From Midwestern traumas to New York, LA and acclaim
By the time Morby’s second album, Still Life, was released in autumn 2014, he and Justin Sullivan had left their beloved New York for Los Angeles, like many musicians and artists forced out of Williamsburg by rising rents and closing venues.
“It’s weird when 80 per cent of everything you loved about a place went away,” laments Morby, “and the remaining 20 per cent could go away at any minute. It’s a very strange sensation.”
“We all felt weird because it was weird,” says Sullivan. “There was an insane amount of foreign capital being poured into the city. We were living in this neighbourhood that was known globally as a place to potentially park money. And LA was new – recording Harlem River there, there was this feeling of, ‘Oh, people here are talking about what music they’re working on, whereas in New York people are talking about what has changed for the worse.’”
Morby set up home in Mount Washington, which he describes as “its own little, secluded, sleepy neighbourhood – it’s a very special place.” The city is now packed with artists from New York and San Francisco, forced out by rent increases.
“The other night I was out to eat with Ty [Segall] and Kyle [Thomas, aka King Tuff],” he says. “We were talking about the current scene, about all these different people that we know, and what we like and what we don’t like. There was a funny moment where I thought we looked like these old people gabbing about the others in the retirement community.
“It’s really beautiful around Mount Washington. Kyle and I do a walk a night. There’s a lot of coyotes – not long ago, seven of them walked right in front of us. They’re supposed to be afraid of you, but you never know: people get bitten every once in a while. You hear the coyotes in the distance a lot, which is always a weird thing, because that means that they’ve killed something.”
Secluded in the floral surroundings of Mount Washington, Morby set to work writing a new set of songs in early 2015 – the result was the colourful, expansive Singing Saw, recorded by Morby and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cohen in Woodstock. The Bob Johnston to Morby’s Dylan or Leonard, Sam Cohen was given free reign to conjure up all manner of strange arrangements featuring backing singers, mariachi horns, drum machines and distorted guitars threaded subtly through the bedrock of acoustic guitars and pianos.
“To stay engaged in your work, it’s nice to have someone around to surprise you,” says Cohen of the role Morby encouraged him to play in the studio. “And those surprises are what makes a record fun and exciting instead of painting by numbers.”
At the same time as Morby was writing Singing Saw, however, he was working on the songs that would become City Music. Ensconced in his Mount Washington hideaway, he began to think about real recluses. “I was in the most rural situation I’ve ever been in, and I was like, ‘I wanna write this other record, I want it thematically to come from the complete opposite, but a very similar place. So I want the landscape to be New York, but still about someone who’s reclusive, then sonically I’ll make it sound like my favourite bands from New York, so it’ll be this all-encompassing New York thing.’”
Recording for City Music began in October 2015 with a week at Panoramic Studios in the idyllic Stinson Beach, California, where Morby, Sullivan and long-time guitarist Meg Duffy tracked the songs live in a week. After promotion for Singing Saw ended, Morby finished the album in October 2016 with producer Richard Swift. “When I first got the mixes,” Morby remembers, “I was into them, but then I listened to them on the subway in New York – the first time I went to New York after that – and I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m proud of myself, this really fits the New York landscape.’ I wanted that energy, that hecticness. It’s a sidewalk record, like you’re walking on the sidewalk and you’re stressed out.”
That tension manifests itself in some of Morby’s loudest recordings as a solo artist, from the Breeders chug of the sour “Crybaby” to the sub-two-minute Ramones thrash of “1234”.
“Some of the songwriting on City Music reminds me of The Babies,” he adds. “There are fans who are like, ‘Oh, I like your solo stuff, but I’m a big fan of The Babies’, and I feel like this record is for them. Even while I was making Singing Saw, I was thinking I want to exercise the other part of my brain, which is more rock’n’roll-oriented. So it was like a yin-yang.”
Other cuts, such as the loose, Silver Jews-style title track and the simmering “Caught In My Eye”, are less immediate, but substantially deeper, while a suite of quieter songs, including “Tin Can”, “Dry Your Eyes”, “Night Time” and the luminous opener “Come To Me Now”, are written from the point of view of a reclusive older woman cooped up in an uptown Manhattan apartment; an ambitious strategy for a young male writer living in Los Angeles.
“I approached it as if I was writing a short story,” he explains. “I read an article in The New York Times called ‘The Lonely Death Of George Bell’. He was this recluse who lived in Queens, and his body was discovered days after he died. He had some friends at the local bars, but then one day he just stopped going out. That became really interesting to me, thinking about how you’re not really judged for being a recluse if you live in the middle of nowhere, but if that happens in a city, people are like, ‘What’s wrong this person?’”
These fictional ruminations mingle with Morby’s own recollections of his time in New York, though, with his old friend Ezra mentioned in the circular, country-tinged “Night Time”. “There’s a line where I say, ‘I thought that I saw Ezra sitting on some steps.’ I wanted to incorporate literal figures from my life, have them be a part of it, too.”