Death Is So On the Table :: A Conversation with Kevin Morby

Kevin Morby doesn’t feel at home in this world anymore. When I ring up the 31-year-old songwriter, he’s in Los Angeles to do press for his fifth record, the double lp Oh My God. He used to live here, he tells me from his room at a “hotel in Hollywood,” but these days, he’s living back in Kansas City, where he grew up, before departing for stints on both coasts, first in Brooklyn, then in LA., all the while releasing a series of increasingly great records.

“You find yourself kind of floating, it’s a strange feeling,” Moby says. “It’s just kind of a funny feeling because of this new experience with an old city, you know what I mean?”

To hear Morby describe it, Oh My God is a “secular religious record,” one that dives headfirst into the murky waters concerning judgment, salvation, the sacred and profane. In short, it’s about life and death, the biggest ideas in the world, and it revels in its particular tension. Like the songs of Patti Smith and Nick Cave before him, Morby hovers between faith and skepticism, blurring the lines that divide the poetry of gospel from the poetry of punk rock. “If I die too young, if the locusts come/Well I don’t give a fucking shit,” Morby sings on “OMG Rock n Roll,” borrowing the fuzzed eloquence of the Velvet Underground before the song cracks into a celestial lull following the narrator’s encounter with an unnamed gunman. It’s an album of prayers, storms, confessions, and celebrations.

Morby hasn’t shied away from this kind of language before in his work, but the new album explores his fascination with the structure of religion, and the way it works in human lives, with more exuberance than ever before. In his fourth conversation with Aquarium Drunkard in as many years, he discusses Oh My God.

Aquarium  Drunkard: In many ways, rock & roll grew out of the church. In the video for “OMG Rock n Roll,” you present album covers by Nick Cave, Nina Simone, Patti Smith, Sade, and Ethiopiques. Were those artists whose work felt “religious” to you in a broad sense?

Kevin Morby: People are constantly asking what religious music I like. When you think about it, it’s almost difficult to find music that’s not religious, you know what I mean? All those records in that video, [they all concern] God in one way or another.

AD: How would you describe the role religion played in your upbringing? 

Kevin Morby: Having grown up outside of the church but surrounded by it, it was always just fascinating to me. There was a church near me growing up that had a marquee that read, “Stop, drop, and roll doesn’t work in Hell.” I remember that being an early image that was burned into my brain: just rolling around in Hell for eternity, and trying to put out…[this] endless, ceaseless fire. It’s a crazy thing for a child to see. It all fascinated me, the good and the bad of it.

AD: In “I Want To Be Clean,” you sing about the ways people hurt each other. You seem very attuned to the idea of a collective need for forgiveness, because we hurt each other as a course of just being alive together. Was that an idea you were grappling with on this album?

Kevin Morby: That’s a breakup song. That’s one of those songs from the perspective of someone who’s done the breaking up with, which is a lot easier said than done. It’s kind of taking that further: you just don’t want to feel like you’ve hurt people in this short time on Earth. That’s a heavy concept that can weigh on you, to feel like you’ve affected someone negatively in a world that’s already very difficult.

AD: Forgive my use of the term, but this record is concerned with “tribulations:” bumpy plane rides, fires in Los Angeles, and the way climate change factors into them, and mass shootings. A lot of this record is about death, and you address it in a very cavalier way. When you sing about “God” on this record, are you, to some degree, personifying the feeling we all have that our lives are essentially out of hands? That we’re not in control of what happens?

Kevin Morby: I think things have gotten bad in a way where death is so in the conversation. People are afraid to go to concerts and movies and school. Death is so on the table. Every time you leave the house, it’s there. You come to this point where you can only be so scared of it. You get to a point where it’s like, “Well, I can keep fearing this thing, or I can just live my life.” I would love to live as long as possible—I would love to live to be 100 years old. I love being alive, I love the world, I love so many things about it. But there’s this thing, where no one’s guaranteed. I think I just had a moment of [realization], like “What would make me so special that I think I am guaranteed this thing?” [So many] people have died young, very very young, and never got to experience anything.

AD: You shouldn’t be afraid of being killed when you go to see a movie or go to a show. But on a broader scale, from the 10,000-foot view, even if you don’t die at a concert, you’re still going to die one day. That seems to be part of your story here, the inevitability of it.

Kevin Morby: I’m not saying, “The world is this way, and we gotta accept our impending doom.” There’s definitely a good fight that a lot of people are fighting. I like to think I’m also fighting. I think when you just get so worked up and you’re so attuned to all the horrible things happening, you’re really turning a blind eye to number one, the good things, and number two, just the fact that no one’s guaranteed life.

