Going Home With Kevin Morby

Before sojourning the coasts as a zealous 20-something, Kevin Morby was just another jaded high school kid looking for a ticket out of the midwest. Unlike the energy beholden to New York’s midnight skyline or the headlight caravans along the highways of Los Angeles, there was something unsettling about the Kansas City sunset he reckoned. It was a cold reminder that when night falls, there’s nowhere to hide, nothing to distract from yourself. 

So he took off for Brooklyn in the mid-aughts in search of something more. The fledgling songwriter found creative cohorts all around the city, joining bands like Woods and the Babies as the daring noise of the “Brooklyn scene” slid onto iPods and late night television. Contrary to the bucolic and claustrophobic midwestern dusk, New York pulsed with life under the moon, and Morby found his stride. 

Harlem River, the songwriter’s debut as a solo artist, was conceived early last decade in Los Angeles, his ensuing homestead for several years. Critics praised the album’s likeness to Bob Dylan and the freewheeling sound of mid-’60s electric folk, and Morby’s sound began to take shape. The polarity of Los Angeles catalyzed his music; the sprightly, self-assertive Still Life arrived in 2014, the brooding sprawl of Singing Saw following in 2016. The cycle repeated. 2017’s City Music was frisky and audacious; the gospel of 2019’s Oh My God planted its reverent heels with a right hand reaching towards the heavens. 

The pitfalls of a rock and roll globetrotter were unveiled as Morby’s expansive life on the road flourished. Musicians he grew to know and love, like City Music producer Richard Swift and Jessi Zazu of Those Darlins, passed away too young. He lost another close friend, musician Jamie Ewing, and went through a messy breakup in Los Angeles. The excessive fun of the coasts and the unbound freedom of the road had proved difficult to maintain creativity and process grief. The triteness of the music industry began to feel irritating. 

Suddenly, the stillness of the midwest seemed appealing. Morby bought a little house in his hometown in the winter of 2017 and converted the shed in the back into a makeshift studio. He bought a Tascam 424 4-track and began recording the sparse skeletons of what would become Sundowner, his sixth studio album. Meanwhile, a blossoming relationship with Waxahatchee songwriter Katie Crutchfield unfolded amidst his self-isolation. And for the first time in over a decade, Morby was confronted again with the cold midwestern sunset, but under new circumstances: The dawning of new love, the acceptance of profound loss, navigating an old life with a new set of eyes. The spirit of Sundowner fossilized in earnest. 

Today, Morby releases his warmly reflective new album via Dead Oceans, an inviting look into a man faced once again with the intrinsic anxiety of the Kansas City night. We spoke at length with the singer-songwriter about the benefits of regionalism, how Crutchfield helped inspire Sundowner, coping with loss, some sage advice from Kim Deal, and the wistful identity of Kansas City. | c ruddell

AD: Sundowner is the perfect record for this moment. It’s lonely and a little weird, it’s touching, self-actualizing and full of personal confrontation and reconciliation. And I think what makes it particularly special is that it wasn’t really intended for this moment, or even conceived this year. It’s like you’ve already experienced the isolation that a lot of us have been going through the last six or seven months; it’s almost like you’re offering us a sort of pamphlet to learn how to cope, or at least helping us recognize that these feelings pass eventually. 

Kevin Morby: Yeah, it is a really funny record in that respect. When I made it, it all happened very quickly, and it happened right in this time period when I had a lot of other stuff going on with my last record [Oh My God]. That was really kind of my main focus, but I was sort of leading two different lives. In terms of my quieter, more private life, Sundowner came. At the time it was taking place, I was like, “Why am I living back in Kansas, and why am I sort of shutting myself into solitude?” There just seemed to be a lot of question marks. And then with the pandemic, it seemed to answer a lot of these questions, and it’s interesting now because I’ve seen a lot of my friends who’ve moved out of New York or Los Angeles—both places I had been living—moving back to their hometowns. It’s funny—they’re all asking me for advice and they’re nervous to do so. But it is a funny thing because I felt like I went through my own sort of version of this quarantine a year or two before it actually took place. By the time it happened, I felt really prepared for it. 

