ABOVE: KEVIN MORBY. PHOTOS BY BRIAN HIGBEE
After a childhood in the Midwest, followed by a tenure in New York City, this past fall Kevin Morby quietly became bicoastal. Despite our phone interview happening during a rare break in his schedule (he’s now a member of three heavily touring bands), Morby’s time in L.A. has been spent mostly writing, recording, and preparing to tour his upcoming solo LP, Harlem River.
The eight-track album features a few songwriting firsts for Morby: the first album released under his own name, his first song about a murder, “Reign,” his first song over seven minutes, the epic “Harlem River,” and his first collaboration with the Welsh singer Cate Le Bon, on a track called “Slow Train.” Starting the first week of December, he’ll tour with Le Bon and a collaborative band playing around 30 shows in support of the record.
We didn’t ask Kevin Morby if he’d read David Byrne’s op-ed about New York losing its creative capital with rising rents and cost of living, but if we were to speculate, we’d say his reasons for moving to L.A. were more personal, rather than big-picture economic qualms—partly because every voice on Harlem River happens to be in motion. Not all are road-weary—in fact, only a few are actually traveling—but every character is making a big change, be it the beginning or end of a relationship, an impeding incarceration for an accidental murder, coping with a death in the family, or even just an internal existential crisis about one’s own age. When I asked about the album’s country and folk orchestration, Morby confirmed the new direction is “closer to my core” than the rock records he’s sung in the past.
MATT PUTRINO: I heard you’re taking some time off before the tour.
KEVIN MORBY: It’s been good, it’s been good. It’s been a good week, it’s been a good month. I haven’t been doing much of anything except relaxing and getting ready for the live show.
PUTRINO: How has the Los Angeles move been treating you?
MORBY: I moved out here September first. But then I went on tour for the month of September, so basically in October I found a lease. I love it. This is my third or fourth go-round with L.A. I lived here a couple times before. This was the first permanent residency. Every other time it’s just been a sublet room.
PUTRINO: And you made the last Babies record there too, right?
MORBY: Yeah, we made the Babies record here, and the band moved out here in 2011 for a couple months.
PUTRINO: You had a few reasons for the move. I heard you were feeling displaced in Brooklyn.
MORBY: A little bit. Yeah, I guess you could say that. I still love New York, still a big place for it in my heart, but time to move on for the time being. It was time to get some new experiences under my belt, to experience a different way of living.
PUTRINO: Two standout tracks for me on the new record are “Harlem River” and “Reign.” They’re totally different than anything else in your songwriting catalog.
MORBY: “Harlem River” is about the Harlem River in uptown Manhattan. I don’t know much to say about it. I came upon that river a couple of years ago. I was doing a walk the length of Manhattan, from the top to the bottom, and I had never seen that river before. Or if I had, I didn’t know that’s what it was. Something about it really spoke to me, I really love it up there, and I really love that river. I had kind of burnt out on New York at that point, and this area in the north of Manhattan, something about it up there is really nice. It’s really peaceful. I don’t think it’s the most desirable river in the world; it’s this dirty, gross river, but there’s something about it I really like.
“Reign,” and this might sound cheesy, but it’s a dream I had. I dreamt everything that happened in that song, woke up and wrote the song.
PUTRINO: If you had to pick three records for someone to listen to before and after Harlem River for context, what would you choose?
MORBY: That’s a good question. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisted. Jandek, You Walk Alone. And then The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground.
PUTRINO: Were you hearing those three a lot during the writing?
MORBY: Yeah, definitely.
PUTRINO: The timeline for these songs is really interesting. Some of these are relatively old, from when you first moved to New York, but they’re finally coming out once you’ve left.
MORBY: A couple. “Reign” is probably the oldest one on the record. I wrote that when I was 19. “The Dead They Don’t Come Back,” which is the last song on the album, I wrote when I was 20, and “Harlem River” I just wrote last year. It spans from 2007 to 2012.
PUTRINO: How did you meet Cate Le Bon?
MORBY: We met at a party here in L.A. I met her boyfriend once very briefly before, and I saw him there and he introduced me to Cate. I didn’t realize that his girlfriend was Cate Le Bon, but I had heard her records and I liked them a lot. We were all talking and became friends at this sort of formal party. But we made plans to hang out later, and we hung out the next night or something. From then on, we’ve all been friends. I was recording the album at the time when I met them, and I told her she should come in or stop by anytime and if she wanted to sing she could.
PUTRINO: Are you guys going to collaborate on the live show?
MORBY: Hopefully she’ll come out and sing [“Slow Train”] with me.
PUTRINO: What’s the live band you’re assembling? Any familiar characters?
MORBY: Justin Sullivan from the Babies is a permanent fixture in the live band. He’s on drums. Cate and I are both going on this tour, and we’re traveling in one band and sharing members. So two members of her band are also in my band, one of which played on the record.
PUTRINO: Oh, that’s cool.
MORBY: Yeah, it’s going to be a big traveling circus.
PUTRINO: Do you keep track of how many shows you play every year?
MORBY: You know, that’s funny. I made a bet with someone last year. I made a bet with a friend for $100 that I would play over 200 shows in a year’s time. I counted them up, and I was under by five shows or something. I had played something like 196 shows.
PUTRINO: Oh, my god.
MORBY: I know, too many. So I lost the bet, but I was on tour for longer than 200 shows, so he didn’t make me pay him.
PUTRINO: What makes a great day on tour?
MORBY: A great day on tour… I would say a two-hour drive, so you can wake up and you don’t have to leave right away. You can go get breakfast somewhere nice that someone recommends in the town, and it turns out to be good. Then you can kind of check out the town, someone might recommend you to a cool thrift store, a record store, a nice park or something. You can have some time to yourself. Then get back in the van, two-hour drive, get to the new city, have the same amount of time to mosey around. You can go get dinner and not have to rush it. Then you do sound check, and after the sound check you get a hotel really close to the venue, and you go hang out there until it’s time to play. Then you go play, then go back to the hotel. That’s a great day on tour.
PUTRINO: How many times does that happen per tour?
MORBY: I would say on a six-week tour, that happens maybe one time. Maybe twice if you’re lucky.
PUTRINO: At this point, do you have any dream venues where you’d love to play this record? Like the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, or Radio City in New York?
MORBY: I would love to be able to play big venues like that. Someone would have to ask me to open. As far as dream venues, I’ve played all the venues I’d love to play. I’d love to play [those places] again, like the Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina. Bowery Ballroom in New York is my favorite venue.
PUTRINO: How was the Woodsist Fest this year? There was one in Big Sur and one out in Pioneertown, right?
MORBY: It was great. Big Sur was a lot of fun. I think that was the fourth time there. It was fun, and at this point at the Big Sur chapter I know what to expect. We always stay at the same place, I feel very familiar with Big Sur. Then we did the other Woodsist Fest in Pioneertown. It had a new energy to it. It was all of our first time there. It’s this unknown territory, but it was a lot of fun. A really, really good night.
PUTRINO: It was at Pappy and Harriet’s, right? That place is kind of a time capsule saloon in the middle of the desert.
MORBY: Yeah, it’s crazy. It used to be an old movie set. I love that. That day was a lot of fun for me too, because Woods played outside on the bigger stage, and the Babies played the party inside on the small stage, so I got to see the view from both angles. It’s totally cool being in that environment. It’s like being in the Wild Wild West.
PUTRINO: Tim Presley from White Fence helped design the album. I was wondering what the inscription means at the bottom, “Method used for east half”?
MORBY: That’s a secret!