While We Wait: A Conversation With Kevin Morby

Now I wait around just like a clown wondering what to do with a map, wondering which road leads back to you. And how do you make a bad time last? Get a camera, put it in a photograph. – Five Easy Pieces

My friend, the train enthusiast, had the blues. You could see it in her eyes, even with yours closed. I thought of what I could do, and what others had done, and the more I thought about it, the more nothing about it I did. She went home and the next time I saw her she was smiling. I asked her how her day was and she said, “I played music.”

Painting, movies, literature; nothing hits quite as hard and fast as music. Like your favorite form of art, it builds, keeps, remembers, tears, sells and forgets, but at the fastest pace. It’s almost instant.

The first time I heard the song “Five Easy Pieces” by Kevin Morby I was in a Whole Foods trying to return a bag of nuts with my brother (he’s allergic). There was a baby crying, a couple arguing about oil, and a meat slicer who had to go to the bathroom. They all stopped, and for a moment, the child no longer needed its mother, the couple forgot about which olive oil label looked better, and the meat slicer took a minute to look at his girlfriend’s Instagram. My brother and I forgot all about our nuts.

We had gone somewhere and ended up somewhere else, much like Kevin Morby when he recorded This Is a Photograph, his new album. After years living in LA he moved back to Kansas City, and during lockdown had his eyes set on Memphis, a place he calls “full of ghosts.”

He is late for our Zoom, but who cares. When he arrives, he looks like someone that has rowed over great bodies of water, though he tells me he has only been jogging. His smirk reminds me of someone who has seen much, and it is obvious when you hear the music. “A Coat of Butterflies” sounds like someone who has been to a few attics and carved Shel Silverstein’s name into the old mahogany of a covered desk. “This Is a Photograph” is spoken, not sung. “A Random Act of Kindness” begins where forgiveness begins: time. “Bittersweet, TN” has banjo and time. A harmonica says ‘I’m here’ in “Disappearing”. “Rock Bottom” believes in laughter. “Forever Inside a Picture” leads into the song that makes me think of the train enthusiast, and her eyes. She is cute, and cool. Don’t know the words. Let’s stop here. Kevin Morby is still late. Who cares? | n matsas

Aquarium Drunkard: Is that you Mr. Morby?

Kevin Morby: Yes! I’m so sorry!

AD: We’re all going to die one day.

Kevin Morby: This is true.

AD: And this will be the last thing we think about.

Kevin Morby: (Laughs) Where are you? How are you?

AD: I’m in San Pedro, CA. Where are you?

Kevin Morby: I’m in Kansas City, MO.

AD: What is Kansas City like?

Kevin Morby: You know, I often describe it as a small Austin, and a small Chicago. It’s geographically in between both of those too. There’s a big jazz history here, and barbecue. It’s a cool place. I grew up here, so I hated it for so long, and then I moved away and didn’t think about KC for so long, and then I moved back. It’s a nice place.

AD: Did you grow up on the Missouri side or the Kansas side?

Kevin Morby: The Kansas side. My girlfriend and I just bought a house together on the Missouri side, and I have a house that I bought in 2015 that we use as our studio on the Kansas side. I still have a Kansas license. I’m a proud Kansian these days after the abortion vote the other day.

AD: It passed by 20%.

Kevin Morby: Yeah! It really makes me hopeful. Roe v. Wade is going to carry over to the 2024 elections, and if this Kansas vote had just passed, I’d still be happy, but we did it by 20% which is making me feel really, really hopeful. People are speaking up. Proud Kansian at the moment.

AD: Before we linked up, I was laying down with my eyes closed, listening to “A Coat of Butterflies” and “Five Easy Pieces”off your new record, and I just want to say that those songs are gorgeous.

Kevin Morby: Thank you.

AD: Can I share with you what I saw while listening to your music?

Kevin Morby: Of course, please do.

AD: “A Coat of Butterflies”- An old row boat heading toward an island of tall grass and wind. “Five Easy Pieces”– A choir singing in a whale’s stomach. Candles everywhere.

