ABOVE: KEVIN MORBY. PHOTO BY CARA ROBBINS.
When we meet up with Kevin Morby at a neighborhood café in East L.A., he immediately cops to being a little worse for the wear. He’s been back home for less than 48 hours following a month-and-a-half-long European tour, his missing luggage just recently resurfaced, and his new solo album, Still Life, drops in a day. Even in the debilitating midday heat, the irony of the record title is lost on no one.
Hangover-like jetlag notwithstanding, Morby seems to be slowly closing the book on nearly half a decade of perpetual motion. In the last year alone, the Kansas City native has swapped his New York digs for a spot in Los Angeles and made two solo albums. He also formally hung his hat up as the bass player for Woods and put his other project, The Babies, to bed.
Fittingly, Still Life‘s 10 songs were written mostly on the road and are littered with transitory figures—lead track “The Jester, The Tramp & the Acrobat” being just one example. Not unlike last year’s Harlem River, Still Life toes the line between bittersweet reflection and abject struggle, with Morby’s hazy drawl and country-folk touchstones acting as ambassadors. He still considers the characters to be rooted in his old East Coast haunts, but on the whole Morby sees Still Life as a transitional tale.
ALY COMINGORE: You’ve been in Los Angeles for a year now. Do you feel like it’s lived up to the expectations you had before you moved?
KEVIN MORBY: Yeah, it’s been nice. I’ve been gone a lot throughout the year, but the months that I have spent here have been good. They’ve been mellow. I’ve been able to get a lot of writing done and a lot of work done. And I recorded my record.
COMINGORE: How has it compared to New York?
MORBY: I was just in Europe and people kept asking me if there was a cool scene out here, and at least as far as the people I hang out with go, it’s all pretty much established bands. It’s not like we’re all playing the same clubs and trying to make it or something. It’s just a bunch of expats. It’s like a retirement home. We all go to bed at 10 o’clock. [laughs]
COMINGORE: Do you buy the argument that New York has priced out the creative class?
MORBY: Sometimes I think that’s totally true, but I also think I’m 26 now and there’s got of be some younger kids in there, in some neighborhood I don’t know about. And that’s great. I feel like I had my time there and my New York as I knew it is no longer that.
COMINGORE: I know Harlem River was made up of songs that had amassed over a number of years. Are the songs on Still Life mostly new?
MORBY: Yeah, all of this stuff is very new. I write all the time, and I write a lot of songs, but before I started putting out records those songs always just ended up on stuff that I did with The Babies.
COMINGORE: Was there a driving force behind the writing process for Still Life?
MORBY: Just touring. People keep asking me if this is my L.A. record and it’s not at all. I feel like Harlem River was me putting one foot out the door of New York, and Still Life is between Point A and Point B. It’s the grey area.
COMINGORE: So the title is kind of ironic, then.
MORBY: The title actually came by way of my friend Maynard Monrow, who did the cover art piece. He’s in his 50s and he used to be part of the whole ’80s New York art world. He started making these awesome pieces of word art and I became obsessed with him. There are a lot of New York characters in these songs and when I saw that phrase “Still Life with Rejects from the Land of Misfit Toys” it just was New York to me. But the album title also has this double meaning because I did write the whole thing while I was on tour and it’s a document of that part of my life, too.
COMINGORE: That might be one thing New York has on L.A.—I imagine there’s a lot more character potential, just because you encounter more people day to day.
MORBY: Yeah. One of my first observations about New York that I was so fascinated with was that you’d be at a stoplight and you’re with everybody; there’s a homeless dude and some weird celebrity and a cop and someone who looks exactly like you. You’re on foot and everyone is at street level and eye-to-eye. I think that’s what’s special about New York, because there’s no hierarchy, there’s no discrimination.
COMINGORE: What’s one stereotype about Los Angeles that’s proved itself to be true in the last year?
MORBY: People talking about the freeways. I do it all the time. Hearing that conversation before I moved here though, I was like, “What are the hell are they talking about?” But now I’m interested in how people get places. Someone tells me they took the 110 to the 5 and I’m like, “No way!”
COMINGORE: What’s a song that you wish you had written?
MORBY: “Passing Through” by Leonard Cohen and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” by Bob Dylan.
COMINGORE: Have you given any thought to the future of The Babies?
MORBY: Not really. I think if The Babies are going to do anything it would be to put out a record in like five or 10 years and probably not tour all that much. But I could see us doing something fun, like playing some shows and putting out a live record or something. I don’t know though.
COMINGORE: How do you think that band factored into the music you’re making now?
MORBY: I think both Woods and The Babies played a crucial role. I was never really seeking to play music. I knew I wanted to do it, but I think I wasn’t seeking it out because it seemed so abstract to me. I didn’t understand how to get a practice space or buy gear—I never thought I could do any of that—let alone get in front of people and play the songs. But then I joined Woods and that taught me how to be in a band and how to be a musician and how to tour. With The Babies I was the front person, but so was Cassie, so it wasn’t all on me. I had her to hide behind a little bit, so I learned how to be a front person but I didn’t have to jump all-in. I think I took all of those things and applied it to this.
COMINGORE: Do you get stage fright?
MORBY: All the time, but I think it’s good. It’s funny because some nights I won’t even think about it. For example, before I played in Stockholm, zero nerves. I hung out in my hotel room and walked to the show and then got onstage and it was like I was in my best friend’s house. I was almost creepily not nervous. Then when I was in Porto I played a solo show and I was incredibly nervous. I think it comes down to what I ate that day and how long I was in the car.
COMINGORE: What’s the ideal pre-show meal?
MORBY: The ideal pre-show meal I think is pho, the Vietnamese soup. It’s very light and good for you, and then the broth is great for the throat.
COMINGORE: You mentioned not setting out to be a musician. Did you have backup career plan?
MORBY: No. [laughs] I mean, I guess now I view music as my career. I want to do it forever, regardless of whether or not it’s my means of living. It was always something I loved doing that I was pretty good at, but there was never a thought of career in my brain ever for anything. At this point I’ve put out kind of a lot of albums and people seem to like it and the crowds keep getting bigger and bigger, so I think maybe I could make a life out of it. But then I think, well, I already have kind of made a life out of it. It’s been a while and this is what I’ve done, which is really cool.
COMINGORE: What are some of the other jobs you held down?
MORBY: I had a lot of jobs in New York. I worked in a café and I did bike delivery and I was a mover. And I babysat, which was really cool in some cases and really insane in others.
COMINGORE: Did you refer to yourself as a manny?
MORBY: I did one time. It was hilarious. It was when I was getting a bank account. The guy asked what I did and I told him I was a manny. He was like, “You’re a what?” And I was like, “I babysit.” It totally threw him off. He thought I was a fuckin’ freak, but I was like 23 and really nervous.
COMINGORE: Are you pretty good with kids?
MORBY: Yeah totally, but I would get overwhelmed when their friends would come around. The funny thing about babysitting is that you’re in charge of one or two, and then all of a sudden they have all of their friends over and it’s like, shit, I’m responsible for all these kids.
COMINGORE: Any babysitting horror stories?
MORBY: No, thank god. Can you fucking imagine? I was only like 19. I used to think about it all the time, though. Like, what if one died?
COMINGORE: The album comes out tomorrow. What are your hopes for it?
MORBY: I hope that it ends up in the used bin of every record store across the world as soon as possible. [laughs] But no, I mean, I hope that people like it.
KEVIN MORBY’S STILL LIFE IS OUT NOW ON WOODSIST RECORDS. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, VISIT HIS WEBSITE.