Kevin Morby | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Sunday, July 14th, 2024  

Kevin Morby

Protest Singer

Jul 08, 2016 Issue # 57 - M83 Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

As a soft-spoken, unassuming guy from the Midwest, Kevin Morby isn’t the kind of songwriter you’d expect to write one of the fieriest political anthems of the Black Lives Matter era. However, that is exactly what he has done with “I Have Been to the Mountain,” his reflection on the 2014 choking death of Eric Garner by a New York City police officer. Over a rich backdrop of sighing strings, Mariachi trumpets, and a ghostly chorus of backing vocals, Morby delivers lines about Garner struggling to breathe at the hands of “the pig [that] took him down.” Culminating with a plea to “destroy the destroyer,” it’s a startlingly direct call to arms, made all the more striking by the matter-of-fact way he issues his charge. But Morby didn’t set out to write a protest song at all.

“As I was writing it, I realized what I was doing, but I never sit down to write a song about any sort of event,” he explains. “The song has a life of its own, and I have my life, and we meet halfway. I’ve written songs in the past, where it’s very specifically about a relationship with a specific person, but I don’t realize it until I’m halfway through the song, and then I’m like ‘What am I singing about?’ But in terms of just being bothered by [Garner’s death], it was just an incident that was very disturbing, and it was floating around in my consciousness heavily in that time period.”

Though he found the album’s themes while writing its songs, he found its sound before he started. With producer and Apollo Sunshine multi-instrumentalist Sam Cohen, Morby decamped to rural Woodstock, New York, with a sprawling cast of contributors. His intention: to create a “hippie big band” album steeped in the multi-layered textures of Ethiopian jazz. These songs would be different than those on his first two albums, by design and intent. Not only did he have the luxury of spending a bit more time developing them in and out of the studio, but he also had written them on piano, an instrument on which he was a complete novice. The result, he says, is the “nighttime” record he set out to make, one whose tone shifts from the loping barroom country-folk of “Water” to the rollicking power pop of “Dorothy,” from lushly layered arrangements to skeletal ones, from calm to outrage.

“I would like [listeners] to just think of the record as a place that they can go to,” Morby says. “That’s what I was trying to create, something very textural. I love so many different types of albums, but I was trying to create something like The Glow, Pt. 2 by The Microphones. I feel like that’s almost like a room that I walk into when I listen to that album, and I wanted to create something that had a world of its own and that was no more and no less than that world. Rather than being music that is background music or driving music. I wanted it to be one feeling.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s May/June 2016 Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]


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