Photography by Adarsha Benjamin
When I speak with singer-songwriter Kevin Morby on the phone, he’s standing outside the home of White Fence’s Tim Presley, preparing for a few days of downtime with friends in Los Angeles before leaving on tour in support of his latest album Still Life. By contrast to most musicians and the perpetual archetype of the hermit folk singer, Morby seems to genuinely enjoy interviews. He is genial and forthcoming, carefully choosing his words and sometimes letting thoughts fully unravel into an uncomfortable silence, an endearing habit common among artists and those falling somewhere along the autism spectrum. His style of conversation almost recalls the lyrical style of his two celebrated solo albums: poetic, often opaque wording stiffened by a driven, resolute timbre. Traces of Neil Young and Bob Dylan filter through his edgier influences in psych and punk.
Morby started his career amid a thriving punk scene in Kansas City, playing in several bands during the early aughts. After making the leap to New York City on his own at 18, he settled in with a group of like-minded musicians, joining Woods in 2008 and releasing two highly acclaimed albums with the Babies, a collaboration with Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls and his current drummer Justin Sullivan. Despite the widespread success of the Babies second album Our House On The Hill, Morby’s evolution towards solo work became evident after their split and the announcement of his hiatus from Woods. His first album Harlem River, released in 2013 and featuring contributions from Presley and Cate Le Bon, is a collection of songs he wrote during and prior to his time with the Babies. The album is powerfully skillful in its lyricism, complimented by dense, subtle instrumentation, which, together, evoke a mournful tone of detachment, something Morby felt during his last days in New York before to moving to Los Angeles.
For Morby, his new album Still Life, written mostly on tour, represents the end of a transition period marked by grief, loss and the glimmering promise of starting over. He says the album is about ending relationships with cities and people, and when I tell him the album feels like a road record and reminds me of my own cross-country move, he sounds excited, like a specific goal had been achieved. During our interview, Morby and I discussed the personal inspirations behind Still Life, the benefits of a musical upbringing in the Midwest and our mutual appreciation for the work of James Baldwin.
— Aaron Frank
Obviously, California has its own unique musical landscape. Has your taste in music changed much since you relocated from New York?
Kevin Morby: Not really. You know, most of the contemporary music I find is through the Internet or through being on tour and meeting other bands. It hasn’t really influenced what I listen to so much. I think it’s probably influenced different parts of my life that aren’t musical.
I guess the reason I ask is that, when I was living out there, I gradually started listening to more country music, and I feel like that’s something new on your latest record that wasn’t really present before. Have you always been into country?
KM: Big time. Since I was a little kid, for sure. I think that’s just something that’s coming out more and more. It’s just one side of my songwriting, but I keep it stowed away at different times. Even in the Babies, we always had kind of a western influence, especially on our last record. I feel like it’s always kind of made its way into what I was doing at least a little bit.
So who are some of your favorites in that regard?
KM: You know, the typical people like Hank Williams or Kris Kristofferson, stuff like that. Emmylou Harris and Loretta Lynn. All that stuff I listened to a lot in my youth and in my teenage years, but then also all the artists that came after them that were influenced by that set of people, which could be anyone from Neil Young to Cass McCombs.
You were also involved in the punk scene in Kansas City before you moved to New York, right? Was that around the time that emo and the Get Up Kids started to take off?
KM: Yeah, kind of. It was a cool time because there was like the whole emo thing, which was like the Anniversary and the Get Up Kids, and it was cool because Kansas City was sort of on the map because we had those hometown heroes. So I was listening to that stuff when I was really like young, you know, probably 11 or 12 years old.
But then, through that, I kind of got introduced to a more under the radar, DIY Kansas City punk scene, and that was real special for me at the time, and I learned a lot from it, because Kansas City being as small as it is, there’s only so many people doing creative things. So the people who were being creative all kind of joined together. It’s a lot different from New York or LA, where there’s enough people that there are punks and indie rockers, and they’re pretty much separate. But in Kansas City, everyone kind of joins together. So at a typical show, there’d be like a punk band that sounded like Crass, then there’d be a band that sounded like Blood Brothers, then there’d be a band like Bright Eyes.
