Kevin Morby Turns Isolation into Creativity

Kevin Morby interview with Northern Transmissions by Adam Fink
Kevin Morby Turns Isolation into Art

We’ve all been in some sort of quarantine or lockdown situation since early in the year and while everyone has had to make adjustments to their lives, there are a contingent of people out there that for one reason or another have lived in a self imposed type of isolation for a lot longer. Whatever those specific situations were, many artists have found these times to be a great way to create outside of the rigours of the daily grind. In 2017, Kevin Morby moved back to his hometown of Kansas City suddenly to deal with a tenant that was moving out of the house he owned there with a friend.

Morby was just finishing up the writing process for his last album, 2019’s great Oh My God, and decided to purchase a little four track recorder to help him over the finish line. What happened though was, through his isolation at home alone with this newfound piece of gear, a new song cycle started to form. This collection would eventually become Morby’s latest album, the starkly beautiful Sundowner. He transformed his garage into a makeshift studio where he would go everyday with a beat up guitar, hunched over his tape machine working away on tracks from the morning into the night. Time flew by and in between bouts of touring Oh My God, the songs started to take shape and Morby kept coming back to the idea that this was something he wanted to complete as a new, stand alone record. The ten songs that make up Sundowner capture a time in Morby’s life that was full of introspection, contemplating the relationship with his past in Kansas City, his own mortality and the mortality of others. It is a wonderfully organic and warm album, filled with thoughtful imagery that is a perfect companion for our, now, life away from our lives.

“I moved back because I bought this house and my friend who was living here had to move out,” he explains when we reach him by phone at that same home in Kansas City. “So, I came back and there were things happening in LA at the time that I thought I wanted to get away from. The first few months here I wanted to start distancing myself from my regular life, so I leaned into this type of lifestyle solitude, my own self imposed quarantine. I was trying to learn a lot of new things like teaching myself to cook and watching old westerns,” he says with a laugh. That first while being home alone was a nice change of pace for Morby and one that he can use to draw some parallels with what is happening now. “It’s funny now thinking about it because we are all going through our own forms of isolation. When lockdown initially happened I was so grateful to be in the Midwest and to set up my compound out here. Before the lockdown I would be here, away from my friends in Los Angeles and New York and they didn’t know why I was doing it. Whether I knew it or not, I think I just knew I needed something different in my life.” Morby found some solace in the writing he was doing on the four track he bought. Working with that machine was actually a bit of a journey that came full circle for him. “When I got back home, I actually found this old four track that I had bought when I was in high school and got so frustrated with trying to figure it out that I eventually smashed it,” he says with a chuckle. “The new one I bought was a way for me to try to valiantly conquer the four track recording process, to pass the time and learn some basic recording and it actually started to really inspire the songwriting.”

The four track became Morby’s silent songwriting partner. The two of them alone, recording together everyday. As the songs started to come out, Morby noticed a bit of an unconscious theme that ran through them. “There is always a point in time where things start coming out subconsciously and then one day you notice a thread, you notice a theme running through everything. All of a sudden there was this beginning, middle and end. For me, with this record, the song “Campfire” was this moment. It was the best I had ever gotten the four track to sound and honestly it was an exciting moment for me. When I had finished with it, I felt like this was the song that was tying these other songs I had been working on together.” Morby ended up tracking all the songs for Sundowner at home this way. He would find himself drawn back into the garage to work on them when he came back to Kansas City in between touring Oh My God with his band. When the pandemic hit North America and, in turn lockdowns, the remainder of that tour was cancelled. Morby thought it would be a great time to actually finish this record up. With the recorded demos finished, he contacted his friend and producer Brad Cook to help him recapture the vibe of what he did at home in an actual studio. They went to Sonic Ranch, the famed studio in Tornillo, Texas. Surrounded by 3000 acres of Pecan Trees on the border of Mexico, the pair would get up everyday and walk around the property in hopes that the barren landscape would be a source of inspiration. As Morby was super happy with the feeling he captured on these songs with the four track, there was a little trepidation about being able to capture that magic a second time. “There was a little fear of that,” Morby explains, “ but that is why I got Brad to come in to produce. I knew he would be able to help me follow this vision through and not influence it. The whole idea was getting it to sound as close to the demos as possible. It was kind of the best of both worlds, I had confidence in the process and the result of it became the easiest time I had in the studio. We just really needed to go in and follow the blueprint I had already made.”

Now with the release of the record imminent, Morby is again locked away in isolation in the town he grew up in, that he once so longed to escape. This time though, it is on his own terms and he is finding some peace with it. “I refuse to complain. Everyone here is safe and healthy and Fall is upon us and it’s been nice to watch the seasons change.” While he has settled into the routine, he was at first disheartened by the situation of it all.  He had been spending a lot of time online in hopes to connect with his fans and while the experience of it has been largely positive, it didn’t start out that way. “I definitely couldn’t stand it and kind of actually hated it at first. It was a bit depressing to not be out playing live but at least we had this and I decided to not be baby about it. Then you see all this kind feedback from the people watching and you realize that it was giving people some relief from their situations. I became super grateful that I could be playing live in any capacity.” We won’t be locked away forever and sooner than later Morby will be back on the road and this time with this collection of songs. Sundowner is one of those special albums, that within this particular time or outside of it, will continue to be a source of relief from whatever everybody’s daily struggles will be.

Sundowner by Kevin Morby is out today via Dead Oceans order here