KEVIN MORBY: ABOVE THE CLOUDS
photography by barrett emke
There’s always been an element of worship in rock ‘n’ roll—you can even buy devotional candles with saintly images of Joey Ramone and Marc Bolan. And with his sizable Leonard-Cohen-by-way-of-Lou-Reed charms, it can’t be long now until Kevin Morby’s cherubic face appears on a candle of his very own. Morby’s music has always flirted with the divine, so it’s no surprise that his latest record is a full-on concept album about spirituality, complete with choirs, harps, devils, halos, prayers and a gloriously surreal companion film made with Chris Good. Kevin and I met up, quite appropriately, at Mount Washington’s Self-Realization Fellowship, but when the heavens unexpectedly opened we took refuge from the rain in a hallowed Highland Park watering hole to discuss the power of meditation and saunas, why he appears shirtless on his new album cover, how his vision of the ideal afterlife looks not unlike the 80s animated movie All Dogs Go to Heaven, and the life-changing insights he gained from a month of silence following vocal chord surgery. Read on for revelations as Kevin shops for painted tiles of psychedelic saints in Portugal and strives to find transcendence in a sound bath full of snorers at the Integratron. His celestial new double album of modern day hymns features something for the saints and the sinners alike. Oh My God is out now via Dead Oceans. Hear the songs in all their glory when Kevin Morby serenades the Theatre at the Ace Hotel on Wed., May 8, in one of his legendary embroidered suits. This interview by Donna Kern.
Your label calls airplanes and beds your churches, and you’re in bed on the album cover. I was thinking about this—beds and turbulent planes might be some of the only places where atheists yell out, ‘Oh my God!’ What makes these places spiritual for you?
Kevin Morby: I think it’s the one place where people who claim to not be religious become somewhat religious. I find myself praying in turbulence or on take off. There’s some sort of heightened reality that goes on with being up there, and for whatever it’s worth, being in a plane gives me some sort of clear vision. You’re in such an unnatural space—it gives me this heightened emotion. It gives me the sort of heightened emotional landscape where I’m able to … if I’m stuck on something in my life, be it a personal decision or an artistic decision, I feel like when I’m up on an airplane, everything seems to click in this almost life-and-death sort of way. Things that seem sad seem even more sad, and things that seem happy seem even more happy. It’s almost because what you’re doing is so vulnerable. Life feels very thin up there. I’m constantly traveling on planes, given that I’m a touring musician and constantly on the go, and so it just seemed to be this time and place … I live in Kansas City, but I spend a lot of time here and New York. This record was sort of nonspecific to any place, whereas my records in the past have been very centered in New York or very centered in Los Angeles. This one kind of feels all over the place—if anywhere, sort of above the clouds. That’s another thing, too. Being on an airplane is so stressful and so tense but then you get above the weather and it looks like a literal vision of what a heavenly kingdom looks like. I think there’s just a lot there.
You’ve never shied away from religious topics in your music, but what inspired you to write a whole concept album about religion—especially as a nonreligious person?
Kevin Morby: I would say I’m spiritual but not religious. But it’s always just been in my vocabulary, especially growing up in the Midwest. A lot of people call that the Bible Belt because it’s a very God-fearing part of the country and you’re constantly reminded about hell or promised hell if you don’t live a certain way.
I read that your family was Methodist—do you remember your earliest experiences with religion at all?
Kevin Morby: So we claimed to be Methodist though we never acted on it. There was never a bible in the house growing up. We never went to church or anything like that. I do remember very early moments of maybe parents of other friends at my grade schools and stuff prying me about religion and asking what my parent’s religion [was], what church we belonged to, and then inviting us to church. Growing up, maybe I went to church twice with a neighborhood family that talked us into it and both times—because I knew my parents weren’t that into it or took it that seriously—I never took it that seriously. It’s kind of back to the cowboy fascination where I was like, ‘What is this place?’ You know what I mean? These people are very serious about it. I remember seeing grown men crying during sermons and stuff, but I never at any point felt I was wrong for not believing in it. It felt like, ‘Oh, this is what some people are into, and we are not into that and that’s OK.’ And I was just sort of fascinated. It’s a crazy thing to hear about burning in hell for eternity.
Devils make lots of appearances in your lyrics.
Kevin Morby: Absolutely. It’s really truly everywhere in the Midwest and it’s almost like I didn’t fully understand that until I moved to the east coast. Religion is everywhere, in every corner of the world, but it wasn’t until I moved to the east coast … everything’s a little bit more relaxed in terms of that [there]. Then when I went back to the Midwest, I was like, wow … it’s truly God-fearing country, with billboards and marquees on churches and just the churches in general out there. But it’s always been a part of my vocabulary growing up where I grew up. People were always surprised that I’d go there with my lyrics, but to me it’s literally just a part of the language. It’s a way to tell a story. Also in that part of the country, the Wild West is kind of everywhere. Growing up on the plains you’re constantly reminded of that. I was fascinated with cowboys and I was fascinated with this—heaven and hell. The big difference between the two being that ‘cowboys’ have this sort of mythologized fairytale aspect, whereas while religion also has that, people still take it seriously … as if it’s not … you know. I’ve never felt a reason to not use those tools to tell a story.
