Brooklyn’s DIY scenes seldom birth a singer-songwriter, let alone one who finds success outside of the city. Maybe it’s the “make it there, make it anywhere” curse of Frank Sinatra, but transplants with an acoustic guitar and a dream flock to the borough with such frequency that you could feasibly track them on a seasonal chart.
That’s why Kevin Morby‘s ascent, from bassist in the chill psych-folk collective Woods to frontman of the garage rock trio the Babies to now, as a solo artist on the cusp of releasing his strong third LP, Singing Saw, sounds like a triumph.
Though he moved to L.A. right before going solo, this Kansas City native sees New York’s music community not so much as a time he grew out of so much as a period when he truly honed his songwriting skills. The first LP under his name, 2013’s Harlem River, documents his love for the city that never sleeps, but it’s also rife with wanderlust, with songs about growing up and moving away. All suggesting he learned a whole lot here, but was still ready for a new chapter.
‘Especially my neighborhood, that moon comes out and the coyotes start going crazy.’
In many ways, Singing Saw is the L.A. answer to Harlem River. The wailing saw of mention, harnessed with celestial finesse by John Andrews of Quilt, becomes a treated, orchestrated clarion call to the spirits. In Mr. Morby’s view, it also encapsulates a distinct characteristic of looming weirdness he sees as unique to California, particularly in his neighborhood of Mount Washington.
Just a few doors down from The Bedford L stop, we talked about the ever-endangered creative class of New York, why imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the sacred trickster coyotes that Mr. Morby often crosses paths with on his evening walks around his neighborhood.
Where are you staying now? This place belongs to a friend of yours?
It’s a family that I used to babysit for. Every time I come here I stay with fam. They’re my New York family. But they happen to be out of town right now, so I have the place to myself.
Party house! Just kidding, I see all the nice shit and cool books on the walls.
So how are you feeling? Does it feel like birth, or the gestation period between recording and touring?
Sort of. I feel a little fucked up because I was in L.A. and came here, it was freezing cold but like a warrior I partied through the weekend. And now I feel like shit, but that’s what New York does to you.
You’ll get it back. Tell me about this special show that you just played in the city.
At the Box? That was great.
I understood it to be as much a creative experiment as a performance.
Yeah, that was awesome. It pertains to the record, because this guy Ramie put on a re-creation of The Last Waltz the day before Thanksgiving 2014, and they invited me to sing a song for part of it. So I flew out to be a part of it and met Sam Cohen, who was the leader of that band. He went on to produce my record, Singing Saw, and this performance at The Box was me, Sam and Eric Johnson from Fruit Bats, who I also met for the first time at The Last Waltz. Ramie, the show promoter who also put this on, said he wanted to get three of his favorite artists together, put them on a stage; they’d have two days rehearsal to learn. We each played three originals and then one of everybody else’s songs, then covered some of our favorite songs together.
Almost like a live split album.
Yeah, it was awesome, man. And then the bass player, this guy Josh and the drummer Brian were great. The bass player rehearsed with us but the drummer just showed up and knew what to do, he’s just that talented. I’ve just never played a show where I played one on the nylon string and one on the electric, you know? It felt like jazz or something.
That’s funny to me because there’s this really safe connection that people make since you’ve started making solo albums to Dylan, Neil Young, it’s obviously a very folky music shorthand. And now you’ve got this producer onboard. If there’s one thing to be said, I know you’ve been covering Bill Fay a little too, but there’s this communal spirit that Dylan went into around that time where he was just tripping out at The Big Pink and playing with all these dudes. You sing about that on the record, don’t you? Making a home in the garden and running through all these instruments that make up your songs. If we’re tempted to talk about themes and trajectories and all that arty farty shit on this album, is that there?
The communal thing?
Yeah, the garden and you talking about all the instruments.
Well the things that I name off in the garden are kind of these characters and these beings that exist in my little world in Los Angeles. That one’s very much L.A. and my neighborhood, which is very much a rural neighborhood of L.A., Mount Washington. But there is one song on it, “Dorothy,” that lists off a bunch of stuff. And the last song, “Water,” which is very much about the world at large and the people I’ve met and done different things with.
To go back to Quilt and talk about John’s singing saw, I thought of Neutral Milk Hotel a little because Mangum turns the saw into this odd cosmic device that conjures voices from the clouds, and it’s the name of the record so the saw is obviously a thematic thru. What’s the logic behind that, aside from the sounds?
