It’s easy to listen to a song and think nothing, especially in the days of playlists & streaming. But the curious listener discovers that an album is a labour of love: a little love, a lot of labour. Here are the cogs & wheels of Kevin Morby’s brand new album City Music, in his own characterful words.
Questions by Jem Bosatta.
1: The foundation
“I wrote it at the same time as I wrote another record. But the landscape of City Music is urban, whereas Singing Saw was rural, so I kind of wrote them at the same time in a sort of yin yang.
And I made this one more of a representation of my live band, whereas on the other I just brought in different musicians. But for this one I wanted it to be the people that I played with live. And so that’s who’s on it.”
iB: So space affects music. How does that work?
You know, space is always going to affect whatever you’re doing. If you’re recording in New York, you’re probably taking the subway to the studio or whatever, or just walking down the street, crowded sidewalk. If you’re recording in LA you’re sitting in traffic on the highway, if you’re recording in a small town… it’s like, your surroundings are going to get into your psyche, and you’re going to bring that to the studio.
So writing a record in the most solitude I’d ever found myself in, I found myself writing this album Singing Saw which represented all of that.
While I was doing that… What I wanted was a homework assignment. I want to write a record that’s from a different part of my brain. One, I want it to sonically sound different; two, I want it to be thematically the same, but with a different landscape.
‘Cause in my brain I was writing a New York record. When I think about New York, I think about guitars and I think about the Velvet Underground and I think about mid-to-late 60s Bob Dylan. And so it makes me want to do that, you know. You want it to sound gritty, and then electric guitar sounds gritty, that’s to reflect… It’s a city that’s gritty.
Whereas Singing Saw I wrote mainly on piano because I was living in a rural area you know, those songs… I wanted them to sound pretty, and I wanted the album to sound pretty. I think I definitely I yell a lot more on City Music, I wanted to burn my vocal chords a little bit more.
That said, I did want the guitar to be more of a voice on this album, rather than… I wanted the guitar to act lyrical, rather than just the only lyrical thing being my voice. I wanted the guitar to speak up.
In the Velvet Underground, some of the guitar parts, they speak just as loudly as vocals do. Especially White Light White Heat and also Loaded does a good job of that. You hear some of those riffs… you hear Sweet Jane, and the riff is, you know, more recognisable than Lou singing ‘sweet Jane’.
Here’s a taste of the title track
iB: Apart from space, what are the biggest influences on City Music?
Everything! A big stew of everything, stuff I’ve been reading or what’s happening in my personal life or something I saw on the news. Then there’s Flannery O’Conner – I was reading that book at the time, The Violent Bear It Away, and she… There’s a passage on the album that my friend Meg Baird reads, it’s from that book, it’s from The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Conner.
2: The building blocks
iB: Last album, you had saxophones and singing saws…
For sure, I’ve cut all that down. Like the guitar solos… The solos on this are a good example of that. If I had been making Singing Saw I would said ‘maybe we should have a horn part playing instead of a guitar solo’. Whereas here we said, ‘let’s limit ourselves and see what comes out.’
You’re a soloist like Lou Reed, but you used to be a band man. What’s it like working with a band again?
It’s great! I did it for a long time with The Woods & The Babies and this is the most that it felt like a band – like we were a band – we were forming the songs together, working them out together. And yeah, it’s a different thing. But it’s good…
It’s good to explore all styles. And because the last record had been just me and a producer being like, ‘let’s get this drummer in for this song and this drummer in for this song’… whereas with this, it was like, ‘this is the band, we’re going to put a record together.’
I wanted this record to be a lot of fun. To write songs that are really fun to play live. People always react like, ‘we love the record but then we saw the live band and it’s a totally different thing, and it’s really cool!’. It’s neat that there’s a contrast. But this time I kinda wanted to make something where where you hear it similar to how it is on the record.
We keep it simple, and there’s lots of energy. Just a lot of energy, and no wall between you and the crowd, I think that’s important. I like to talk to the crowd, I like to make it feel less like we’re on a stage floating above people, who’re there to watch us like you’d watch a movie or something.
3: The finished article
iB: How do you sell Kevin Morby the brand?
I don’t know. I try, I think… I try to be myself. It’s weird. Sometimes I’ll say my name referencing my music, like ‘oh yeah that was a Kevin Morby record’, and that’s weird! It takes on a life of its own.
But yeah, I do it by being myself. Sometimes I do interviews and people are like, ‘that was really weird when you talked about like the YouTube video of the monkey smelling its ass’. It seems inappropriate to do that. But it’s just me, you know?
iB: How much do you feel exposed when you sing or talk about your music?
I guess I feel pretty exposed. It’s funny. Every record’s the same. I make the record, then I listen to it non-stop until it comes out. And the moment it comes out – *snap* – I never listen to it again. And before the world has it, it’s this sacred thing, it sounds cheesy but it’s totally true. And then it’s theirs, you’ve given it away. There’s something cool to that.
The process of creating serves a big purpose in my life: the will to create it, then the act of creating it, then having already created it but like sitting with it and getting to enjoy it. It’s almost like you’ve made a painting, and you enjoyed creating it and had it, you know, on your wall for a couple of months, but then you gave it away and it’s no longer in your life.
5: The motivation
I think it’s more just to try and convey a feeling. Taking a feeling that I have, whatever it is, and put that out there and letting someone relate to it in the way they wanna relate to it in the hope they get something out of it.
Last year we played in Paris a couple of days after the anniversary of Bataclan, and my song Beautiful Strangers… Two different people came up to me and said they’d been at Bataclan the night that happened and how much the song meant to them. And hearing something like that is really crazy and really threw me through a loop. I feel like they’re way more inspiring to me, so them telling me that my song inspired them, it’s like, ‘well I just wrote a song you existed through this insane tragedy’, you know… it’s this unthinkable thing to witness, and I just wrote a song and then they related to it, and art is good for that reason.
You hear arguments about defunding the arts. Someone says why does there need to be art, why should art be taught in schools or whatever… But it’s the easiest argument to win, just because art has been since the beginning of humanity, you know, it’s been since the beginning. And I think the arts are just a big part of mental health, it’s amazing for mental health.
4: The grand tour
iB: Looking forward to Berlin?
I love Berlin! It’s the first place I ever took myself on vacation. It was at the end of a tour, I was like 22, and I stayed here for a couple of weeks.
At the time, this artist had built this huge pyramid out of beer cases, twelve packs of beer bottles, and it was huge. You could smoke in there, and you were encouraged to hang out on the pyramid and you could drink from the bottles you were sitting on.
So people were doing this so I was hanging out for hours on this pyramid. But it’s funny because after a while the pyramid starts to give way, because you’re emptying out your infrastructure. It was such a time to be twenty-two, and in Berlin, and sitting on a pyramid and drinking beer.
And you can smoke inside which you can’t do anywhere in America! I don’t prefer that but it just felt like I had entered some sort of time machine.
City Music by Kevin Morby is out since the 16th June