The Existential Free Fall of Kevin Morby
"I kind of felt like I was driving myself insane. But at the same time, I really enjoyed having that freedom."
There's a blue side chair in Kevin Morby's front garden where he likes to pass the time, mostly just thinking, or sometimes, not thinking.
"This is my spot," Morby says, settling into its vinyl seat on a sunny spring afternoon. Overgrown nasturtiums and birds of paradise lap at his feet and shoulders, as if alternately yielding to or waiting to engulf him. It's the kind of solitude amidst chaos that both reminds you and makes you forget that you're in LA, which is in part why Morby decamped from New York to his sloping Mount Washington neighborhood in 2013. Love, heartbreak, and existential free-fall would follow, his newfound seclusion inspiring solitary stretches of songwriting that would spawn two albums: Last year's acclaimed breakthrough Singing Saw, and its counterpart, City Music, out today on Dead Oceans.
"It was the most alone time I've ever spent," the singer-songwriter, 29, explains. After an itinerant Midwestern childhood, and an adulthood split between New York and tours with ex-bands The Babies and Woods, Morby was suddenly confronted with the ability to go days at a time without seeing another person.
"It was kind of the first time in my life I was able to just sort of sit, and I had space and time to work," he says. "I was having new feelings I had never experienced before, and I felt very reclusive, very in my own head, and kind of like I was driving myself insane. But at the same time, I really enjoyed having that freedom."
Up on the hill, Morby sought company in Patti Smith's memoir of transience, M Train, and lots of Nina Simone. The New York Times' "The Lonely Death of George Bell," a heartbreaking and fascinating look at the alienation of big city existence, made a particularly strong impression.
"It kind of blew my mind, 'cause I was like, 'This is exactly what I'm getting at,'" he says. "It's very twisted: How is someone so reclusive in a place where they're surrounded by so much movement?"
Morby quickly realized he was writing two different records. The autobiographical Singing Saw is most directly connected to this time in LA, a triumphant, introspective album laden with Aesopic takes on love, disillusionment, and American identity, often all at once. City Music is both its thematic inverse and counterpart, a kind of spiritual return to New York that captures the kinetic anticipation and solitude of walking around a big city alone.
"It is a mix tape, a fever dream, a love letter dedicated to those cities that I cannot get rid of, to those cities that are all inside of me," Morby says. Inspired by the eclectic themed tapes he and his friends would make each other in high school, Morby traded the studio musicians and polished orchestration of Singing Saw for his touring band's road-honed sound and callbacks to his punk roots. City Music is accordingly sundry: One track, for example, is just folk singer Meg Baird reading a Flannery O'Connor passage about a boy who, having never seen a city, mistakes the glow of a skyline for a fire. Others range from sprawling, ambient opener "Come to Me Now" to the sub-two minute Ramones/Jim Carroll jaunt "1234," to a tender, pensive take on The Germs's feral "Caught in My Eye."
But all of the songs, at some point or another, come back to that undercurrent of solitude. Refreshingly, Morby approaches it as neither a bad thing nor a good thing, but a fact of existence and a lens of experience.
"I once loved a boy so smart and true / We would walk home every day from the school," Morby sings about his first best friend on "Aboard My Train." "He'd say, 'I think we could walk forever' (Oh no) / 'How 'bout just a little while?' (Okay) / He would make me laugh like the devil (Haha) / He would pick me up like the child that I was."
It's a bittersweet sentiment that's immediately familiar—that first enchantment of another, the shared moments we wished would last forever, and the knowledge of the memories they became instead. Morby and the boy lost touch after he and his family moved away; he hasn't seen his friend since he was ten. Not long after Morby finished the song, he discovered that the boy was now in prison, serving a life sentence for a drunk driving accident.
"He was my first idea of loving another person, and feeling that close with another person, and sharing experiences," Morby says. "It landed on me very strangely, because I don't know this person, you know? But he was my first best friend. He was like my brother, you know what I mean? I don't know what to make of it. And to think I only found that out because I wrote the song about him…"
Beneath the scrappy arrangements and pavement-pounding grit, City Music isn't about place, it's about time—an ode to the paradox of loneliness and anticipation that is growing up: The connections we make, the connections we lose, and who we become in the process.
Morby rises from the garden chair and heads back into the house. In a few hours, he'll leave for Kansas City, where he recently bought a house. He's spending more and more time there these days. He's only been in LA for four years, but he's already felt the city get increasingly difficult, like New York—too many people, too many things to do. He wonders, only half jokingly, if the normalization of urban living means that the suburbs are going to get freaky now, and confesses that he may have to silently exit LA some point to keep his peace of mind.
A few weeks later, Morby and his band are playing a private set in a room at a hip Arts District venue downtown, competing with the din of their own crowd and spillover from the valet-only restaurant across the street. But playing live is Morby's element, and, unphased, the band launches into a cover of the Velvet Underground's "Rock & Roll." Sprawling and frenetic, it's unmistakably Morby's version as he squares up to the mic, that hungry young punk still behind his eyes. But even Lou's version, based on the thrill he felt hearing Elvis on the radio as a kid, isn't really his own. This is the ultimate city music, an ode to the pull of the vast and unknowable, that thing always just out reach, drawing us out despite the amputations. We all press in a little bit closer, alone together in the crowd.
Andrea Domanick feels like a bag of rats. Follow her on Twitter.