Kevin Morby’s Reflective, Life-Affirming New Record

VMP talked with the former ROTM artist about his new release, ‘This Is A Photograph’

On May 12, 2022
Photo by Chantal Anderson

In January 2020, Kevin Morby watched his father collapse in the middle of family dinner. That night, still gripped with shock, Morby waited to hear more. He passed the time in the basement of his childhood home, flipping through old family photographs, images that resonated with him more in this moment than they could have on any ordinary day. One particular photo grabbed him: his father as a young man, posing shirtless, looking invincible, roughly the same age as Morby was in that moment. Just hours earlier he had watched as the same man was hauled away by an ambulance, his future uncertain. It was a contrast that jolted Morby and stirred questions about growing up, getting old and staring down the concept of mortality.

As his father regained his strength and recovered, those ideas continued to occupy space in Morby’s head, and he began working on what would become his seventh studio album, This Is A Photograph. To keep the inspiration coming, he headed to Memphis and moved into The Peabody hotel. He reveled in the city’s landmarks and sense of history and connected with some of its most tragic figures, drawing parallels between their arcs and his own.

Despite its heavy themes and daunting ambition, This Is A Photograph is kinetic and life-affirming. It is a natural culmination of Morby’s years of musical accomplishment but also a marked pivot away from the minimal, spare songwriting that marked 2020’s Sundowner. We caught up with Morby over Zoom to discuss his deeply personal new album, the artists and ideas on his mind while he crafted it, and what it’s like to return to the road.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

VMP: Take us back to the genesis of this new album, This Is A Photograph. What was on your mind as you started writing and recording?

Kevin Morby: I wasn’t sure if a record was going to come out of this whole time period. During the pandemic I actually found it to be a pretty uninspiring time. I’m someone who has always been fueled, encouraged and inspired by being on the road and writing in hotel rooms and backstages and having to get things done as quickly as possible in short time periods. So having all this time to myself, I wasn’t sure what would come out of it. Everything in the world was terrifying and uninspiring; I didn’t think it was going to spawn much. 

But after discovering these old family photos, I started turning to the past for inspiration. Like any of my other records, I started to write a few songs and I started to notice a thread between them, and I could tell something was beginning to form. When I went to Memphis to work on the record, that was a huge part of it. I wanted to go somewhere that felt new. It was almost like I was emulating tour even though it was way different. But also, [going to] a place where I could explore a certain past and a certain history.

Talk a bit about the circumstances that led to discovering the old family photographs, what feelings bubbled up and what exactly it was that gave you inspiration for these songs.

Certain things mean certain things at different times of your life. How I discovered those photos, at some point earlier in my life or maybe even a little bit later, it wouldn’t have meant as much as it did to me as discovering it at the time that I did. I think because my father had just had this health scare and I happened on that same night to discover these photos, where I was looking at photos of him as a younger man and he was the same age that I was while I was looking at that photo. 

It [was a] time and place, circumstance, sort of thing where they just hit me really hard, it was almost just a changing of the guard. My parents are making their way to being elderly and it really hit me that I was the adult in the room, seemingly for the first time. I think as you get older you gain a larger respect for your history, your family history, and history in general. It just started hitting me in a certain way and I felt like I was seeing my parents as these different people in a way I never had before, and it felt really inspiring to me.

You talk about these bigger themes that are a thread throughout the album, and they are big themes — life and death, that sort of thing. Two of the songs that stuck out to me as encapsulating those themes were the opener, “This Is A Photograph” and the closer, “Goodbye to Good Times.” There’s a different energy to these songs but they are kind of different sides to the same coin. Can you talk about those?

“This Is A Photograph” was inspired by this health scare my dad had and then discovering those photos. It’s a three-part song where the first part is about my dad, and the second part is about younger photos of my mom, and it ends after the climax of the song, I’m like, “Now you’re looking at a photograph of me. By listening to this album, by listening to this song, this is my photograph that you can reference 30-some-odd years from now.”

The last song, “Goodbye to Good Times” … I’m glad you said that, because I did try to bookend the record with those two songs because they sort of speak to one another. “Goodbye to Good Times” feels almost like an epilogue in a way because I feel like the song before it, “It’s Over,” is the ending, but then you have this epilogue. That song to me is [about] everything the country was going through at that time with COVID and politics and race … what I’ve learned personally in the last four or five years, ever since Trump’s presidency, is that a certain tone or a certain level of relaxation, at least for someone like me in my position, is gone. And that doesn’t always mean that that’s bad. 

It’s a song that at once is, like … it’s sad that this day and age, where we didn’t have to worry about climate change and something like that wasn’t on our mind, and we could live oblivious. And that goes for a million other problems as well. That is gone. It’s saying goodbye to those times but it’s a necessary goodbye, it’s good that we’re now conscious of these things. I don’t know if I’m explaining this, but maybe you get the gist. It’s a bittersweet goodbye but it’s sort of celebrating. It doesn’t mean that the next thing has to be something worse.