We never really knew how we were gonna put Sundowner out to the world, because I take all of my records very seriously, obviously, but Oh My God—I intended it to be such a big thing, and then with Sundowner, it was like, “Well, how are we gonna drop this and say that we were still taking it seriously?” It’s a quieter record, so we weren’t really sure how to do that, and then weirdly when this happened, despite it being a horrible thing, this pandemic kind of created this portal in which it felt very appropriate to release it.  

AD: So you’ve wound back up where you started from. What’s the transition back to Kansas City like for you? 

Kevin Morby: The advice I give to people—I mean number one, it is different from some of my friends who aren’t musicians. I moved back here, but I did get to leave every couple of weeks to go see the world. Something that I was telling myself a lot at the time around me moving back is that it’s an important time in American history to sort of bring back regionalism in this way, to just go back to where you’re from. I’m not saying everyone has to go back to their hometown, but I think it’s good to get in touch with that side of yourself that you already know to just expand your bubble a little bit. 

I love New York and I love LA, and in a lot of ways I feel way more at home in those places than I do here, but it just felt like a necessary thing for me to do at the time, to come full circle. I left my home town and I couldn’t wait to escape it when I did, but then to come back as an adult and see it with these new eyes, this perspective where I went out and made a name for myself, you know—I could’ve never made a name for myself had I not gone out and done it. I needed New York, I needed Los Angeles. To return here and see it through these new eyes and be able to see the city in a new way and turn it into something new rather than being haunted by my old ghosts—I think my advice to people is: It’s like being in high school, you have to turn to those things that initially inspired you, you have to turn to art. If you’re unable to leave, you have to explore in the same way that you did when you were a child, you have to explore through film and music, and you see the world that way and it should get you sort of in touch with what really matters to you.

AD: That’s why it was important for you to make this record in the heartland. 

Kevin Morby: Yeah, absolutely. I felt like, at least temporarily, I was getting to a point where I really needed to take a break from being around the music industry. Not because of music, but because I would go out on tour; I loved playing live and I loved performing for my fans, but it can be exhausting, and getting back to Brooklyn or L.A. after that is being so inundated with people talking about, you know whatever new cool band there is or whatever, I really felt that I needed to break myself off from that and revive my creative experience. It really worked for me coming back here. I didn’t intend to be back here for too long, but once I got here, I enjoyed the solitude so much. It’s been really conducive to my creativity, so I’ve been further following that.  

AD: Do you see yourself sticking around for a while longer?

Kevin Morby: I think so. I think it’s a great place for me to take some time. A pretty immediate thing that I liked about being here was that I didn’t feel trapped. It’s so affordable here and I can comfortably own a house that has a studio, it’s really easy for me to just leave whenever I want and just get in my car, and everywhere is like a two hour flight away, so at any given moment—again this was before the pandemic—but at any given moment I could just easily pick like, “Oh, I want to go to New York next weekend, or I want to go to LA, or I want to take a trip to New Orleans, or I want to go to New Mexico.” That’s been really good for me. And again there’s something about the Trump flag—and I live in a pretty liberal neighborhood, especially for a place like Kansas City, but I like returning to a place where, while I don’t like the Trump flag, I like knowing, or being reminded that it’s real. Do you know what I mean? I think when I was living in Los Angeles it had become so hard to believe—you think like, “How could people support this guy, how could this be happening?” You don’t see that stuff out there. I know that it does still exist in every city in America, but coming back here where your neighbor has a Trump flag, I like the idea that I’m juxtapositioned to that person and that maybe I can help turn the neighborhood in a better direction. I like being a part of that and just reminding myself that a lot of these people, they’ve never met a creative liberal type or something, and I can be that person. Not that I’m taking it as my duty to plant myself here and be that person, but I think that is of some importance.

AD: Let’s talk about this term that you’ve adopted, “Sundowner.” You and Katie came up with this?

