The narrators on Kevin Morby‘s Singing Saw are often men set adrift in the wilderness – looking for fire, looking for water, looking for the dead, looking for something. They encounter mountains and willow trees and vaguely defined bodies of water. In a half-dream state, they wander and they see things.
When I reach Morby at the end of May, he’s returned from a sojourn of his own, albeit one less mystical in nature. He and his band have spent the past few weeks abroad touring Singing Saw, the third record under his own name. And while the landscape he just traversed may not be of the same mythic proportions he captures on record, there are things he has seen.
“The crowds were four times the size of what I’ve played to over there in the past,” the singer-songwriter marvels. “It sort of took me by surprise.”
Morby attributes the change to the “perfect alignment of a few different things.”
High on that list is his new home on record label Dead Oceans. Prior to Singing Saw, he had released music through Woodsist, the imprint of Jeremy Earl, who is both one of Morby’s best friends and a former bandmate in Woods.
“I’m so honored to have worked with Jeremy,” he shares. “He did so much for me. But I started to work with a bigger record label, with a bigger team, and there’s a whole European side of the label, which helps.”
He also rightly credits good, old-fashioned, hard work: This is Morby’s third album in four years, and he toured heavily on the previous two – a process that’s destined to show returns if the music is good.
And the music has been good – consistently so – which leads to his strongest justification for the recent swell in audience numbers, even if he’s reluctant to acknowledge it himself: Morby hits a new depth with Singing Saw, one that listeners have have no trouble responding to.
“I made an album that people are excited to listen to for whatever reason,” admits Morby, before attempting to put his finger on why that’s the case. “Maybe people like that there’s a lot of orchestration.”
Maybe. But it obviously goes beyond having beefed up string and horn sections this time around, and Morby’s aware of that.
But even as he’s reducing a lot of what he’s done here to “orchestration,” in a way, he’s not far off the mark in terms of pinning down why this album works. Singing Saw gets its substance mostly through an ability to create atmosphere – to occupy physical space, enough of it to maybe even lose shit inside of. That certainly has a lot to do with the orchestration layered throughout the album, in all of its various potencies. At times, the effect is to swarm. At others, it’s to comfort. It seems to set out to treat you like a home does.
For Morby, whose departure from Kansas City as a teenager turned into years of touring, and whose recent move across the country from New York City to Los Angeles seems to also announce a more naturalized musical perspective, it’s not absurd to think that a home – something permanent – might be what this album is meant to be.
It’s certainly been a long journey – psychically and otherwise – for a kid from Kansas City.
As a teenager, were you able to see some good live music in Kansas City? Or was your formative experience more of a “kid listening to tapes in his garage” sort of thing?
It was really half and half. It felt like Russian Roulette sometimes in terms of which bands were going to make it to town. If you’re a band that tours in America a lot, you might make it there once every three times. But I’d say that we definitely got enough music.
Also, the Omaha scene was really big at the time, like with Cursive and Bright Eyes and stuff. I feel like that brought a lot of music into Kansas City because it’s only a three hour drive.
I’d always take the chance to go see my favorite bands when they came through. Even if they didn’t come to Kansas City, I could always drive to St. Louis or Chicago or something.
But because there was a little bit of a lack in terms of which touring bands were coming there, that kind of spawned me and my friends to make our own bands and fall into our own scenes. It was good in that way – it kind of taught us that we needed to do it ourselves.
When you left for New York City to make music after high school, was that something that took your parents off guard?
It caught them off guard. When I was first doing it, I know that they were very scared. I dropped out of high school a yearly early, and I got my GED and stuff, but then I just kind of had a year where I didn’t do much and lived with them. Then I got this idea that I wanted to move to New York, so they put me on a train.
They were very scared, you know? Cause I had no plan. And I didn’t really know many people there. Like how any parent would be, they were pretty concerned that I would end up as, like, the beginning segment of a “Law & Order” episode or something.
But then I joined Woods, like a year-and-a-half into being there, and it was kind of like, “Hey I joined this band!” They were like, “Cool! You’ve been in a million bands!” And then I was like, “We’re going to Europe next month!” And they were like, “What are you talking about?!” [Laughs] But I think then they started to get it a little bit more.
And now they’re – well, they’ve always been supportive, but now they’re just like super supportive about me and my music and everything that’s going on.
Did you have more of a plan with the somewhat recent move to L.A.?
It was kind of a desperate move. I had given up my apartment in New York while going on tour for, like, two years, and it just really burnt me out, because I was on tour with two different bands – Babies and Woods. It just got to be too much.
In between tours, I would just be couch surfing in New York. New York is so crazy. It’s a hard place to relax after a tour. So, it was kind of like, “I have to go somewhere else. I’ll go to the other city where I have a lot of friends, and there’s a music scene.”
So, I went to L.A. and it turned out great for me.
