Tag Archives: Fiona Apple

The Geography of Kevin Morby

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Kevin Morby isn’t flashy.

He isn’t known for on-stage antics, run-ins with the law, or heroic battles with substance abuse. The 28-year-old singer/songwriter is the kind of performer far more likely to be found writing new songs in his hotel room rather than trashing it in some kind of Dionysian stupor.

Yet, despite his workmanlike approach and matter-of-fact demeanor, Morby’s backstory reads like a page out of the “How To Make It In The Big City” playbook.

He escaped Kansas City at 18, heading to New York by train at the request of the one friend he had there. With little more than a sleeping bag and wide-eyed ideas of making music, Morby made ends meet working short-term jobs from bicycle courier to babysitter.

It didn’t take long before the affable singer was playing bass with Brooklyn folk-rockers Woods and cranking out a couple of albums (as The Babies) with Cassie Ramone of Vivian Girls. But much like the icons that initially inspired him, Morby was destined to carve out a path of his own.

Recorded after a move to L.A., 2013’s Harlem River served both as the young musician’s solo debut and an eight-song homage to his time in the Empire State. He followed it a year later with the 10-song collection Still Life, and just released his third album, Singing Saw, in April.

“I like the metaphor of something that’s beautiful,” Morby says while driving to a recent show in Minneapolis, “but also eerie.”

The first release for indie label Dead Oceans, Singing Saw was again inspired by geography. This time around, musical ideas were sparked by a move to the Northeast Los Angeles neighborhood of Mount Washington.

Nighttime walks – with the expansive city lights as a backdrop – first led Morby to the sparse and otherworldly sounds found on his new record.

Perhaps more than anything, it was an upright piano left behind by previous tenants that helped to shape Singing Saw’s collection of songs. Never working on piano before, Morby was excited by the serendipity that was seemingly directing him to shake up his songwriting process.

“The guitar is my go-to,” he says. “And it’s always been that way. But things get a little boring when you’re writing and recycling the same chords that you always do. To stumble upon an instrument like that opened up this whole new world for me.”

Even as a beginner, Morby found that dealing with basic mechanics again was anything but a hindrance. Things like not realizing what key he was in while on the piano allowed him to forget his own accrued musical prejudices and simply concentrate on sound.

Renewed energy and a creative push weren’t the only benefits the piano brought, either. Working on a new instrument allowed the songwriter to blow off steam in a newfound way.

“It’s really percussive,” says Morby. “I’m a big Fiona Apple fan and I read this interview with her where she said that she liked to write on the piano because she could take out her aggression on it. And it’s true. You can bang it. It’s almost like you’re hitting it. Even now, I write something on guitar and I’ll take it out on the piano. It’s like having two different lives or something.”

Singing Saw’s arrangements were fleshed out by Sam Cohen (Apollo Sunshine, Yellowbirds), who Morby met while playing in a Cohen-led live recreation of The Band’s final performance. Although the two became friends, it wasn’t until he heard one of Cohen’s self-produced solo albums that Morby thought about working with him.

“We had gotten along really well,” he says. “But it was never my intention to record the whole album with Sam. It was more just about testing it out – a ‘hey, let’s get together, record a few songs and see what happens’ kind of thing. But then we got together for four days and it went so well, the album was basically done.”

Morby has since moved from Mount Washington and taken a sublet in Echo Park, but for all practical purposes is on the road for the foreseeable future.

“I’m living in the town of tour,” he says.

But no matter where Morby ends up, the creative shift and expansion of musical arsenal he acquired in the L.A. hills left an indelible mark.

And while he admits that his next project is already close to completion, it will be interesting to see what comes when the singer has a long stretch of nights to just walkabout and absorb his surroundings again.

“I’m always working,” says Morby. “But a big part of this record was the time and space I had from touring. There was a lot of reflecting and being appreciative of music in general. It sounds cheesy, but I really found an appreciation for all instruments and aspects of music. And that’s exciting.”

Originally published in San Diego City Beat

Not So General Mills

Blake Mills isn’t a household name. Yet. But it’s likely this 25-year-old guitar player from Venice Beach will be very soon.

