KEVIN MORBY: ABOVE THE CLOUDS
photography by barrett emke
Kevin Morby: I can’t. You’re just given a mantra, an ancient mantra that’s been used before but it’s sort of impregnated with this goodwill of having been around for centuries, and it’s wonderful. But the Self-Realization Center—when I lived in Mount Washington, that was my first insight because there’s a meditation room within there and it’s super quiet and you walk in there and they have a display of a bunch of different … you know, there’s Jesus Christ, and there’s Gandhi and there’s all these different…
All the religions.
Kevin Morby: And it’s really nice. That was the first time in my life, maybe around 25-26 years old, where I’d go to a quiet place and sit and close my eyes and sort of just … I didn’t fully know what I was doing, but those were my first insights to meditation. It felt like a very Californian, very Los Angeles thing to do. But it was great, and now that has led to me doing TM every day.
So I know monks will often take a vow of silence. You had to take an involuntary vow of silence…
Kevin Morby: Wow, you did your research! Yeah.
You had some polyps removed from your vocal chords and you had to be silent for a month.
Kevin Morby: I think that you could say that was around the time that I was getting into meditation for the very first time…
So that worked out well!
Kevin Morby: Totally. It was really amazing. I think [of] us as very social beings, and living in these popular cities, and doing what I do where I have to be a host in a lot of different situations, you forget to take time out for yourself and just hear the world around you and to sit in that silence. I think it’s really important to sit in that silence, which is why I’ve really furthered my meditation. But it was actually incredible not talking for a month. I’m one of those people who—maybe you can notice—I’ll just talk to fill up the air. I really go million miles a minute, so having doctor’s orders to not be able to speak for a month was really amazing. You hear people differently, you start to think about words differently, and you really learn to just listen. I really liked it and for a long time after that—this sort of just got turned into meditation—I would do things where I wouldn’t talk until noon, or I would take three hours out of my day where I wouldn’t say a word because I really enjoyed it and it helps you think. I describe meditation and the not talking about the same way—like drinking water for your mind. It’s almost like reality is like alcohol or it’s like substances. Reality is like caffeine and alcohol and cigarette smoke. It’s all these unhealthy things coming at you and clogging your brain, but meditating or not speaking and just sitting with yourself is like just taking some very sobering glasses of water for your mind.
You mentioned cigarette smoke. I read that you had to quit smoking because of this, and you had called your cigarettes your ‘sacred cigarettes.’
Kevin Morby: Ha—yes, yes, yes.
Are there any objects that are sacred to you that have taken their place?
Kevin Morby: Cigarettes really truly did feel that way. I always felt like…
I used to smoke, so I totally understand. It becomes entwined in the creative process.
Kevin Morby: Absolutely. I always felt like if I had cigarettes I was never alone.
You make so many friends!
Kevin Morby: You make so many friends.
Bumming cigarettes off other people and standing around outside…
Kevin Morby: Absolutely. I made so many friends that way—some of my best friends. I just felt like if you had cigarettes on you, you didn’t have to worry about being alone. I have something to do—I can go smoke a cigarette. But now to take the place of that, I mean: meditation. It’s something that I look forward to in a similar way like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get this time out of my day to myself.’ That’s really what a cigarette was in a lot of ways, to step outside and do that … Cigarettes are almost like an ex-girlfriend that can never be replaced. They were crazy and bad for me, but no one will ever kind of be that cool. [laughs] But I’m glad that we’re no longer seeing each other.
Do you have any rituals that you do before a concert or before a tour?
Kevin Morby: Yes, just stupid little rituals. I always have two beers before I play. I try to do no more, no less, as just a sort of tic. I also take two beers with me on stage and I never touch them. I might have a sip out of one, but I never touch them. It’s a weird thing. I like to have the two beers before and then take two beers with me on stage, and they just sit there. A lot of times I see people at the end of the show—like fans—just take them because they’re like, ‘There’s two full beers.’ But I like to sit with myself and do some breathing. I do three out, hold for three, three in, hold for three. I do that to calm my nerves. That’s basically it. I do some vocal warm-ups.
When was the last time that you prayed, and what was the prayer?
Kevin Morby: The last time that I prayed? It’s a good question. I feel like it wasn’t that long ago. I like to sort of send a prayer into the universe, as hippy-dippy as that sounds. I like to check in with myself and remind myself—I think it’s very important to remind myself—that so much of the world is less fortunate than I am, and also remind myself that there’s a lot of people who care about me and that I care about in my life … There’s a line on my new record—this kind of sums it up the best—that says, ‘I tried to pray but I didn’t know what to say, so I just mumbled some names and I said I hope they’re okay and amen. They were the names of my family and friends.’ And that kind of sums it up well—just a general positive thought to the universe about people who are struggling and about my family and friends.
You’ve said that music has the power to make you cry. When was the last time that a song made you cry?
Kevin Morby: Absolutely. For some reason, Nina Simone’s version of ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ by Bob Dylan—something about that recording and her vocal delivery makes me want to cry. I feel like it’s such an incredible song. Mulatu Astatke is an Ethiopian Jazz saxophonist. His music makes me want to cry all the time. There’s a song—the name’s really hard to pronounce—but it’s the last song. There’s an artist named Hailu Mergia who’s an African keyboard player, like, jazz keyboardist. The last song on his last record, which came out two years ago—that song is very emotional and it’s just this instrumental piece and that always makes me want to cry. But you know, I just did this thing … there’s a Bob Dylan night in San Francisco. I just performed at it. A bunch of different artists played one Bob Dylan song, so it was like 20 different artists or something and William Tyler … he’s an instrumental guitarist. Do you know who that is? He’s made a good name for himself. He’s pretty well known, but it’s instrumental stuff. He sang at this thing and I never heard him sing before. Like I said, he’s a well-known musician. I’ve seen him perform a million times before, but never sing. He sang a Bob Dylan song called ‘Not Dark Yet’ and it was really beautiful, and I think that’s probably the last time I got weepy listening to music. So—William Tyler covering Bob Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet.’
