by: Stephan Masnyj
“Hey sorry I missed your call” is the first thing that slips out of Kevin Morby’s mouth as we begin our phone conversation. It’s Memorial Day and Kevin is getting ready to begin his US tour at The Observatory in Santa Ana. The tour will take him throughout the United States until August, where he will then tour Europe for the remainder of the Summer. Throughout our conversation Morby is refreshingly thoughtful, often pausing mid-response in order to articulate his thoughts correctly. This sense of articulation and thoughtfulness have helped his songwriting abilities grow exponentially, with Singing Saw quickly becoming one of the most beloved records of 2016. Below is our conversation.
SM:Thanks so much for taking the time to talk today. You’re beginning your tour at The Observatory this week right?
KM: Yeah so this week; on Thursday.
SM: Excellent, well we're all very excited to see you there. It feels like Singing Saw compared to your other records has gotten more acclaim and recognition compared to your other records. Do you notice that on tour? Do media reviews or things like that validate the process?
KM: I mean a little bit. It's like you can't not notice you know? I just did my first tour on the record in Europe and it's just... the amount of people at the shows compared to my last tour there has gone up in most cities by around 400 people or something. It's funny usually at most shows I'll say "Who here by a raise of hand was at the show last year when we were here?" And like four people will raise their hands. So that makes a huge difference.
SM: It’s funny how that works. I feel like sometimes all it takes is one song or one thing posted on the internet and immediately people latch on and think "Wow I gotta see this guy."
KM: I know it's funny how that works it's like you can tour, tour tour, and then you get a certain acclaim from one publication and people automatically start paying attention.
SM: A big thing I noticed about this record compared to Harlem River and Still Life, which were both a bit more intimate and smaller sounding, Singing Saw seems to have a much more grand sound in terms of instrumentation. I know you worked on the record with [producer] Sam Cohen this time around as opposed to Rob Barbato (who produced the first two records). Was that a conscious decision when you went in? Did you want to achieve a grander sound? Did working with Sam Cohen help that?
KM: For sure. Going in to this record I almost wanted to make a gospel-sounding record and I knew that Sam... I guess it's kind of a taste thing. I knew that Sam and I would see eye to eye on that and help make the bigger sound I was looking for.
SM: You also worked with Sam Cohen on The Complete Last Waltz, which was a big tribute for The Band. I know you're a big Bob Dylan fan and I was recently listening to your cover of "Temporary Like Achilles" for MOJO Magazine. Was there a reason you chose that song as opposed to any other choices on Blonde on Blonde?
KM: MOJO chose it for me. To be honest that's not my first choice. I love that song but it's not what I would've picked so it's interesting it's kind of like homework in that you get assigned something like that you know so suddenly you're learning the song inside and out. And it's funny I just kind of did it on a whim and I just got back from a press tour [in Europe] and they were saying "We need this right now if you're going to do it." and so I just recorded it kind of in a couple of takes.
SM: It sort of has a stripped down feel. It sounds like it's raining in the background and that it's a very spur of the moment thing which adds a lot to it. Which song would you have picked if you could've chosen?
KM: Oh wow. Uh you know... you can try and tackle Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. I think I would try [that]. I mean if I really had time to work on it, I think I would choose that track. Who ended up doing that one?
SM: Jim O'Rourke. Which I honestly would expect to be this very proggy, elaborate recording with a bunch of moving parts like his solo work, but it ended up just being him with a sparse acoustic guitar and a very airy-sounding vocal take to create this etheral feel to it.
KM: That’s cool. Man I haven't even heard that I have to listen to it. Where did you hear that?
SM: I had a hard time finding it, but my brother is part of this big Bob Dylan fan club and he was able to track down a recording of it. If you want I can forward the recording to you.
KM: Oh man I would love that. I know Mojo should be sending me a copy but I would love to hear that.
SM: Sure! Moving on, so Harlem River has been seen as your "New York" record. Still Life was written on the road so it's seen as your "In between" record so to speak. Do you feel like that living in Los Angeles and being a part of the scene there was a big influence on the songs and lyrics for this record?
KM: Yeah for sure. Absolutely. It just gave me the time and space I needed to sort of just... I don't know get into a different territory than I have been in before.
SM: Did the new environment lend itself to your writing style? Are you the type of person that rights in starts and fits? Or when you write are you more the type that can get a bunch done in one sitting and it pours out?
