When I was in high school, Kevin Morby, unbeknownst to him, was blowing my little teen mind. The Kansas City-raised Morby moved to New York when he was 18, where he played bass in the cutting psych folk band Woods and later fronted the eternally fun garage rock group The Babies, alongside Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls. At the time, I found it wildly cool that someone could simultaneously form a totally different sound in two different bands. Adaptable to the core, Kevin moved to L.A. in 2013 to kickstart his solo career, with sporadic trips back to New York to record. Though he will always have roots in Kansas City (he bought a house there last year), his perspective of big cities — a theme he continues to revisit on his solo projects, like Harlem River, his first written from L.A. — comes from the eyes of a transient soul.
I rang up Kevin last week to find him in Canada on the last leg of his tour for Singing Saw, the album he recorded right before his new album, City Music, which comes out in June. Kevin’s an industrious guy: he tours and writes all the time, and has a constant yearning to create. While writing Singing Saw, a solidly envisioned folk album about life in L.A., he had an idea for that album’s thematic antithesis, and that’s how City Music came about, he told me. Written from the perspective of a major city recluse and inspired equally by a New York Times story and a Nina Simone lyric, City Music is the rock club to Singing Saw’s porch swing.
Kevin is still doing his chameleon thing, and his ability to not only embrace change, but to will it, remains seriously cool. During our conversation, we rambled from what it’s like to tour alone, to writing fiction, and, naturally, the role of music in politics.
Let's talk about City Music. Where did you record it?
I recorded City Music in two places, with my live band at the time, which is Meg Duffy and Justin Sullivan. Meg has a project called Hand Habits and we’d been touring a lot that year — that was in 2015. I wrote and recorded Singing Saw that year and City Music that year as well. We got back from touring Europe and went right up immediately to this studio called the Panoramic Studios in Stinson Beach, California. We did all the basic tracking there. Not too long after that, we got real busy with Singing Saw, and so in my downtime I took it up to Richard Swift's place in Oregon and finished it up there. He sang on it, mixed it, and played some keys, and I redid some stuff.
When you’re touring for one album and writing a new one at the same time, does the old album kind of seep into the new one or is it something completely new?
I had a record out in 2013, and then another in 2014, and then I signed to Dead Oceans. Then I was kind of given some money that allowed me time to sit and write a lot, so I did just that. I wrote a lot of material. When I was writing Singing Saw, I knew I was crafting this album about what was happening in my life in this neighborhood in Los Angeles. I knew I wanted strings on it and I wanted backup singers, and all those sorts of things. I got really deep into writing it, and it's like the moment I saw what I was crafting, another part of my brain fired off something else — like I wanted to exercise this other style of songwriting I have, which dates back to The Babies. I was playing a lot that year and people would always compliment the live band. They'd say Justin, Meg, and I were so good, and I was like, I want to write an album that represents the live band. That's why I called it City Music. I wanted to exercise that other muscle I have. Singing Saw is influenced very obviously by people like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. I wanted to write a record influenced by some of my other biggest heroes, like Patti Smith, or Lou Reed. I wanted to write a rock n' roll record.
Also, at that time I had read an article in The New York Times called "The Lonely Death of George Bell." And then I heard this Nina Simone song for the first time around that time called "Turn Me On." There's this line in the song that put this image in my head — just my own interpretation of the song — of this recluse living alone in her apartment. And I had just read that article about this man George who died in his apartment and people didn't know that he had died and he had, like, no real family to speak of. He was just this lonely person that died in New York without anyone realizing it. That entered my psyche. And at that time, I was the most reclusive I've ever been — in my own diluted version. I had been living in New York for so long where I was very, very social, and then suddenly I moved to L.A., which was a big culture shock, and I was just working on music all the time. I thought, What if I come up with this character that's an exaggerated version of myself living in a completely different landscape? And on top of that, I make it this other style of songwriting that I've done before, which is a big part of my character. You know, a big part of my soul.
So City Music is a little autobiographical.
I've always been really interested [in fiction]. I'm a big fan of The Mountain Goats, for example, because [John Darnielle] writes [from the perspective of] a lot different characters. When you're a writer, obviously if you're writing fiction, there's bits of yourself or bits of people you know, or your day-to-day life in that. But you can explore that and move a little bit freer inside of it.