AD: And religious language gave you the framework to address these monumental ideas?

Kevin Morby: Yeah, absolutely. Someone like Patti Smith—[her writing is] very religious. I got into her in high school, along with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and the Velvet Underground. When I started reading her poems and listening to her music, it reshaped things in this way for me. The only religion I knew was evangelical churches and the sort of square people that went to them in my suburb. Her work blew open for me how you can make anything into what you want it to be, in a very beautiful way. Religion can be a horrible thing for a horrible person, but it can be a beautiful thing for a beautiful person, if that makes sense.

AD: I find myself pulled by sort of these conflicting ideas. I think the narratives presented by the world’s faiths have intrinsic value, not only for what they might tell us about the divine, but also for what they tell us about ourselves. Religion helps outline the questions we all share, and it provides answers for people too. At the same time, I think about someone like Flannery O’Connor, who when she was speaking about the Eucharist, basically said, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” For her, there wasn’t any value in just a “just” a story—she wanted it to have cosmic and transcendent significance. I wonder if there’s some space in the tension between those two ideas, of these things being metaphors and stories, versus sort of accepting a more magical power inherent to the tools you’re using with these songs.

Kevin Morby: Take Lonesome Dove…It’s one of my favorite books of all time. I lent it to a friend recently, and he’s really into all the famous Russian novels. He has no interest in the Wild West, he’s a New Yorker. But [he was] like, “This is biblical. This is just a story of humanity, that’s why this book is so good.” It’s the same thing with those Russian novels: everything is just so human. I get caught up in the humanity of it all. For me, and specifically on this record, religion is this tool I’m using to tell a story of humanity. What humans do in very certain, very human situations.

I’m trying to frame the current climate using the tools of religion to tell this story, you know? I was probably 16 when I first got Patti Smith’s book of poems. I remember there was a play at an adjacent high school when I was growing up that was about Matthew Shepard, the kid who was killed in Laramie, Wyoming, for being gay. There was a play about him and Fred Phelps [and the Westboro Baptist Church] came and picketed it. There were all these children standing around with signs [outside of the play] reading “God Hates Fags.” So that was happening at the same time in my life that I’m reading the gospel of Patti Smith. I was taking it all in, like “Well, here I see the good in it, here I see the bad in it.

AD: One of the things that makes Smith’s work feel so religious is her use of incantation and ritualistic repetition. On your record, the phrase “Oh my God” is used over and over again. In using this very specific language repeatedly, were you nervous that people might mistake your use of purposeful, ritualistic repetition for, essentially, you just repeating yourself?

Kevin Morby: Yeah, I mean honestly, with stuff like that it’s like I find a thread. The reception of this record has been overwhelmingly positive, and then I feel like there’s the Pitchfork review [which cites the repetition negatively]. It’s one of those things that to me is an arbitrary thing. I did a similar thing on City Music or Singing Saw…For me, I’m gonna write what I’m gonna write regardless. I think it’s important, and if someone thinks that it’s rambling or that it goes into incoherence or whatever, then the record’s just not for them. 

AD: You’re using this elemental language. I think part of what using that language successfully requires is a willingness in the listener to essentially go all in. It’s written into the terms of use. But there are a lot of valid reasons people might not want to get with that. If you grew up hurt by the church, or abused, or have experienced any of the many different ways religion can completely trash a life, I wouldn’t blame anybody for saying, “This isn’t gonna work for me.”

Kevin Morby: It’s definitely taking that risk. And at least some people will be like, “Oh, this is just like when Dylan did his Christianity thing,” or like, “I don’t wanna listen to a white guy sing about God.” When I set out to make this record, I was like, “It’s not gonna be for everyone. But it’s absolutely what I want to make, and I am all in.” It’s a tale as old as time with making records like that, but I’m not afraid of someone not liking it.

I totally get it. I remember I had an old bandmate who had gone to an all-boys Catholic school, he was raised Catholic in New York. His take on it was just so different. I remember one time telling him, “Well, I pray to the universe sometimes,” and he [was] very dismissive like, “Don’t give me that. Just sending some hippie prayer to the universe, I want none of that.” But I remember thinking at the time that he has the right to think that, because this guy’s been forced to pray his whole life. I [can] understand someone not wanting to get on board with this record.

AD: When that incredible Trouble No More Dylan box set, about his gospel era, came out in 2017, it omitted all of his on-stage, in-between songs raps and sermons. I believe he had experienced a genuine conversion, but he’s still a writer, and on stage at least, he was choosing to go down that fire and brimstone path. He was not afraid of alienating listeners by utilizing strong language. You do that on this record as well, but I don’t hear any of the judgment stuff. As a writer, you’re adopting this language, but consciously leaving that brimstone stuff out. What inspired that choice?