So it was kind of confusing for me when I first moved to New York, and I was like, “Oh, people kind of stick to their own kind here,” but in Kansas City everyone knew everyone, and everyone collaborated with each other. It was a really good scene to be brought up on. It definitely helped to send me out into the world with an open mind.
With your first album, a lot of those songs you wrote when you were still in your early 20s, and you had stashed them away while you were with Woods and the Babies. Do you feel like this new album is more representative of where you’re at now?
KM: To be honest, not really. It’s definitely reflective of a certain year of my life, but then where I’m at currently like talking to you on the phone, not really. I feel a little divorced from some of the stuff in it. It was something that I wrote really quick, and I wanted it to come out really quick.
Much of your songwriting revolves around these highly developed characters, and one of my favorites on this new album is Arlo Jones. I’m curious whether these characters are like amalgamations of people you’ve known or projections of your personal experiences.
KM: My friend Tim had a really good way of putting it, which is basically, “Sometimes you sit down to write a song about one thing, and it ends up being a song about three different things.” Like if I have a song about a person, it’s probably about one person, but it’s probably about two or three other people as well. You know what I mean?
Like, I don’t know a guy named Arlo Jones or anything like that, but it’s like a hodge-podge character of a couple different people I know, one of them being a real person and one of them being a character I saw.
To my mind, that’s the song that stands out most on this album, so could you maybe elaborate on what that character represents to you?
KM: The idea of that character is, I feel like everyone in their life has that interaction or that person in their story who means well, but they’re burdened with this twisted nature where they can’t do right. And that’s what I’m trying to convey, just a wild child, someone who has a good heart and really means well but just for the life of them can’t get it together.
What I like about that song is how it actually takes more of a sympathetic tone towards the character instead of making it a glorification or an indictment, which feels like a recurring theme. How do the title and the artwork tie into what you were trying to get across with this record?
KM: Well, some of the songs were written in New York, and some of the songs were written on the road, and I guess it was just kind of in cahoots with Harlem River and that New York part of my life. And this guy Maynard, he makes these art pieces, which are like word art, and I was looking at his work one day, and I just saw that. In terms of the characters and stuff, with Arlo Jones as an example, just that phrase “Still Life With Rejects From the Land of Misfit Toys” sort of sums that up.
It kind of sums up a certain part of my life, through my late teens and early twenties in New York and touring, and it’s like all the friends I’ve made through music and all the friends I’ve made through art, we’re all kind of fucked up, and that’s why we’re friends with each other. That’s why we get along, and there’s no mystery to that, so it represents that to me. We’re the rejects in the Land of Misfit Toys.
I just like how you tend to embrace that instead of using it in a derisive tone.
KM: Exactly, that’s what it is. And my friend Maynard who made that, that’s pulled from the Island of Misfit Toys from Rudolph and the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is where all the broken toys are sent. It’s like thinking about how me and my friends are all weird fucking people, but we’re like these broken toys. We mean well.
I read in another interview where you said that you want every one of your albums to have a different feel to it. Aside from the general theme and title we talked about, what was the feeling you wanted this record to have?
KM: I was turning a lot of corners in my life around the time that I wrote it and the time that it came out, and I kind of wanted it to really close the door on certain things, really like finishing a chapter. So I wanted it to feel like I was getting past a lot of things, because I wrote it while touring with my last band and then the love songs are written about a person I was last with. I was in all of these personal relationships, romantic relationships, music relationships, relationships with cities, and I was closing them all at the same time. So I guess I wanted it to feel like that, like this is a statement and now I’m moving on.
You definitely seem to be finding your place in LA and surrounding yourself with some good people though. You’re touring with Jessica Pratt, and you’ve collaborated with Tim Presley from White Fence a couple times now.
KM: Yeah, I’m sitting outside of his house right now actually. We got coffee together this morning. That’s funny. I know he played on your first record.
Was he on the new one as well?
KM: No, he didn’t make it on this one.