I definitely got that sense and was going to comment that these themes are obviously heavy and these songs can be melancholy, but it’s life-affirming, too. You’re looking at both sides of it in the sense that it’s serious stuff we’re grappling with here, but there’s a certain sense of joy too, or at least appreciation for the positivity.

For sure. I wanted everything to feel like a celebration, even if you’re celebrating things about to get bad, it’s like, “Let’s make a little bit of a party out of it.” And I think that stuff I’m referencing … I say Otis Redding’s name in that song. I think he’s a great example of someone who did a similar sort of thing. That’s what soul music was, it was making the best out of a really shitty situation.

We’ve talked about your family and the photographs you discovered so I imagine you were reminiscing about your childhood. The echoes of your past are an important element of the album. You grew up in Kansas City, correct? What is your general memory of that part of your life?

I should actually say I was born in Texas. Half of my childhood was spent mainly in Oklahoma after Texas in Tulsa, then Oklahoma City and then Kansas City. So the first 10 years of my life was Texas and Oklahoma, and then from 10-18 was here in Kansas City. It was great, a very middle-class in middle America suburban lifestyle. I was talking to my dad the other day and he was saying that in the ’70s, climate change was a huge topic of conversation. Then for whatever reason in the ’80s and ’90s, everyone started to ignore every problem. And obviously there wasn’t the internet and information couldn’t travel like it does now.

But for better or worse it just seemed like these eras as a child where there wasn’t much to concern you. And especially growing up in middle America, it was just very centered around simple things, like baseball, or just going to school and being a kid. My high school years were much more complicated but as a young child it was a blissful, wonderful experience. I was kind of a creek kid, I was always hanging out in creeks and building forts and treehouses. Sort of a picturesque childhood in that way.

You talked about Memphis. You recorded there and there are references throughout the album to the city and some of its important figures. What fueled the connection you felt to Memphis? What made it the right place to record?

I had recorded the bulk of the record at Sam Cohen’s studio in upstate New York but then we finished it in Memphis. I’d visited in Memphis a handful of times before going there to write. It’s a city that really spoke to me and continues to speak to me. Their past is very on display in this way that I really love but it’s not stuck in the past. I feel like Memphis is still looking ahead and there’s a bunch of amazing people there who are ahead of the curve in a lot of ways. But the way they honor their past really blew my mind. It’s this beautiful river city. It’s a city that has been through a whole lot and I’m lucky that it’s only seven hours away from Kansas City.

When I knew I wanted to go somewhere and write to work on this record, that came to my mind instantly; there was no place I wanted to work on it but there. There’s this historical hotel called The Peabody hotel in downtown Memphis that I had stayed at a few times. It was peak COVID and I was like, “Man, it would be cool to just get a room there, and I bet there’s hardly anyone there,” and I was right. It was cheaper than it usually is and they upgraded me to a suite because I was there for so long, so I just lived there for a few weeks and worked on writing there, and it was a wonderful experience. 

   Photo by Chantal Anderson  

When I look back at your discography, a lot of your albums have a real sense of place. In this case, you knew Memphis was a good place to isolate yourself. Generally, do you find yourself seeking out locations or collaborators to jump start that inspiration, whether that is seeking out the familiar to conjure up old memories, or seeking out the unfamiliar to push yourself outside of your comfort zone? Is that an important factor of your process?

For sure. All of those questions come to mind when thinking about a record. Sometimes you want to try something completely different. Sometimes you want to work with people that you’ve worked with before because you know you can trust them. Or even if you’re working with people you’ve worked before you might want a new goal. Or maybe the goal is something you’ve achieved in the past. 

With this one, I knew I wanted to try new things, but I wanted to try it with Sam, who I’ve worked with before. So there was a lot of back and forth, like, “How can we achieve new sounds, how can we achieve a new feeling with this old partnership?” And I think we really got there. The good thing about that is that we really trust one another so we know we can get at the thing we want to get to. 

In terms of the place, going to a new place to work is always exhilarating. And having Memphis be that for me was a really amazing experience and it’s going to be something new. And whether it goes good or bad, it’s always going to spark a new feeling, so it’s an important part of my process.

Listening to this album, you immediately sense an ambition to it, particularly coming on the heels of Sundowner which was so stripped back and sparse. When you go into recording, do you have a sense of what you want this album to become or is it something that happens as the process runs its course?

Any record I’ve ever made, there’s always a sense of exactly how you want it to sound, and you’re usually referencing a record you love. Like, “Oh, I want this to sound like Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.” The great thing that I find about music and something I love about it is you can have whatever idea you have going into it and want it to be something so bad, and you can get close, but it’ll never be that exact thing. There will always be curveballs and you’ll always come out the other end surprising you like, “Wow, I thought it was going to be this, but it ended up being this other thing.” 

Tell me about “Bittersweet, TN,” which is a duet with Erin Rae. How did that song come together?

Erin is someone who I’ve long admired. Her music is so great. I’ve seen her sing live before and she’s really blown me away. We met because we had the same booking agent years ago. She’s really funny, has a great sense of humor, and we’ve always quickly gotten along. When I wrote this song, I knew I wanted it to be a duet but I wasn’t sure with who, and then it dawned on me one day that I should do it with Erin. Because it’s called “Bittersweet, TN,” I wanted to make sure to have a Tennessee native singing on it. She lives in Nashville and she was born in Memphis, so it was just perfect.