Kevin Morby: Yeah, it’s one of those words that takes up so many different meanings. I’ve seen it in the news a lot lately for people describing Biden, saying “Biden is sundown-y” in reference to Alzheimer’s. It’s commonly used when referring to people with Alzheimer’s. But we gave our own definition to it. I’ve also been seeing it in the news, the “sundowner” winds that are acting with the California wildfires. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews with people in England, I had one with a guy earlier, and everyone there refers to their first happy hour cocktail as their “sundowners.” 

But anyway, it’s just one of those words. Katie had used it and was like, “Oh, the sun is going down, I’m such a sundowner,” and that was kind of the first time I used it. Then weirdly around the same time, my friend Meg from Hand Habits—who used to play in my band—Meg had mentioned that their aunts worked at a bar called The Sundowner. So like a lot of things that make their way to my records and my record titles, it was just sort of something that was in the air. The way that Katie and I began to use it is for someone who is sort of phased at the end of the day, or like with the night coming on, this depression sets in, which to me is very midwestern now. When I was living on the coast, I really welcomed the night, especially in a place like New York, that’s when the day would begin for me, and here, being back in isolation, I was really dreading the scene of the nightfall because it was a time when I was just left to my own devices and I really had to sort of face myself.

I think there’s something to the Midwest. I think this is something that’s been depicted in certain films like Buffalo ‘66. I know that’s Buffalo, New York, but I feel like they do a good job at capturing that longing and loneliness. In the Midwest there’s a football game on in the background and it’s cold and you have school the next day and when the sun goes down, you’re like, “Please don’t, I really don’t want tomorrow to come!” It’s just that weird longing feeling which I really related to and escaped for so long. It’s a funny thing for me—not to sound like a jerk with my own ego or something, but before I left Kansas City I felt like I would never get out, I just felt like I was stuck here and I couldn’t connect with the rest of the world. But now, having gone and done that and frequently needing to do that, when I am back here I still have those normal feelings, but it’s through this new set of eyes where I know that I can escape it if I want to. But I did try to find the meaning in it, I guess.

AD: The aesthetic for this record is so romantic and tender, and I love how the two music videos for “Campfire” and “Wander” seem to be connected in a narrative. Your love for Katie seems to be on the forefront, which is beautiful to watch unfold. It’s such a nice resolution to a record that feels like an emotional reckoning.

Kevin Morby: You know, it’s a funny parallel again that I was out here alone, and then Katie and I started dating and she would come here. She also lived a big expansive life out on the road. It was just bizarre. She moved from Philadelphia and I moved from Los Angeles and suddenly we’re living in the suburbs of Kansas City, and just kind of like, “What are we doing?” It’s kind of a strange thing, but it was a very intimate time where it was just the two of us. It was kind of like the rest of the world didn’t exist. To our neighbors, they didn’t know who we were, they just thought we were these weird young adult kids. But then we would go back on tour and we just sort of existed in this strange life. And then again, we really were in that life with the lockdown, and so we’re back in that same place. I really wanted to depict—a lot of the visuals are referencing Terrence Malick’s Badlands which is another story about two people against the world. That’s just kind of how it felt in our own small private way. It was just Katie and I and the rest of the world ceased to exist until we would go out and be these huge rockstar versions of ourselves.

AD: How did your blossoming relationship with Katie influence the writing on this record? 

Kevin Morby: I think it’s a special thing with both of our albums and the imagery we’re pulling from. Before this, we were both on coasts. Everything was different in terms of our album visuals and what we were thinking about. But Katie’s from Alabama and I’m from here, and I think for both of us being back in middle America, it was really a return to our roots. We have so much in common, and I think part of the reason we get along so well is that we were raised very similarly in similar parts of the country. Katie and I just really influenced one another’s songwriting, and we continue to do so, but I think both of us discovering our roots at the same time while discovering a person who comes from a similar place, it unfolded in real time. There was this incubation period where we’re spending a lot of time together and I think we both learned a lot about one another.

