Kevin Morby wrote and demoed his new album, Sundowner, in the shed behind his home in a suburb just outside of Kansas City, Kansas. The shed itself looks how you might expect from a musician with a disheveled aesthetic and abiding love for American rock history. A Danelectro 59 and a Fender Mustang share space on the wall behind the drum kit; a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Elvis Presley grins back at the computer Morby is using to call me; and tucked into one corner is an almost 80-year-old pump organ that he picked up at an antique mall and now describes as the album’s “secret weapon.”
Morby only moved back to Kansas City, a stone’s throw from where he was brought up, in 2017, after packing up and leaving Los Angeles. Life had started to close in on him in California. “You need to take care of yourself when you're doing what I do,” he told me last year, shortly before the release of his fifth album, Oh My God. “If you don't make a conscious effort to do it, it will beat you up.” His childhood hometown has been good to him in that sense. He fell back in love with the American Midwest, something he could scarcely have imagined in his teenage years when he found the flyover state monotony almost unbearable. And, at almost exactly the same time, he fell in love with Katie Crutchfield — better known as Waxahatchee — who left Philadelphia to move in with Morby in the suburbs.
At times, that gives Sundowner — out today via Dead Oceans — a sense of placid optimism. You can hear it clearly on the album’s centerpiece, “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun,” when Morby sings to both Kansas and Crutchfield: “Don't go, don't go please / Stay here, stay near me / My whole life baby / I have been waiting.” That charmingly knotty affection also threads its way through the album’s title track which, Morby writes in his notes to the album, speaks to the couple’s “mutual melancholy that seemed to appear every night around sunset.”
But moving home — and, as Morby points out, essentially self-isolating before self-isolation was a global concern — also left the singer-songwriter alone with his thoughts. Sundowner, written two years ago, wasn’t set to be released until next year. But its solitary feel too closely mirrored 2020 for Morby to wait. Again and again, over some of his sparsest arrangements, Morby falls into his own thoughts. He sings about people who died too young and left a void. The ghosts of close friends like Richard Swift and Jamie Ewing live inside Sundowner; Anthony Bourdain, who Morby adored but never met, and Jessi Zazu, who Morby admired but knew tangentially, drift in and out. He wants to keep their legacies alive by letting them into these songs, though his lyrics suggest that he knows they’ll be immortal anyhow, after making indelible marks on the world. “And when they died they sent their spirits to the sky,” he sings on “Jamie.” “Then they came back down with a piano in their mouths.”
Taking The FADER through Sundowner one song at a time, Morby was as thoughtful and engaging as ever, his distance from the album — two years feels like a long time now — giving him a sense of perspective that might have been absent otherwise.
The FADER: Oh My God was written from above the clouds, physically and emotionally. You were transcending anxiety as much as anything else. Here you're plunging the listener into a lower space. What were you trying to achieve with that metaphor off the bat?
Kevin Morby: All my songs are deeply rooted in Kansas on this record, except maybe this one. I was living in Los Angeles before moving here, and I see that as my exit song from Los Angeles. If you were to put an animation to it, I would be riding out of Los Angeles. By song two, we're in Kansas and we remain there. I'm speaking to that landscape, looking down at the literal valley that I was living in — in my old neighborhood, Mount Washington. That was a very influential neighborhood to me. It's where I wrote [the 2016 LP] Singing Saw.
It's a slightly dystopian song. Is that what L.A. had come to represent to you by the end?
I think so. And that song is born out of my song ">“I Have Been To The Mountain” [from Singing Saw], which is pulling from those same geographical references. When I entered Los Angeles, it represented, both literally and figuratively, a place for dreamers and a place for dreams to take place — the sky was wide open and the sky was the limit. And on my way out of there, it felt like the sky had closed up.
In a way, then, that’s quite a positive way to start the record — riding out of the darkness. But “Brother, Sister” doesn't dwell on the joy of things. It's the first time, and definitely not the last time, that death comes up on the record. Here it seems to be framed by revenge. Why frame it that way, and so early on?
I had read an article about someone in the Kansas City area, when I moved back, who had killed a few people. There's never too much information on this killer, but this person had said at one point he’d done it [seeking] revenge for his brother. It stuck out to me. I guess the idea of killing for someone, or inflicting violence on anyone or anything in honor of someone beyond the grave, was just on mind. What would that entail? What’s the process that one must go through? I obviously put my own take on it and ran with the myth, but it’s someone being spoken to from beyond the grave and being directed to do these awful things.