Well it’s funny, but when I wrote the song “Singing Saw,” that’s just what came out. If it has to be about something it’s about writing all day long. Each night I tried to get out and see the sun before it went down so I wouldn’t go too crazy, and each night I would go on these walks. I would see no people except for my girlfriend all day while she’s leaving for work. Then I would spend all day cooped up in my house with my piano and my guitars demoing stuff.
Then I would go out for a walk, and the only thing I would interact with would be my neighborhood. There’s not a lot of people walking around, and I don’t know…there’s a very specific willow tree I name off that I would walk past every day. You always see a ton of coyotes just hanging out. Coyotes are supposed to be very afraid of people, but they’ll walk right in front of you.
Every once in a while you’ll hear about a coyote on the subway or something like that.
Yeah, right? In Central Park and stuff? I’ve seen that. I’ve actually become obsessed with coyotes because I’ve never lived around them, but then you see them all the time in my neighborhood, and they’re such interesting creatures. They’re beautiful and very frightened by humans, and if they’re not, that’s bad.
In Native American culture the coyote is the sacred trickster. The Navajo say coyote steals the sea serpent’s eggs and hides them under his wizard robes to trick her.
Yeah, they’re totally the type of creature that would. Even the word “coyote” is such a strange word, how it sounds, how it looks, everything. I don’t know where I pulled “Singing Saw” from, but I wrote the riff first, which doesn’t always happen with me. Then I wrote the words, which just kind of fell out of my mouth, and I don’t know. If you have to relate it to an actual singing saw I think it’s something that’s beautiful, but creepy. And that’s very much what L.A. is like after dark. It’s so lush and beautiful, these rolling hills.
But after dark they all turn into reptilians.
Totally! It gets creepy there, man! Like a total fucking detective. It’s like the movie Chinatown, you know? I remember seeing that then going to L.A. and being like, “Fuck, this really reminds me of that.” Something sinister falls over it. Especially my neighborhood, that moon comes out and the coyotes start going crazy.
What about the racism in L.A. I only ask you because I read in the press release that you dedicated “Been To The Mountain” to Eric Garner, and I think especially the first two songs have not necessarily a call to arms, but a sense of awakening and there’s a journey you as the singer takes. You go up the mountain and then come back down again on “Singing Saw.” Where are you with that now?
I’m just as confused and angry about that as all the other killings happening. It doesn’t really change. You just kind of forget about it a little bit. In terms of physically going up the mountain in “Singing Saw,” it’s just very much about being cooped up all day and getting this shit out of my head. I’ve got to go on a walk.
With the creepiness too, I mean the first time I heard it I thought of “Harlem River” where you rationalize leaving New York, and the pace of that song.
Yeah, it’s similar.
This one starts off very much as a sister song but then the treated singing saw comes in and all these waves come in, is that the imposition of the creepiness?
Yeah, absolutely. I wanted to make it feel like those walks, where you get up on the hill and get kind of lost in the craziness. You’re suddenly on a hike and feel like the trees are reaching out at you. It becomes that.
Talking to Quilt about Murakami, that became part of the conversation, looking at the mundane and finding very weird things manifesting. Making breakfast can be weird.
Yeah, that’s good, making breakfast can be weird! It was just my first time in that environment since I’ve been in New York, and the suburbs of Kansas City before that. It was very much me wondering, what are these plants? It feels like everything is reaching for me or reaching for the sky. So many willow trees, man, I’m obsessed with willow trees. Everything is beautiful but kind of sad. Especially in L.A., everything’s fried. I went to Hawaii recently and everything’s so vibrant, it’s like Jurassic Park. Everything is so healthy. But in L.A. everything’s fried, everything’s sinister, everything’s dead. It’s this bent-over palm tree that looks like it’s gasping for breath or something. I sort of wrote “Harlem River” as a New York song of a certain vibe, and I wanted to write an L.A. song of a certain vibe. “Singing Saw” is very much my “Harlem River”.
I think that if stuff doesn’t change for the character singing, he still goes through a journey on the record, maybe there’s a personal change happening. With the second half of the record and especially the piano on “Ferris Wheel” it sounds like the space between the notes is very important, the breathing. Is this Kevin Morby’s texture record? Was that deliberate for you, or just a matter of the people who were around? I also hear two Dylan lyrics back to back in “Ferris Wheel.”
