Kevin Morby's Midwest Heart
The former Woods player and Babies member opens up about his love-hate relationship with New York, and how the internet is eating our souls.
Credit: Jessica Pratt
Kevin Morby can’t help but be polite. On a recent afternoon, he’s calling the Noisey desk, because he’s not sure if his publicist told me to call him, or him to call me, so he called me just in case. He’s had a busy day, running errands all over his new city of Los Angeles, but he still wants to make sure everything with the interview is good, because he knows these things can get messed up sometimes. Before I have a chance to say anything, he asks how I am, how my weekend was, and what I plan to do that evening.
The musician, who was raised in Kansas City, is Midwestern through and through, constantly acting as a people pleaser, making sure everyone else is okay and right and cool. He’s full of charm, and definitely someone you would want to introduce to your mom.
Last week, the Babies member and former Woods player released his debut solo record, Harlem Record, an album rooted in the songwriting tradition of Dylan, a love letter written to New York City through the lens of a kid who grew up in Middle America. Much of the music focuses on the insecurities and challenges of being young, broke, and in love in this big bad city. The LP—which is formed of scraps of songwriting over the past six years—came about in LA last year, a place he now calls home after living in New York for seven years. Our conversation ranged from what New York can do to a person, what the fuck a “scene” exactly is, and how the internet, really, just kind of sucks.
Noisey: What’s it like going into a solo record, versus working with a group?
Kevin Morby: It was different in the sense that I was calling more of the shots. With Woods or with the Babies, it’s a highly collaborative effort. Everyone can come to the table and put their own icing on it, you know? And I love that; I love working with bands that way. But with this, it was a lot of songs I’d had around for awhile, and had specifically had chosen not to take to the table with the Babies because I wanted to do something different with them. With a band, you craft a specific sound, so you don’t know exactly what you are going to get when you bring something to a band that’s already a specific sound you want. Basically, this is just more me than anything else.
What sort of pressures do you feel when you’re working solo?
It’s such a funny thing, because I feel like there’s less pressure, and more pressure at the same time. There’s always going to be less pressure in the respect that it’s not going to fall on other people. It’s like, well, if this sucks, it’s just on me. And it’s not on anyone else. And if it’s great, it’s great for me. There are times when it’s like, fuck, I don’t know where to take this or this. But it’s a good learning experience in that way, too. It’s like learning to fix up a car by yourself. You don’t have a second opinion. It’s just trial and error.
You recently moved to Los Angeles from New York, and many of the records themes seem to focus on New York. What was that transition to California like, and how is it reflected in the music?
Well, I’m from Kansas City. When you’re from a place like the Midwest and you decide to leave, for me personally, there was a lack of culture, and I wanted to see everything when I left. I always initially wanted to move to New York, so I did that. But I love living on the West Coast right now. My next move, I don’t know, it may be to the south or something. I like because I come from the middle, I can go around the world with it. New York was the first place I moved to, and it gave me my bearings as an adult. I always was fascinated and romanticized New York growing up, and when I lived there, it was the first time it felt like a place was mine.
How long did you live here?
About seven years. And being there worked out really well for me. It was magical and I loved it a lot, and it shaped me into who I am now, for better or worse. It gave me endless inspiration. It was one of those places that made me feel like I could do something with my creativity, something with my art. In the Midwest, that idea is kind of stomped down. It’s a lot harder out there. New York is my favorite city, but as I’m sure you’ve experienced, it’s changing a lot. It’s not what it was like when I first moved there. It was getting harder and harder for me to keep up with it.
Do you think you moved because the city was changing or were you changing?
It was both, to be honest. It was almost like a relationship, where we were both changing and I was like, I don’t know who you are anymore. And when I was touring a lot, when I’d come back to the city for weeks off, it was like, man, there’s all these new buildings up and all these new people in town and I just started to feel disconnected from it. It was kind of one of those things where I felt like, before I start to hate this place that I love so much, I need to just bow out. Maybe I’ll come back later, but for the time being, [leaving] has been nothing but good for me. I’ve recorded a lot of music [in LA]. I have a lot of friends here. It’s just a place where I can have space. I can pay a decent amount for rent, but it gets me a lot of space. I don’t need a bunch of roommates. I can be in a relaxed neighborhood and I can get a lot done. All of my time traveling, and all of my time in New York, that was very inspiring. It sparks its own creative process. But because both of those places and both of those environments are so hectic, I’ve never had a lot of time to get the actual work done.
What do you feel living in New York taught you about being a human being? I’m curious, because I’m also a Midwest boy who moved to New York.
