Five minutes into our interview, Kevin Morby brings up the fact that both his parents came from broken homes. He talks about their difficult memories so openly, he almost sounds wistful. “I would kind of pry about it,” he says, admitting to an attraction to dark subjects that he’s had for as long as he can remember.
After a nomadic childhood during which the Morby family followed Kevin’s dad’s job in the motor industry, they settled in Kansas City. While maintaining an interest in tragic news stories and films, Kevin soon found punk, sparking a desire to move away and become a musician. Aged 18 he pitched up in New York, did odd jobs and then joined folky psych outfit Woods. Then he formed the punkier Babies with Vivian Girls singer Cassie Ramone. All the while he was writing songs unsuitable for either band, so a solo debut – a smooth, seedy tribute to New York called ‘Harlem River’ – arrived in 2013, prompting Kevin to move to Los Angeles and leave his bands behind.
Since then, he’s released second album ‘Still Life’ and settled in the picturesque hillside enclave of Mount Washington, somewhere he describes as “almost obnoxiously beautiful, the kind of place people retire”. He uses the tranquillity to put his energy into making “timeless” music.
To craft ‘Singing Saw’ – named after its titular musical instrument, a saw played with a bow – he’d write at the piano by day and walk among the lush vegetation and roaming coyotes at night. His mind ran wild, turning his reflections on the past into vivid, often fantastical songs. He recorded them over a six-day period in rural Woodstock, amping up his folk-rooted sound with grooving bass, brass, huge swathes of electric guitar and lots of piano.
It’s a brilliant record because it packages freaky, uncomfortable stories in luxurious, detailed songs. Images of a lone wanderer, consumed by music, singing saws and wildlife populate each song. It could have come off as knowing or forced, but the delivery is far too measured and relaxed for that. As it pulls you under, you realise Kevin’s music sounds lived-in and wise. You get the impression he’s seen a lot in his 28 years, but he says no one’s told the full story yet: “I like to think it’ll never be completed.” Songs this deep and powerful prompt endless questions, and in our chat we got as far as discussing death, drugs, New York and his love of a good stroll.
‘Singing Saw’ is quite spooky. What draws you to dark subjects?
“They make for a good story. It’s hard to explain without sounding too cheesy, but there’s something very beautiful about them… there’s a sense of hope, which is a very attractive quality. But it’s hopefulness while feeling doomed.”
Have you always felt that way?
“I’ve been attracted to those news items or movies since I was a little kid. I thought those sorts of stories weren’t recognised enough, I’ve always been very into the underdog. I had a very easy middle class upbringing and never had to worry about anything. But my parents came from nothing and from broken homes and their stories were always very interesting.”
So have their backgrounds affected you?
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“It’s almost like their stories sounded like they were from novels because they were so far away from how I was brought up. For my dad to talk about his alcoholic father… that sounded crazy to me. My dad grew up in western Nebraska, I’d visit all the time as a kid and it’s very much like the Wild West. It felt to me like a cowboy movie. Stuff like that made me become this dreamer at a young age.”
Dreamer seems a strange word to use, were you fantasising about those situations?
“Inherently you have to place yourself there I guess, but I don’t know if I would necessarily look at it as if I was the person, it’s more like I’m looking in at the scene rather than it being filmed through my eyes. I’m very impressionable, I get very taken away by stories and certain feelings. With writing sometimes I want to feel like a character. Music I listened to is very much like that, I think Bob Dylan hit a lot of territory like that, Leonard Cohen and even more contemporary bands, when I was in high school I was obsessed with The Mountain Goats, that’s a lot of fictional writing. I was really drawn to stories.”
But you sing in the first person a lot, so people may think you’re being autobiographical…
“Right, sure. I have that thought too when I hear music, but it’s really cool when you see it’s a character they wrote, I think there’s something more poetic about that or something.”
What kind of characters are on this record? ‘Cut Me Down’ is quite a hard-hitting opener. Who’s cutting what down?
“Someone’s just being slain, you know. That song’s a very exaggerated thing on feeling defeated, this record is autobiographical while being fantastical. You know that book 100 Years Of Solitude? I read that the author got his storytelling from his grandmother – she would tell him fantastical stories as if they were real, so his idea of perceiving life was a fantastical thing. I really relate to that. You can be sad about something very tangible like a relationship problem, but you can put it on this platform, like somebody’s about to be killed or something. You can run wild.”
