Late last year, after incessant touring among the ranks of his Alma mater acts Woods and The Babies, Kevin Morby released his solo debut – the stunning folk of Harlem River. On the self-proclaimed ‘homage to New York City,’ Morby transposed from supporting role to lead with a nonchalance often not found among even the most seasoned of songwriters. After relocating to the West Coast, it’s perhaps the changes both sonically and geographically that allowed Morby the necessary means to begin shaping the music he had always sought to make.
Speaking with Morby just a few days before the release of Still Life, a road worn collection of songs that weaves in and out of reality, his demeanor is much akin to his music, both kind and introspective. Having returned home just a day prior from a European trek, Morby spoke excitedly about learning to take music seriously, his introduction to psychedelic music, and his new found love of being a “solo artist.” Still Life is out now via Woodsist.
Aquarium Drunkard: You’re coming off a run of European Dates with Justin from the Babies. What was the response like this go around?
Kevin Morby: It was incredible. I’ve been telling a few people this but it’s the best tour I’ve ever been on, to be honest. Justin and I have played music together for a longtime and it’s always sort of been in a rock band environment; three to four people up on-stage, atypical rock bands…which is great and fun, but we did it as a two piece as a financial decision. So we could both get over there and both see money.
AD: Were you nervous at all about it being just the two of you?
Kevin Morby: We were nervous as shit about it at first, but it opened up a whole world that hadn’t been penetrated by me, or us, yet. Especially with the singer-songwriter thing because with it being just a two piece it was very quiet, Justin played with brushes. We both played at the front of the stage and kind of built this little environment with a lamp and a rug on stage. We played small clubs and it was really intimate. I got to play a large part of my catalog that we hadn’t approached yet because we were able to draw back a bit. It was almost like being in a new band. It was awesome.
AD: I’ve caught your set in a few different settings. Your songs keep the same weight and intensity regardless of the lineup. Are you thinking of this while writing?
Kevin Morby: It’s not something I think about a ton. I have no problem going into a studio and having a lot of bells and whistle knowing I won’t be able to demonstrate that live. One of the things I like about being a – quote on quote – solo artist is that (the music) can exist in a bunch of different ways.
There’s this live Lou Reed record that I’m obsessed with from ’72 and part of what I love about it is that he’s playing all these songs off of Transformer and stuff, these big songs. But it’s him with a four piece band, so all the horn parts they play as guitar solos and he does the back-up vocal oohs and aahs. I like that dynamic a lot.
AD: Speaking of Lou, there have certainly been a few comparisons in the press. When was the first time you ever heard Lou/The Velvet Underground? Was that a game changer?
Kevin Morby: I was 14, growing up in Kansas City. I was at a party and I met this guy named Jacob that is still a really good friend of mine. One of my longest standing best friends. He was 18, a little bit older, kind of a cool guy hanging out on the couch by himself. We met and he mentioned the Velvet Underground and I was like who’s that? I didn’t know what time period they were from or who they were at all.
He was like, I have to show you. Took me into a room and played me “After Hours” on guitar. That was the first time I heard him, sort of. I remember loving that song but not really getting into the rest of it. It was too weird. I was like what is this?
AD: Almost too hard to understand at that point in time?
Kevin Morby: Yeah it was a language I didn’t know how to speak yet. I just dismissed it and then I remember when I was twenty, I was on my first tour with Woods where we were listening to White Light/White Heat. Jeremy, the singer of Woods was driving and it sounded so insane to me. But I finally got it. I was like who is this? Jeremy told me it was VU and that was a huge moment for me. I said to myself, I think I’m going to start liking psychedelic music.
AD: That’s a very important moment.
Kevin Morby: Yeah. Totally.
AD: Jeremy and Jarvis are obviously fantastic songwriters. What specifically did you take away from your time spent around those guys?
Kevin Morby: A lot of what they did that influenced me was…and I hesitate to use the word business…but more business-ended stuff. Before joining Woods I was only ever in punk bands and we never took ourselves too seriously. I never thought of it as, I could actually do something with this. I’ve actually never spoke about this, but the moment I joined Woods, there was this time I came to practice and I had my cables just super tangled up. They were always in this ball. Jarvis showed me how to properly wrap a cord and I thought it was silly. I was like ‘I don’t need to know how to do this, I’m not a nerd!’
But then it was just like when someone teaches you to ride a bike or tie your shoe. I was like, maybe I should treat my cables better. They’re both 10 years older than me and had been touring for a long time already. They just taught me how to be a professional musician.
AD: Do you think just being in New York added to that idea of taking things seriously?
Kevin Morby: 100%. Which is a really good thing. I think that’s what is so cool about NYC. It will whip you into shape. It weeds out anyone that isn’t trying really hard. If you’re not trying really hard, then NY will push you out. In Kansas City, I was just used to the idea that people started bands and didn’t think anything of it career-wise. There was a point where friends were doing it, and I had joined Woods. I was 20-21 when I realized I could actually make a life out of this. Up until that point, I would have never thought that.
