IN DEPTH: Brooklyn And Beyond - The Geography Of Kevin Morby
14 Apr 2016
With new album 'Singing Saw' due for release, we dig into the places that have helped to shape it
In Depth is a new series on RFB where we sit down with an artist we love and dig down into the heart of what makes them great. This time, we speak to former Woods bassist turned solo cult hero Kevin Morby...
Kevin Morby may have only just turned 28, but in his musical career he's already lived several lives. From his early output with Brooklyn darlings Woods to the more ramshackle kicks of collaborative project The Babies (with Vivian Girls singer Cassie Ramone) to his current solo guise – under which he'll release his third standalone record 'Singing Saw' tomorrow (the ninth LP in total to bear Morby's name), the singer has remained within the inner circle of America's indie scene for essentially his entire adulthood.
With the more intricate, melancholy strains of his current LP recorded in the leafy, rural semi-isolation of his new Mount Washington home, it marks a huge lifestyle change from the buzzy surrounds that he first came to prominence within. It also means that Morby is well-placed to reflect on the changing face of these cultural hubs, having helped one to thrive, been subsequently priced out of it and then watched his peers set up camp elsewhere. As Morby poetically puts it, “the weather is different in Brooklyn now.”
Originally hailing from Kansas City, in a town “where no-one pays attention to anything you do”, Morby moved to Brooklyn on the cusp of his twenties and found himself in what would become, for a brief period in the late-2000s, the epicentre of credible, critically-acclaimed guitar music. “I happened into this scene where all the major websites were writing about it and I just lucked out,” he shrugs. “Everyone went from playing house shows to suddenly being able to tour the world and it happened to all of us at the same time. The success everyone was seeing doesn't seem like a lot now, but because we were all used to these DIY shows, moving up to 500 cap venues or whatever seemed like a huge, crazy deal. It was so much fun though, it was like a summer camp.”
Woods, Real Estate, Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts, Blank Dogs and the like formed the basis of the scene, with patronage from Brooklyn Vegan, Pitchfork and more. In that time Morby released four albums in four consecutive years with his first band (from 2009's 'Songs of Shame' to 2012's 'Bend Beyond') while also concocting two with Ramone (The Babies' 2011 self-titled debut and 2012's follow up 'The House On The Hill'). But, with the grim predictability of a place going through a cultural purple patch, the increasing buzz around the area soon made it impossible to remain in for those who'd started it.
“It was getting so expensive to be an artist there and becoming more and more of a struggle. Before, even though maybe you couldn't pay rent, there was still so much that you could do and there was still so much of a platform for art. But then a bunch of places started to close down and it felt like – well, what's the point? The city's not embracing the art the way it once was and to survive you'd have to work three different odd jobs,” Morby remembers. “That venue Death By Audio is a great example: it used to be such a staple in the Brooklyn DIY scene but then it got kicked out and became Vice offices. What can you do? You're powerless against it because when a city's changing like that you can't fight it.”
Accepting the inevitable and uprooting to LA's east side (“the LA that I live in is very different to the showbiz, Hollywood LA), the next phase of Morby's career carved a productive silver lining from the dissolution of his New York base. “'Harlem River' was a goodbye to New York for sure,” he says of his 2013 solo debut, written before and recorded shortly after his move. “I was getting ready to leave this place and I wanted to have a document of that goodbye. When I wrote the title track it was very much like, I love this place but I can't do it anymore and I'm not happy here. It felt like the end of a relationship.”
Since then Morby's released 2014 follow-up 'Still Life' and now, with 'Singing Saw', he's letting his landscape back in once more.
These days, Morby lives in relative tranquility. From his bedroom window, he can see “just trees and bushes and rolling hills with some houses in them.” “It's nice,” he smiles. Writing entirely on his own for the first time, this space and solitude naturally found itself reflected in the music, with wordier, more stream-of-consciousness lyrics, experimental structures and a distanced narrative perspective all forging part of the record's essential DNA. “It's a very different experience,” he says of writing 'Singing Saw'. “It was a very reflective time for me and it seemed like I was inside of a cell, that I was the only thing in it, looking outside. It was like looking at things from afar.”
That's not to say that the record is a frosty listen. Covering everything from the racially-triggered murder of Eric Garner by a policeman in 2014 ('I Have Been To The Mountain') to the end of a relationship ('Destroyer'), it's a record full of heart but that thrives on a feeling of space and moves at its own comfortable pace. And next? “I want the next one to be more of a rock'n'roll record. The opposite end of the spectrum to where this is at,” he enthuses. Who knows where he'll end up for that one.
'Singing Saw' is released through Domino on April 15th.
Kevin Morby plays Oslo on May 5th. Tickets available here: http://bit.ly/1Tf50f0