He’ll be in San Diego on Sunday, playing guitar in Fiona Apple’s band at FM 94/9’s Independence Jam in Oceanside. But if things continue to go the way they have, it won’t be long before Mills is headlining major venues across the country on his own. After playing in Dawes with childhood friend Taylor Goldsmith, Mills released his solo debut, Break Mirrors, in 2010. He’s also amassed a more than impressive roster of collaborators along the way, including Cass McCombs, Lucinda Williams, Dangermouse, Rick Rubin, Fiona Apple, Conor Oberst, Julian Casablancas, Jackson Browne and Band of Horses.

And if that wasn’t enough, Eric Clapton just personally invited him to play his Crossroads Benefit.

I recently spoke with the down-to-earth Mills, who was on a tour stop in the Bay Area.

Scott McDonald: How are you?
Blake Mills: I’m very good, man. How are you?

SM: Good. How are things going?
BM: Really good. We just got started back up with some new Fiona dates, so today we’re in San Francisco.

SM: The list of people you’ve either recorded or played with is unbelievable. Is it hard to also try to squeeze your own thing in?
BM: They kind of do come hand-in-hand. Being on the road with amazing people definitely is inspiring when you come back off the road, so it’s this natural sort of balancing act that figures itself out with not too much fuss.

SM: Really, it’s an embarrassment of riches. And time is on your side.
BM: Right. I just hope that when I’m 40, I still do have options.

SM: When you did Break Mirrors, were you already working with all of these other people, or was that album the catalyst for it all?
BM: Well, I had already been going out on tours doing some opening stuff, and I got a little stressed out with that. So I decided to spend a few years going out with other people instead. I continued to write the entire time, but never really had any plans for where the songs would go. And when a little window opened up between tours, I’d do some more writing and little by little I came up with enough material for an album.

SM: On the other hand, it has to be advantageous to just know your role, and be part of the background each night as well.
BM: Absolutely. I do enjoy being out of the spotlight with only needing to react to what someone else is doing. It feels like a natural place to be. But with the solo stuff, it really just seems more like leading a new conversation than striking out on my own. And it’s a lifesaver in that way. I’m not just out there alone.

SM: There are a lot of people out there saying really nice things about you — namely that you’re slated to be “the next big thing.” Does that create any pressure for you?
BM: There’s only pressure if you buy into it. And it’s easy to fall into that. But my career path hasn’t really been designed, and because of that, it’s headed in all kinds of cool directions. I find myself getting so much out of these experiences that I didn’t plan. I like to keep my hands off of it. I love being proven wrong about what’s right for me or what’s best for me. All of my experiences thus far have been really great because I haven’t had to give anything up. I think if I had ambitions to become a household name, I would have to give a lot of things up that I get a lot out of.

SM: Did you start as a kid?
BM: I did. I asked my dad for what seemed like forever to get me a Strat. In ’94 we got Microsoft Encarta on the computer. And every time you opened the computer, it did a year in review. Kurt Cobain had committed suicide and they were highlighting clips of him. I was obsessed with Kurt and Nirvana for a few years, and I bugged and bugged and bugged my dad for a guitar. And when I was about 10, he got me one. I went straight into learning how to play Nirvana, Soundgarden and Metallica songs. That was the goal at first. A friend of my dad’s came over and asked me what I was listening to, so I put on [Weezer’s] Pinkerton. He was like, “Ok. Yeah. That chord progression: 1, 5, 6, 4.” He explained to me how the chords had numbers and you could pick them out without having an instrument around. And it was then that this magic art was illuminated for me. And I knew that I had to find out how to do that. I don’t know if I took it more seriously, or it was just fascinating to me, but it became my everything, all the time, and it still is.

SM: How was it having Eric Clapton call you to do the Crossroads gig?
BM: Oh, man. It was pretty heavy. I was about to go out on the first leg with Fiona, and my dad was having some health complications. I got this letter in the mail from Clapton, and it was the invitation. I went to see my dad in the hospital and I shared it with him. He was pretty moved by it, because Clapton was the very first concert he ever brought me to in Scottsdale, Ariz. The thing I remembered about it was his Stratocaster and the cool paint job it had on it. Anyway, so I wrote him back asking things like, “How did you find me?” and “Are you sure you have the right person?” [laughs] He said yes and that he’d heard me play some slide on a Dixie Chicks song that ended up on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy but that he thought it was Derek Trucks at first. And if there’s any guitar player out there, for me, it’s Derek. So he calls Derek to say how much he liked it, and Derek tells him that it’s not him, it was me. So it was one thing for Clapton to be aware, but then to know that Derek was aware — that really messed me up a bit. That pressure you were talking about earlier is dwarfed by the pressure from knowing that now both of those guys are aware and watching what you’re doing. That’s a different arena.