I love concept albums personally because it can feel like such a cohesive complete vision—a little world that you can go inside. This isn’t your first concept album. What draws you to the format? Are there any classic concept albums you love that inspire you?
Kevin Morby: For sure. I’m really drawn to it because I like fiction and I like reading fiction and I like other concept records. As a songwriter, it’s easy to exhaust the notion of writing about yourself all the time. When you latch onto a subject that you’re naturally interested in, it becomes really fun. It’s like you’ll write a few songs and notice a thread between the three songs and sort of a motif—it’s like you write the beginning, middle, and end of an album, and then you get to fill in all the pieces and drop certain words or certain phrases like ‘Oh my God’ throughout the album and it becomes this fun thing. And you get to really explore that world. My last concept record was City Music. It came out in 2017. With that you actually end up learning a lot because you research—you have this initial attraction or a little bit of information about something, so you start going down that wormhole, and then you come out having learned a lot. Same thing with this. It’s really cool. I think the first concept record I heard that really blew my mind wide open … the Mountain Goats have a record called All Hail West Texas, and I heard that in high school and I remember feeling like, ‘This is an album that feels like I’m reading a book or something when I listen.’ This guy has created a world in which these characters live and [it’s] exactly what you said—you can just go into that world. When you have that record on, you’re witnessing the lives of those characters. Ever since then I’ve been very interested in it.
You call out Sinatra on ‘Hail Mary’ on the new album. Some people credit him with creating or popularizing the concept album.
Kevin Morby: Really? Wow! That’s cool. I had no idea.
He also had a really interesting take on religion. He once said, ‘I have respect for life in any form. I believe in nature, in the birds, the sea, the sky, in everything I can see or that there is real evidence for. If these things are what you mean by God, then I believe in God.’
Kevin Morby: Wow—what a poet. I think that’s perfectly put.
At the same time, though, he recorded Christmas albums that ended with ‘Amen’ and stuff. So it was complicated for him. What’s your take on it all? What do you think about that?
Kevin Morby: I think very similar to that. I just did a press tour in Europe and I was sort of asked that question like, ‘If there’s a God, what is God?’ That answer is way more eloquent than mine.
I thought that was so beautiful when I read it. I was like, ‘Kevin would like this!’
Kevin Morby: Yeah, thank you. It’s very beautiful. I really relate to that. You know, I think the concept of God … if you’re going to go there or put a face to that name, I think that it’s really all about one person’s self. And I think that reality and living in this universe that we’re all thrown into, it’s all sort of about yourself. You know what I mean? It’s about finding beauty in the mundane. I think about that a lot—about how life can seem depressing or just boring at times, but when you actually stop to smell the roses—as they say—everything is pretty insane. Everything can be interpreted as this magical unbelievable experience—the fact that the sky’s blue or that trees grow or that we’re here at all. I think getting in touch with that sort of spiritual side with oneself is important. It’s something that as I get a little bit older, I feel more concerned with doing.
I was reading recently that ancient cultures didn’t conceive of creativity the way that we do. They thought that if you were inspired it was divine. Like in ancient Greece, they would pray to the Muses for their creative inspiration. Apparently that’s where the word ‘music’ comes from.
Kevin Morby: OK, I love that. Oh, wow! From ‘Muses.’ That’s so funny to hear you say that because I should have put that together. That makes a lot of sense. That’s wonderful because my mind was blown when I was like 19 years old and someone told me that ‘museum’—the origin of that word is to muse, which is … I mean, it’s so obvious, and ‘music’ as well. Now here I am at 31, learning. I love that so much because I just think ‘muse’—that’s everything. That word is like life to me. You know what I mean? That’s everything to me. And I love museums. I love music. I love just becoming inspired, and that’s everything to me.
Where do you feel your creativity comes from? Does it ever seem like it’s coming from something magical outside of you?
Kevin Morby: Absolutely. I think anyone who writes songs or anyone who writes stories, there’s this moment … that kind of goes back to why I like to write in bed. It’s almost like I can hit this state where I’m not fully awake and I’m not fully asleep and you find this in-between zone where I don’t know—it’s like you prick a hole in the universe and you’re able to go into this different chamber and that’s where the magic happens if that makes sense. I do think something takes place. There’s something beautiful about just creating something out of thin air and every time it starts to happen with me, I know that it’s happening. I’ve become very conscious of like, ‘Oh my God, it’s happening again.’ And I really have to follow it. It can be the sort of thing where I’m having a night at home and I’m planning on doing something—planning on cooking and then calling a couple friends or something, but the moment that thing hits I have to cancel all plans and follow that down the rabbit hole. There’s a difference between just making something to make something and feeling inspired, but when you do have that inspiration, I think it’s like true magic. I think the true magic is that it will go on to be out in the universe in some form and it’ll help guide a person’s life, no matter how big or small. It’ll play some role in somebody’s life and you kind of become a part of the air in that way.