Speaking of guests, Tim Heidecker and Alia Shawkat are credited with the laughter in “Rock Bottom.” I need to know what sparked that.

Tim has become a good bud of mine and Alia wrote me during the pandemic and said that she wanted some music for something she was doing. It didn’t end up happening, but we just became friends over the internet. I was watching Search Party around the time of writing this song. And she’s so great, she’s such a legend. And I was becoming friends with Tim. When Sam and I were in the studio, we had already recorded the song and we were like, “What if we go back into the song and doctor it and we could have this weird laugh track?” I was going to do the laugh track but I was like, what if I ask Tim and Alia to do it? And they both said yes. I wanted to create this maniacal [laughter], sort of, depicting what was happening in the subject matter.

Talk more about that song. That’s the second single. It’s a fun song and video but the tone of the lyrics is very different from that surface-level mood.

I was in Memphis and I was writing there, and there is this mural of Jay Reatard. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but he’s a garage rock artist from the mid-2000s who I really loved at the time, who I would see around. He was this living legend who died real young, he died at 29. I passed this mural of him downtown and it sent me down this wormhole. I watched this documentary on him, and I was revisiting all his work. 

The song is at once sort of about him but it’s also about just anyone who, that’s their story. And that’s a very common story in music, where a person comes from hardly anything at all and they rise to the top and it usually happens pretty quickly and in a lot of cases, it kills the person. A lot of that was on my mind and it’s hard not to have all those stories in your mind being in a place like Memphis, because there’s so many tragic music stories in the ether there.

I wanted to talk about “Coat of Butterflies.” It’s a centerpiece of the album and it really doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve done. How did that come together?

That’s a song that is about Jeff Buckley and is probably the one I worked on the most while living in Memphis. I was never a huge fan of Jeff Buckley until about 2019 when I did this interview with Vice. They had this series where they would have an artist pick a classic album they hadn’t heard, and they would play it for the artist and interview them in real time. 

They did that with me with Jeff Buckley’s Grace. I liked the record, but I was more blown away by his story, and that he had died the night before he was going to go back into the studio to record his follow-up. He was in Memphis, and he went swimming, and his body got carried upstream and they found his body at the foot of Beale Street. And all these things that felt like a fantasy novel. The more I dug into his life and death, the more extravagant and bizarre it all seemed, but he seemed like such a lovely person. He’s one of those artists, almost like Nina Simone, where my favorite songs of his are covers. There are certain artists who can do masterful covers, and that’s one of their greatest strengths. 

I was listening to him a lot while living out of the hotel in Memphis. I really related to his story in that he was from somewhere else but came to Memphis, and that’s exactly what I was doing. I think he was trying to touch on something similar that I am with this record. Most other stories in Memphis are from people who are native to the South, or from Memphis or surrounding areas. He was from far away and came there to get close to an American touchstone and while doing it, it killed him. His story really stuck out to me.

Another striking moment on the album is “Stop Before I Cry.” You’re really vulnerable and honest on that song. Was it difficult to be that candid on a record and put yourself out there in a personal way?

It wasn’t difficult to do it while we were recording. I never thought I was going to say Katie [Crutchfield]’s name in it until we were in the studio, and then it just naturally started to come out. Sam and I talked about how good it felt and how natural it felt. It’s funny because I listened to the record the other day, I got the vinyl and I listened to the vinyl for the first time through, and I was like, “Whoa, that’s pretty crazy, I say Katie’s name.” [laughs] It wasn’t hard to do in the studio but now listening to it, it’s very vulnerable.

You toured last year with Hamilton Leithauser and you have a big tour coming up. After such a long disruption to live music, what is it like getting back into it? Strange, exciting, a little bit of both?

It’s super exciting and there’s a lot of silver linings to the new COVID protocols. I took a lot better care of myself because I wasn’t going out every night and I was staying in this bubble. That really kept me from losing my voice, or getting too exhausted or burning myself out. I found that less people were coming to the shows but those who did come to the shows were going harder. On the Hamilton tour, it was like 25-30% of ticket holders wouldn’t even show every night. 

But what I really discovered, there were a couple nights where it was like, “Oh man, we didn’t sell many tickets to this show, this is going to be depressing.” But then we’d show up and I was like, “What am I talking about? I haven’t played music in almost two years. Playing to one person would be incredible.” So I was just so grateful to do it. It definitely looks different than what it used to look like but in some ways, in good ways. I shouldn’t have gone out after every show 100 nights in a row before or felt that I needed to do that. So having those sort of restrictions, I actually enjoyed them. It’s just a different thing now, and I’m just grateful it can still happen on some level.

Is there anything else you want listeners to know before they hear the new album?

I hope they enjoy it. I hope it can bring them good things in their life.

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Alex Swhear

Alex Swhear is a full-time music nerd from Indianapolis. He has strong opinions about music, film, politics, and the importance of wearing Band-Aids to Nelly concerts.

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