Each of Kevin Morby’s albums has a keen sense of place. Take, for example, his 2019 album Oh My God, which, with its anxieties and apocalypses, was set somewhere between Los Angeles, a space above the clouds, and Hell itself. Or 2020’s Sundowner, which produced a surreal facsimile of the American Midwest in which Morby had been raised and to which he had recently returned. Morby, like the wild-eyed rock and folk icons he loves, needs to immerse himself in a place — real or imaginary — to capture its magic. And, as his solo career has progressed, he’s become increasingly adept at doing so.
His new album, This Is a Photograph, is based mostly in Memphis, Tennessee; Morby lived there while writing the project, wandering around the city streets by day and sleeping at the grand and melancholy Peabody Hotel each night. But, as it has been on every one of his albums to date, the city is a lens. Here he stares through it to inspect life and death and the passage of time — the types of weighty existential matters that might bury less careful and considered songwriters.
A week before the album’s release, I called Morby at his studio in Kansas City to talk about time, ghosts, and Memphis.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week's show in full, and to access the podcast's archive, click here.
The FADER: October 2020 was the last time we caught up. You were a good nine months into making This Is a Photograph
At that time, I had a lot of blueprints of songs. A lot of them got realized right after we spoke, when I went to Memphis, Tennessee, and shacked up in a hotel called the Peabody.
Before we get into Memphis, let’s go back to the genesis of the album: the evening when you see this photograph of your father. What was it about that photo that jumped out at you?
We're having this family dinner at my sister's place and my dad… had this medical complication and he hit the floor out of nowhere. He passed out. He luckily ended up being okay, but he had to be rushed to the hospital. They didn't quite know what was going on at first. Later, after he was released from the hospital, we went back to my parents' house, where I spent my formative years. Someone unearthed this box of old family photographs… a lot of photos I'd never seen before of my parents in their early adulthood. Sometimes when you see photos of your parents before they met one another and they're going to school dances or out with other people, these strangers... it humanizes them, reminds you of the lives they lived before you were conceived.
There was this one photo of my dad in which he's got his shirt off in the backyard of this house where we lived in Lubbock, Texas the year I was born. They were only there for this short year. I found the photo very striking. My dad, earlier that evening, when the EMTs had showed up, they’d taken his shirt off to check vitals. Here he was shirtless in his young adulthood, and I had this A/B visual of how time has changed my father. When he passed out and I had to rise to the occasion, I was the one cradling my father on the floor for the first time — this very significant role reversal. That photograph would’ve been about 32 years old. In another 32 years, I'll be the age my father is now. As you get older, you get a better grasp on time and how quickly it goes… how it shapes your life, and how it can seem long at some points, but also lightning fast.
On the title track you say, “Time is undefeated, the heavyweight champ.” How present was that in your mind before that evening?
I've always written about death and some element of time. Certain things happen where you feel your mortality or the mortality of your loved ones. But it wasn't that present. When my father passed out, I remember thinking it seemed as if someone had sucker-punched him. The only other time you see someone going out that cold is in a boxing ring. And then when the pandemic hit and time was sort of frozen and elongated, I was thinking a lot about time because it felt like we were existing in this glue or something. We were all stuck in this molasses suddenly, and times and dates didn't really seem to matter. Everything was weightless, and the past became an interesting place for me to look back at as an anchor, but it also felt like the past was existing beyond this dividing line. Never in my adult life was there such a specific line in the sand... a before and after.
On Sundowner, there are friends who have passed away, ghosts record you were quite actively trying to keep alive. That's a more elastic treatment of time then what you get on Photograph, where you really feel your place within this inexorable march of time.
Something I wanted to do with this record was make that celebratory. I wanted there to be an element of “time is passing so we need to celebrate the time that we do have,” whereas on past records, it's been “I'm speaking about death. We are all going to die and how sad is that?” The mile marker I was looking ahead at [on Photograph] was “someday the world will come back and I will be able to be back on a stage, so I want to create music that sonically and lyrically is going to feel fun and fulfilling to play in a room full of people when we're allowed to do that again.”
In Western culture, our instinct is to not look at time that way too closely because it's really scary. Did it feel uncomfortable, at least at first, to focus on mortality?
Oftentimes, I don't know what the song's going to be until I'm halfway through it. It's just another form of talk therapy, writing songs. With that said, once I understand what the song's about, I like to get close to the source. If something is terrifying to me, I like to look it in the face; that's how it becomes less scary. It was a scary time in history for everybody, so my way of working that out was writing songs about it.
