GO WEST YOUNG MAN,
AND GROW UP WITH THE CITY
Written by Augustus Britton | photographed by James Bernal
Kevin Morby is standing in Chinatown in Los Angeles, right next to the Bruce Lee statue and a couple of guys putting gold foil onto a newly renovated Chinese palace-type structure with a minimalistic art gallery inside of it. The sky is so blue. It’s one of those days you wish you could
pull out of your pocket whenever you needed to.
Morby is in a green trench coat. His hair is curly. His face is shaven. His eyes are crisp. His hands are clean. He is not smoking a cigarette nor is he drinking a beer. “I feel like no matter what I say, it feels cheesy.” No, sir, you are wise, I muddled to myself in my head while looking at the sky. He continues, “Well, I was just flying back from Europe the other day, and I sat down next to this woman who was asking me what kind of music I played, and I think my go-to [is] either, I’ll say rock ’n’ roll or I’ll say folk rock, and that’s when I feel like a real asshole—saying folk rock—but
especially on this album I feel comfortable saying rock ’n’ roll.”
Morby is referring to his latest record, City Music, a benignly sad, important take on urban culture, more specifically 20-something urban culture. Lots of tears, lots of drying them up, lots of lifting ourselves up from lonely and exhausted beds, once again opening the door to excessive horn honking and hope and sunshine—a dilemma, to be sure.
“This record is a lot more ’70s-era punk bands or pre-punk bands in New York,” Morby says. “I feel like there’s two different schools of influence going on in my head: One is represented on Singing Saw (his 2016 album), and one is represented on City Music. Singing Saw is more ’60s and Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen and Neil Young—stuff like that—but with this, it’s way more Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Richard Hell, Television, Jim Carroll, sort of the Lower Manhattan scene from that time period.”
Morby seems to draw from wherever the wind takes him, from growing up in Kansas City to formative years in Brooklyn to a cabin-style crib in Los Angeles. Yes, it all adds up, bound for glory, keeping his head on the proverbial swivel. “I have a landscape, for sure,” nods Morby, looking down, “and I think I kind of look at the future of how I put out music almost as if I was reading the Wikipedia of me at the end of my life,” he says, while I laugh from the funny, meta, Philip K. Dick-style quip. “I want to have a record like this, and I want to have a record like that … a
record that touches on this part of my psyche, and a record that is about this thing. Yeah, I wanna have a long career and a long life, and at the end of it [I] have put out a bunch of different types of things.”
"I think I kind of look at the future of how I put out music
almost as if I was reading the Wikipedia of me at the end of my life.”
Then he continues after a silence, “As an artist, as a musician, when you do these things, when you put out an album, you’re basically exploring that for a year or two years, and it becomes such a part of your life, and then it ends and you’re onto the next thing. My life is broken up into these
chapters of these records.”
I think of interviews I’ve read with a young Neil Young, I think of interviews with a young James Taylor, and there is this common thing, this common thread of placidity in all of them, this thread of consciously staying chill, and I see it in Mr. Morby, as well.
And I wonder about the difficulties of being
a musician, what’s that like. “I can answer
that pretty well,” Morby answers, “and I feel
confident saying that, because I’ve been around for a long time, through a bunch of different platforms: I was in Woods, and I was in The Babies, and now I’m doing what I do, where, you know, people that I knew from the era of The Babies aren’t doing music or their band didn’t work out or whatever, and you see patterns, you see what type of band is filling a certain type of void for some time, and then they go away and a younger and fresher band comes along and …” he stops momentarily, not quite as dramatically as it
may seem, but still cool, “I think that I do feel like a fighter, in a way, but only because it comes naturally. I will say I’ve gone through the shit with it. I’ve been as broke as can be and as tired and as exhausted as can be.”
Whatever you want to call it, you can be sure Morby’s music will take you somewhere. For me, it’s apparently Chinatown. Morby and I shake hands. I walk through a swarm of city music, a cloud of Chinatown underground smoke. On the other side, when the light shines again, I see Dodger Stadium, I see the mountains I think, some snow-capped things I’d love to visit. MM