This is the first time you explicitly bring up isolation and loneliness. You don't strike me, either in your music or in real life, as somebody who's completely isolated. Is it something that you've always felt, or is it completely new?
It was pretty new, especially [being] back in my hometown. The only thing I could really compare it to was being in high school, where I had to travel the world via music and films. That was the way I was able to get out of town. At the time [writing the record], I was going on tour every couple of weeks. But in the interim, it was me here, dealing with ghosts from my past as well as being able to really reflect on the life I'd made for myself. I'm not a very isolated person. I'm a very social person, but I think, because of that, when I was met with solitude, it was just that much more amplified.
The isolation and loneliness you're talking about comes through very clearly here, where you're explicitly talking about departed friends. You'd just moved back to Kansas, and then you got a wave of tragedies?
A wave of tragedies, which all hit in varying degrees of close to home. Someone like Jessi Zazu, I was only friendly acquaintances with, but was a huge admirer of her work. Someone like Richard Swift was a very dear friend. And obviously someone like Anthony Bourdain I didn't know, but I really admired his work and his voice. I think what was hitting so close was the notion that I had gone out and created this life and crossed paths with such amazing characters. Being back here, perhaps there's not a lot of people like that. It just amplified how wonderful those people are.
You were very close with Richard Swift. Do you need time to process loss like that before you start writing, or do you like to process by writing?
I process by writing. I never really set out to write a song about any particular thing. I'd pick up the guitar, and words, or shapes of words, will start falling out of my mouth and they'll quickly reveal themselves what they're about or who they want to be about. Anthony Bourdain or Richard Swift or Jessi Zazu fell into the song. I had the chord structure and I had the melody, and then I was trying to just shape words to these sounds that were coming out of my mouth, and those just naturally came out.
What are you driving at lyrically here?
The hook in the song, "I wonder as I wander, why was I born in the wild wonder," is a lyric that I've had in my head for a long time. My old band, The Babies, on our first LP, I wrote that in the liner notes. This thing that happens in songwriting, at least with me personally sometimes, I'll have a line like that that's kicking around in my head, sometimes for the better part of a decade, and then I'll come across a chord structure or something and I'll finally feel like I have the platform to finally put it on a stage.
With that song, I remember I sent all the demos to Brad [Cook], the producer, and I think I even said, "Oh, and there's this one song, but don't pay attention to it. I don't think that song should go on the record," and it was “Wander.” And Brad was very quickly like, "No, that song has to go on — that's one of my favorite songs of the batch." I'm really glad we did it.
What was it that made you want to push it to the side?
With the hook being what it is and the fact that I wrote it almost probably 12 years ago, just that it wasn't from this time period of all the other songs. But that's what having a great producer can do sometimes — they're seeing it as a different thing. Brad is seeing that it is tied into the rest of these songs, whether I know it or not.
“Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun”
This is the first true love song. Does the album move somewhat chronologically for you as you write it? Because if this is the beginning of your relationship with Katie, it’s also you coming out of isolation.
I would say so. This song is my favorite song on the record, I think, and there's a lot of reasons why. One, I think it's a great time capsule of Katie and I's relationship, and it's just speaking to that honeymoon feeling that everyone goes through. And Katie and I were going through it in the Kansas suburbs together. She had moved from Philadelphia and I moved from Los Angeles, and suddenly, we're just in this bizarre anonymous suburb in the middle of America.
It was this very special time where we were like two children. We were just riding bikes. We'd go on these bike rides where I'd be on a skateboard and hold on to the back of her bike and go around the neighborhood, and I think all the other neighbors were probably side-eyeing us, wondering who the hell we were. But then, the two weeks would be up, and we'd have to go back to our chaotic lives of being these people who go out and perform every night. In the beginning of a relationship, you never know how long it's going to last or what's going to come out of it. So it's just a time capsule of that moment in time, with the Midwest as a backdrop.
It's an American love song, and I also speak to the natural elements. I'm singing about water and I'm singing about American rivers and the sun. My goal with the song was to capture the wide-open space. I just wanted to capture the essence of the Midwest and put it into that song.
One line in particular stood out to me: "My love outran me." What did you mean by that? Especially in the middle of what is a love song, as you say, both to Katie and to America, it's a challenging line.
Nothing gold can stay. Love is young and new, but it's going to grow old, and what will it mean then? Time has a way of outrunning us all, and I think that line is speaking to time. Again, I wrote it from the honeymoon period of falling in love, and you know that, at some point, is going to go away. It's just a feeling of wanting to freeze time.
