It is still early morning in Kansas City when technology lets us travel all across the globe into Kevin Morby‘s makeshift studio in his backyard, where we are greeted by the cheerful looking and wide awake singer-songwriter in front of his computer screen. Sitting comfortably right where a lot of his new album Sundowner actually fell into place. The term ‘sun·down·er’ deriving from ‘one who feels increased melancholy during twilight hours’.
A feeling that will most likely have hit each and every one of us in our lives at one point or another. Maybe not precisely during twilight, but most certainly during the course of this inconceivable year and months of dismay. Months that let Kevin Morby‘s previous album title ‘Oh My God’ (2019) come into mind. A title which would have been a rather suitable expression for 2020 somehow, wouldn’t it?
To which Kevin Morby reacts: ‘Oh My God would fit for 2020 for sure (laughs). I think there are two things happening simultaneously, especially in America right now. A lot of people are getting this big unexpected break, but at the same time there is a lot of chaos and turmoil going on. You can apply both. Sundowner speaks more to the kind of introspective, quiet time I think a lot of people are having, not as much to the external side of what is happening in this country politically and otherwise.’
The Midwest magic
After years of living in New York and Los Angeles, Kevin Morby headed back Kansas City a few years ago, where he grew up in after relocating there with his family. A city in the Midwest that – at first glance – perhaps first really reveals its charm and beauty when you make an effort to look more closely and let it convince you of the contrary if you have any doubts. Morby confirms:
‘This place is just not as immediately beautiful as those other places. In New York it is this overwhelming, natural light that is so beautiful at night that comes on. The city lights and everything. It is so profoundly and accessibly beautiful. In L.A. it is just the Californian landscape, the ocean, the beaches and the palm trees that are so immediately beautiful so I think coming back here it was harder to see the beauty, but once I tapped into it, it almost felt like it was more beautiful than all those other things because you have to work a little bit harder to see it.’
‘There is just something about the quiet, open plains nature of the Midwest and there is something very sombre about it. The landscape here and the way that the sun falls over them, it is very distinct. It feels very lonely, but it is very beautiful. It is a very distinct, unique feeling that I was trying to capture.’
After months of still ongoing isolation and social distancing for all of us, the feeling of loneliness that resonates within the sonic sphere on Sundowner, definitely hits a nerve. Even more so, a zeitgeist. Surprisingly in a way that feels almost too real, although Kevin Morby already started working on these songs in 2019. A long time before anyone could have predicted a global pandemic paralysing our daily lives and an awful amount of lonely moments creeping into our souls.
Finding beauty in times like these surely can be a challenge. However, as a musician, who is away from home a lot touring for many months each year making a living, the opportunity to escape from it all for a while and spend more time at home does seem a bit tempting indeed. In this case, Kansas City is the perfect safe haven, even when the feeling of loneliness does kick in eventually:
‘There is something out here that is very desolate. It actually feels literally lonely. It is just me and my family. It is something that is necessary in my life. Usually, when the world is not shut down, I’m touring so much and I’m out on the road so much that it is necessary for me to come back to a place that is so quiet and introspective where I can kind of just close the door and be alone. This is something that I enjoy. Maybe in moderate doses, maybe not all the time. Though this quarantine has really made me do it all the time, but it is something that I enjoy for the creative part of me, it’s very good for that. It was just really nice for the first time in my adult time to really have a space. It is very anonymous, just quiet and suburb and it is just a nice place to escape.’
‘Being out here, where I can have a little studio in my backyard and be able to afford these things. is a huge help – not worrying about finances so much. When I was living in L.A., I was just worried about spending my money too quickly. You start worrying about those things rather than the creativity and here I can focus on just being creative.’
One of Kevin Morby’s greatest features as an artist is his ability to tell a good story. Sometimes captivating, sometimes more casual. Always graced with a fine perception and a remarkable ense of immediacy that is not easy to achieve. A tradition as old as humankind, the art of storytelling has changed tremendously over the course of time. Its immense value is long-lasting though. On Sundowner, Morby beautifully nurtures empathy and elevates introspective moments into a spacious setting that allows the listener’s imagination to expand naturally.
The essence of a good story
So what kind of stories is Kevin Morby particularly drawn to, you wonder? The answer is:
‘Tragic stories have always drawn me in. Anything with a twist or sort of like an underlined meaning. I like stories that are saying something without saying it. I really love metaphors. I like bold stories. People who are unafraid to tell something or be risky with a story. I kind of like to get shocked a little bit.’
Having admitted to a habit of exaggerating a story from time to time in the past, Morby adds: ‘Yeah, that happens in all my songwriting. Certainly on Sundowner. Sort of like a Paul Bunyan scenario. He is just like a mythical, folklore figure in America. A really tall and strong guy. The way people talk about Paul Bunyan – he probably wasn’t as big and tall as everyone says. Things get exaggerated. People tend to exaggerate things after they are gone. I think I like storytelling and the fact that sometimes you have to exaggerate stories to get the sentiment across. To capture what it felt like in the moment you might have to use a few bells and whistles.’
