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