You have eternal life from your music … It’ll last forever.
Kevin Morby: Definitely. It’s like … being able to live forever.
Mortality comes up a lot on your new album, so I wanted to ask: what do you think happens when we die? Or, maybe better yet, what do you want to happen?
Kevin Morby: I can’t help but think it’s going to be similar to when you go under at the hospital or something. You know: if you get a procedure done, you just sort of fade out, and you of course wake up but you don’t remember really what happened in between. I think you go into that in between. There’s a part of me that believes that we just go into an elongated dream, you know? Sometimes there’s a part of me that thinks that reincarnation could be very possible. And sometimes there’s a pessimistic part of me that thinks that it’s just nothing. It’s just blackness. But I also think there’s something OK about that. In my ideal world, you know, it’s a very picturesque All Dogs Go to Heaven sort of thing where [it’s] suddenly me and everyone I’ve ever loved, and we have all the time in the world now to hang out.
And all of our dogs!
Kevin Morby: Absolutely. I would love to enter a kingdom where, yeah, I see my childhood dog and my best friend who passed away. I saw this movie recently—it’s Harry Dean Stanton’s last movie. It was actually directed and written by David Lynch, but Harry—are you a Harry Dean Stanton fan? Do you know who that is? You would recognize him. He’s been in a lot of movies and he died a couple years ago in his 90s. Really amazing actor. You’d definitely recognize him. He gives a speech at some point where he kind of knows that he’s entering the final days of his life. It’s this weird thing where even though he’s in his 90s, he’s in good health, but the doctor’s just kind of telling him he might die soon from natural causes. He’s trying to smoke this cigarette in a bar and the owner of the bar tells him, ‘You know, you can’t smoke in here and you have to go outside.’ And he goes off on this tangent and he’s like, ‘The cigarette doesn’t matter. None of this matters, you know. All of it’s going to go away. Someday I’ll go away. You’ll go away. The cigarette will go away. None of it will have ever existed. It will just go into the void, into darkness.’ And he upsets this owner of the bar and she starts to cry, and she says this really amazing thing and—I love this movie. It’s giving me chills just thinking about it—but she says, ‘Well, what are you supposed to do with that?’ Almost like he convinced her that that’s what’s going to happen and she asks, ‘What can you do with that?’ And he has this moment—it’s so good—where he gets this little smirk on his face and he’s like, ‘Smile. All you can do is smile.’ That’s kind of how I think. All you can really do is smile, you know? When you contemplate the afterlife or what could happen, it’s one of those things you gotta … We’ll all find out at some point, you know. Until then, I think you just gotta smell the roses.
As society becomes less religious or organized religion becomes less dominant, the feeling of awe is maybe something more elusive in our lives. Maybe you’d go into an old church or you would hear a sermon and you’d feel that feeling of awe. Where do you find awe in your life?
Kevin Morby: I think as an artist you’re always trying to make something that’s a little larger than life, for both yourself and for also other people. It’s funny, all this stuff—I feel like if I was reading it, I would sound like such a boring weirdo, you know? Like, I’m into meditation now and I’ve gotten very into saunas and that culture, but it’s … I don’t know, in this new era of my life and giving up things like cigarettes or drinking less, trying to be healthier as I age, you know … I get really into these things. Like, I bought a sauna. I have one in my backyard in Kansas City, and I’m so into it. Those sort of rituals are very … I don’t know. I like being around the wood. The wood smells really nice and I like sweating and there’s something psychedelic to that. I’m trying to get fucked up as healthily as possible [laughter] and meditation and being in saunas do that to me. But nature for sure, you know. I’m always having to walk. When I lived here, I got super into walking and when I was in New York, I walked more in New York than I walk anywhere. Now that I live in Kansas City—or even being on the road or anywhere all the time—walks are a big part of my thing. I get a lot of thinking done there and it’s always sort of awe-inspiring to walk. A big thing for me is I need to be in water. I love being in water. I love getting in hot water and cold water. And [some] things have always been awe-inspiring to me. I love visiting cathedrals. I love visiting museums. Those things haven’t gotten old to me yet.
You lived in Los Angeles for a good bit of time. I was wondering if you ever dabbled in Los Angeles’ new age experiences: crystal meditation, sound baths, anything like that?
Kevin Morby: I did do a sound bath at the Integratron in Joshua Tree. It was cool. To be honest with you, it was one of these things where I was very excited about it and then they were like, ‘OK … please don’t fall asleep because people snore.’ Then the moment it started there were like fifteen people snoring. [laughter] I could see how it’d be relaxing, but suddenly the sound bath became a bath of snores. But you know, we were just at the Self-Realization Center. That was kind of my first insight to meditation honestly. Now I do TM. I do Transcendental Meditation.
Oh cool—like the Beatles!
Kevin Morby: For sure. I think George was super into it. I got into that when I was in Kansas City, but I finally properly got my mantra and did all the classes and stuff.
Can you tell me what your mantra is?