Have you ever written any prose fiction?
Yeah! I've gotten really into writing short stories in the past year and a half. I've got a couple that I finished and at some point I really want to release some sort of book.
Kevin Morby, next rockstar novelist?
[Laughs] God willing.
You're from Kansas City, right?
I'm from Kansas City. Actually last year I bought a house in Kansas City, and I've been trying to spend more time there. I still have a place in L.A. It's kind of like I live in three places. I live part-time in Kansas City, and part-time in L.A., and then most of the time I'm on tour.
It's funny 'cause I feel like I'm a resident of all of those. When I go on tour it literally feels like I'm living three separate lives — like I'm literally a different person in all of them or something. They're all very comfortable to me. I'm also really comfortable in New York — the first two months of this year I spent January and February in Kansas City, but I fly to New York all the time to work on recording projects, or just do whatever. It's really exciting, being able to be so transient. Earlier this year I was staying in New York because I was recording, and I read M Train, Patti Smith's new book. It's so good.
It’s great! She ruins the end of The Killing, however.
I know she does! She really does. But I love how it's so raw, and her fascination with modern TV crime shows. She does such a good job of embracing the fact that she's this transient soul. She turns the mundane into something beautiful, and her observations are so poignant and she's just — I don't know, it made me look at everything different. I was like, You know what? A hotel doesn't have to be a sterile place stripped of its character. You can choose to focus on one thing. It really comforted me with traveling a lot; it's got me really excited to travel this year. When I started putting out solo records, it got lonely doing press tours by myself and stuff. Just that book alone sort of changed my mind.
She really knows herself because she spends so much time alone.
She's so wise.
Being alone, have you been learning about yourself and the way that you make music and write?
Absolutely. There are so many different types of alone, you know? When I'm on tour, I'm surrounded by my band, but I'm in my own head the whole time. In L.A. I have a social scene, but it's a different thing being alone there as well. Those two months I spent in Kansas City were the most alone I've felt in a while. It was really, really nice, and I think it was good for me. I've been living in popular cities since I was 18, that's 10 years ago, and this is the most time I've spent in Kansas City since. It was good to face that.
It's changed a lot since I was a kid growing up there. Sometimes it really feels like the wild west. I would have days where I would have absolutely nothing to do, and I would just drive around in my mom's car. There's a neighborhood called The West Bottoms and one called The Crossroads — the brick there is super beautiful. There are parts of it where it's honestly like if you were able to drive through the West Village or something. But there's no one else around. It's this ghost town. There are a lot of towns like that in America. On this tour we went to Cincinnati, and parts of Kentucky really look like that. There's a lot of magic in those cities. I've been having this overall appreciation for people, places, and things lately. It's been a positive year. Despite the political climate and everything.
What do you think music's role is in a time like this?
I was in London the night Trump won the election. It was the biggest headlining show I've ever played. A sold-out show, and like this victory lap of all the hard work that had gone into everything. It was amazing and my whole label was there — they bought the champagne for us. We were all having a good time, it was so celebratory. And then they brought down a projector and just threw on the election. We watched until the sun came up around 7 in the morning. When they announced he was president, it was mind-melting.
First, I felt ashamed to be an American. I felt embarrassed to be over there [in Europe]. I felt like people were going to be angry, you know, because we were the Americans. But I learned that I was really happy to be over there, although I felt really far away from my country and my family and my friends, who were all going through it together. We just had the four of us, but I was actually like, "You know what, I'm really happy to be here and I'm really happy to have a platform.” It made me more vocal — like, we're talking about politics in this interview and I talk about politics more than I ever have in my life and hear people talking about politics more than ever. It’s very important for me to have a platform and a sense of purpose. I would say things that I would never have said under any other circumstance. “We're from America and we represent the people's side of America. We are only bringing peace. We want to promote art, and love, and that's why we are here.” People were really responsive and warm.
People weren't feeling [protesting] during the Bush era. [Our generation] feels apathetic, and it's sad, you know? But seeing the protests at the airports, and The Women's March, and just seeing the way people are reacting, I find a lot of hope in it. I think people have woken up in a nice way. Myself included.