Kevin Morby turns up to NME wearing a sensible coat and tired eyes. He’s pretty unassuming, but his straggly hair, the guitar case in his hand and the rings on the fingers holding it mark him out. He looks weatherbeaten, like he’s been carrying that guitar around for years. He has – Morby, originally from Kansas, is dropping in on NME to perform two songs from his upcoming third solo album ‘Singing Saw’, but he played for years in New York bands Woods and The Babies before today.
The excellent Woods (who continue to make rootsy folk rock without Morby) are something like Brooklyn’s answer to The Band, while the now-defunct Babies were more like The Ramones. Morby, who played bass and guitar in both respectively, never really hinted that he had a solo career in him then, in 2013, he moved to Los Angeles and released debut album ‘Harlem River’, a dirty, lived-in homage to New York. It flew largely under the radar, but it was both warm and prickly, evoking Lou Reed and Bob Dylan and casting the 27-year-old as a storyteller in the vein of Kurt Vile.
A year later came another record, ‘Still Life’, which plumped out the folkish sound of its predecessor with lush instrumentation and production. ‘Singing Saw’ – written in Morby’s new house up in the Los Angeles hills and recorded in Woodstock – goes even further to realising his vision of a huge folk sound, piled high with piano, brass, electric guitar and backing vocals.
It’s exciting, then, to watch him sit in the NME basement and perform two of its tracks with only an acoustic guitar. ‘I Have Been To The Mountain’ was the new album’s first single and has been kicking around for a while now. At a radio-friendly three minutes, it’s one of Morby’s most memorable songs yet, the way he sings the hook really sticks in the mind. Apart from that, it’s all about the hammering bluesy guitar and Morby’s lyrics – he has said the song is “dedicated to and inspired by” the death of Eric Garner, who died after being choked by a New York police officer in 2014. Check out the clipped sound he gets from the guitar during the outro as he whips the strings.
Named after his Fender Jaguar, new single ‘Dorothy’ is a love letter to the places Morby’s been on tour, and finds him singing about tears gathering in his eyes and admitting “my head ain’t right”. Its lyrics have a universal, timeless quality (my favourite line is “And I was watching the old men fish/ And they’d all give their catch away”). On record, it’s fast and rollicking, played on buzzing electric. Here, it’s a fraction slower, Morby allowing the sentiment behind it to seep gently out. He only needs one take.
Afterwards, he tells me his fourth album is almost done. If it’s anything like ‘Singing Saw’, you should start looking forward to it now.
Catch Kevin Morby live at London’s Oslo on May 5.