Back in the Midwest, years before he set foot in New York, the teenage Kevin Morby grew up obsessed with the Big Apple’s musical exports, such as Nico, the Ramones and Leonard Cohen. A fellow Midwestern boy, from 600 miles northeast of Kansas, was his most important mentor, though.
“When you’re young and you get into music,” says Morby, “and you discover Bob Dylan and you hear that he’s from not too far from where you’re from, you’re like, ‘Ah, the world is full of possibilities.’ Watching early footage of him in New York as a solo artist was really influential to me. From 16 to 18, I wanted to be just like him, and smoke cigarettes and wear sunglasses.” He laughs. “And I did it, look at me now!”
As he reached adolescence, Morby started experiencing panic attacks, and after what he describes as a “two-minute” consultation, his doctor recommended he start taking antidepressants. Prescribed with Xanax, Ritalin, sleeping pills and more for years, the teenager found his emotions squeezed down to a tiny spectrum. “I’m sure some people do need those mood-stabilisers,” he explains, “but I don’t think it was what I needed at all. But my poor parents, this person’s telling them that I needed it. It’s crazy.”
At 16, after falling in love, he decided he didn’t want to feel numb any more and came off this cocktail of drugs in one go. Today, Morby deals with his anxiety without meds, and is adamant that art helps him more than prescription drugs ever did. “After taking that much Xanax, I think I have an aversion to drugs, especially synthetic ones. Going cold turkey, I did have a little freak-out, but after a couple of weeks it was fine. I got into exercise, I became vegan, I got really into punk and I got my first girlfriend. It was great.”
Though still obsessed with Dylan, Morby became deeply involved in Kansas City’s punk and DIY scene as he reached his late teens, playing acoustically alongside an eclectic set of other groups, all brought together by the remoteness of the city.\
“That’s what great about being an artist in the Midwest – there’s not much going on or coming through your town, so you make your own fun. Genres didn’t exist, and everyone got along on the common ground of, ‘We’re creative people in this uncreative town, so let’s take over.’ All the shows were in basements, or warehouses or art galleries. So by the time I got to New York, it just seemed like a way bigger version of Kansas City. I felt really at home there.”
Then aged 19, Morby quickly settled into New York’s own DIY scene, then centred in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district. He delivered fried chicken to make ends meet, and fell on his feet when he moved in with a new friend, Ezra. “I ended up living with her and her family,” he says. “That was like my first introduction to New York – I lived in a brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. Really amazing.”
Connecting with Jeremy Earls, a songwriter 10 years his senior, Morby joined Earls’ band Woods as their bassist in 2009. With the capable Earls in charge of songwriting, Morby was left free to experiment with his own material. “Jeremy was always so influential to me,” he says. “How he views art and music is so rare. It makes me wanna cry talking about it… Jeremy’s so true, he’ll never compromise anything he does.”
“When Kevin joined Woods,” remembers Earls, “we were still very into home recording, so either me or Jarvis [Tavaniere] would record the basslines, and then just teach them to Kevin. [But] he’s got a big personality – I always knew he was gonna be off doing his own thing.”
Sometimes Morby would hear Earls’ new songs, and head to his room to write and record in a fit of inspiration. “I’d immediately listen back and be like, ‘This is horrible!’” he laughs. “It wasn’t until I was in The Babies that I had the comfort of a collaborative band to let my songwriting grow. I wasn’t brave enough to enter that territory.”
Without The Babies, a garage-rock group formed by Morby, Vivian Girls guitarist Cassie Ramone and drummer Justin Sullivan, there would likely be no Morby as a solo artist. Their first album – 2011’s The Babies – was loud and feral, but its follow-up, Our House On The Hill (2012), showcased some more delicate, nuanced cuts.
“The first time I played with him, he played a song he’d written, and I thought it was a cover song,” says Sullivan. “So I knew he was really talented, but it was cool to watch it grow. I think he always wanted to pursue that singer-songwriter style, but with ‘Wandering’, on Our House On The Hill, I was like, ‘That is some cool shit.’ That was the bridge to us getting ready to record Harlem River.”
The Babies went on hiatus after Our House On The Hill was released on Earls’ own Woodsist label in 2012, and Morby left Woods to work on his debut solo album. Harlem River. Written in New York but recorded in Los Angeles, it was a gorgeously out-of-place set of eight songs, featuring contributions from Tim Presley and Cate Le Bon; its hypnotic, nine-minute title track found Morby calling out to the waterway that separates Manhattan and the Bronx, paying tribute to The Velvet Underground’s “Heroin” (“I don’t know just where I’m going”) and spinning out elliptical, Cohen-esque verse (“In my pearl and my diamond shoes/I’ve climbed the cloud that will store the moon”).
Mor by writes quickly, often while lying down, and explains that he trusts his subconscious to come up with lyrics as he plays through a chord sequence. “Writing should be easy, you know? It shouldn’t be something you think about too much. I have to be as relaxed as possible – maybe if I’ve just woken up. That’s when something can just float by me and I’ll use my tools to reach out and grab it. I wrote a whole Babies album, and my first two solo albums, on an old Yamaha nylon-string guitar. It had four strings on that whole time – no E strings!”
“He definitely thinks about his songs in groups,” says producer and collaborator Sam Cohen. “That’s a big part of where his vision lies, in the collections of songs. And he’s one of the most prolific songwriters I’ve worked with as well.”