Kevin Morby's 'City Music' Is a Love Letter to New York, From Kansas

Kevin Morby's 'City Music' Is a Love Letter to New York, From Kansas
Photo: Adarsha Benjamin
Kevin Morby is an artist with many facets that sometimes compete with each other. Last year's Singing Saw was indebted to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, and presented the former Woods bassist and Babies frontman's songs in sophisticated, elaborate arrangements; his fourth album, City Music (out June 16 on Dead Oceans) is intentionally stark and spare, with a core band of just three people.
Morby, who hails from Kansas, moved from New York to L.A. in 2013, but City Music is a concept album about New York City. "It's a bunch of different stories," Morby tells Exclaim!, "maybe coming together to tell one very broad story, but it's a lot of different intricate stories. I like to think of it as a bird's eye view of a city and all these things are happening, everyone has their thing going on."
Here are five facts to help orient you to the City:
1 Singing Saw and City Music are competing musical siblings, born from the same writing period.
"I started writing Singing Saw right before [writing City Music]. It was like my brain was playing Devil's Advocate with itself and saw what I was doing, like, 'I see that you're writing this album that's very orchestrated, very rootsy and is kind of autobiographical; well, I'm going to write the opposite of that, with a similar theme, but sonically very different and set in a different landscape.' Singing Saw was exactly seeing through my eyes; City Music let me write from somebody else's perspective, somebody living in New York."
2 Morby's use of spoken word was inspired by mixtapes.
City Music incorporates literary references that help locate the songs in NYC: a short vignette about the romance and music of New York at night appears in the video for the title track; Meg Baird reads a passage from Flannery O'Connor novel, The Violent Bear It Away, in which a child mistakes the lights of the city for a fire; and "1234" borrows parts of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died."
"It takes you out of the world of music for a moment and kind of frames it differently, which I really like. That's not really done in a lot of conventional rock bands. It's done a lot in hip-hop — Kendrick Lamar does it a lot. It shapes it as less of 12 songs — suddenly it's morphed, like you're watching a film or something. I like hearing somebody's speaking voice and then hearing music come in after it."
3 Morby considers himself a lyricist, but the title track is all about the guitar.
The lyrics to "City Music" read like the sparsest of Velvet Underground songs, but it's the tumbling guitar riff that keeps you hooked. "That's the first time I've ever done that. It's like [Television's 1977 classic] Marquee Moon or something. I've never had a song where it's more about the music than the lyrics and this is definitely that. It was fun to make the lyrics as a guide to the guitar part — like they're there just to keep the guitar part going."
4 City Music could represent any urban centre but really, it's a New York album.
"I was writing personally about New York, but hoping that anyone can sort of apply it to their situation. When I was listening to the masters, New York is really where it made sense to me. I feel weird saying it's a New York record, because then that excludes the rest of the world and I want those people to enjoy my music, but yes, it's a New York record."
5 His New York album was written in Kansas.
"A lot of what I've written that's made its way onto my records I've written in Kansas, which is interesting, because I've never written about Kansas. But I go have these experiences. and I'll be back at my parents house and it's like I'm in a safe incubator. Everything that I've just picked up can safely come to me there, and I can work on it there. Then when I'm out having the experiences, that's exactly what I'm doing: having the experiences. Then I can later reflect and write."