Kevin Morby is in a van. The Kansas-bred singer/songwriter tells this to me over a heavily muffled phone call—a call which ultimately ends when it somewhat expectedly drops. It’s not unusual or surprising that Morby is in a van right now. In fact, it would be surprising if he weren’t, and instead lounging at his place in Los Angeles. He’s traveling through Santa Cruz, Califronia, talking to me about his latest album, Still Life, which he says is about “living nowhere.” Not only has Morby jumped from city to city—from his native Kansas City, to Brooklyn, and now to Los Angeles—he’s jumped from band to band. In 2005 he joined the experimental folk group Woods, before forming garage rock band, the Babies, with his roommate Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls. Last year the Babies went on an indefinite hiatus so that Ramone and Morby could both focus on their solo careers, which Morby had launched a year earlier with the release of Harlem River—his debut solo album.
Harlem River is, in essence, an homage to New York City written from an expatriate’s point of view. He followed up Harlem River with the contemplative, quarter-life study that is 2014’s Still Life. The title itself works on a few levels: It’s ironic because Still Life is clearly a record about transition and journey, but a few of the tracks, like “The Ballad of Arlo Jones” and “All of My Life,” can be seen as portraits or landscapes, evoking the Still Life theme. We spoke with Morby this week in anticipation of his concert at Mohawk Place on Saturday, March 7 presented by ESI and The Tralf.
How have the places you’ve lived influenced your music?
Cities are kind of like people, they have their own personalities.
The title of your record is taken from a piece of art by Maynard Monrow. Monrow’s Still Life series is almost like anti-art, though. Most of it is simply words displayed on lunchboards. What was it about this artwork that inspired you to title your record after it?
I liked the text of that particular piece “Still Life With Rejects From The Land Of Misfit Toys” in particular because it spoke to me. I felt it represented or summed up some of the characters or the subject matter of the record. [Monrow’s] art feels very contemporary yet very classic to me; like it’s something that won’t age and if it does age, it’ll age very well. It just seemed kind of iconic and I really wanted to use it.
If Harlem River, is, in a phrase, “an homage to New York City,” then what does that make Still Life?
A heavily transitional period of my life. Kind of turning the corner on 25, descending into my later 20s, and just a document of a year literally living nowhere. Not having a house or city that I lived in. Just being on the road the whole time.
Life and death are pretty major themes on this album. You’re a young man, you’re 26, but you seem to think about your own mortality quite a bit.
I think that’s a pretty common thing. It’s a hard thing not to think about. It’s one of those things where you don’t really think about it and then all of the sudden you know a couple people who die and it’s all you think about after that.
You just put out a video for “Dancer,” which is the second video from Still Life. It stands out from the rest of the album quite significantly. It’s totally not a pop song, like your last single, “All of My LIfe. It’s more like performance art. The vocals are kind of disorienting, heavily reverberated, and it’s got this kind of ghostly guitar line. Why did you decide to feature this song?
The reason I wanted to make it a video is because of my friend Claire, who stars in the video. I really love her work, which is all interpretive dancing. I was thinking about making another video for the record and I was thinking, “what if I did like the least pop song on the record and made it an art piece as opposed to just a fun video for one of the singles?” It was also just an excuse to work with Claire.
What’s next for you?
A lot of touring this year and recording the next album. It’s already written. I’m going to take a little bit more time with this one and do it throughout the year. I’m trying to slow my roll a little bit.