Morgan Kibby Walks Us Through “Rookie,” Her Debut LP as the Messy, Glorious Sue Clayton

Take a trip to Palm Springs with the latest project from the White Sea songwriter, which is out now.
Track by Track

Morgan Kibby Walks Us Through Rookie, Her Debut LP as the Messy, Glorious Sue Clayton

Take a trip to Palm Springs with the latest project from the White Sea songwriter, which is out now.

Words: Kim March

Photo: Samantha West

May 08, 2023

Morgan Kibby has taken on a number of musical personas over the years, nabbing songwriter and performance credits on early M83 records before setting off on her own as White Sea and, most recently, collaborating with Panic! at the Disco, Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, and Mandy Moore in various capacities as vocalist, instrumentalist, writer, and producer. There’s also a pretty good chance you’ve encountered her soundtrack work.

But her latest project sees the Alaska-born multihyphenate taking on a new persona entirely: Rookie is the debut album from Sue Clayton, a fictional character hitting a mid-life rough patch while cruising through Palm Springs. In addition to permitting Kibby to pursue sounds far removed from those previously established within White Sea’s synthpop universe—which is significantly more tied to her work with Anthony Gonzalez—the Laurel Canyon folk and belted orchestral pop found on the record allow for Kibby to explore lyrical paths leading to various dramas previously inaccessible from an autobiographical standpoint on prior releases.

Produced by heartland troubadour Butch Walker and featuring longtime collaborator Kevin Devine on late-album cut “Desert Caviar,” the resulting project is the musical equivalent to a road movie—a soundtrack equally apt for just about any stretch of highway in the US beyond its inherent West Coast storyline. With the album out now, Kibby took us through the development of her new character with a track by track breakdown of the new LP. Stream it and find her words below.

1. “Runaway Bride”
Fidelity, promises broken, and unbridled yearning are at the center of this track. Ultimately Sue is bargaining with God, begging for peace, and negotiating her release from expectation. She’s a mess and she’s glorious.

2. “OMG”
There’s nothing more bittersweet than love seen through the lens of a person aging. It’s so rare to feel “new” emotions—or, more pointedly, to feel things as deeply as we once did. I’m hyper aware of moments that bubble up at this stage in life that move me. I celebrate them and don’t take them for granted. “OMG” is a breath of exuberance that strikes like a shiver in the body of a woman deeply aware of her youth passing but in awe of renewal, simultaneously accepting the high won’t last.

3. “Palm Springs Cemetery”
My sister and I were helping my father surprise my mother for their anniversary, and so we found ourselves collecting every bouquet of pink roses, carnations, tulips, et cetera we could find at the Vons on East Palm Canyon Drive. As we came to the register, stacks of flowers teetering on the belt, the cashier asked us if we were visiting the cemetery. I immediately left the flowers to my sister and went to the car to write her words down and the song flowed out of me.  I was in the desert indefinitely, losing myself, trying to figure life out, and I was aware of how utterly alone I was. But just like “Runaway Bride,” it’s a wild and unbridled nod to feeling lost. Not resigned, but fiercely fighting the riptide.

4. “Extraordinary Life”
I realized a couple years ago that desiring specific things from life can be dangerous in the sense that it limits the possibility of what we don’t know showing up—and thus elevating our lives to heights we couldn’t previously have imagined. Ultimately this song is about letting go of what we’re taught to be and desire. Letting go of some need to occupy a moral high ground as we stumble through life, and ultimately it’s about surrendering to the impulse for joy and hopefully never regretting the things we did, only the things we didn’t.

5. “Helicopters”
I wrote this song for my best friend and partner of seven years. I wanted to honor how we protected one another in a very long string of years where nothing seemed to be easy for either of us. Yet somehow we always made the most of insane circumstances and loved one another unconditionally. Together. It’s a slice-of-life moment in the little home we own, surrounded by fire trucks, noise, the children’s hospital, just trying to fall asleep in each other’s arms and drown out the noise, knowing we were lucky and also knowing we were far from peace.

6. “Moonsong”
“Moonsong” is the point in the record where I feel the storytelling of Sue truly starts to emerge.  Once again, the physical details of the night time desert emerge here to help carve out a slice-of-life moment rooted in the idea of desire, longing to connect, and the pleasure of dreaming in a quiet, private little evening.

7. “Final Party”
I got drunk a lot on my own while my life fell apart in the desert. It was wild to be so alone and yet feel so free. “Final Party” is a raised glass to the abandon that I’d never let myself have prior.  The contained destruction of never having faced certain things head-on. Ultimately it’s about the very adult realization that we’re all pretty much alone. It’s exhilarating and terrifying.  

8. “Loveline”
The allegory of Sue’s fall from grace is really cemented in “Loveline.” I was driving on a winding road to see a friend in Joshua Tree one afternoon, and all of a sudden this lightning bolt of melody struck me. I pulled the car over and sent my producer Butch [Walker] a voice note. What if Sue left the desert as she pulled herself together and ended up in Vegas? To be frank, the jokes were endless and I wanted a moment of cheeky ’70s kitsch. A sex hotline seemed like the perfect answer. This is also where “Glenn” (Butch) makes a cameo—another down-and-out character just trying to connect.

9. “Desert Caviar”
A friend of mine was visiting Palm Springs one week and invited me over for some caviar and champagne from one of her boyfriend’s clients. As the afternoon sun shifted, we kept moving the table in the backyard so the ridiculously fancy offering didn’t spoil. There are so many slice-of-life moments on this record, and “Desert Caviar” really encapsulates them best. A tin of mobile caviar, an expensive candle that you feel guilty burning without company, an insomnia-filled night where the words for Sue just poured out like a flood in four hours. Kevin Devine, one of my dearest friends and oldest collaborators, was the perfect person to write this with. He’s one of the most thoughtful artists I know, and I’m always floored by the thoughts he manages to convey with very little movement. We co-wrote this in an hour.

10. “Buttermilk Sky”
The album closer is, for me, aside from “Helicopters,” the most gut-wrenching. Butch had very wisely pointed out the genius of storytelling in ’70s-era American music, and so I took a deep dive into the genre, coming full circle to an absolute classic: “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” The genius of this song is the web it weaves without ever being on the nose. I wanted to take Sue’s story full circle. Back to Los Angeles, yet again alone, buying lilies for a husband buried and nowhere specific to be. Does she stay? Or does she leave? Ultimately she makes peace with the past and shakes hands with the future.