Kevin Morby is a modern ramblin’ man. Born in Lubbock, Texas, Morby spent his childhood moving around the Midwest with his family: Detroit to Tulsa, Oklahoma City to Kansas City, St. Louis and back to Kansas City again. This state of constant movement left an indelible mark on the singer-songwriter, whose lyrics carry with them a world-weary nostalgia that betrays his youth.
Morby remembers his Kansas City upbringing and the city’s creative scene fondly. “Growing up there was really cool because there wasn’t a lot of stuff to do, so we had to make our own fun, which is a really good lesson to have to learn early in life.” The Kansas City music scene also offered Morby something you don’t always see in the more competitive coastal scenes: camaraderie. As Morby recalls, “There were a lot of shows in garage spaces and warehouses and basements. There was a melting pot of genres, where there’d be a hardcore band, a punk band, a folk band and a jazz band all on the same bill. It was really special. No matter what kind of music you liked, you got along with those people just on the basis of making music.” But the coast called. When he turned 18, Morby moved to New York and dove headfirst into the city’s bustling music scene. Within a few years, he was playing bass in the psych folk band Woods and, shortly after, fronted for the garage rock group The Babies with Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls. This period conditioned Morby’s musical agility, demanding from him two distinctly different yet equally cutting sounds. When the rents in New York got too high and his friends started to take off in search of new creative cities, Morby packed up his bags again and headed west to Los Angeles. It was in L.A. that Morby began his solo career, releasing albums like Harlem River, Still Life and Singing Saw to critical acclaim. His forthcoming album, City Music, is a departure from the folksy sounds of his previous records, revisiting the rock-n-roll sounds of his New York days.
Written from the perspective of a recluse living in a hyperkinetic city, City Music was inspired by the The New York Times story, ‘The Lonely Death of George Bell’. “It was interesting because I was feeling reclusive in my own way at the time —obviously not that reclusive—but the story was interesting to me because I could relate to it on a small level,” Kevin explains. If this narrative sounds familiar, it’s because City Music tells a similar story as last year’s Singing Saw, albeit through a different sonic landscape. Think of City Music as the complement to Singing Saw, the underground punk club to the latter’s back road watering hole. “Singing Saw spoke to my situation at the time, when I was feeling reclusive in LA. It was kind of jangly folk music. But while that was happening, the other part of my brain started to fire off, like a rock-n-roll record that told a similar story but through the landscape of a musician in New York. I see them as two sides of the same brain.”
Though the thematic cores of the albums are similar, there’s a universe between them in terms of influence and intention. “Sonically, is a lot different and meant more for a live band. I wanted it to be sort of a homage to all those New York punk bands like Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Richard Hell and Television.” At a moment in cultural history when musicians feel pressure to release safe iterations of formulaic song templates, Morby’s experimentalism is a breath of fresh air. His eagerness to deeply investigate and reinterpret themes in his music, paired with his adept code-switching between musical styles, makes us excited to see how this big city rambler develops on City Music and beyond.