Kevin Morby. Photo by Johnny Eastlund. All photos courtesy of the artist.
Kevin Morby is the epitome of a kind midwestern soul, a quality that is particularly present in his most recent release, Sundowner. As I listened to the album while lying in the backyard of my Chicago apartment, I felt washed over with nostalgia for what it means to have grown up here. Although Morby’s experiences living in big cities like New York and Los Angeles can be heard in his previous albums, all of his music carries a subtle wind-whistled longing for the Midwest horizon. After moving from LA back to the suburbs of Kansas City where he grew up, Morby has found an appreciation for his hometown as if he’s seeing it with new eyes.
During our conversation
in June, Morby explained
that “a new place is a blank canvas for me to build a world.” The world of Sundowner was built with a quieter, stripped-down sound—like a friend sharing their favorite stories by the fire. A Night at the Little Los Angeles, the four-track demo version of Sundowner that will be released later this year, takes us further into a tide of vulnerability and lets the true essence of Morby’s music wrap its arms around you. After speaking with him, I felt a renewed wonder for the beauty of small details, and Morby’s song “Don’t Underestimate the Midwest American Sun” is a mantra I will carry with me.
Kevin MorbyHi, nice to meet you!
JSI’m opening a bottle of wine for the occasion.
KMBeautiful. It’s funny, I was supposed to be at Liam Kazar’s pop-up show in Kansas City tonight, but I hurt my back playing tennis with him a few days ago—to be honest, I got hurt while I was stretching. Anyway, how are you?
JSI’m just finishing up my workday, and now I get to talk to you, so I feel good.
KMWhat’s your day job?
JSWhen I’m not making music with my band Tenci, I work as a graphic designer.
KMI envy people who can do graphic design. When I’m working on a new album, I obsess over what’s going to be on the cover. It’s a big part of my process, but I can only make embarrassing, horrible mock-ups on my phone. They look like shit. For the cover of Sundowner, I sent a stick figure mock-up to the photographer, and I was like, That’s me.
JSThat album cover was so cinematic.
KMI’m working on my seventh record now, and my second album [Still Life] is the only one where I’m not on the cover—which I sort of regret. I like the documentation of what I looked like at different times in my life.
JSI like seeing how artists’ looks have changed over time. The album cover for Tenci’s My Heart Is an Open Field is just a picture of me, but for our next album I think I’m going to have a little kid’s drawing, like the one behind me that my friend’s niece made.
KMOh, I love that. It reminds me of a drawing I have by the late great David Berman. It’s a very simple drawing, and it says, “It is almost tomorrow. It is always almost tomorrow.” I bought the drawing a week before Berman died, and it became so ominous. I almost felt guilty. I also have two Daniel Johnston pieces my friend bought for me. They were in the mail when Johnston died. No one send me any more art!
JSDaniel Johnston’s illustration style is the look I would go for. Pen on white paper.
KMI think that’s a great idea. I’m old friends with Tony Presley [the cofounder of Keeled Scales, Tenci’s label], and he sent me your record. Tony and I played shows together when I was sixteen or seventeen. I’m thirty-three now. For some of those older shows, we were literally playing to my two friends who we’d picked up at the Greyhound station. I remember one time we got to our venue, and there was a sign on the door saying the show wasn’t happening. So, we just set up and played in front of the door. Anyway, I love your music, and My Heart Is an Open Field was probably the album I listened to the most last year.
JSThank you. It’s my pride and joy. We’re writing another album, but I don’t know when it will come out. And you’re working on a new record too, right?
KMYeah. I usually have two albums in my back pocket, but right now I only have one.
JSHow do you bust them out so fast?
KMIt’s usually this cycle where one album influences the other. I’ll make a record with such a distinct concept or motif that it makes me want to do the opposite for the next one. Singing Saw was about LA, and it made me want to make City Music, a record that was sonically the opposite and took place in New York. And then Oh My God was such a big, expansive thing that it made me want to do a record just by myself. What I’m working on now is kind of a mixture of everything that I’ve done before, but there really isn’t an opposite to that.
