Three years ago, Kevin Morby thought that he might already be in Hell. He’d just returned from a tour in support of his third LP, Singing Saw, to find Los Angeles, his adopted home, on fire. He’d broken up with his partner, so he was subletting a stranger’s house; Donald Trump was about to be confirmed as the Republican presidential nominee; the hills were ablaze and wildfires were spewing ash into the sky. He’d read the news and think one of three things: Holy Shit. Jesus Christ. Oh My God. He was locked into a panic. “I felt like I couldn't turn my brain off,” he says. “I couldn't turn the world off.”
Eventually he snapped. “I didn't find a God and I didn't find a religion, but I figured: If I die, I die. If some psychopath shows up with a gun because no one wants to limit those guns — it's going to happen. There was nowhere else to go but just finding some sort of serenity.” Alone in a burning city, so far beyond stress that he felt tranquil, he began to trace the outlines of what would become the double LP Oh My God, his fifth solo album, out April 26 on Dead Oceans. It’s a secular rock record consumed by religious imagery and vocabulary, from the exclamation point mantras on “Seven Devils” through the mortal fear of “Piss River” and the moral angst of “I Want to Be Clean.” It’s also a distillation of the swaggering, retrofitted guitar music that Morby has been refining for the past decade-plus: sonically minimal, effortlessly lyrical, darkly comic. For the first time in his career, it has Morby accepting the world and his fate within it — not quite hopeful, but no longer racked by fear. “And if I die too young, if the locusts come / Well I don’t give a fucking shit,” he slurs on “OMG Rock n Roll.”
This is mostly why I asked to meet Morby today at a graveyard in front of Trinity Church on the corner of Wall Street and Broadway, a few feet away from Alexander Hamilton’s tombstone and the looming American Stock Exchange building. In short, Morby, now 31, thinks about death a lot. He thought about it last night, when he came in from Los Angeles on a five-hour flight so turbulent that the seatbelt sign stayed on almost permanently. He found himself saying a prayer as the plane jolted about: “Dear God, please forgive me. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I’ll try never to do it again. Amen.”
It’s a rudimentary prayer that Morby wrote for himself as a young child growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, where his parents told him that he was a Methodist (though they never took him to church) and the billboards screamed that sin would condemn him. “At a certain point of my in my late teens, I realized that I still went to that prayer all the time. I gained agency and I knew that what I believed in and what I stood for. Still, that prayer was embedded in me.”
The prayer makes its way onto Oh My God in full. It’s read aloud by four-year-old Simone Cohen and Morby’s friend Jasmine Muhammad as the creeky, 80-second ambient interlude “Storm (Beneath the Weather)” decays into the jubilant “Congratulations.” It’s a moment that he’s lived through dozens of times. An anxious flyer — “I keep my cool, but I'm fucking screaming inside,” he says wide-eyed — Morby recently learned to embrace the senses-sharpening panic that air travel induces. Much of Oh My God was written on planes, miles above the ash clouds and rainstorms and everyday crises.
Inevitably, that bled into his lyrics. If 2016’s Singing Saw was his LA album and 2017’s City Music was his New York record, then Oh My God is Morby’s tribute to a place that only half exists. “I got fascinated with this idea that we're living below the weather,” he says. “Being in a plane, you're safe from humanity. It's always a sunny day above the weather.”
Fourteen years ago, Morby dropped out of school in Kansas City and rode the train east to New York. He was still a kid, and the city lived up to every sepia cliché he’d imagined. He moved to Brooklyn and ended up playing bass for indie-psych heroes Woods. He was living his dream. They toured Europe, then came back to New York before preparing for a West Coast trip. But the day before Morby and the band were due to fly out, his best friend, the musician Jamie Ewing, died of a heroin overdose.
“I've explored a lot of darkness with writing and with my music,” Morby says now, squinting through the sunlight in the graveyard. “That really sent me down that wormhole. I was always intrigued by death and by the Grim Reaper in a storybook way, but when my best friend passed away, it became very real.” From that moment on, Morby’s career became something of an exercise in exploring the contours of mortality, first as one half of The Babies alongside Ewing’s former bandmate Cassie Ramone, then as a critically acclaimed solo artist. Death clung to him like incense smoke: “I passed a cemetery / Oh lord, I held my breath / Dead they don't come back,” he sang at the end of his 2013 solo debut, Harlem River. “I can see your teardrops / Behind that black, black veil / Made me hope for heaven / And me scared for Hell.”
Those fixations can last forever, but they’re rarely healthy. Morby now compares his hellfire moment in 2016 to an alcoholic needing to hit rock bottom before cleaning up.