Kevin Morby: Very cinematic and psychedelic. “A Coat of Butterflies,” I was really just trying to follow this breadcrumb trail of Jeff Buckley’s time in Memphis. The days leading up to his death. Though I was in Memphis for a handful of weeks to work on this record, this song took up about 80% of my time there. I was just hanging out by the river, listening to Jeff Buckley. I’ve never given a song that much time and effort, and I felt—because I didn’t really know Jeff Buckley—I wanted to do justice to their story. I didn’t want it to be off the cuff or something.

So when I listen to that song I really see how the Mississippi River looks and feels from downtown Memphis. I was also spending time at the Memphis Zoo. There’s a plaque dedicated to him there. He had been trying to get a job there shortly before his death.

AD: At the zoo?

Kevin Morby: In the butterfly garden. Which is sort of a peculiar thing for a famous person like him to do, but it was relatable. You tour and travel all the time and you come home kind of weightless. You really don’t know what to do. So I like that. I really was following this breadcrumb trail. I went to his house, the zoo, the river. With “A Coat of Butterflies” I wanted to incorporate all those elements. The waves you hear in the beginning are made from a wake from a boat in the Mississippi River that I captured. There’s different bird and animal sounds in the song and the song before…I wanted to make it a cinematic, three dimensional experience. I like that it conjured a boat for you.

AD: “Five Easy Pieces.”

Kevin Morby: That’s a funny song. It’s the last one I wrote for the record. In my mind the record was written and ready and existing within a certain theme. “Five Easy Pieces” is a little bit outside of that theme. I thought the record was done but I was watching the movie Five Easy Pieces on this rainy day, and at some point, I turned the movie on mute and sort of re-visualized the plot line to where it was from Karen Black’s perspective rather than Jack Nicholson’s character. Then I wrote this song about it, and while I was writing it I remembered thinking this is going to be a song that ends up on my next record. But I loved it so much I put it on this record. It’s about an old movie, and I’m singing about a lot of old stuff on this record. I think it fits, in its way. For the longest time I was calling it my favorite song on the record.

AD: It’s definitely mine.

Kevin Morby: Thank you. I really love that song. It’s one that I’m really proud of myself for writing.

AD: Was the whole record written in Memphis?

Kevin Morby: No. Memphis I was really just crossing my t’s and dotting my i’s. I had all these ideas, and I don’t think they would have come to fruition if I didn’t chase them. It was part of the process, a big part of the process. Memphis. Jeff Buckley. I think the reason his story became so relatable to me is that all the stories I explored in Memphis were usually about Memphis folk, and he was not from there. He’s from California, and then spent some time in NYC before going to Memphis, and I feel like he ended up there for similar reasons as to why I was there. He was an outsider, but he felt like there was a part of the American lexicon that he was trying to get close to, and getting close to that killed him. He just wanted to go back to American roots, and I find that very relatable.

AD: Have you swam in the Mississippi river at night?

Kevin Morby: No! Absolutely not. I would be a fool to do that. Especially knowing the story.

AD: Photography is in the title, it’s mentioned in songs, it’s on the cover. When I think of photography and Memphis, William Eggelston comes to mind.

Kevin Morby: Yes, for sure. He is definitely an inspiration for all of this.

AD: Alex Chilton, Jay Reatard…

Morby has lifted his laptop and points to two ginormous photographs.

Kevin Morby: Those are Eggelston’s right there. They’re not originals, but they’re Eggelston’s. 

In the photographs, I see an empty table with all the silverware out. I see a pile of paper.

Kevin Morby: They’re really cool. It’s the kitchen. Empty sodas. Some food scenes he had taken. I’m a huge Eggleston fan. Huge Alex Chilton, Jay Reatard, all that stuff. Jay Reatard’s story is a good example of visiting Memphis and seeing where he came from and where his music came from. He’s just as powerful as all those other people. He died twelve years ago. It’s a town of a lot of ghosts. There are a lot of stories there and a lot of them are very similar. It’s very inspiring.