JSYou recently moved back to Kansas City, right?
KMSort of. I bought this house in 2015, and a friend of mine lived in it for a couple of years. I moved in 2017, but I didn’t spend much time here because I was always on the road. At the beginning of 2020, my girlfriend [Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee] and I were thinking about getting an apartment in LA to be closer to friends, but then the pandemic happened. We’re very grateful for this place now. It’s the most I’ve ever put down roots, and I feel like I’m a full-blown Kansan now.
JSDid you grow up in Kansas?
KMI grew up in Texas, Oklahoma, and here.
JSI’m from the suburbs of Chicago, so I’m a midwesterner too. I don’t think I’m ever going back to the suburbs, but you never know.
KMEvery day I wake up here I’m like, I can’t believe I live in the suburbs of Kansas City. Growing up, I tried so hard to escape. But the nice thing about getting older is that you start seeing things in a new way. I lived in the most expensive cities while I was the brokest I’ve ever been. Then the moment I started to make some money, I wanted to live where it’s affordable, and where I’ll have something to show for all this work I’ve been doing. I’m glad I’m not from somewhere that’s far from everything else. Kansas City is about a two-and-a-half-hour flight from anywhere in the US, or you could drive to the coasts in a few days.
JSThe main reason I like living in Chicago and the Midwest is because the idea of moving to the coasts makes me worry about natural disasters and climate change. I feel safe here in my little bubble.
KMThe Midwest is sturdy. Chicago is my favorite place to play on tour. The biggest shows are always going to be in New York, Chicago, and LA. In New York and LA, all these industry people come out to your shows. But Chicago is a big city where you can get everything you want, you can eat anything you want, you can do whatever you want, and there’s going to be a lot of people at the show, but you won’t have that music industry vibe to it.
JSHow do you think the Midwest has affected you as a songwriter?
KMThe Midwest, specifically my family’s Kansas City suburb, was so incredibly boring when I was growing up. But it was that lack of culture that made me want to escape mentally and drew me toward books and films and music. When I turned eighteen and legally became an adult, I was finally able to witness and feel things on my own, so I totally did that. I moved to New York City, where I was excited by everything. I had sushi for the first time. If I was from a more exciting place, I might not have had such a desire to escape and feed that hunger for culture.
JSI totally relate to that. I was so bored. Being able to write songs and escape into this different, creative world was an outlet for me. To that point, I know a lot of your albums are connected to the environment you’re writing from. Do you have an ideal songwriting environment?
KMFor me, the ideal songwriting environment is just somewhere new. It can be anywhere and a good or bad experience—if it’s a new experience, it will spark creativity for me. When you’re out and about, you can take in the world and songs sort of find you. I write a lot when I’m on the road and fully immersed in music. Even though I’m playing older songs, there are still moments in hotel rooms or in the van or backstage or during soundcheck when I can create something new. A new place is a blank canvas for me to build a world. What about you?
JSI need stimulation. For me, simple things are stimulating, like nature, camping, or sitting outside and letting my mind wander—even just riding the bus. I’ve written so many songs after sitting on the bus for forty-five minutes. During the pandemic, I had all this time to write, but it was so hard for me. More time doesn’t necessarily equate to more songs. Chicago just started opening up, and I’ve been able to go on the bus again and take more walks and see more people, and the songs have started pouring out.
KMI think I’ve written or finished more than half of my songs on airplanes. There’s something to being locked inside of this vessel that’s moving but you’re essentially nowhere. You always hear stories about an author or someone who came up with an idea at their day job. When you’re a creative person and you’re being forced to not be creative, it makes you want to fight for that creativity even more. You come up with better ideas. Being in those strange, restrictive environments can be really productive for the creative parts of your brain.
Kevin Morby. Photo by Johnny Eastlund.