SM: That’s crazy for any musician, but for a guitar player …
BM: I know. It’s mindblowing. And just to be a fly on the wall for some of these conversations that I’ve managed to finagle my way into …

SM: It seems like a lot.
BM: It’s a pinch-yourself kind of thing. I don’t want to take advantage of any situation in the proximity, but I also don’t want to take any of it for granted. I want to make sure that I glean all of the rock & roll wisdom I can. It’s so precious.

SM: What’s next?
BM: Well, I know that I’ll make another record. Not sure when, but it’s something I’m going to do. I also really want to do some more work with Cass McCombs. But mostly, I just want to keep with the momentum I already have going and see what happens.

Originally published by NBC San Diego on September 16,2012

The Burning of Rome is on FIRE

Things are really looking up for Oceanside-bred outfit The Burning of Rome. The wildly eclectic ensemble was just voted Best Alternative Act at the San Diego Music Awards, and the band’s highly anticipated debut, “With Us,” drops Sept. 18, courtesy of Encinitas label Surfdog Records. Frontman and bandleader Adam Traub now lives in Los Angeles, but after a handful of years wowing audiences in America’s Finest City, things are finally starting to pay off.

“This band started as a recording project,” Traub said from his car as he made his way from San Diego to L.A. recently. “I was showing it to a lot of my friends and really wanted to make it happen live. And this generation of the band is actually the second one. There was a bit of a cycling process until I finally settled on the current lineup. And thank God I did, because they’re perfect.”

It was guitarist Joe Aguilar, keyboardist Aimee Jacobs and drummer Lee Williams who helped Traub release a few independent demo CDs, one of which finally caught the attention of multiple labels. And to the band members’ surprise, it not only got them signed, but it gave them options.

“This is the full-fledged effort of everyone in the band,” Traub said. “We kind of had our pick of the litter as far as people to work with. That’s something I never dreamed could have happened. And it ended up with us working with a producer that I have an intense amount of respect for. It was a situation when all of the cards fell into place at the same time. It’s just been incredible.”

The label the band chose was locally run Surfdog Records, and the producer was one-time Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith collaborator Tom Biller. But those choices were informed far more by what was going to happen in the future, instead of what had been accomplished in the past.

“Surfdog fully embraces what the band does,” Traub said. “And they want to do nothing but see us perpetuate it. And I dig that. They’ve never shunned the idea of us being weird, or trying strange things, or our theatrics, or any bizarre idea we’ve had for videos or photo shoots. They’ve always embraced it, and that, to me, is pretty awesome.”

And while the band’s onstage penchant for costumes and props is as diverse as their multitude of divergent musical influences, Traub insists that it’s anything but shtick.

“I never wanted to hit ‘record’ and try to be as quirky as possible,” he said. “It’s been more of a natural process. I love theater and musicals. I grew up on them. But there are times when we try to incorporate it more, and times when we try to pull away because we don’t want to be pigeonholed. But I still love it. I want people to be taken out of their element to a completely different world when they listen. That was the goal of the record. ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ did that for me. I’m not trying to make it complicated or weird. To me, it just makes sense.”

Not everyone will think a band dressed like the solar system playing the glockenspiel over punk rock and white noise makes sense, but it’s hard to deny the entertainment value. And that’s not the point anyway. The band never wants to become predictable or cliche. That’s why the members switch it up, and many times, wear normal clothes and leave the maternity mannequins at home.

“David Bowie wasn’t always ‘Ziggy Stardust’ onstage,” Traub said. “Every now and then, he took the makeup off so people would just listen to him and fall in love with the music, not the theatrics.”

The Burning of Rome presents its vision Sept. 15 at a San Diego Music Thing showcase at Eleven in San Diego. The band plans to keep the focus on music, but Traub doesn’t see a time when costumes, theatrics or an overarching theme to the presentation isn’t welcomed with open arms.

“We want to conceptualize things,” he said. “I want people to be in a different world. The goal of the album is to put people on a different planet. I want to release literature and all kinds of other tidbits with it, so all of it will pull you down the rabbit hole. We’re even trying to synchronize animations from our videos with our live set. We want the outside elements to combine with the music to send a cohesive message out there to people.”

Originally published in the North County Times on September 14, 2012