It opened up my eyes to the word. I come from a very modest, simple, kind family, and we never lived a very large lifestyle. We didn’t take many vacations, never went to the ocean. Being from the Midwest, you constantly feel awkward or like you don’t deserve the spotlight. I don’t know. When I moved to New York, it was this sort of thing where it was like, this is a tough city—it’s a city of hardship. But there’s a lot of opportunity, and if you work hard and believe in what you’re working on, people will pay attention. That doesn’t really exist in the Midwest. If you do end up in a good situation there, and people hear about your band or whatever, you’re kind of lucky. That’s different than New York.
How did you see the scene shift and change during your time in New York, and how did you see that reflected in independent music?
I actually feel like I had the opportunity to witness the frontlines of all that. I moved there and it was amazing because there was a huge DIY culture—all these basement shows, gorilla style rock shows with bands in their early days like Japanther or Matt & Kim. On my third day in New York, I went to this Todd P Roosevelt Island acoustic show, and it was somewhat mindblowing to me. I just couldn’t believe that culture existed out there. And there was the whole lo-fi explosion—which sounds so cheesy to say—but it happened. I was living with Cassie (Ramone) from Vivian Girls at the time, around when they released their first record. And then bands like Matt & Kim started to get really popular, and it was this crazy thing to watch. All these bands who were super small and played house parties got really big and were written about on big websites like Pitchfork, getting blown up into the atmosphere.
All of that was cool and fun to be around, but what was more interesting and what starts to suck a little bit was the wake of all of that. Because with anything—like if you talk about the early ‘90s scene in Seattle or something—after an explosion of bands, all this shit comes in the wake of it, and you’re looking around and you’re like, wow, this place is starting to suck. No one’s doing anything interesting, and it’s all this regurgitated shit, you know?
I mean, that explosion was good for me and a lot of my friends. Our bands started to do well and we started to make a living off of our music, which was really cool, but it’s funny because that went along with the same change that the city itself was going through. DIY venues could barely exist anymore. And it’s a little funny that was happening around the same time that bands were getting too big to be DIY bands. It was an interesting thing. I saw something from the ground floor, and then I saw it start to blow over a bit. And that’s when I chose to leave. It got to a point where there was a new scene that was in the wake of the scene that I was apart of, and I couldn’t really relate to that scene. Which is fine—that’s good, that’s how things should work—I shouldn’t be trying to relate to the new scene. I don’t know if that answers your question, but you know.
It does. It’s interesting to talk to musicians about this because we’ve seen such a shift in music—specifically indie rock—in the past couple of years, with the growth of certain websites and the internet, and how things that once seemed “cool” are now considered lame. What’s it like to work in that climate?
I just don’t think about it too much. Music is just always something that’s come very naturally to me, and I’ve always had confidence in it. I don’t think I produce shit.
Getting back to that “lo-fi explosion” though, it was weird because it was a time period in which once my friend group started to get written about on Pitchfork, everyone saw that as the golden egg. Like, if my band gets on Pitchfork then we can play these crazy festivals and make money. That immediately became the intention, which was so bizarre. Right after joining Woods in 2008, the record we put out—which I wasn’t even on—got Best New Music, and I saw the trajectory that put you on, which is probably nothing compared to what it is now. But that time was interesting because suddenly everyone had this ulterior motive for making music. They were like, oh, my friend’s band got popular because we were put on this website, and maybe we can do the same thing if we hang out with this crowd and blah blah blah. And that is all just so dangerous and I try to just stay away from that.
The music blog consumption bullshit cycle is at an all-time high right now, too. Every week has a new buzz band you should pay attention to, and then they’re gone. Is it tough working as a musician when people seem to consume music and spit it out faster than they can breathe? But you have to participate in it somewhat, because it’s your profession.
That’s a tough question. You have to keep it peripheral. That can’t be what you’re looking straight at, because if it is, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Like with any job, there’s just gonna be some bullshit wrapped up in it, and you’re just going to have to deal with it. I was talking to my friend about this the other day. Even if you were to not read any of the websites or buzz surrounding your band, you’ll inevitably know about what they do or don’t say about you because someone will tell you. It’s funny to have these scenes like that. It’s almost impossible to free yourself of it once you’re in it. But there’s a lot to be said, as a musician, if you just keep working through and keep pursuing it and make your priority releasing something good and worthwhile. I really think it comes down to that. I know a lot of things go under the radar that are good and I know a lot of things get blown up that suck, but I’m a true believer that if you’re crafting something good, something that you believe in, and you have patience and you devote time and effort into it, that will pay off.
Eric Sundermann is from Iowa and people often call him nice because of that fact. He's on Twitter — @ericsundy