Really? I usually catch that stuff. As cheesy as it sounds, man, I honestly equate all that stuff to my environment. Where I’m living and the neighborhood. In the same way that I’m walking through dense foliage, it made me want to have a dense sounding record. The place that I live is very much a hobbit house, a castle where our landlords live next to us in the main unit and we live in this three-story little castle. It’s very windy with a little stoop, and the downstairs is huge, big tall ceilings. All my guitars are hanging, there’s a piano. My girlfriend has so many plants hanging, there are vines all over the walls.
I demoed at my house and recorded in Woodstock, which is cool because I felt like I was staying at the New York version of my L.A. place. Everything was vibrant in this way, New York looks like that and it’s beautiful [he points to a high-rise across the street]. But the texture of where I was living was very rich, a stucco house where the ceiling goes up and there’s a skylight. Vines everywhere. There’s space but it’s very cozy.
And the Dylan stuff, I’ve always been unapologetically into taking lyrics. Sort of like Patti Smith, these are my heroes, and why would I be upset by these heroes?
It’s your pastiche. There’s something to be said for the person who’s not afraid to wear their influences on their sleeve. They know what’s affecting them.
Right. I just think there’s a tasteful way to do it and hopefully I do it tastefully. I think it’s really cool if, say you’re not familiar with The Velvet Underground and hear a song a band takes a Velvet Underground lyric that you love, and you discover the Velvet Underground from there.
Spoon referenced Television with “Gimme Fiction” years before the Downtown Scene was cool again. Only music nerds knew about Television back then.
Exactly. And that’s the thing, only music nerds will pick up on it. But if it transcends and goes past that, it’s really cool. Sometimes people will say, “Oh, Kevin Morby wrote a song called ‘Wild Side,’ ” but why would anyone care?
I don’t think it has to be at the expense of everything else you’re doing.
For sure, dude. I’m really fascinated by this idea of the guy who hops between coasts. If we talk about Babies and we talk about Woods and all your other projects, there’s very much a creative community that bolstered you here. There’s so many people making music who know you and your artist musician network was largely here. How do you reconcile that with the move? Is this a self-imposed exile or was it just a relationship thing?
To be fair, I lived in L.A. with The Babies for two months in the winter of 2011, just to play shows and get acquainted in the scene down there. We went there again in 2012 in the winter to record for a month. After that I made a lot of friends and integrated into the scene over there halfway. I was really good friends with Tim Presley from White Fence.
He’s in his own world. I’ve seen White Fence, wow, but when I saw him play with Cate Le Bon at CMJ as Drinks…
That’s a great example, too. I was out there to record Harlem River when I wasn’t living there yet and I met Cate, you know? So I kind of on accident made friends with this whole other scene out there. After a while I felt like I was kinda in both scenes, and I kind of chose that one a little bit. With the going solo and stuff, too, I felt like I should maybe move on from the Brooklyn DIY scene, which was sort of dying anyway.
There’s a lyric to that point on this record. I don’t remember the song but it says something to the effect of, “I want this song to sound full and fleshed out and the instruments to be here.”
On “Dorothy,” yeah. So that’s named after my guitar, right there. [He picks up a red Fender Jaguar resting against a chair.] I just named it Dorothy because it was my grandma’s name. It’s funny because I’m from Kansas and I didn’t think of the Kansas connection. I didn’t even think about ruby slippers, it was subconscious or whatever. The song is named after the guitar as a metaphor for this thing that’s been with me through the Babies, through everything, through everywhere I’ve been. It’s for everyone that I’ve ever met, and how music has taken me to places I never thought I’d go to.
You mention Tim, and I think he’s a fascinating figure because a few years ago the whole San Fransisco, Trouble in Mind records community for the most part said San Fransisco was too much and moved to L.A., with the exception of The Fresh & Onlys. Then L.A. got a lot trippier by proxy.
For sure, Ty moved down there and Thee Oh Sees.
Is there something about the lifestyle and the pace of living and the partially legal weed that facilitates a different community out in L.A.?
It is different. The same thing that happened here happened in San Fransisco, which is why all those dudes moved down to L.A. I think L.A. is just more of an open canvas. If you get people there you can do whatever you want. New York and San Francisco have likeminded people, but the cities have a way of saying, “You can’t do this.”
Too many logistics?
Yeah. Whereas in L.A. you’ll find there’s this bar in Alhambra that says you can have a night there, you know? There’s never going to be a place that gets priced out and the bar is coming down, which is what happened with Death by Audio. If it does happen in L.A., it’s so sprawling that there’s always gonna be some new space.