KM: It’s kind of a pouring out kind of thing. I dont know I feel like my best songs come out at a whim, like I'm not even knowing I'm doing it and then I look and it's like "Oh I've been doing this for awhile." There's definitely no structure in to how I write songs it's always a bit all over the place but it's about getting in a relaxing enough environment so you can just sort of channel it and you meet it somewhere in the air. I've been able to do that on tour and I've been able to do that in New York. And in LA it's sort of like I felt like I had all the time in the world to do it. It's funny since I've left New York I feel like I stopped listening to less aggressive music and I started being more interested in Bill Callahan for example. In New York it never worked for me listening to him you know? In New York I wanted to listen to The Velvet Underground. Living in LA and being in Mount Washington (Morby's home) and it being sort of rural to a New Yorker... I don't it makes everything a little more mystical in a way that I hadn't experienced before.
SM: I know you used to play some shows at The Smell with The Babies. I don't know if you've heard that they recently announced that the venue is being demolished to become a parking facility...
KM: I know it's a huge bummer I just posted something on Instagram the other day cuz The Babies had one of our first releases which was a "Live at The Smell" tape that a small label put out which was big for us.
SM: Is there anything about that scene or that venue that you'll miss? It seems like such a big LA institution to me.
KM: It’s one of those things where... it's like in the past two years I've been to The Smell maybe twice. But when something like that closes down... it's kind of like when you go back to your hometown and you find out that your favorite bookstore closed down or something. Because I've become more and more busy as a professional musician I've gone to less shows when I'm back in LA. I don't want to say I've moved on cuz that's kind of the wrong way to describe it. I guess I've just kind of moved on to play bigger venues and do other things. But what makes The Smell so tragic is I just envision that there's some scene of kids that I don't even know about that probably have their thing and rely heavily on all-ages spaces like The Smell and no longer can have it you know? I feel really bad for those kids. It did something for my life that it now won't be able to do for other people's lives. I hope something else opens up to take it's place. It's like [venues] in Brooklyn those closing there hit close to home because that's where I played all my first shows and that's where I saw all my first shows in New York. The Smell is a lot like that.
SM: Was the move from New York to LA sprouted from this idea that the scene in New York was starting to be edged out by people coming in and the growing
commercialization of the place? A ton of artists have moved from New York to LA.
KM: Absolutely. There's so many people here from San Francisco and New York. New York sort of became this place where it went through stages. The first stage was where it was super cool, and then the second stage where it was like places that were really uncool but there was still enough cool to balance it out. And now when I go back it's like ‘Oh this place is horrible.’ And not all of New York there are cool places around New York, but just in the neighborhood that I spent time in and everything I loved about then is now different. That's another thing it's like when I go back I just feel like an outsider. It's like being in a mall, and I hate the mall (laughs).
SM: So your career started in New York as the bassist for The Woods, and then as a frontman/co-writer for The Babies, and finally now your solo career in recent years has become more successful. Do you feel more confident as you go forward in the process? Do you feel not as nervous going on stage or thinking about the next record?
KM: I mean there's always a tinge of nerves before going on stage or before putting out a new record. But as time goes on you sort of become more used to those kind of environments and experiences. partly because I feel like I've been doing it for so long. I joined Woods in 2008 so its been almost 8 years.
SM: As you've gotten bigger you've had bigger artists praise your work. I know from radio shows I've listened to that members of The Black Keys love your work and Jeff Tweedy is a fan. Is there anyone you'd like to collaborate with in the future?
KM: Oh man I don't know. You know this isn't a collaboration thing but Bill Faye is on my record label and -- are you a fan of Bill Faye? Have you heard of him?
SM: I’ve heard of him but never delved into his stuff.
KM: He’s huge he's a huge influence. He's one of those people where I started making music and people were like, ‘You sound like Bill Faye you should check him out!’ and I did and was like ‘Woah I do’ and I became obsessed with him. He's also a huge Tweedy influence. He's written a few emails to people at my record label saying he likes my new record and that means a lot. I was covering one of his songs for awhile [live]. But anyway in terms of collaborations I don't know I feel like those sorts of things happen sporadically like I collaborated with Cate Le Bon [on Harlem River’s ‘Slow Train’]. It always comes out of something like ‘Hey come by the studio,’ and something natural comes out of it you know?
SM: Totally. Okay, one last question for you. It’s meant to be a little open ended; so feel free to say whatever comes to your mind: What do you feel is the most important part about being an artist? Do you feel like you've accomplished that so far?
KM: I think the most important part of being an artist is... I can remember a time where I was in New York and I was working so hard and I was working all these jobs while trying to maintain being in two bands and stuff and... [pauses]. It got to a point where I just really decided where I was like 'I'm just going to quit my jobs and I'm going to just make this work.' And I think the most important part about being an artist is fully throwing yourself in... like almost shackling yourself to it in this way where you think, 'I'm just going to live the ups and downs.' I don't know for me it's almost a non-choice. It's what I do naturally and without it I might as well be dead. You know what I mean? To be an artist is to follow your vision and know that it's a lifelong thing and letting it guide your life.
(This interview has been condensed and edited)