Kevin Morby is in a self-imposed masterclass for keeping the wheels in constant motion. His initial claims to fame—former bassist of Woods and frontman for The Babies—are beginning to appear as footnotes in his rapidly expanding solo portfolio. On Friday he’ll release his fourth album in five years, City Music, which cycles through tides of weariness and jubilance. The characters in the songs, all of whom share Morby’s habit of wandering from one station to the next, wax existential with affable grins, like a childhood friend determined to probe your shared history until the pub closes.
When reached by phone this week, Morby was between two trapeze bars of his extensive tour, and was taking some time to swim and relax in upstate New York before months of Euro country-hopping. That kind of routine, he said, requires a certain resolve to muscle through the rigor and overstimulation and “get in that headspace to reach out and grab” the inspiration that is collected at each stop and feed it back.
“I feel like touring and traveling all the time exposes you to the world and the universe in a specific way that not a lot of people get to see,” Morby said. “It kind of opens the creative brain. It’s almost kind of like when I’m on tour, my creative brain will open up and it’ll collect all these things and it’ll put them in this bank. When I do get somewhere, and I get time to relax, and I can be with my piano or be with my guitar, all those things come out that I collected along the way. ”
Watch the video for Kevin Morby’s “Aboard My Train,” from City Music.
That sentiment is reflected in the collectivity and balance Morby applies to his studio work. He wrote City Music as something of a “devil’s advocate record” to last year’s critically acclaimed Singing Saw. The swooning adornments that were pressed into the fabric of the former have been sidelined in favor of the direct-contact jolt of Morby’s live show. The title track is streaked with bright, clear electric guitars that take their time propelling a slow-paddling groove into the rapids. Hearing Morby’s stony voice on “Come to Me Now” rise out of a haunting, celestial organ dirge with compressed bursts of drums is close to knee-buckling. Overall, the freewheeling, drum-bass-guitar Americana rock that formed the foundation of Singing Saw remains intact, but is tagged with stories of naked recordings and creative mantras like “Let’s do something we’ll regret later.”
Last year, Morby purchased a home in his hometown of Kansas City, a decade after lighting off for Brooklyn to experience the excitement he’d seen in films. While the house was initially an investment property he could rent out to friends, he found himself increasingly reliant on the seclusion and anonymity it provided. He ultimately reframed his hometown as a symbol of refuge rather than one of restlessness.
“[Kansas City] represented to me what a hometown represents to most kids that age, which is that I thought it was boring and I wanted to go see the world,” he said. “Now, my perspective is way different: I’ve seen the world many times over, and I love doing that and I know I’m going to continue to do that, and it’s nice to know that I have this place to go back to that’s off the beaten path.”
Of course, the path is a little more beaten than when he left it. “When I left,” he continued, “there were no record stores in Kansas City, and now the city’s gotten popular in a way urban popular has gotten popular around the world in the past decade. When I go back, there’s now four really good record stores and it blows my mind.”
“I’m kind of at a place in my life where, when I’m not on tour, I just want to be in a quiet environment by myself where I can have space and time to work.”
Despite City Music’s manifold attitudes—enamored, bitter, yearning—toward the formless concept of ‘downtown’, Morby keeps a loving distance from his own cities. He avoids courting the ‘hometown hero’ title when in K.C., and has learned to keep a low profile when at his semi-permanent residence in Los Angeles. His homes are central to his work not because they are integral to him, but because their trappings cast a long shadow. The refrain in Morby’s life—for now, he repeatedly—is grappling to find just enough shelter from feelings of hyper-exposure to write the next record (in this case, a double-LP that “stands on its own”).
Read Paste’s review of City Music here.
“L.A.’s a very popular city right now, and a lot of people are living there,” he said. “When I go back, there’s a lot of social temptation; I find myself going to shows or going out with friends a lot. After being on tour, that stuff’s pretty exhausting. I’m kind of at a place in my life where, when I’m not on tour, I just want to be in a quiet environment by myself where I can have space and time to work, finally have some privacy. Being able to do my thing—cook food and play my piano—and not have to answer to anything or anybody, that’s what’s really thrilling to me.”