When Kevin Morby moved to L.A. from New York City in 2015, he found himself shut off from the world for the first time in his life.
In a house in Mount Washington, the singer-songwriter led a reclusive existence, seeing no one, sometimes for days at a time. In solitude, he wrote enough songs for two separate albums: last year’s Singing Saw and City Music, his newest record, out June 16 on Dead Oceans.
The former album is expansive and poetic, almost biblical at times — a chronicle of willows and mountaintops, of lonely mothers and great destroyers. It is musically maximal, making room for well-placed sax solos, angelic choirs and, as befits its title, a chorus of musical saws.
The songs on City Music are more obviously the product of that period of solitude. It isn’t, however, an album about Los Angeles. If Singing Saw seemed to capture, in its own elliptical way, the edenic lushness of a place like, say, Mount Washington, City Music is about the paradoxic loneliness one can feel in a city of endless crowds and concrete — a city more like the one Morby came from.
“I wanted to write a story about a real recluse who lived in a place like New York,” Morby says. “Maybe it’s harder to be reclusive in a place like that. It’s kind of amplified.”
Morby is originally from Kansas City, but New York is where he got his real start, as bassist for jammy, lo-fi folk outfit Woods and later as co-leader of The Babies with Vivian Girls’ Cassie Ramone. Starting in 2013, with Harlem River, Morby parleyed his skill at writing pop songs into ambitious solo albums, an output bolstered by his voice, which draws comparisons to Bob Dylan for its throaty assuredness.
Singing Saw, steeped in American myth and adorned with the language of a prophesy, found Morby at the peak of his songwriting powers. City Music is something different — a stark, lonesome, wary record.
On a recent afternoon, Morby sits in the living room of his house in Mount Washington — a different house from the one where he wrote Singing Saw and City Music. At the top of a set of stairs, the house seems to float over the neighborhood. A glowering Neil Young poster greets guests as they walk in; on the couch, an upturned tambourine is filled with cigarette ashes and orange flower blossoms.
“On City Music, I wanted there to be grit and I wanted it to be loose and I wanted there to be mistakes,” Morby says, sitting bolt upright and speaking in quick, long sentences. He also wanted to think of the album thematically as a kind of mixtape, an homage to the city and specifically his own feelings about New York. “I said, ‘The city will be my theme, and I want to kind of jump around within that.'” The Ramones and New York poet Jim Carroll get name-checked in the punky “1234”; the cover photo is a subtle reference to Patti Smith.
All the songs in some way touch on the feeling that the city
Smith’s 2015 memoir M Train was a fascinating read for Morby, who like Smith often mythologizes his own life experiences — such as when he hopped an Amtrak train from Kansas City to New York at the age of 18 with $600 in his pocket. In comparison with Smith’s more popular Just Kids, M Train is set in the current day, in which Smith writes about her adult children and muses on Law & Order.
“It’s a really important book, and I love it so much, and after a while I couldn’t put it down, because you just understand that these things we go through in this current life are as big and mythic as what was going on then,” Morby says, in one breath. “To be alive at all is so crazy, to experience the wide spectrum of feelings and emotions is so wild, but we have nothing else to compare it to so it becomes normal.”
Offset that with Flannery O’Connor, another literary influence and an additional piece of the mixtape — on one track, folk singer Meg Baird reads a passage from O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away, about a child who, sitting shotgun in a car, mistakes the city skyline in front of the car for a fire. “I just love the idea of never seeing a city before and seeing the glow in the distance and it just looking frightening, like you’re driving into a fire,” Morby says.
Deeper than that, though, is the album’s sense of estrangement. All the songs in some way touch on the feeling that the city, in its vastness, is unknowable and inaccessible. Morby says he was influenced by an article he read in The New York Times about a recluse who died friendless and alone in his New York City apartment. He also talks about an interview he once heard with Japanese jazz pianist Hiromi while he was sitting in a cab.
“She was saying that when she flew into New York the first time she ever came there, for an audition or something, she was in a cab — and I know exactly what she’s talking about here,” Morby says. “You’re at LaGuardia, and you get in a cab, and it’s taking you into Brooklyn and you’re on the BQE, and you can see the skyline, the whole skyline, and it’s so beautiful. And she wrote a solo piano song that’s really beautiful, and she said, 'This song is about being on that highway — like, I’m looking at the city and I don’t have access to it. I might, I’m doing this audition, I could have access to it someday. But there it is, so big before me, and I can’t quite touch it.'”
Hiromi has “BQE,” her ode to her cab ride, a frenetic, virtuosic piece for solo piano; Morby has “Dry Your Eyes,” the center of the album and its sparest piece, featuring just Morby and producer Richard Swift together in Swift’s studio in rural Cottage Grove, Oregon. “Dry Your Eyes” is mostly Morby’s guitar, swathed in thick reverb, colored by light, swooning background vocals. If Dylan was the touchstone on Singing Saw, songs like “Dry Your Eyes” owe a greater debt to the starkness of Lou Reed in his minimalist, blues-copping later years, or Smith herself.
“I go to downtown at dawn/Just to see what's goin’ on there/But there ain’t no one I know/No crowd to be a part of,” Morby sighs with heaving chest. Later in the tune, his guitar slackens, straightens up and veers off again, messy, like a drunk meandering against the sunrise down a deserted street.
Another highlight from City Music is a cover of L.A. punk band The Germs' “Caught in My Eye,” a piece of rock & roll poetry and another selection on Morby’s mixtape. Morby turns The Germs’ vicious, slavering tune into something subdued and thoughtful. Germs frontman Darby Crash’s rage — giving voice to an estrangement of his own — is transmuted into something like a bemused hum. “You’re the fall guy/In the corner of my gloom/It feels like everything I see is/Nothing new,” Morby coos over tidal guitar and softly beating hand drums. A strange, sirenic vocal solo ups the dissociation.
As on “Dry Your Eyes,” everything comes together — the disaffectedness, the contradictory influences and impulses, Morby’s heavy-lidded delivery, the richness of the guitars and the deftness of the arrangement. And over it all hangs the heavy weight of the city. “I wanted it to feel like a fucking sidewalk, a sidewalk slammer,” Morby says of City Music. “I wanted to make songs that felt like you were on a crowded sidewalk, walking fast with your headphones on. I wanted to create that electricity.”
City Music is out June 16 on Dead Oceans. More info and pre-orders available at kevinmorby.com.