Are you fitting into the scene? Or do you feel like a satellite New Yorker?
It’s funny, at the time that I moved here, a lot of people moved here from other bands, like from San Francisco and New York. And we all kind of run together, like all these ex-pats.
It’s not so much of a scene the way New York was a scene when I was living there. It’s less bands that are just getting started, and more people who are already sort of established in some way, and we all kind of like hang around the same bars. It’s not like we’re all gigging together and trying to make it. It’s kind of like everyone’s already got their thing, and we all know each other.
Who all is part of that group of ex-pats?
I’m really good friends with Kyle Thomas from King Tuff. I run into Ty Segal a lot. In my neighborhood, I run into Devandra Banhart a lot. I’m good friends with Rodrigo Amarante, and Jessica Pratt, too.
It’s honestly kind of comical in the way that Brooklyn at a time was comical, where you’ll be at a bar and you look around and it’s just like, “We’re all in indie rock bands.”
You’ve been the subject of a lot of topical music writing lately – “Morby talks about Dylan” kind of stuff. It seems like people want to know more about your tastes and what sounds inspire your music. Why do you feel that’s the case for you in particular?
Anything to not talk about myself very much, and I’ll bite. Being a fan of music, and a fan of certain artists, when I see people talking about what they’re into or what inspires them, I always love that – more than the standard rigmarole, you know?
Along those lines, the lyrics on Singing Saw seem very outwardly focused on the world around you, not introspective or autobiographical, per se. Do you find yourself to be more fluent with naturalistic themes than personal ones?
I think I find it easier to be outside of the autobiography. I forget what author said this – I’m sure a lot of authors would agree – but it’s kind of like when you hear about someone’s writing style, when they’re writing a book they’re like “I have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and the rest is just filler.” It’s like that with music, where you have the one central idea and it’s usually more autobiographical, and you’re like “I’m going to write a song about this.” But then you sort of paint it in a different way, and you end up branching out from it.
And that includes, for one, not making things too literal. I know there are a lot of artists that are very literal, and that can be very beautiful and good, but the lyrics and imagery that I’ve always been really interested in have been a little bit outside of that. I think it’s good to be a little more poetic, and almost make it more of a fairy tale, or a broader thing that can be relatable to other people and not just you.
Do you find that the way people connect to your music is mostly through the atmosphere?
A big influence for this record was Bill Callahan’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. That became a big inspiration because there are a lot of strings on that record. He just created this beautiful environment, and it makes me feel a certain way that I can’t really get anywhere else. When I want to feel that way, I have to listen to that album. It’s a breakup album, as far as I know, but all the metaphors have to do with, like, trees and rivers.
And I think when you create this world, people really respond to it, because it’ll make them feel a way that they can’t feel anywhere else. There’s plenty of great records that all fit a certain purpose, like, “I just want a really good rock ‘n’ roll record” or something. But my goal on this album was to make something that stood on its own or is unique. I’d like to think that’s what people respond to. I can’t say for sure, but I’d like to think that.
Another influence when it comes to that is the Microphones record The Glow: Part II. I was huge into that in high school and revisited it while making this album. It’s almost like making a room, and you’re just like “I want to make a room that when you walk into it, there’s only one room like this in the world.”
You’ve said you never do drugs. Are we counting weed?
We’re counting weed. I can probably count the times I’ve been stoned on two hands.
For someone who made an album that sound so particular good when stoned, I find that mildly surprising.
I’m a funny guy, I don’t even drink coffee. I drink a lot of beer, but that’s basically it.
So you wrote the album pretty much sober?
It’s actually weird, I don’t know – alcohol definitely plays a role in writing for me, but not all the time. Writing music for me is very much about getting to this place where I’m sort of blank. It’s sort of like a mediation.
For example, I write a lot of songs just in the morning in bed, holding my guitar, not even really thinking about what I’m doing and then before I know it I’ve stumbled upon something.
And then sometimes I can get to that weird blank space with alcohol. I have that song “Drunk and On a Star”, and that’s exactly what that’s about.
But alcohol’s a little bit different because I have to find this sort of perfect middle-ground between being tipsy and too drunk. And that middle-ground never really stays there for all that long because I’ll either sober up or get too drunk. So I have to find that pocket, and I can write in that zone for a certain amount of time.
What would Kevin Morby as a kid in Kansas have to say about Kevin Morby the adult musician in L.A. right now?
I think I’d be psyched.
No, I’d be psyched, but I’d be kind of like, “L.A.!?” I think there’d be a question mark after that. [Laughs]
But if Kevin Morby the kid read that I’d lived in New York for seven years, I think he’d be like “Well, that’s pretty cool.” New York was always the dream. But L.A. would be a question mark.
Would he really like the music?
I think he’d be like, “What is this fucking old guy music?” [Laughs]
I think he’d put his head in his hands and say, “It happened: He went soft.”
All photos by Dusdin Condren.