AD: Something about that mentality you have to be in seems to drive a lot of creativity.
Kevin Morby: That’s how New York works for everything. It does put you in that frame of mind where you want to work really hard and you have so much competition and that pushes you too.
AD: Home for you now is Los Angeles. Has establishing that sense of home been difficult when so much time is spent on the road?
Kevin Morby: This year I toured a little, not quite as much. Even with this last tour I just got off I realized how much I like being on tour and being away. I definitely do feel like I have some sense of a home here but it’s not super permanent. I will probably not be living here in two years or something.
AD: Has just the idea of having more physical space something that’s influenced you?
Kevin Morby: It’s just as simple as that. With the money that I’m able to make in this world it only gets you so much in New York. That was fine in my early twenties but you get to a point where you get older and you gain more comforts. You like to keep those comforts. For me, to be creative I need more time and space now. Whereas I didn’t need that when I was younger.
AD: I’m discovering that myself as well. It’s always interesting to hear the change in people’s mentalities upon leaving or coming to New York.
Kevin Morby: Right. Different things inspired me when I was younger. Also, when I was younger I didn’t care if I had five roommates and had a tiny room. Then at some point it started to turn.
AD: So you’re neighbors with Tim (Presley) from White Fence?
Kevin Morby: I used to be. I’m still not that far. It was very happenstance. Stars aligning sort of thing. The Babies went on tour and we ended a tour in LA and were going to stay. We sublet a place we knew nothing about. We had just done this tour with White Fence down the west coast and it ended and it was literally like five houses down from him. I lived there for two months and we hung out all the time.
AD: It was cool to see him in that new video. Is he someone you’re often able to bounce ideas off of?
Kevin Morby: Funny you said that, he actually just texted me last night. He’s such a good artist and musician that he’s someone who when you get his stamp of approval, it makes you feel really good. Even though he’s a close friend of mine, it still means a lot. He’s helped me layout the artwork for my last album and for a 7”. I like to take ideas to him because he won’t bullshit about them. He has such a good eye and ear that I really trust his opinion.
AD: You were part of a certain time period of DIY in NYC. Do you have that in L.A or is it even something you’re looking for?
Kevin Morby: I’m not really highly seeking a certain scene. What was special about that time in New York was that it just happened. It was cool to be a part of. Here, I definitely have a lot of musician friends but its all people who just moved here from New York or San Francisco. People tend to keep to themselves here. I’ll definitely see people at shows and stuff but it’s not the same sort of environment where everyone is at the same bar or café all the time. King Tuff is my neighbor and sometimes we’ll go get a coffee and maybe Tim will be there or Jessica Pratt. It’s all people who have lived here for a year who moved from other cities. It’s like a retirement community.
AD: Harlem River was recorded while on a break from touring. Was this one pieced together more on the road?
Kevin Morby: Harlem River was a grab bag of songs that I had written from like 19-20 and 20-24. Songs that I didn’t use for The Babies sort of thing. That was the concept for that one — songs I wrote in New York during a certain time period. This one is having left New York but before starting to live in Los Angeles.
AD: Going into your second full length was there anything sonically you were striving for?
Kevin Morby: Harlem River we did all in live takes. I think in a lot of ways, Harlem River will always be my favorite record that I ever make just because I just like how it sounds. All to tape, played live. It was very spur of the moment. Tim just came in. Didn’t know the chords, did three takes and that’s what we used. With Still Life I tried to concentrate on the sound a bit more. I didn’t want to make the same record. Each record should have its own feeling. Maybe in another four records I can make one like Harlem River.
AD: A lot of the tracks read like character studies. Were you watching/reading anything that influenced this?
Kevin Morby: Not in particular. It was just a lot of exaggerating reality, changing names and stuff like that.
AD: Do you have a favorite character that exists in the record?
Kevin Morby: Arlo Jones. Love that guy.
AD: The artwork was inspired by a Maynard Monrow piece?
Kevin Morby: He did the artwork. He did the sandwich board thing. Then I took a picture of it on my girlfriend’s floor. What I like about that is it’s still very much a New York album, still has ties to it. A lot of the characters are people from New York. I still wanted that to be a part of it. I know Maynard through a friend.
He makes a lot of art with text on these old sandwich boards and I love them. They are all city themed. I wasn’t even actively seeking a title for the album, but I came across that on his site and was just like, that’s it. The rejects from the land of misfit toys. The broken characters. He was a part of my New York life and it was perfect.
AD: You recently tweeted: “Plz grade my new upcoming album on a scale of 10-10 as if I was a lil kid back in grade school.” What do you give both your records?
Kevin Morby: What a question! I would give Harlem River a PG-13 and Still Life a Rated R. words / j silverstein