Little by little
Almost entirely playing all of the instruments on Sundowner himself and even teaching himself some basic recording techniques along the way, Kevin Morby did not spend his weeks during quarantine suddenly turning into a guru of any kind practicing self-optimisation to the maximum. The idea of acquiring new skills in the future, especially musically, is appealing as he reveals:
‘I’m always open to any new instrument. Over the years I have taught myself a few new instruments. There was a point in time where I would have never thought I could never play the piano, but now I play the piano all the time. I think those instruments seem pretty scholarly. String instruments like the violin or something I would like to learn. Or a saxophone, but they seem like a pretty big undertaking. I tend to end up learning things if they sort of naturally come into my life. Like I moved into a place that had a piano and so I ended up using the piano. So I think I somehow have to end up with a saxophone and maybe I start taking a crack at it. Learning an instrument is so much like a child with a toy. Just to kill time, you tinker with it. Then, little by little, you get better at it.’
On a visual and sonic level, the release of Sundowner goes for a totally different – way more restrained – vibe when it comes to aesthetics compared to last year’s Oh My God which was also accompanied by a film. A coincidence or product of an elaborate plan? When asked about the overall aesthetics and his visual ambitions for Sundowner, Kevin Morby explains:
‘Oh My God (Film) was really heady and there was a lot happening with a lot of quick cuts. With this album I’m trying to make it the opposite where I’m trying to really let the landscape set the tone and do most of the work and tell most of the story. Have it just be pretty minimal and kind of just have the imagery work on its own.’
With much of 2020 having been turned upside down, many musicians had to adapt to a whole new situation to express their creativity or release their music at times. Often facing dramatic changes and challenges. Luckily, Sundowner was recorded before the pandemic, however, was its release as smooth as it seems?
‘Despite how horrible this whole experience with Covid has been and the fact that people are dying and losing their jobs, obviously if I could go back in time and press a button to make sure this would have never happened I totally would, but it is funny because we didn’t quite know how to release Sundowner. I was so busy with Oh My God and it was this big thing. We had all these plans. So it was like this big question mark how we wanted to do it because I did want to do something smaller and quieter – kind of the opposite of Oh My God. Despite how horrible Covid has been, it sort of created the platform that was the perfect way in which to release this record because I wanted it to be introspective.’
Carrying the message
If you are listening closely, some of the songs on Sundowner pay homage to artists like Jessi Zazu or Anthony Bourdain as well as Morby‘s ‘best friend and forever muse’ Jamie Ewing. All of them having passed away too soon. Like most difficult topics in our society – death, loss and grief are rarely addressed. Leaving all dependants with a kind of stigma and even more so an emotional burden. Processing traumatic experiences through art can be therapeutic, yet it certainly requires a whole new level of sensibility and courage when you are sharing the results with the public.
In regard to the personal experiences and emotions that are shared on Sundowner as well as on previous albums, was there ever any room for reservations for Morby?
‘In the beginning, I never had any reservations. I guess with not many people listening, I didn’t have much to lose. I was pretty fearless and I would write about anything and I would reference other songs and reference other people. Definitely, as my name and projects grows, I become more conscious about what I’m putting into my songs and if I could hurt someone’s feelings. I do believe that art should really come from the soul. When I made this record, I kind of felt like I wouldn’t even be releasing it because it felt so personal. A lot of the times though, those are the best things.
When it comes to referencing people like Jessi Zazu or Richard Swift or someone as famous as Anthony Bourdain, I’m very into the idea that people need to live on through different facets. They live on through their work and they live on though other people’s work honoring them. I don’t have too many reservations and I think with these people, though I’m using their names, I’m using their names to carry their message. My hope in doing that, besides the fact that it is cathartic and therapeutic for me, is that it carries their legacy somehow. Someone might hear the song and think ‘Oh I have never heard of this Jessi Zazu’ and maybe they will look her up and listen to her music and get out of it what I get out of it.’
A great time to talk
If the recent months have taught us anything, it is hopefully the fact that taking care of people in need, truly listening and a meaningful dialogue can make a big difference in all of our lives. Whether you are living in Kansas City, Berlin, London, Tokyo or Lagos – people everywhere in the world are struggling on a daily basis. Speaking to Kevin Morby if he believes that there is something like a new found sensibility in 2020 due to the given circumstances of this pandemic and all of its repercussions, he says:
‘I definitely think that 2020 has slipped things on our heads. A great example of America right now is that maybe now is not the best time for white people to talk, it is better to give the platform to black people. Or if you are a white person who is going to talk, maybe use your platform to benefit the marginalised in this country. Now is a really great time to have a dialogue for people to talk and learn from another. People should be open to dialogues. That is how cultures learn from one another and that is how people come to agreements. I think it is a time to be open and be real and to talk to one another.’
Sundowner will be released via Dead Oceans on October 16th.