There's always been a strong sense of geographic location on your records. Had it not been for Memphis, would you have still tried to write Photograph outside of Kansas City?
Memphis ended up being the place because it could have only been there. It’s a place that does such an amazing job at honoring the past so we don't forget it, and that helps you to move forward in the present. That's a thing a lot of America lacks. I've never written an album that’s such an immersive experience where I've gone to a place to live inside the songs.
What’s the Peabody Hotel like inside? Paint me a picture.
I describe it as the Plaza Hotel of the south. It has such a history. You can't read an Elvis biography without reading about it. Sam Phillips used to have a radio station that broadcast out of it. There's this whole duck theme. The Peabody's mascot and emblem is a duck, and there's these ducks that live on the rooftop in this duck palace. Every morning at 10 a.m., the duck master — this guy in a red-and-black tuxedo — takes them down through the elevator and… walks them into this grand fountain. So it's this bombastic, funny place. It's got this big neon sign you can kind of see from anywhere in the city. Because of the length of my stay and because they had so much vacancy, they upgraded me to this huge suite. I felt like Kevin McCallister in Home Alone: Lost in New York. It was like I owned the place.
There’s a mid-century atmosphere on Photograph, a sense of you trying to commune with a certain era.
I try to refrain from becoming too nostalgic. I want to age gracefully, and I think in order to do that, you have to embrace the future and the present. I felt like [Photograph] was going against my own rule, but the present at the time felt so uninspiring that I took great comfort in the past. And the thing about Memphis… There are so many eras. At every corner, there's some reminder of the past. Jeff Buckley — right before he tragically drowned in the Mississippi River — had been trying to get a volunteer shift in the butterfly garden at the Memphis Zoo, and so there's this plaque [there] dedicated to him. Everywhere you look there, there's some touchstone of someone who's passed through, and [the city] does such a great job remembering those people.
You've talked about wanting to capture the strength and resilience of Memphis.
There's a toughness, a sort of muscle to Memphis. It's such an odd, small city to have someone like Elvis come out of it, or Beale Street's significance to Robert Johnson and the blues musicians. It's so culturally important, but it's this small city in the corner of Tennessee. It's where MLK was assassinated [when] he was there for the sanitation strike. Memphis had this thriving downtown up until that point. When that happened, the downtown died and the economy plummeted. It’s a city that has seen a lot. So though  was an unprecedented time, it still felt like, “Well, we can handle this.”
I grew up in a lot of humidity in Kansas City, but in the south, it's five times more intense. When we went to finish the record there, it was August, and I like to visualize this really thick humidity on the album. I wanted the record to sound tough, for whatever that's worth.
It's interesting hearing you say that, because it would be so easy as a rock musician to equate toughness with something quite tawdry and straightforward and macho, but that's not what this album is.
When I say tough, there's this element to Memphis where, when it comes to mind, I think of an old, tough, cool car or, again, the heat. You're just out in this sweltering heat, and the fidelity of the music that it’s produced… Everything about Memphis is very raw, very in your face — whether it's a Big Star record or a Robert Johnson record or an Elvis record or a Jay Reatard record. The fat has been trimmed, no bullshit.
How has your relationship with these songs changed in the two years since you recorded them?
On every record cycle, you go through this strange period where you exist in your own little magical world while you're writing and capturing an album. And then as you start to dull it out and eventually release the whole thing, it really does feel like you're giving away a big part of yourself. I can only listen to it until it's released. Before it's released, I listen to it constantly, and then the moment it's out in the world, it belongs to everyone else and it feels kind of strange to listen to. It's no longer for my ears.
With this one, it feels different. Looking back at that time, as horrible as it was, there were a lot of silver linings. For a lot of musicians, myself included, it was the first time we were resting or taking care of ourselves in a way we hadn't because of the lifestyle. This record will have a very special place in my catalog because it's the only record I've ever taken this amount of time or care to create.
In a way, I've never been excited about a record before. Up until now, I’ve always had a record in my back pocket, and at this point in the cycle, when I'm doing press and getting ready to go on tour and promote it, I'm already thinking about a whole new batch of songs or even sitting with a whole new completed record. I do have some new songs formulating, and I've done a few demos here and there, but I'm really trying to focus on this album and give it the love and care it deserves because I worked so hard on it. That feels good to do sort of for the first time: to not be looking too far ahead and focus on what I have in front of me.