Kevin Morby on “Sundowner” and “A Night at the Little Los Angeles” | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, May 21st, 2024  

Kevin Morby on “Sundowner” and “A Night at the Little Los Angeles”

An Ode to the Midwest

Oct 22, 2021 Web Exclusive Photography by Lauren Withrow Bookmark and Share

A pedigree chart shows the occurrence and appearance of phenotypes of a particular gene or organism and its ancestors from one posterity to the next. Underneath the expansive branch of “The Midwest,” you might find DNA labeled as “blankness,” “vague,” or “ordinary.” There is a root in these derivative words, a seed of some sort, that is planted in the heart of midwesterners that either blossoms or festers. It all really depends on how you water it. Because, no matter how sharp your shears may be, there is no real way to cut this root. It is within you, regardless if you want it or not. Regardless, if you’re proud of it.

Before Zooming with singer/songwriter Kevin Morby, I sent along a poem titled “A Primer” by Midwestern writer, Bob Hicock. In his final lines Hicock declares: “Let us all be from somewhere. Let us tell each other everything we can.” This retrospective acceptance of your “hometown” is the bread and butter of Sundowner, the sixth LP from Morby. On his previous record, Oh My God, a dynamic LP penned while Morby toured the world, there are piano hymns, bellowing organs and somber saxophone on the eponymous track, as well as Morby’s soft plea for a deity to “carry [him] home.” Sundowner, in both the literal and figurative way, is his return; the album is a testament to his roots, his DNA, and to the sun and geography that nurtured him.

Originally from Kansas City, Morby used the nighttime blues and vast, excess time to stare into possibility—taking the stars from the sky and placing them over his eyes. At 18 he moved to New York, a place he had never visited before, and soon became the bassist for punk-folk group Woods, while at the same time working on his side-project, The Babies, with Cassie Ramone from the punk outfit, Vivian Girls.

Yet, after having enough of the city life, Morby headed to the West and settled in LA to work on his solo music. After releasing a handful of records—Harlem River, Still Life, Singing Saw, City Music—he finally garnered critical acclaim with his sprawling double LP Oh My God. With sudden, overwhelming success, Morby felt a pressure to humble himself. In 2017, Morby headed back to the land of passive aggression and middle class platitude. It seemed, yet again, Morby was the victim of the “ordinary” Midwest.

Yet, four years later, Morby still remains in Kansas City. This time, however, he is accompanied by partner Katie Crutchfield, aka Waxahatchee. He answers my Zoom call in the shed/studio he calls “Little Los Angeles.” It’s a bit disorganized, antique gear is strewn around the room and a life-size cutout of The King is tucked in the back corner. This shed, right behind his childhood home, is where Morby originally recorded Sundowner, on 4-track tape throughout the summer and winter of 2017 and 2018. These initial demos were released via Dead Ocean on October 8th, aptly titled A Night at the Little Los Angeles.

“When I later went into a proper studio to make what would become Sundowner, my goal was to capture the essence of these initial recordings” Morby states in the press release. “And here you will now have access to the very essence I was chasing.”

In his interview with Under the Radar, Morby unpacks this essence of Sundowner and his own perception and experience of growing underneath, and then returning to, “The Midwest American Sun.”

Sam Small (Under the Radar): Where would you like to start?

Kevin Morby: Well, I read that poem you sent. I thought it was beautiful. It was really great. It really reminded me of this author named Rachel Kushner. She wrote this book of essays called The Hard Crowd, and the poem weirdly reminded me of that in a way. Her thing is the Bay Area and just kind of talking about her experience there, but it kind of ends on a similar note, which is just like, we’re kind of all from somewhere. It may be boring to you if you’re not from here, but it’s like preaching the gospel of where you’re from and why it means something to you. I really liked it.

Oh, I’m so glad. I think the Midwest is so special, so I’m excited to talk to you about it since I’m from the Metro Detroit area.

Kevin Morby: Where about?

Just kind of the suburbs, nothing crazy, nothing farmy. Just classic “In the middle.”

That’s like me in Kansas City!

Growing up, what were your feelings towards Kansas City? Did you like it there?

Like pre teenage years, I was super into it, just in the way that like a little kid is. Wherever they live is the best. And then once I became conscious of like culture, basically different cultures, and realized there was none of that in the Midwest, I started to hate it. So from age, like 12 to when I left, I couldn’t wait to get out of it. But at the same time, you know, I did have a sort of pride for it. I think what I love most about it is that my friends and I, who wanted out so badly, had to make our own fun. So I really loved that. The Midwest sort of provides a platform for you to do that. You can’t make your own fun in New York as a kid in the way you can in the Midwest where you can go into an abandoned building.