AD: You’ve described the move back to Kansas City as “sudden” and “unforeseen.” Why is that? 

Kevin Morby: I bought this house in 2015, so the whole reason why I bought a house was because I was on tour in 2013 with Cate Le Bon. It was my first tour as a solo artist. Bradford Cox [of Deerhunter], who has since become a longtime collaborator with Cate, he invited us to stay at his house in Atlanta. It just blew my mind open; I liked that he lived in his hometown, I thought that was cool. Then we went to his house and it’s a beautiful house, it wasn’t like a huge house or anything, it was just a beautiful house that he had done a lot of cool stuff to. I remember thinking, “Oh wow, I forgot people can live places besides the coast and they can live a little more comfortably.” I remember asking him, “Why’d you buy your house?” He said, “I bought my house because Kim Deal told me if I ever get enough money to buy a house anywhere, I have to do it, and so the moment I got enough money, I bought a house in Atlanta.” 

Literally like six months later I signed with Dead Oceans and I got my first recording advance and I was like, “I’m gonna buy a house in Kansas City. I’m gonna take his word for it.” So I bought a house here in 2015. My friend Chris Good, who has made a bunch of my music videos, had lived in it for a really long time. So I was living in L.A.—basically my unforeseen circumstances are that he moved out of the house and I was also going through a breakup. I didn’t wanna move out of L.A. really, but it just felt like the responsible, adult decision that I needed to make at the time. I was going through this breakup so I needed to change something and perhaps distance myself from the city and that person, and I also had this house I was responsible for, so I was like, “You know what, I’ll go back to Kansas City for a couple of months, make sure the house is okay, maybe find another friend to live in it and then come back.” But once I got here, it just sort of slowly unfolded that I really enjoy being back here.

AD: Such sage advice from Kim Deal.

Kevin Morby: I was in Australia I think two years ago and I got to hang out with her a handful of times. So we’re backstage at the Sydney Opera house when I first met her, backstage at a Breeders show, and I told her that Bradford told me that thing and that I bought a house and she was like, “Oh! Donny Bonebrake, the drummer from X—he told me to do that, and that’s why I bought a house!” I like existing in this long lineage of musicians telling other musicians to buy a house. 

I will say, it did seem to solve a lot of problems in my life. Even if I decide to move away, I know that I have it. I think musicians are always operating out of so much fear that it could go away at any moment, and if it did go away at any moment, what would you have to show for it. Just being a musician and knowing that I have a place I can go and I can store my gear and if I lost my voice tomorrow, I have a place to live, which then really helps me channel everything into creative energy rather than thinking about how the hell am I gonna pay rent or something.

AD: The spirits of some important people in your life are wrapped up in this record, like Richard Swift, Jessi Zazu as the central character in “Campfire,” and your friend Jamie Ewing on “Jamie.” In a way it seems like the writing process of this record was a way of finally coping with loss in a period of rest after being on the road and unable to effectively cope or process the trauma. 

Kevin Morby: Yeah, absolutely. It’s sort of back to the sentiment of facing myself, and having gone out and done these things and making a name for myself, but then coming back to no distractions away from that life and really being able to take a hard look at all of that and what it all means and make sense of it. It’s really just having the time and space to do so. I just don’t think I could have made a record this reflective had I been back in LA going to bars and shows with friends every night, I just don’t think it could’ve taken place. There’s something about living this big extravagant life and coming back to the Midwest where everything is so quiet and sort of anonymous—when I’m out there living this life, I’m out there running into people like Jessi Zazu or Richard Swift or Jamie Ewing. It’s something about coming back here and seeing those people through the filter of the muted Midwest, it just heightens their myth. They’re these characters that I’m so grateful and privileged to have come into contact with.

AD: What kind of wisdom did Richard Swift bestow upon you?