“A Night at the Little Los Angeles”
This is a slightly hallucinatory idea of your home.
When I moved back here and I didn't want to admit to myself that I was giving up California. I bought this house and I was decorating it for the first time. A friend of mine who lives in Los Angeles, I sent him some photos, and he was like, "You got to stop decorating your house like you still live in California. You live in Kansas. Stop buying agave plants and painting the walls pink. What are you doing?"
He was totally right. It looked like I was in Joshua Tree or something. I got really into this idea of a Hollywood of the Plains or a Little Los Angeles, a house that's in the middle of rural Kansas but mimics Los Angeles. Once you step into it, it's like stepping on the streets of Los Angeles, but almost someone's interpretation of L.A., maybe someone who's never even been, just what they've seen through movies or read about it magazines, their take on it.
This is not the first time that you bring up a sense of loss and pain on the record, but it's the first time you bring up feeling some anger about it.
Jamie was my best friend at the time of his death. And even with someone like Richard or someone who's close to you who self-destructs, whether it be from drugs or suicide or something like that, there's always a feeling of anger or resentment from the living. The people who survive their friends passing away like that, there's always going to be some shade of anger there. There's always going to be wishing that, "Well, even if you were in pain, couldn't you have stuck around for me?"
I think the anger that I'm speaking about in the song is more speaking to... Jamie, at the time that I wrote this song, had been dead for 10 years. There was something about Jamie being dead for 10 years that gave me a lot of peace when someone like Richard had passed away, because it gave me peace knowing that life does go on, we have what this person left us with, and we'll have their spirit. But there were times with Jamie, because I was 20 when he died and I was 30 when I wrote that song. We were really into punk culture and underground culture. Sometimes, I'm like, "If Jamie, if 25-year-old Jamie could see me now, he might hate me. He might be like, "You sold out, you signed to a record label, and you do interviews." There's just that funny thing. Sometimes I'm just like, "Jamie would hate me." I don't actually think that he would, because if Jamie could see me, he would be fucking 37 now.
Even though he's dead, we still can have this relationship where I feel like we can get angry at one another. Even though he's gone, we're still friends, you know what I mean? I can love him one day, and then another day be really annoyed by him.
It's an interesting move to put an instrumental song so late on a record. Did this song ever have lyrics to it, or was it always destined to be an instrumental?
It did have lyrics to it, but I felt that the record needed a breath. A lot of the subject matter is pretty dense, and with wanting to capture the open landscape of the Midwest and middle America, I thought it was only appropriate to have something that had no lyrics, that was just capturing it with sound.
The title is a reference to a highway that goes from El Paso to Marfa. One of the first trips Katie and I took was going to Marfa, in west Texas, for her birthday. And that highway, it's a really long desolate highway that just goes on for hours, and everyone in the town calls it Velvet Highway because jackrabbits will run right out into the middle of the road and you're supposed to just hit them, so it's lined in this dead rabbit fur, which is pretty eerie. But it's a beautiful highway nonetheless, and I had this song that had lyrics to it, but I decided I wanted to make it an instrumental song and dedicate it to that highway.
This feels very dystopian.
It's hinting towards that stuff. I actually started to read Larry McMurtry's book Lonesome Dove on that trip to Marfa. It’s since become one of my top three favorite books of all time. There's this whole thread in the book where these cattle ranchers who leave Texas to go to Montana, they want to appear like they're a smart outfit, even though they're pretty uneducated.
They write this phrase in Latin on this sign that they carry with them, and they don't know what the phrase means, but they know that it looks smart. And the book never reveals what it's about, but when you look it up on your own, the phrase translates to, "Every grape ripens when it sees another grape." It speaks to what the subject matter in the book is about, which is that every person is influenced by everyone they come in contact with in some way, shape, or form, for better or worse. And there's a lot of that on this record. I was reading this book at that time, I was thinking a lot about that from my isolated shell about these people that had influenced my life in one way or another, and what it meant to lose them and what it means to carry on without them.
Do you want this song, then, to provide the listener with a sense of closure?
Yes, I do. I guess it's one of those songs that it could feel pessimistic and it could feel optimistic to you. It's a cautionary song. It's saying, "You'll be fine, but you might want to think about this." And this song, more than any of the other ones — because I planned on touring this all year and releasing Sundowner next year in 2021 — when quarantine went into effect, I just felt that I had to release it. Especially because of this song, because it just spoke to so much of the lockdown: "You might want to start taking care of yourself, we've got a long way to go.”