Published in Relix Magazine, July 25, 2016
When Kevin Morby moved from Kansas City to New York City at the age of 18, he was a high-school dropout who had $600 to his name and knew exactly one person in a metropolis of eight million. And as he tells it nearly a decade later, “It was the most vivid and magical time in my life.” Such is Morby’s world—in which any door could be the right one, so you might as well make a choice, walk on through and see what happens. “The whole thing could’ve gone miserably wrong,” he says, “But it just went incredibly right for me.”
In April, Morby released his third solo album, Singing Saw, on indie label Dead Oceans. The record is a gorgeous collection of meandering, sun-kissed folkrock and loose, frayed rockand-roll. Singing Saw arrives three years after Morby bid farewell to Brooklyn psych-folk collective Woods, and two years after he dropped his sophmore solo album. The new album showcases his light, Leonard Cohen vocals and poetic storytelling; it’s his most purposeful, well-crafted work to date, but no less the product of circumstance, chance and pure surrender.
Morby was in New York for just three days when a new friend invited him to crash and babysit her kid brother. A gig as a bike delivery boy at a restaurant tossed him amid the eatery’s regulars, who would soon form Woods; when the restaurant’s bartender and original band member Christian DeRoeck moved out of the band’s shared house, Morby moved in.
“I was surrounded by this band that was forming. I was 19 and they were all around 29; they seemed so much older than me at the time,” remembers Morby. “One day, [Woods singer Jeremy Earl] asked if I knew how to play bass. I said, ‘No— you guys are a real band, and I can’t even play.’ But after a day or two, I knew I had to join.”
And so Kevin Morby picked up the bass and joined a band that, during the following three years, became one of indie-rock’s most beloved. Besides being barred from many venues until it was time for him to hit the stage—a problem quickly solved with a fake ID—Morby’s new life as a touring musician allowed him to collect new, positive experiences. He formed The Babies with Vivian Girls guitarist Cassie Ramone as a scrappy punk outfit for the two to try out songs not fit for their main bands—and that taste of independence had him wanting more.
“I felt people reacting to my songwriting [in The Babies], and I wanted to start doing it on my own, not at the will of other people,” says Morby. “These two bands were ruling my life; I wanted to set my own rules.”
In 2013, following tours with both Woods and The Babies, Morby decided it was time to try out a solo career. He’d been accumulating unused songs on the road, and he recorded them for that year’s well-received Harlem River. His quick follow-up, 2014’s Still Life, garnered even better reviews and more attention.
Though his solo career took off almost immediately, Morby found that New York had become a burden, and the untethering from his bands mirrored his floating away from the city. In 2014, he moved to the quiet, secluded Los Angeles neighborhood of Mount Washington, where the previous tenants had left an upright piano ready for a new pair of hands.
“I didn’t play piano at all, but I’d always wanted to. So I began to learn,” he says. “I started to write songs immediately on piano; it was exciting to have a new instrument, a completely fresh landscape.”
He was as inspired by his new piano as he was by his new neighborhood, and the songs began to pour out. “It’s a spooky environment there—beautiful but eerie, and that made its way into the music,” says Morby, who has also laid down longterm roots back in Kansas City in recent years. “I started to notice threads between certain songs. I wrote about 25, and some started to feel like a family, like different parts of a story.”
With a batch of new songs in tow, Morby decamped to Woodstock to lay down what would grow into Singing Saw. He partnered with songwriter and producer Sam Cohen (who contributed percussion, guitar, keyboard and bass) and invited friends to flesh out the songs with rich backing vocals, wheezing saxophones, trumpets, strings and—on the title track— an actual singing saw. Drummer Nick Kinsey even brought his friend Marco Benevento to some initial sessions to add backing piano. “He was the most bed-headed, charismatic guy. I didn’t know who he was at the time,” laughs Morby. “He just happens to be one of the most talented contemporary piano players alive. I didn’t realize until later that night— it’s totally ‘a thing’ that he’s playing on my album!”
Singing Saw arrives sounding every bit as organic and free-flowing as the path of its creator. Melodies creep along with dabbled piano and occasionally ragged, cranked-up guitars. The music is lovely but never delicate. Morby waves a torch toward real life tragedy on the punchy, aching “I Have Been to the Mountain,” his ode to Eric Garner, who was killed by an NYPD officer in 2014. “That man lived in this town ‘til that pig took him down,” he sings. “And have you heard the sound of a man stop breathing, pleading?” It’s chilling inside and out, but never forced or heavy-handed.
With the release, Morby is hitting stages across the U.S. and Europe, including festival and club dates, which will surely carry new fans toward him. And whatever’s meant to happen next—well, it will.