Yes! Or like an empty parking lot. I think there are two Midwest’s: one that’s the real Midwest and then the literary Midwest, or how culture imagines it and how other people imagine it. Does that resonate to you at all?

Absolutely. I mean, I also think that most people that I talk to have no idea what the Midwest is or what qualifies as it. They’re like, “Is Kansas next to Kentucky?” Kind of, but not really at all, you know? So, yeah, I see that. I can see there’s certainly people’s idea of it, whether it’s romantic or just confused, and then there’s what it actually is.

And what it actually is… is just so much. I feel like it’s hard to parse together into one thing.

It is a lot, because I think, you know, like Oklahoma qualifies as the Midwest and that is so much different, in my mind, than, say, Chicago. There’s a wide spectrum of what falls in the Midwest. Having lived on both coasts for so long and taking my bands to the Midwest and seeing what they think of it—it’s interesting to get their take. It’s almost like it has a lack of an identity. Whereas, in the South, everyone knows it by the accent and the food. You know, the Pacific Northwest, everyone knows it by the ocean or the Redwood forest. The West people’s idea of the Midwest is like, oh, it’s just sort of white bread and strip malls. And that’s certainly all true. But it’s so much more, so yeah, I will say I don’t blame anyone who’s not from the Midwest having no interest in it, but it makes total sense to me that all of us, all of us Midwesterners love it.

I have a story to tell you about Sundowner. When the album came out, I had just moved into a new place and my friend and I did those Spotify sessions where you listen together, while apart. Although at different places in the world, we both came to the conclusion that it made us feel very comfortable and very safe. To me, these ideas felt very Midwestern

Absolutely. And it’s funny, cause that’s a record, like we were just saying, I almost feel like people, people might be able to appreciate it, but if you’re from the Midwest, you’ll really appreciate it. I kind of knew it was going to be this niche record for me that Midwesterners would like, so that’s great news that you found it comforting. But that was definitely my mindset when I started working on it. I was like, I want something that is just so Midwestern and for this to be my Midwest record and to just speak to the beauty. It almost acts as an advertisement to those who’ve never been there.

Oh My God talks about abstract ideas, and that being perplexing. Whereas I feel like Sundowner’s very intimate and more about, I think, the smaller things. Does that feel right to you? Or how do you see those two albums working together?

Yeah, absolutely. The whole idea with Oh My God was supposed to be this theme of above the weather. So kind of existing nowhere and rooted in nothing really. It’s supposed to be like the air, you know. I was writing it as I was touring, so I was writing it kind of all over the world. Sundowner was the complete opposite and I was kind of writing them at the same time. So I would go out and have all these experiences around the world. And that’s when I was working on Oh My God. I found myself working on the bulk of it on airplanes. And then I was in this small shed working on Sundowner. So, Oh My God was exactly what you said, a very big, large idea that was as expansive as the world. And then Sundowner was an idea that was just as expansive as this shed that I’m in.

And you kind of sat on your songs that you made for a while, yeah?

Yeah. It kind of ends up happening that way sometimes, especially when you write two at once. Because you know, Oh My God had to come out, and by the time it did, I had already recorded Sundowner. So I sat on it for like a good two years or so. It’s a funny experience when you have that, like, you kind of forget about it and then you’ll start working on even more newer music. And then you’re like, “Oh, I have this whole other record that I have to put out.” But then it actually sort of ended up with the quarantine and the shutdown and everything, we’re all suddenly in our homes, and I was like stuck in Kansas, it felt kind of like the perfect platform. Obviously, I wish that none of this ever happened with COVID, but, it felt weirdly like the perfect time to put that record out.

For people who might not know, could you define Sundowner and what it means to you?

“Sundowner” as the definition, or, you know, how I’m defining on the record is someone you get sort of melancholy around the sun going down, which I think that’s certainly a feeling that a lot of us experience and my girlfriend was using the term a lot. You know, it’s something that I think I definitely relate to. And I think a lot of people relate to that. Like when the sun starts going down, you start feeling a certain sort of way. But I also think it was coinciding with having just moved back to the Midwest was also making me feel that sort of nostalgia and melancholy that the sunset can bring on. So it was kind of twofold. But that’s how I see it in how I use it.