After that, his methods of coping with crisis started to change. Morby was on tour with his band when Donald Trump became the president of the United States. They played London that night, and, like so many other people, they got shitfaced in an attempt to drown out the chaos. They woke up with a world-altering hangover. “You do it to feel better for the moment,” Morby says. “But then you wake up and you're like, fuck, man, what have I done? Now it's just amplified the problem.”
Morby realized that he had to push his band away from drink if they were going to make it through the tour. They played Iceland soon after, visited a natural spa, and committed to visiting one in every city they could from there on out. And what started as self-care quickly turned into an awakening.
“You're naked with all these strangers,” he says. “They're a lot more lenient with that in Europe than they are here — men and women, old people, young people. I'm sure we all had different political beliefs, but we were all naked in these bathhouses and all getting along. The world is completely on fire outside of this.”
As Morby says this, dots start to connect in his mind. The album art for Oh My God has him shirtless in bed, staring at the camera. He’d never thought about it, but now he realizes they’re linked. “Everyone’s just a fucking person,” he says. “That became a big part of my life.”
Morby started writing Oh My God in Los Angeles while working his way out of that emotional rock bottom, but its sound and aesthetic came together in a sudden flash, a few months later, in January 2017. Morby and a “skeleton crew band” travelled to Brooklyn for a four-day session with Apollo Sunshine frontman and indie polymath Sam Cohen, who produced Singing Saw. Things came together fine, but neither Morby nor Cohen could escape the thought that they were stuck in the same sonic space as they had been two years before.
On the penultimate day of the session, Cohen suggested something new. He told Morby to go in without his guitar, had drummer Nick Kinsey sit at the congas, and decided that he would sit at the organ. They recorded “Nothing Sacred / All Things Wild,” now the third track on the record, and realized right away that they were onto something. They’d strip Morby’s sound back. “It's got this religious subject matter, the thread of spirituality is running through the whole thing — we should mimic that sonically,” Morby remembers saying. “There's an openness and rawness to this, so the music should be very open and very exposed.”
They started talking about Oh My God as a piece of pop art: bold, clear, a work in black and white shot through with a flash of color, something reminiscent of Keith Haring or Andy Warhol. “Pop art has this starkness to it,” Morby says. “It always feels modern, even though it could be 50 years old at this point.” With the world in turmoil, that felt doubly important: “I didn’t want to make something that was too tied in 2016, because it was such a horrible time. I want someone to be able to listen to it — or me to be able to listen to it — in 2036, and maybe even be able to forget this time. With the hope that things have gotten a lot better.”
With the sound locked in, Morby set about refining everything else. He packed up his life in L.A. and moved back to Kansas City, where he’d bought a house two years before. (Kim Deal had told Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox that owning a home was the best thing one could do with a career in music; Cox passed that onto Morby when he and Cate Le Bon travelled to Atlanta for a visit a while back.) He has a hot tub and a sauna at the house. “It’s all self-care,” he says. “You need to take care of yourself when you're doing what I do. And if you don't make a conscious effort to do it, it will beat you up.”
Oh My God will be followed by a 30-minute film of the same name directed by Christopher Good, who’s directed videos for Joyce Manor, Mitski, and Waxahatchee, as well as absorbing clips for Morby’s own “Dorothy” and “City Music.” It’s a surreal piece of work that runs through the album song by song, opening on a plane with the anxious piano chords of “Oh My God” before breaking through the clouds and entering a pseudo-religious dreamworld.
The strangeness of the film had to reflect the strangeness of the record, Morby says, which in turn had to reflect and magnify the strangeness of everyday life. He says he often thinks about the author Gabriel García Márquez, whose grandmother would read him fairytales when he was growing up as though they were real life anecdotes. “You always have to stretch the truth,” Morby says. “That’s what surrealism is to me. You go on a plane, and it feels crazy and it feels psychedelic, but if you just have a normal shot of a person walking on a plane it doesn't capture that. You have to make this prop plane that feels psychedelic and warp the image.”
Then, of course, he thinks about Patti Smith. He remembers reading her 2010 memoir Just Kids for the first time and thinking that it was “magical,” a fairytale about a time and a place that he wasn’t alive to see, so might as well have been made up. But M Train, Smith’s next memoir, struck him differently. It dealt, often in vivid poetic prose, with the travels and travails and occasionally the banalities of life in a time and place that Morby had seen with his own eyes.
“And then at some point I realized: This will become the black and white historical story,” he says. “This will become something that someone someday will read and say, that was so magical. And you realize, it is magical. Modern, day-to-day life is insane.” He points out over the grass covering the graves. “The color green is insane. Sometimes, to get that point across, you have to get surreal with it.”