The album begins with the title track, and after a brief word of encouragement from co-producer Sam Cohen, Morby begins. We get ragtime piano, heavy chords, and church choir backing vocals. Immediately, this is something new. Morby’s always been a fantastic songwriter, but this is something big, something different. When we ask the guitarist about these heightened goals, his answer is simple: “We wanted this one to feature music that could fit inside of a cathedral.”
Even though Morby isn’t religious, he’s fascinated by the way it shapes our lives. As a young Midwesterner, he witnessed it all around him. Whether he’s a believer or not is far from the point. This is the world he’s grown up with and it constantly invades his vernacular. Whether intentionally or not, Morby conflates politics with religion and, as such, this record is interested in the world we live in. But, Oh My God is more ambitious than its era. It’s an album for all-time, not just 2019. When Morby turns this world inward, Oh My God is at its best. Kevin Morby is a growing spirit, a disciple for the Godless. And yet, there’s something here for everyone. Morby is confident without becoming preachy, questioning without being faithless. It’s a tightrope and Morby’s learned how to cross it blindfolded. I wonder what his next trick will be.
VMP: Are you back home in Kansas City?
Kevin Morby: Yeah, I just got in last night. Before that I was in New York, L.A., San Francisco, and Europe. I’ve been on a press trip for a while.
What’s that time like between finishing the album and waiting for it to be released?
It’s excitement and nervousness. To be honest, it’s my least favorite part of the process because it’s the least creative part of it. It’s talking about what I’ve done and what I’m about to do. I’d rather be working on it or doing it.
You don’t strike me as someone who loves to talk about themselves or their music, either.
That’s fair. I’m down to talk about it, but… yeah, it’s fair.
Did the album concept come from an individual song? Or was it all pretty dialed in when you began working on the record?
In 2016 I wrote a song called “Beautiful Strangers.” It was a political song that had to do with a lot of current events at the time. The sentiment still rings true and not much has changed since then, though. In the song there’s this mantra, this phrasing, where I start to say, “Oh my God.” I put that song out shortly after writing it and I made it available for charity because of all the current events I cited; it felt wrong to profit from something like that. That planted the seed, the first time I had this “Oh my God” thread happen in my music. From there, I started writing songs and I noticed that it kept on popping up here and there. Eventually, I had the blueprint for what became the record. When I noticed that what I was working on was a cohesive body, I began to fill in the gaps from there.
It’s interesting that “Beautiful Strangers” planted that seed because on this album, I think you turn the sentiment inwards.
I think it’s political in its own right. Politics have been really crazy so it’s hard not to write about politics. There was a moment when a lot of the subject matter on this album was very specific in talking about specific events and people, but I did away with that because I wanted this album to capture a more general feeling. I didn’t want to anchor it to a time and place.
I know you and Richard Swift were close collaborators and friends. How did his death impact the themes of this album?
Richard was a friend and then he became a collaborator. He remained a friend after that until his death. It’s tough with someone like Richard because when he died, it felt like losing someone who could do things that no one else could. You had that lonely feeling that the world lost one of the greats, someone who was able to touch on magic in a way that was very specific, something not just anyone could do. The world just feels a little lonelier when that happened.
There’s a big conversation with Richard’s death that I think people need to have a bit more often, in terms of addiction. It can be very hard and troubling to be an artist. Essentially, his death made me feel how all death feels, which is angry, confused, but also reminiscent. It’s just a shame.
Have you struggled with addiction? Or more in terms of what you’ve seen from other people?
I don’t. I’m very fortunate to have not struggled with it individually. But I do see it in so many of my peers. I almost liken it to the Me Too movement. It was taking a problem that everyone was conscious of, something everyone knew was happening but no one was really talking about. It took an underground problem and brought it to the surface. That’s how I feel about addiction in music. It’s sort of widely celebrated in its own way. Everyone seems to be aware of the fact that it’s kind of killing everybody, but no one’s really talking about it. When you look at the press around a musician who’s overdosed, people tend to shy away from the conversation for many different reasons. It’s something that needs to be talked about more and a part of the general discussion. We need to start changing it.
You’re not particularly religious at all. How did this album get to a place where it’s about God and reckoning with what that is and represents?