And do you still feel that way?

I feel like, because I’ve been so rooted in the Midwest for the past two years, it has passed a little bit. I mean, there’s still that feeling around sunset, but it’s not as amplified because I’ve been back in the Midwest and it just feels like home now. But there’s just something to the light in the middle of the country. Whereas like in New York, when the sun’s going down all the lights come on in the city. So it’s almost like, you know, these other exciting things start to happen. And on the west coast, there’s this natural beauty going on, there’s the ocean and everything. But here it’s just sort of like this nostalgic melancholy. It’s a different thing.

Are there certain tracks on A Night at the Little Los Angeles, or the proto-Sundowner, that at their bare bones you were like, “Shit, this is a song.”

The biggest one that happened with was “Campfire.” I was making the demo on my 4-track and up until that point, I thought the songs weren’t cohesive or I didn’t think an album was forming. But when I wrote that song and I sort of listened back to it, that was my sort of like, “Oh, wow. I think this is something” moment.

“Campfire” has the word “sundowner” in it. Did this idea grow from there or did you just kind of naturally notice that these ideas were repeating?

That’s a good question. I think that’s a moment where I noticed that the theme was repeating. That happens often when I’m making a record where you notice, oh, there’s a thread between these songs. What a great feeling to realize an album is taking place. You got to find the patterns and then there you go.

I think “Don’t Underestimate the Midwest American Sun” would be my wedding song if I ever choose to take the plunge. It is so gorgeous. Where did that song come from and what makes a sun Midwestern?

That’s a great question. Like I was explaining before, I was touring a lot, and I would come back here—and it’s a funny place to come back to. I didn’t have too many friends, and Katie and I had just started dating and the two of us were back here suddenly after having had these big experiences all over the world. And then we’re like back in suburban Kansas, and it just felt like this crazy juxtaposition of things that were going on. And I think the Midwest sun, is a metaphor for the Midwest in general. But it’s also sort of like don’t underestimate the people from it because it’s, you know, a lot of great things come from here. In fact, the best things come from the Midwest and I have this theory. You know, all the great innovators and all of the people who sort of paved the way are from there. Like Walt Disney’s from the Midwest, Charlie Parker’s from the Midwest, Bob Dylan’s from the Midwest.

Toni Morrison, Sherwood Anderson…

There you go. Don’t forget about the Midwestern people. Without us, you know, it’s just land.

I think the Midwest breeds innovation. In a weird way, you have nothing to do but think. You have nothing to do but see what’s going on around you and then observe how nothing is, in fact, going on.

Totally. You think and dream. I also think there’s something true, you know, growing up in a place where you have to dream about getting out. For me, I had never been to New York until I moved there. I just knew it through films and books and things like that. You just sit around and dream and you’re kind of in this barren tundra of the Midwest. And you’re like, “Wow, there’s something better for me out there.” I think that’s why a lot of people with big ideas, like Walt Disney is maybe the best example, come from the Midwest. Mark Twain is another great example, just people who went on to be the great thinkers of their time came from the Midwest because they had time to think.

So you’re in Kansas City for good, right?

For good. Although, as the world has been stumbling back, I’ve been traveling around a lot, and I spent last winter in Los Angeles and I think I’m going to do that again, this year.

Like a classic…what do they call them? A snowbird!

That’s me.

So like you said, living in Kansas City is just kind of like normal now. But does it ever feel like “Oh, my God. I was here when I was five years old.”

I’ve sort of pushed past that in a few different ways. When I didn’t live here and I would come back, it felt like there was a ghost at every corner and everything felt a little haunted. But now that I’ve made a new life here, it’s like a lesson in adulthood, I think. I’ve pushed through all those old feelings and now it just feels new. And the city itself has changed a lot. So, you know, a lot of the places that I hung out at as a child or as a teenager have closed down, or there’s enough going on now that I feel like instead of being like, “Oh, there’s that old place I used to go to,” it’s more like, “Oh, there’s a new place that just popped up, crazy.” So yeah, it’s a funny thing. It’s very cozy. It’s a very safe feeling, to me. The Midwest, to me, is sturdy like that.

Read our 2017 interview with Kevin Morby on City Music.

Also read our 2017 Track-by-Track interview with Morby on City Music.

Read our review of Singing Saw and check out our 2016 interview with Morby about Singing Saw.

Kevin Morby · US Mail

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