AD: Graceland. That’s a big ghost. You dig Elvis?

Kevin Morby: There’s a time and place in everyone’s life for Elvis. For the longest time I had no interest. Same goes for the Beatles. Stuff becomes so embedded into the fabric of everything you do, from the moment you’re born. It’s always just everywhere. Elvis kind of felt like Christmas music to me, or something. But you can’t get deep into Memphis without developing an appreciation for him. I love Elvis. I saw the movie the other night, and really enjoyed it, and yes, yes I do love Elvis. He wasn’t a big inspiration for this record, but his story began to make a lot of sense for me while recording this record.

AD: When did you begin recording this record?

Kevin Morby: First session was November 2020.

AD: When did you begin to think about this album?

Kevin Morby: The beginning of 2020, when I wrote the first song, “This Is a Photograph.”There are often these times in my writing process where something happens and I’m like, “that’s going to lead the charge.” When I wrote the music, and the phrase, ‘this is a photograph’fell out of my mouth, I was like, ‘I’m not sure what this is but I know this is the title of my next record.’ It became that clear, that fast. I knew that this is what it would sound like and that was the title. Spring 2020.

AD: Do you remember the first time you saw a guitar?

Kevin Morby: That’s a good question…No.

AD: Do you remember the first time you played guitar?

Kevin Morby: I do. My mom gave me a Sears catalog when I was ten years old. I could pick something out that I wanted for Christmas, and there was this Yamaha guitar kit, and I picked that out. It came, and didn’t even occur to me that you’d have to tune it. My Dad and I tried to tune it and we had no clue how to tune it. We kept popping strings, ‘cause we thought you just kept tuning up, and I became discouraged the first couple years. I started taking lessons when I was twelve…the first time I saw a guitar, that is a great question. Honestly, my dad was a big fan of the movie, La Bamba. Could have been that, or MTV. Whatever was on MTV.

AD: Was discovering music something you did yourself, or did you have an older sibling, parents, neighbors that sort of pointed you in a direction?

Kevin Morby: I grew up in the ’90s and my sister would buy CDs–Wallflowers, Third Eye Blind, and so a lot came from her. Those were huge hits, and you couldn’t escape them. Hearing all those songs on the radio. Even R&B stuff, literally shit like the Backstreet Boys. It was clear I liked the way music felt. I quickly became obsessed with it, and I was lucky that there was Green Day and Blink-182 on the radio. Green Day is the greatest gateway drug. You read one interview with them and they’re talking about the Ramones and the Replacements, and then the Replacements are talking about Big Star. The doors open up. I remember seeing Green Day for the first time in middle school and they were covering a lot of songs—the Ramones and Operation Ivy—and you’d go to the record shop the next day to  the Ramones section. It was gold.

AD: Do you remember waiting in line to buy a CD and hoping it would be good ‘cause this was where your twelve bucks was going?

Kevin Morby: Of course! I thought about this the other day. The only time you get that feeling now is when you go see a movie, and an hour in you’re like, “man, I can’t believe I’m sitting through this.” I do have memories of putting a CD in the car on the ride home and being like, “oh man, this sucks!” And then next week you’d try again.

AD: Did you ever wait for videos on VH1?

Kevin Morby: VH1 was the real music channel. They had Behind The Music and those things blew my mind. I remember they did a Green Day Behind The Music, and they were promoting it, and it was going to come out on a Sunday night and I was so excited, and then I realized it was going to be on for another week, and I felt so defeated. But! BTM was really cool and really informal. Television was really hilarious at that time.

AD: What’s Kansas like today?

Kevin Morby: It’s very, very humid. I went for a run earlier and you feel like you’re swimming in the air.

AD: I miss thunderstorms.

Kevin Morby: Someone asked me the other day what I love most about being back and it’s that I love Spring. I love the storms.

AD: Water

Kevin Morby: Water. ~~ photos | chantal anderson

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