Can you explain ‘Dorothy’? It’s named after your guitar, which you named after your grandmother, but isn’t it about travelling?
“It’s about everywhere I’ve been. When I think about the most exotic, beautiful places Porto is at the front of my mind. It’s incredible man. You have an idea of what Europe is like as an American and people talk about Paris, Berlin and Stockholm, which are all great, but it wasn’t until I went to Porto that I felt that idea of this exotic beautiful timeless place.”
Do you think your voice is distinctive?
“I get obsessed with trained voices. I can’t do that at all so it’s like watching a magician or an athlete. I like my voice. It’s definitely limited but a lot of my favourite singers were very limited and didn’t know how to sing, but that’s what gives it character and that’s why you like certain singers. I feel like people who are trained usually come off as boring or not authentic.”
Have you always been a big walker?
“I walked in Kansas as a kid, there was a trail behind the house. I walked in New York lots too, I’d take the train into anywhere in Manhattan and just get lost. It’s very important to me to just walk. It’s my favourite thing to do.”
Are you thinking while you walk?
“Definitely, a lot of thoughts. I feel like there are 1,000 thoughts in my head at any given moment, but when I go walking I can focus on three of them one at a time and by the end of the walk I don’t have to think anymore.”
What kind of thoughts?
“Normal everyday things, you’ll end up focusing on the tiniest thing and running with it. It could be anything, like…. ‘Where did blue jeans come from?’”
When you were making ‘Harlem River’, did you try and tap into New York’s seediness?
“Yeah definitely, that’s what makes writing about it attractive. It’s a very unhealthy beauty, it’s like the most unhealthy place you could be.”
In what respect?
“Every single one. When I lived there I drank way more, I smoked way more, I didn’t sleep. You just run yourself wild. It’s funny when I go back now, I forget how everyone lives and it’s sometimes pretty difficult. There’s only one place like New York in this world and it’s so ‘itself’, you know? It spawns a lot of creativity in people to document why it’s so crazy.”
Were there drug stories on ‘Harlem River’?
“The last song is about my friend who passed away from a heroin overdose, so that plays into that. I never did drugs myself, but I was surrounded by drug use and people doing heroin for many years and it took my best friend. At a point in time in Brooklyn, a lot of people were using a lot of hard drugs, then it seemed to go away for a while, I don’t know what state it’s at now.”
Do drugs and music go hand in hand?
“I don’t know, I’ve never really done drugs. I have an aversion to them, I always have. When I was a kid I was put on all these different pills in high school for anxiety and depression and stuff and it just muddied my mind and the moment I could step away from it I felt so accomplished not having to take these synthetic drugs anymore. I never had any desire to do them in my adult life recreationally. Some people say it makes them more creative but that’s just an allusion to a drug user. I’ve seen people write their best and worst stuff on drugs so who can really say? It’s ruined careers as much as it’s made people who they are.”
You talked about being interested in the underdog. I’ve read Midwesterners are known as underdogs, is that true and does it apply to you?
“Absolutely, 100% but I think it’s a mentality that’s yours to choose what you wanna do with it. I’ve taken steps to get past that a little bit, the best representation of that as a band is The Replacements. They were never huge and were tossed aside at the time, but now they’re this legendary band. There’s always that mentality of a Midwesterner, in the same way that if you’re from England you’ll always be English [laughs].”
Does ‘playing the underdog’ manifest in your daily life?
“Sure. Even in the way I order food at a restaurant. The cliché about Midwesterners, which is very true, is that they’re very nice and avoid confrontation at all costs. My dad came to visit me in New York once and he’d never been before. The ease with which people are mean to each other there – on the street you’ll hear ‘Fuck you, asshole’, all that. Well, my dad’s observation was if you’re willing to use those words in the Midwest you have to be willing to have a fight, you can never be that loose with language and not expect to get hit.”
Religion and death crop up in your songs a lot. Why?
“I’m very into the culture and the history of it, aside from what I believe and don’t believe I’m interested in the imagery, how people treat it and how it can be very violent but also very uplifting. It’s the crazy wonder of the world that brings the world together while simultaneously tearing it apart.”
What do you believe in?
“When it really comes down to it I believe in the universe. I really do like to believe there’s consciousness after we all die, that that’s not just it.”
Kevin Morby plays in London on May 5 at Olso.