JSI know this is a very common question, but I’m interested in what type of music listened to growing up, and whether your parents influenced any of that.
KMThis feels related to what I said about getting older, returning home, and seeing things with new eyes. When I first started doing interviews as a musician, I used to say that my parents didn’t influence my musical tastes in any way. Now that I’m older, I realize that my mom was always listening to Bruce Springsteen, Michael Bolton, and Rod Stewart, and I can recognize that her taste in music was very influential. Also, my dad was obsessed with this movie called Eddie and the Cruisers. It’s basically a movie about Bruce Springsteen that was made without the actual rights to his story. It’s hilarious. But I think my biggest influence growing up was ’90s Top 40 radio that my older sister listened to a lot. That was a steady diet of Everclear and The Wallflowers or whoever else was on the radio. A lot of ’90s music had pretty bad production, but I think the songwriting was actually very strong.
JSEvery time I ask another musician the same question, they’re like, My parents listened to John Prine and Bob Dylan. I’m always like, What the fuck? That’s not fair.
KMI hate when I hear musicians say stuff like that. When a cool songwriter tells you their parents had a crazy record collection it feels like they’re cheating.
JSThe band I remember my mom listening to the most was ABBA, which was great because they’re amazing, but she also listened to the Top 40. My dad’s side of the family is Puerto Rican, and I just remember Puerto Rican music and bachata being the background of my childhood, falling asleep at family parties while the adults were dancing.
JSMy grandpa lives in Puerto Rico, and when he has parties with his friends, they sing songs. And my grandma on my mom’s side loves to sing. But besides that, my family is not very musical.
KMI think it’s good to have to work to become a person with cool taste. Now, a Spotify playlist will tell you the best songs ever written, and then suddenly you’re a genius. Like what you said about your family and the little things that you picked up, whenever I would go to my grandma’s house in Nebraska, she would always be playing the organ. I have a pump organ now, but that seed had probably been planted a long time ago, unbeknownst to me.
JSThe other day, someone asked me how I got into country and folk music. And I was like, I don’t know. I just started listening to it.
KMThe universe presented it for
you somewhere along the way. You know when someone asks you to name your top ten favorite records or movies, like gun to your head? I can always think of seven cool, arty things that take patience to appreciate, but then the rest will be weird choices, like Dumb and Dumber. And to that point, I’d have to put Dookie by Green Day in my list of top ten favorite records because of how formative it was to me and how it holds up over twenty-five years later. So much of the other
music from that time, like Blink-182,
is just garbage. But Dookie is one of
those records, like Nevermind, where the production doesn’t even sound dated. It just sounds great, and it
JSI don’t have any cool answers when people ask me that question either. My favorite movie is Coneheads. I think that movie fucking rules. I will watch it quarterly.
KMFuck yeah. Same with Dumb and Dumber for me. Dumb and Dumber is literally a perfect film—every scene is funny.
JSIt just brings me so much joy, what else does there need to be? I listened to such shitty music growing up. We would listen to my uncle’s Blue October CD on repeat. And I listened to so much emo and sad boy music, like Manchester Orchestra and My Chemical Romance. Do you remember scene kids? The hair and the heavy bangs and stuff, that was me.
KMI had a phase with all that stuff too. Emo music is so insane when you listen to it now. It’s just a bunch of guys and their hatred of the girl who doesn’t like them. It’s so violent and weird, but when I was in high school, emo was huge.
JSThat was my bread and butter. I would be on the school bus listening to the saddest music ever; like, I need to hammer this in a little more.
I have to throw this in there too: Blink-182 was the first concert I ever went to. Panic! at the Disco opened for them. It was a sick show. So good.
KMMy first show was No Doubt. The openers were Black Eyed Peas. My sister won tickets off the radio, which felt very 1950s. The show was in an amphitheater in Kansas, and the sun was beating down on them. They looked miserable out there. I was in sixth grade, and Gwen Stefani was so cool. I remember she kept saying “motherfucker,” and I was like, Oh my god, she’s cussing a lot.