Kevin Morby: I think Swift was—he’s one of those people who is so influential, but he’s influential because you can’t imitate him. Or you can imitate him, but you can’t ever get the end result that he would be able to get. I mean with Swift, my experience was that he would just ask questions and hit record and run back and forth between the control and the live room, and just be like doing a three part harmony and then he would do a drum fill and then he would do a crazy fourth part and like, not asking anything until it was over. It was like a tornado. He would just do it all and then he’d look at me and say, “Does that sound cool?” And I’d be like, “What did you just do? That was amazing!” And he’d be like, “Okay cool, I think we’re done for the day.” I’d just watch him work for an hour and it would just be like this crazy storm, and then it would be over, but it was always so good. He’s the type of guy who would put a mic on a mic stand and then he would throw it and then let it spin around and then wherever it landed he’d be like, “Cool, that’s where we’re gonna have the mic.” I guess confidence is the thing to take away from Swift. I’m not like a recording engineer by any stretch, but I have set up like a little rig—honestly, the 4-track at the beginning stages of making this record, I was texting Swift and telling him I had plans of getting a 4-track and he was saying, “That’s great, that’s all you need, you can make something beautiful with that.” Just having confidence with whatever you’re working on, I think that’s really what he bestowed onto me and anyone else—it’s more about the confidence and your performance rather than some secret way to do something.

AD: I love your 4-track’s role in the story of the album. It’s like an old friend you spoke to get through a hard time. 

Kevin Morby: Yeah, I like that. Again, I feel like it was another way of facing myself, because I quite literally was plugged into this thing where I was listening to myself in real time. I’ve never really written like that when I’m listening to myself in headphones and my voice is literally being reflected at me. I had a 4-track in high school and I broke it. I famously—my fucking poor parents bought me this thing for Christmas or something, a little tiny 4-track, and I got so frustrated trying to make it work that I smashed it. It’s funny, my parents were moving out of the house recently and I came across it and I was like, “Wow here it is, this is my broken 4-track!” But I came back to Kansas City and I was like, “You know what, I’m gonna learn how to work a 4-track. I’m a 30 year old man, and I need to learn how to operate a simple piece of machinery. I’m a professional musician, I can do this.” 

The 4-track that I bought is actually kind of broken so I had to rig it up in this crazy way that I think if anyone’s familiar with them, they’d probably wonder why I did that. I was asking some friends for advice, but once I sort of mastered it, and I’ve experienced it with Swift’s music so often—like at one point when I was writing my record Singing Saw, I had acquired a piano and so I was writing on piano for the first time. Once I got better at it, the piano became harder to write on it because you know too much. The same sort of thing happened with the 4-track. The recordings I made on it that really sort of opened up this project to me were the ones that I made when I really didn’t know what I was doing and really didn’t have any expectations.

AD: Would you say that you’re partial to the method of putting limitations on things for yourself? 

Kevin Morby: Yeah, absolutely. I like to work pretty quickly. I don’t like to overthink things, I think that’s where I get myself into trouble. I like to get behind something really quick and without too much thinking, like a sort of first thought best thought philosophy.

AD: You’ve been livestreaming performances of your full discography album by album. What’s that been like, revisiting the back catalogue and reviving them? What have you learned or noticed from some of the previous material that maybe you haven’t thought about since putting them together?

Kevin Morby: It’s been fun and it’s funny at times. Honestly all of my records that have come out on Dead Oceans have been pretty effortless because I feel like I’ve been playing the majority of the songs in my live show for the past five years or whatever, but the first two records were really the only ones I struggled with, having to relearn some of those songs. I think that the only one—and not even the first one actually, Harlem River was pretty effortless, but my second one, Still Life, was the only one that sort of felt like I had to relearn some of the songs, and the only moment that I had where I was like, “Oh god, I don’t wanna play this song.” I felt a little bit of embarrassment like, “Why was I being so dramatic there?” But everything else was pretty effortless. I obviously would much rather be at a venue and on a stage and performing to real live humans. I don’t love the virtual thing, but I’m thankful to be able to do it and to the platform. People seem to really enjoy them, so I’m glad I can sort of be of that service to people who have been locked up in the house for months.

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