In Conversation: Kevin Morby Reflects on City Life and the Joys of Solitude
The well-traveled musician seeks a quiet place to reflect on his old life as a city dweller.
Kevin Morby likes the quiet. He left New York in 2014 for the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mount Washington, a peaceful and silent enclave overlooking the bustling sprawl of the city below. Now he splits time between the West Coast and a house in his hometown of Kansas City. Over the phone, his answers are reflective and contemplative. The songwriter cherishes having space for reflection.
City Music, Morby’s fourth solo record in five years—released just a year after his excellent Singing Saw—finds him situating himself and the world against the pressures and the unrelenting velocity of urban life. Think of him as the folk singer in the middle of Times Square, standing staunchly against the speed while the world rushes headlong. But City Music’s power lies in Morby’s unwillingness to define “the city” as any one thing. He acknowledges it for simply being: the people within it, the problems it propagates and solves, the atmosphere it creates. Amidst all this chaos he simply watches and observes.
We gave him a ring as he was preparing for a European tour to discuss the ideal record length, the power of self-examination, and the relief that came with recording City Music on the edge of the world.
What about Kansas City brought you back there?
I bought a house there, and I guess it has a lot to do with the house. [Laughs.] I really like the house a lot. I’ve got this big house to myself and it’s the first time I’ve ever had anything like that. I can just be anonymous and do my thing. It’s really nice. I have a piano in there and I get a lot of work done.
Are you constantly writing? Does a new album coming out stop you from continuing your writing?
I’m always writing. For sure.
Do you ever find it difficult when you’re starting recording to pare down all of your songs into a cohesive, ten- or eleven-song album?
That’s never really an issue. It’s pretty clear what makes sense to be on the record. There’s always a song or two that aren’t finished that I need to get rid of, [and] I have a hard time doing that. More than anything, I’ve been trying to bring album lengths down, and that can get confusing.
Do you have an ideal length for your records?
Right around forty to forty-five minutes is really good, I think.
City Music comes pretty quickly on the heels of Singing Saw. What about this new group of songs made you want to record them and get them into the world so quickly?
I wrote Singing Saw and City Music right around the same time. They kind of came out of the same writing session and I recorded them [around the same time] in 2015. So I had them both hanging out waiting to be released. It would be a different story if I wrote Singing Saw, put that out, and then wrote another record. That would be kind of insane.
I want to talk about the title City Music. I think place in general plays a big role in your songwriting. What about the city in general—or particular cities—helped create the tone of this album?
At the time, I was living in LA, and I had just moved there. I was living in the hills in Mount Washington. It’s a reclusive area, and it’s certainly the most solitude I’ve ever had. I had just moved from New York, so I had the chance to reflect on cities—what they mean to me and the roles they play in my life. How each one is different and the role that they play in our society, too.
Can you express what that role is?
I guess what I’m saying is, [LA] was a very new landscape for me, and it was almost like I was looking back on New York and having the time to reflect on it because I was in this quiet place. I was able to see what my life had been. New York is a crazy place: When you’re living in it, you’re desensitized to a lot of your feelings and you’re not quite sure how you feel in any given moment. Having had time and space to reflect on that—that inspired a lot of the album.
You approach your songwriting almost as an author more than a lyricist. Who are some of your biggest non-musical influences?
I’m a big fan of James Baldwin. He’s been influential in many different ways. He has a way of painting a really vivid picture of New York and he’s always been a huge influence.
Obviously Flannery O’Connor, too. I use a passage from one of her books on the album. I was reading a lot of Raymond Carver at the time, too. He has this way of telling a story very poetically. It really speaks to me and I try to do the same.
You recorded this record predominantly with Megan Duffy [a.k.a. Hand Habits] and Justin Sullivan, who have been playing in your live band on tour. How did recording with your live band impact this record?
With Singing Saw I had gone in with a producer and we brought in a lot of studio musicians to make this very orchestrated thing. For this record I wanted it to be representative of my live shows at the time, which was just the three-piece doing more of a rock and roll thing. [I wanted to] just have the three instruments go in and capture what we were able to do live.
City Music was also recorded overlooking the Pacific Ocean. What was that scene like?
It was really relaxing. It was almost like a vacation. We had just gotten back from a really long, grueling European tour. We had a horrible time. We had a loved-one pass away, and we lost a lot of our stuff—the airline lost a lot of gear. It was kind of a shitty tour but we played really well and it brought us all closer together. We booked time at this studio, and it was like we were making a record but also kind of treating ourselves after having such a shitty time. We were all very relaxed and speaking the same musical language. We were really in the pocket.
I view those days as almost [like] going to school or something. I started The Babies and I played in Woods around the time people that age would have been in college. Those years were very formative for me. They taught me how to tour and how to perform in front of an audience. I met a lot of people in the music industry, and it was all stuff that, when I came out of it at twenty-four or twenty-five, I applied to my solo career.
You cover the Germs on the new record, which is a little surprising. How did you choose to cover “Caught in My Eye”?
A lot of the influences on this record, musically and sonically, are bands from that time period. X, from Los Angeles, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Richard Hell… All from New York. What really drew me to that song was my friend Johnny, who used to live at this punk house in New York. I’d stay there all the time. He was obsessed with the Germs and he loved “Caught in My Eye.” He’d always talk about how the lyrics of that song were his favorite lyrics—how they’re so poetic. He always wanted to hear someone do a cover of that song, to do justice to the lyrics—or, not do justice, but showcase the lyrics. He was like, “I wanna hear a beautiful version of that song.” I made it for him for his birthday and I liked it enough to put it on the record. FL