I grew up in the Midwest, the quote-unquote Bible Belt. Out here, religion is a big thing. It’s everywhere you look. That may be the same everywhere, but growing up here, everything was very God-fearing. My family never practiced religion, although we loosely claimed to be religious. There wasn’t a Bible in the house growing up or anything like that. But I grew up around billboards and Evangelical churches. Fred Phelps, who was responsible for godhatesfags.com, is a Kansan. Growing up around these people was interesting, having not participated in it, because it felt so weird. If you read Wild West novels, it was like that, but it was happening around you. I was always fascinated by it for that reason.
I recognize religion as something that can be evil, but can also be very beautiful and profound. If you walk into my home, I have a lot of art, most of which is religious art and old Western art. I’m interested in it. It’s a part of the language and my vocabulary. When it comes to telling stories and making songs, I naturally gravitate towards that.
As someone who’s not particularly religious, I’m jealous of people who can put their entire faith in the unknown and know they’re going to be taken care of after they die. Do you feel that way too?
I don’t think so. I don’t shy away from the word spiritual. I’m not envious of anyone who believes in a God or is sure of the afterlife. That’s good, as long as they use that belief system for the greater good of mankind and the universe. It’s just someone with a different outlook from me. I don’t think anyone who believes in religion is crazy, because I think it’s pretty crazy to be alive at all. It sort of makes sense to try and make sense of it all. But I feel comfortable in how I feel in the world.
I love the cover art. It’s very vulnerable. How did that idea come about?
I designed it. Obviously, it’s a little risqué (laughs) and a decision I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life. If you look at City Music or Singing Saw, they’re very tied to a time or place. Singing Saw is written about and in Los Angeles and has a ’60s throwback feel. We really went for that with the cover. City Music was about punk in New York in the ’70s so we wanted to make it feel like that. But when I think of this record existing, I don’t see it anywhere specific. That’s why I use so much imagistic language about weather and airplanes. If City Music was in New York and Singing Saw in L.A., then this is somewhere above the clouds.
With that sentiment, I didn’t want to wear anything that someone could pinpoint to an era. I wanted it to be very naked and vulnerable and not hiding anything. There’s also a little nod to religious art, in which the baby angels are never clothed. It’s all very in line with the sentiment I was going for.
The record is really big and grandiose. Is part of that maybe to shed the record from its era?
Absolutely. We wanted the record to feel almost naked sonically. My voice is the focal point. There are some guitars on the record, though not many. We wanted this one to feature music that could fit inside of a cathedral.
A lot of musicians tend to shy away from making proclamations about their music, but with this record, it sounds like you’re going for something important and big. Did you feel that way when you were making it? To make a record that could be heard as canonical?
Wanting to make something go a bit harder was part of the process in terms of the context of the songs and the overall statement. Every album has its own life and its own blood. With this one, it just felt like we were trying to make something holy.
You’ve said that you view this record as a culmination of the last few records. How early on in the process did you begin to realize that this represented something bigger than just another record?
With those first few songs, I realized it may be something. And then when Sam and I got into the studio, about a week in, we stumbled into wanting to strip the songs down and turn them into something else. Those two moments were the crucial moments in laying the foundation for this album.
This record is fantastic in its own right, not just as a Kevin Morby record. Did you ever let yourself think that you were onto something more special with it? Did it feel like a step up?
Absolutely. I’ve been touring so much, it’s become such a big part of my life. When you tour a lot, you inevitably get better at what you’re doing. It’s almost like you get worse at everything in life but that. It’s my fifth record, so when I’m in a studio, I feel like I know how to articulate what I want better. I’ll see ideas through in a new way. I like to think that whatever I’m doing is my best work yet.
Is making music at the expense of everything else a trade-off you’re comfortable with?
At this point, yeah. I’m sure it gets complicated when people have kids, but when you look at it, this is what most people do with their lives. We get jobs and they consume most of our lives. In a way, it’s not so different from what the rest of the world is out there doing. But it is taxing for sure. It’s a lot of travel and a lot of mental and physical exhaustion.
What’s your release from all of this?
I moved back to Kansas City, which has been a big part of all this. I bought a house, which has been really nice. Before, I was in L.A. and New York, which I loved, but they’re hectic and there’s a lot going on. There’s a pressure to be out and about. I’m just trying to be healthy and eat right. I’m just trying to keep an eye on what I’m doing to my body. It’s almost like [I’m] an athlete. You have to take care of yourself to withstand the role or else you’ll fall apart.