Kevin Morby on “City Music” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Kevin Morby on “City Music”

Looking Down Dark City Streets

Sep 04, 2017 Issue #61 - Grizzly Bear Photography by Adarsha Benjamin Bookmark and Share

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Kevin Morby is calling during a rare moment of relaxationa day off at his drummer’s place in upstate New York. The next morning he’ll fly to Barcelona for a festival gig, but his easy speaking voice jumps when he talks about the last four shows. He finally had the opportunity to debut songs from his new record, City Music. The crowd’s reaction was a validation of the record he set out to makean electric guitar recordas he puts it, built with his live band.

Conceived as a mind-out-of-body experiment, City Music is the second album Morby wrote, back-to-back, in Los Angeles during a solitary spell. Having just finished penning 2016’s Singing Saw, a lush folk album with backing vocals, horns, and strings, Morby played devil’s advocate with himself. “I started to write this other record, which is now City Music, to be the complete opposite, to be sort of stripped down and more about my live band,” he says.

The album takes his reclusive LA experience and transports it to the streetscape of his former home, New York City. “I was living in this house, and it was the first time in my life I could sort of go all day without seeing anybody, and it was kind of a culture shock to me,” he says, recounting his experience in LA. “I was getting a lot done, but I just felt kind of crazy, so it’s just a play-off of that.” What results is a character study of an exaggerated, fictionalized version of himself, alternatively vibrant and moody, a man staring at the lively streets below from a dark window. “Downtown’s locked up for the night,” he sings on the record. “And I don’t have a key.” Whereas Singing Saw was Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, City Music is Lou Reed and Patti Smith. It takes the listener to a place where The Ramones and Woodie Guthrie are held in equal regard, where a Germs cover is made beautiful, and where Television is not an out-of-place reference for a folk singer. All the music that resonated down the Bowery of the East Village or across Greenwich Village before exists simultaneously, soundtracking the footsteps of busy walkers just out of the central character’s grasp.

The sonic home of City Music is still a regular stomping ground for Morby, though he now lives primarily in LA. He also recently bought a house in Kansas City and spends several months a year there. It’s the town he left as a teenager for NYC about 10 years ago, where he joined the psych-folk outfit Woods on bass and later formed The Babies, before going solo.

City Music is a record set in New York City, written in the hills of Los Angeles. And in the way those cities draw ambitious young people from everywhere between, from Kansas, or Guthrie’s home in Oklahoma, or Dylan’s in Minnesota, City Music is of all of those places, as well. As is Morby.

“I really like being back in Kansas City because, you know, I kind of turned my back on it for a good decade or something,” he says. “Now I’m kind of willing to let it back into my life in this way, and it’s really beautiful.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s Summer 2017 Issue (July/August/September 2017), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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