Kevin Morby and the Success of Being Patient
The former Woods and Babies member's third solo record 'Singing Saw' is the best of his career.
All photos by Jack Crosbie
When I meet Kevin Morby on a brisk spring morning, he’s running around the apartment picking up and putting down his guitar, talking with his handlers, and brainstorming with the photographer the best place to take photos. They decide on the backyard, and I sit down to talk to one of his PR reps while the other is out getting food. She offers tea, I decline, and we fall into silence as she finishes breakfast, and I monitor the photo shoot, jotting down things to remember to ask Morby.
It took 17 years, multiple genres, and several bands, but Kevin Morby's time has come. The former Woods member and one-half of the Babies released his complicated third (and excellent) solo record Singing Saw a few weeks ago, and it’s been nothing but up. The album, which followed his debut Harlem River and sophomore project Still Life, is a (mostly) quiet meditation built on modern alternative rock. Consider “I Have Been to the Mountain,” the lead single, a track of ruminating on getting older while still feeling young, with a dash of politically-charged lyrics and video. Or “Dorthy,” a Springsteen-esque anthem rooted in nostalgia. Or even "Water," a howling track that opens with the sounds of a choir before moving into something that's almost doo-wop. Singing Saw is a force of a listen, and the most complete body of work of his career to date.
But how did Morby get here? Since age ten, he knew the only thing he wanted to do was to write and perform songs. Well, maybe he didn’t know quite exactly at that moment (what kid doesn't have that dream?), but over the following two decades it became pretty clear that Plan B was just Plan A all along. He bounced back and forth between several so-called car towns as a kid—his father worked for GM which meant a lot of moving—from Lubbock, TX to Detroit, back to Tulsa OK, finally deciding to permanently stay in Oklahoma City, prompted somewhat by the panic attacks he began having because of the move. He took some time to deal with his anxiety—a year, to be exact—bounced around high schools and by the time he was 17, had dropped out for good.
Photo Credit: Press
On top of his personal struggles with e of the biggest factors in this decision to drop out of high school was simple: a little genre of music known as punk. “It was very encouraging,” he says. “It made me feel like I could actually do that if I wanted to. I don't have to go to school, it's going to be incredible.”
And, was it?
”No, it sucked” he says, laughing. “I remember one time this army recruiter called me—and I never had any intention of joining the army or anything—but he kind of asked what my day-to-day life was like, this is when I had dropped out. And I just kind of went through my days and it sounded so depressing when I was telling him. I was like ‘I need to do something.’” So, on the suggestion of a friend, he moved to Kansas City and got involved in the DIY scene. After performing solo, he joined up with a band called Creepy Aliens to play the drums. “The lyrics were ridiculous,” he says of Creepy Aliens. “There was a song called 'Earth Balance Crisis' which is about the vegan margarine.”
We’ve since moved from the kitchen to the front room of the brownstone. Morby sits by the unlit fireplace, guitar in his lap, constantly fidgeting. The apartment isn’t his; it belongs to a family he once babysat for in exchange for a place to sleep. When I ask what prompted the move to from Kansas City to Brooklyn back in the day, he shrugs his shoulders.
”Just to get away,” he says. “My main motive was just to see somewhere else, to experience New York. I brought my guitar out here and stuff; I never wanted to be away from my guitar. But it wasn't like I moved out here like, 'I'm gonna go make it in the big city' or something.”
Once in Brooklyn, he didn’t do too much to market himself as an artist and musician, but he put that energy out in the world, he says. He held a few odd jobs, babysat in exchange for rent, and performed exactly one solo show. Soon, he found himself in the band Woods, playing bass. “It just sort of found me,” he says of joining the band.
Throughout the interview, Morby is a bit on edge, as if something or someone is distracting him. Maybe it’s the anxiety he says he still struggles with. Maybe it’s the fact that we only have 45 minutes to talk before his next interview—how many he is doing today I don’t know, but it feels like a lot—or maybe he’s just hungry. Who isn’t a little bit cagey when they’re hungry?
Morby’s debut, Harlem River, released in 2013, is a slow, emotional love note to the New York City he fell in love with when he moved. In a previous interview with Noisey, he says the city gave him his 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.” The release of his debut solo record also coincided with his move to Los Angeles. He’s spent years on the road with various bands, and realized he just couldn’t do New York anymore.
“I was leaving New York so I was like 'Oh I can kind of make this goodbye record to New York of songs that I wrote in New York.”
The second, Still Life, is a more energetic record, sounding a bit more like frustration rather than a love letter. Most of the songs were written while Morby was on the road touring and performing his first solo record, dealing with the chaotic nature of the road—soundchecks, hotel nights, long drives, wanting to kill your bandmates. In hindsight, it seems like something he maybe needed to get out of his system in order to arrive at Singing Saw, a project on which Morby says he finally feels in complete control.“I feel like in the past I hadn't fully got my solo sea legs,” he remarks.” I got to do exactly what I wanted to do.”
“The Babies taught me how to co-front a band, to be the person out there who's talking to the audience and who's singing the songs or the bulk of the songs,” he says. “And Woods would improvise lots on stage. They taught me how to play with other people and get comfortable playing with other people. And I like to think that all those things I applied to my own thing.” At this point, our interview is wrapping, and I’m getting shuffled out the door so Morby can eat before his next journalist prods him about What It All Means Inside the World of Kevin Morby, when in reality this guy makes music that is, for the lack of a better description, just good. Maybe it's not that complicated? Maybe we’re all overthinking it a bit? I start to head out the door, but ask him one last question: What’s in store for the future of Kevin Morby?
He puts down the guitar he’d been holding throughout our interview, and gives me a charming Midwestern smile: “Can’t slow these wheels down.”
Annalise Domenighini is Nosiey's social editor. Follow her on Twitter.