted to watch as they hurt themselves.
"If you continue to act like things are normal or continue to act like their behavior is a normal thing to do, you are an enabler," Wallace says now. "You can't act like things are normal anymore."
Just a few months later, Moore realized Wallace was right. In December 2012, he made the decision to quit drinking, to try and create a new normal. That fuzzy phase of living and learning, it seemed, had ended. A friend drove him home, to his parents' house in Kernersville. He entered a brief detox program where he rested and recovered. When he returned to Carrboro, he wanted to make music, not a mess.
"January, it was like, 'Let's get to work. This is what I obviously need to be doing,'" Moore says. "I had to change my lifestyle for the better and assess things that weren't working in my favor and weren't working in the favor of people that love me. Those things are easy to see when you're not masking them."
In a scene where socializing revolves around bar hangs and beers on porches, Moore says his old buddies have supported his newfound resolve. Costello is one of the most ardent voices in the chorus supporting Moore's major change.
"It's one of the best things that's happened in my social circle. His sobriety is awesome," Costello says. "It's nice to have all of him back."
His friends, in fact, rallied in major ways to help make Parted Ways. Shortly after Moore quit drinking, for instance, longtime pal and producer Jeff Crawford encouraged him to focus on recording a full-length record at last. Almost all of Parted Ways was written during the past two years, with one exception. "End of the Night" predates his sobriety, but Moore felt like it fit the record's theme of turning a new page.
Moore has never had a full-time band, allowing him to invite an all-star ensemble of friends and acquaintances to build the record. That cast includes Gudasz, Brett Harris, American Aquarium's Whit Wright, Mount Moriah's Heather McEntire and Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange.
"At the moment, we're not going to be in some kind of permanent musical act," he says. "I can email them and say, 'Would you like to be on this song forever?'"
Wallace plays drums and piano on the album, too. After Moore returned to Carrboro, he and Wallace quickly rekindled their friendship and collaboration, a sign of just how much Moore had changed his behavior.
"Once you go through that with your friend and come out on the other side," Wallace says, "there's a weight behind the friendship."
Gudasz sees Parted Ways as a logical, happy conclusion. Moore's sincerity and dedication, she says, were essential in helping pull Moore from his dangerous path, ultimately pushing him toward this debut. She marvels at his ability to translate complex chord structures and deeply intimate songwriting into songs that sound familiar and an album that sounds like an immediate classic. Now sober, he can get that essence on tape.
"He's from the heart. That helped him get himself out of that cloud of stuff that was keeping him from really treating his music seriously," Gudasz says. "He takes something that is really complicated and makes it sound second-nature, which is really beautiful."
While these sounds may seem like a reversal of Moore's hardcore days, the spiritual quest from his youthful music remains. In his time away from Beloved, Moore says, he explored and questioned his religion, shuffling among varying levels of belief and disbelief. Threads of spirituality and seeking now wind through these songs.
"When I've had a chance to put music up on iTunes or whatever, they always give you a genre category. There's never a genre I want to pick," he says. "I'll choose 'devotional' or 'spiritual' music, the category I feel most comfortable with claiming."
That tag, he says, carries a transcendent connotation, which applies to his music now just as it did when his songs sported an explicitly religious message. His tale has become one of struggle and redemption, where the songwriter with the incredible "instrument for the soul," his voice, needed to live his story before he could sing it.
At last, he's done both.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Last call."