Kevin Morby: A big difference there is Dylan was willing to alienate those people and go that route because he seemed to have truly believed that at the time. He believed it was his duty to go preach for the Lord and be a voice for the Lord. That is not what’s happening here at all. With each of my records, I set out to create a world. Each one of my records, in their own ways, are concept records. Some more than others, but they’re all kind of there with their concepts. The concept that I chose might not be for everybody. But at the same time, it is for everybody, because again, it’s back to the conversation of religion being this tool to talk about humanity. That is the essence of what I’m trying to get at here, I’m just using it to tell a story of the spectrum of human emotion. I’m not using it to preach the gospel.

AD: You’re using it to set the table, thematically.

Kevin Morby: I have this friend, he actually owns one of my favorite record stores in Lawrence called Love Garden Sounds, and he’s obsessed with pro-wrestling. He lives for this shit, he’s obsessed with it. Do you remember that Mountain Goats record about wrestling?

AD: Beat the Champ.

Kevin Morby: It’s really funny, because I was talking to Kelly [Corcoran] about that like, “Oh man, what’d you think of that record? That must’ve been crazy when that came out. Do you know the guys he was talking about?” And he goes, “Oh, absolutely. Of course, I know everything about [those guys].” But that record, actually, the wrestling community kind of got weird about it, because it isn’t, at every angle, “the truth.” John Darnielle [to paraphrase said] “I know that, but I’m just trying to tell a story, and I use this as my lens. So I had to structure this way or leave some parts out here and there.” It’s sort of a similar thing, you know? I remember hearing that and being like, “I relate to that, as a songwriter and as a storyteller,” because sometimes you exaggerate. It’s the same exact way people exaggerate stories when they tell them, it’s always a little bit different than how it happened.

You have to to get the sentiment across. The film we made for Oh My God was surreal. That’s [director] Chris Good’s style. There’s this part where I get on an airplane, and the airplane is like this big set, sort of a Michel Gondry inspired airplane. It’s this ridiculous thing, it’s obviously not a real airplane. The footage is bent in this weird way. To tell the story of reality, or to tell the story of what’s going on, you have to exaggerate it, to have the story hit the ears in the right way.

AD: The visual representation of the album cover is very specific too, featuring these photos by Barrett Emke. A lot of indie rock covers aspire to some kind of naturalistic vision. “Oh, you’re just catching me in this off moment, I’m just walking by.” Some of you’re old records have been like that, like Harlem River and Singing Saw.

Kevin Morby: “Oh, I didn’t notice the camera there.” It is funny.

AD: [Laughs] But this one, and City Music was the same way, you shot an album cover. You shot a very intentional thing. What did you want this listener to get from that photo? It strikes me like a photo you took with a very specific intention. 

Kevin Morby: I wanted it to be very exposed. I wanted it to be very like, “This just is what it is, and you can like it or not. This is me.” I didn’t want to wear a shirt, because I don’t want it to be dated in any time or place. I don’t want someone to be able to look and be like, “Oh, he’s wearing a jumper, and jumpers were really popular in 2018,” or, “Oh, he’s wearing that shirt from this company,” or, “That’s a vintage shirt and he’s trying to do an older, pastiche thing.” I wanted it to literally be like, “This is my body, here I am. Here’s my jelly roll and my stomach.”

I wanted to be very exposed and naked like that, and also if you go down that rabbit hole, there’s a lot of religious paintings that are very similar. There’s a kind of cherub-esque look to it. I have Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music hanging on the wall behind me. Barrett Emke is really good at doing evocative photography. He’s a friend of mine a grew up with and then kind of lost touch with. I stumbled onto his work, he was shooting [in] Ferguson, after Michael Brown died. The photos were just very human.

He’s just got a way of doing things. It was really good to dig in with him on that. There’s something about putting myself out there on this record. [I decided] “I’m just gonna go all in on this thing. I’m gonna be shirtless on the album cover, and people can make memes out of it, and they can make fun of it. They can do whatever they want. But I’m just doing it.” It’s one of those things where it’s like you’re standing naked in front of a crowd and you’ve got nothing else to lose.

I absolutely had moments where I was like, “Should I wear a shirt? Should we use a different photo? Should we redo the photo where I have the blankets around me?” But then I think about it, and I’m like, “No, I couldn’t imagine it any other way.” interview/j woodbury

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