JSI’m glad to know that you also listened to shitty pop-punk and emo music.
KMMy phase with it was brief, but it was a big part of my life. I remember discovering Neil Young, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, and Nico, and thinking: These are the best musicians to have ever lived. I’ll never be able to make music like that because this was done in some magical, black-and-white time when these larger-than-life stories could take place. But then, in the early 2000s, around my sophomore year of high school, I got really into The Microphones, The Mountain Goats, Joanna Newsom, and Kimya Dawson. They seemed like contemporary versions of those earlier musicians in the way that their music was still rough around the edges. That chaos really spoke to me and made me want to be a songwriter.
JSI had a similar experience. I got obsessed with Iron & Wine, Sufjan Stevens, and Kimya Dawson. I guess that music is still kind of emo.
KMIt is in a way, but there was an intelligence and maturity to it that
isn’t in emo. Kimya Dawson’s lyrics
are incredible. She’s amazing. In a roundabout way, your music reminds me of Joanna Newsom’s. When I listen to Joanna Newsom, I’m listening to somebody who’s playing by their own rules and building their own world. And it’s the same with your music. When I first heard it I was like, where are these sounds coming from? What’s the structure of this song?
JSThat’s a huge compliment because she’s an incredible musician.
KMI don’t think of that era of music as old, but some of those albums have been out for twenty years. The other day someone told me that high school kids today think about Arcade Fire the same way I thought about The Cure when I was in high school. That blew my mind.
JSMy little sister is fourteen and she sends me playlists that she’s made. There will be an Arctic Monkeys track, and she’ll be like, Look at this vintage song I put on here. All these songs from the 2000s are resurfacing on TikTok, as if Gen Z is discovering something profound, even when it’s just shitty 2000s music.
KMIt’s very strange. It’s amazing we can still see Bob Dylan or Paul McCartney live. We’re able to touch greatness in a way.
JSThat makes me wonder who our historical figures are going to be. Instead of bigger figures carving the path, we have millions of these fragments now. And putting out a single seems to be more effective than putting out a whole album. That just doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t sound fun. I feel like the music world
is so saturated.
KMSo saturated. And so crowded. There are a million different slivers of culture, and everything is splintered.
In my mind, the most popular famous artist on earth is someone like Kendrick Lamar. But a teacher I met at a dinner party recently told me her students think of Kendrick Lamar as this old man who’s too political. They like SoundCloud rappers who sing through autotune about partying.
JSMy little sister listens to these TikTok e-boys who release music that’s clearly autotuned and one-dimensional in my opinion. Maybe it’s more digestible.
KMI think there’s something undeniably better about the human touch in creating music or art in general. I understand that a person can’t build a car as well as a machine can, but when it comes to music—a MIDI violin versus someone actually playing the violin? We need that human touch. That’s why people like live music. That’s why live music will never go away. When you’re playing live, even if you’ve been performing the same songs night after night, it’s as if you’re playing every song for the first time ever. They’re going to be different somehow.
JSDo you remember when there were holograms in live shows, like the Tupac hologram at Coachella in 2012? That trend went away, but I wonder if it will come back.
KMI like to be optimistic and hope that art and music will always have a purpose on this earth. Or maybe in 2050, when I tell people I saw Bob Dylan perform back when he was alive, they’ll say Bob Dylan is still alive—they just made a new one.
JSOh my god. That makes me want to throw up.
Let’s talk about your album Sundowner and the demo version, A Night at the Little Los Angeles, that you’re releasing later this year. The demo of “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun” made me very emotional. It brought tears to my eyes. And the piano in it reminds me of the Éthiopiques.
