Catching Up With Kevin Morby

"Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, Tommy/they were all my friends and they died," Kevin Morby sings on "1234," a punk-influenced gem from his new album, City Music.

In Morby's mouth, the recitation of the departed Ramones' names becomes something like a mantra, his interpolation of Jim Carroll's most famous song signaling that City Music is in part, like his debut Harlem River, a "New York" record. Though the native Midwesterner calls Los Angeles home these days, N.Y.C. holds a particular fascination for him. You hear the city in the record's grooves, in its nods to Lou, Patti, Bob, and Joni.

Recorded at California's Panoramic Studios and completed with producer Richard Swift in Oregon, the record presents Morby's Cohen-esque folk with rock & roll underpinnings, balancing the sparseness of previous records with the energy of his live shows. Tellingly, it features a studio version of the Germs' "Caught In My Eye," a cover originally cut for Aquarium Drunkard's Lagniappe Sessions, transmuting the punk screed into something tempered but driving.

Kevin Morby :: Caught In My Eye [Lagniappe Sessions Version]

Actual cities inspired City Music:  Morby compiled a pamphlet for his label Dead Oceans called, "A Guide To The Cities That Inspired City Music," focusing on Kansas City, New York, and Porto, but the spirit goes deeper than specific locales. The record swirls around the big idea of a city  as a setting for human dramas, full of stories and disparate characters contributing to a whole. Writing about cities and the people in them, Morby inevitably winds up giving voice to his inner self, illustrating the way our relationship with our surroundings and those around us make clear our own hearts. One of City Music's best moments features singer/songwriter Meg Baird reading a passage from Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away, but the whole of the record reflects O'Connor's assertion from Wise Blood: “In yourself right now is all the place you've got.”

Morby sat down with AD to discuss the record. That conversation below, edited for clarity and cohesion.

Aquarium Drunkard: The last time we talked, one of the things we centered on was how your last record, Singing Saw, was an album very much rooted in finding and settling into a place. City Music seems like it's about something else -- about moving around, finding a lot of places. Yet they feel very connected, almost like two sides of the same coin. Do they feel that way to you?

Kevin Morby: Absolutely. Singing Saw was very much about one thing, and it's almost like one-half of my brain realized what it was creating and decided to play devil's advocate and say, "I'm going to create the opposite." It's just the way I operate. I get restless easily. The moment I realize I'm doing one thing, I'll see that through to completion, but by the time I get there, I'm already half-way through with the next thing.

AD: This album, musically and lyrically, references a lot of rock & roll music: Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Jim Carroll, the Ramones. Was it fun to tap into that freewheeling spirit?

Kevin Morby: That's something we've always done live, but now we really get to explore that. We just played our first two shows and playing the songs off this new record has opened up a whole new world. We can kind of go off the rails a little bit. We were playing "1234" last night and it's completely different than anything we've ever played. That's the fun part about being a solo artist -- I get to explore all these realms.

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