KMI’m really glad you said that. The Éthiopiques and Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou’s style of piano playing is such a huge influence on me. The demo of “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun” is the song that I’m most self-conscious about. My voice is all over the place, the structure is very loose, and it feels so naked and vulnerable. There is a line I sing at the end that isn’t in the studio album: “I will die for you, I will die.” It feels a little too cheesy, but it was something I was feeling at the time. I made a lot of the demos late at night, and I didn’t think anyone would hear them in a million years. That is a specifically vulnerable demo for me to have out in the world, but I’m excited about it.
JSI can sense the vulnerability, and that’s why I connected with it so deeply. It reminds me of the latest Arthur Russell release, Iowa Dream. It’s very free flowing. Some of your demos are only thirty seconds long. What happened there? Did you just stop the four-track?
KMI must have stopped the tape and recorded over it—some of the demos got eaten up by other songs. But I love that stuff. Hearing moments of imperfection from artists is my favorite thing in the world. For so long, Jandek’s record You Walk Alone has been my compass for making imperfect music. Do you know about Jandek?
JSNo. Who is that?
KMJandek is this reclusive musician from Houston who has put out more than 100 records or something since the late ’70s and didn’t start playing live until about fifteen years ago. People who had been following his weird, bizarre career were so excited about it. A lot of his records are too dark and unlistenable, but his album You Walk Alone sounds like a more fucked-up version of The Velvet Underground. In terms of home recording and achingly beautiful, imperfect music, to me, You Walk Alone is number one. The cover has this strange photo of Jandek where he almost looks like a ghost, and I modeled the cover of my first album, Harlem River, after it.
JSWhat made you want to release these demos as opposed to others?
KMI think because I’m proud of the quality of them. Even though they’re very rough around the edges, I captured a feeling I was after that I’m proud of. Also, Sundowner is just a very different type of album for me, a very intimate one, and nothing feels more intimate than the demos, so I wanted to share that. I’ve always thought that Sundowner is for the heads, and A Night at the Little Los Angeles can be for the headiest of heads.
JSIn your song “Campfire,” there’s a part that goes “Stay calm, stay calm, and give me your palm / Give me your palm, and I’ll sing you a song.” To me, it felt like you were talking about ways to find soothing. Aside from songwriting, what do you do to soothe yourself?
KMI usually turn to music when I need something therapeutic, but there are other things that I use to calm my brain. I started running a couple of years ago, that became a big thing for me. I also paint. Around the end of 2016, I was having a lot of trouble on tour. I was doing that classic thing where you drink too much and feel like shit, and then you go back to alcohol to make yourself feel better. I know this sounds hilarious, but when I played in Iceland, I visited a spa and then got really into spa culture. Over there, spa culture is everywhere. The way people here go to public swimming pools in the summer, people in Iceland go to hot baths and do all these incredible things for their bodies.
JSSpa culture? That’s not what I was expecting.
KM(laughter) I want to own a spa someday. When you get super into spa culture, it makes touring really fun. There’s always someone in my band who’ll want to go big with me at the spas. Spas are the healthiest way to get fucked up. There’s a co-ed spa right outside the Brussels airport. A lot of it is outdoors and nude. There’s a garden and a pool, and people are just walking around naked. I’m super jetlagged every time I go, and it feels like a crazy, crazy dream.
JSThere’s a recurring theme of higher beings in Sundowner and in some of your other albums. It’s not only God specifically, but also angels, halos, and prayers—or just the midwestern sky. What keeps drawing you to those concepts?
KMI consider myself a spiritual person but not a religious person. I think being alive can be as magical or as nonmagical as you want it to be. If you make the conscious choice to see the world as a magical place, everything will blow your mind after that. To see other animals is insane. To have language is insane. To hear music,
to taste food—I think of all those
experiences as spiritual. My spirituality is tied to my fascination with being alive in the world—the best parts of it and the horrible parts too.
JSWow, that’s beautiful. I feel that.
Okay, last question: Do you want to go on tour with Tenci?
KMAbsolutely! I talk about this all the time.
JSYay! We’re going to have to write this down.
KMPut it on the record. We’ll make it happen next year.