There’s always been an element of worship in rock ‘n’ roll. We call them ‘rock gods.’ You can even buy devotional candles now with Joey Ramone’s face. What does it feel like to be on the other side of that where people are getting tattoos of your face or your lyrics?
Kevin Morby: It’s actually kind of crazy. I think when you set out, you sort of secretly want those things, and then when you get them … it’s interesting. I think it’s funny because it’s my name. It’s not a band name, it’s my birth name—it’s Kevin Morby. Sometimes it feels like my birth name has become a brand or something. When somebody does something like that, gets lyrics tattooed or something … I don’t know, I feel a little separated from it. I feel like they’re into this brand that’s been cultivated by me or by a record label. I mean, I love that they relate to it, but it’s hard to wrap your mind around someone getting a tattoo of your face. I also have people who completely hate me. You know what I mean? Which is fine and just comes with the territory, but it’s a funny thing to think that some people think about you intensely enough to love you so much or hate you so much.
It’s an interesting thing when you put so much of yourself out there as an artist or a musician, but it’s one-sided, you know? They think that they know you, but they don’t.
Kevin Morby: And in the age of social media people can really feel like they’re close to you. There’s a guy who’s obsessed with Katie [of the band Waxahatchee], who’s my girlfriend, and by way of that he hates me. When I first started out, I took such small steps with my career. It took me a long time to start seeing real success. For the longest time, I was like, ‘I just want people to hear about me,’ and then that moment happens where you cross over into this other thing and then suddenly you’re like, ‘Oh, wow. Well, this is strange. This is stranger than I thought it would be.’ But it’s just part of it. I don’t know one person in my peer group of fellow musicians who doesn’t have something similar. It just comes with it.
I noticed that you posted your mailing address and asked people to send you letters. Have you received letters from people? Can you tell me about them?
Kevin Morby: I’ve received a ton of letters. It’s amazing. Some of them are just like, ‘Hi, Kevin. I like your music. Thank you for everything’ and some of them are, you know … I had a woman write me recently saying that her mother passed away from cancer, but she had really found some solace with my music, and she knit me a hat. Things like that—very sweet and sensitive things like that. I received one letter from a woman who dated a guy who liked me a lot, and she wrote me to tell me that ‘my ex-boyfriend is obsessed with you and I just wanted to write and let you know that I never liked your music.’ [laughter] Which I actually kind of love because I mean … it was fun to get that letter. I just actually really appreciate it. She’s become kind of a pen pal. But they’re all over the place. And I mean, yeah—you know, a lot from young kids who asked for advice on how to get started playing music … They’re really, really cool.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the film that you made with Chris Good to accompany the album. You screened it at Hollywood Forever. It was very magical! What was that experience like?
Kevin Morby: It was amazing. I learned a lot doing that. Chris wrote the music videos and I wrote the rest of the film, like the dialogue about the halos…
You wrote the dialogue? It was so great! I loved that.
Kevin Morby: I wrote that, yeah. Thank you. I write a lot of short stories and poems and I want to release a collection of those someday, but …
Kevin Morby: Thank you. I plan on it, but you know, it’s just a little scary. But with this, it was basically taking some of those things I’ve written and putting them on screen, which was really fun, and it gave me a little bit of the bug. I want to do more of it, though it also showed me how difficult it is. It’s a crazy process unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I feel like music is 1/10 of film, because sound is a big part of a movie, but also you’ve got coloring issues and different lenses and cameras and having to do shots over and over. We just made a pretty low-key fun half hour film but it took us like six months to make. But it was super fun and I learned a lot about sound design and how crucial that is to a film. I really love now having this sort of visual representation of my album and I was able to have a lot of fun with it and like you saw, having the talk radio stuff speak my lyrics—just fun ways to honor the album, rather than just the regular ‘release singles and go on tour.’
You know, there’s that German word ‘gesamtkunstwerk’—it’s like a complete work of art. It’s so cool that you created this film and this album. Everything is this complete vision and concept.
Kevin Morby: Thank you for saying that. That’s how it feels. For the first time. Every other record I’ve ever done, there’s always something like, ‘Oh I kind of wish we would have done that.’ But with this, it feels like everything. I was able to take my time and get all the photos I wanted to get in and make this movie, and it feels very good.
Shifting over to fashion: on past tours you’ve had really amazing suits. You had the suit that said ‘Crybaby’ with the thunderclouds and the tears. You had the kind of Hank Williams suit with the music notes. Will there be an ‘Oh My God’ suit and have you had a hand in designing these?
Kevin Morby: My good friend Judith makes them. She has a company called Rusty Cuts here in L.A. We always kind of collaborate on it. We get together and talk about the subject matter from the album and decide what seems like that would be good visually. Yes, there will be an ‘Oh My God’ suit. I’m very excited. There’s two of them. I actually haven’t seen it in person yet, but she just sent me the photos. [Opens the photos on his phone:] As you can see, there’s praying hands, there’s candles, there’s halos. There’s a devil tail around this candle. Then on the back, there’s the airplanes and then there’s the wings at the shoulders. You know, on the album, there’s the whole thing about ‘horns for my head, wings for my shoulders.’ And then obviously the big bold ‘Oh My God.’ I’m very proud of these.
I know you’re inspired by Leonard Cohen. He was Jewish but he would sing about Jesus and he became ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk. He once said, ‘I never met a religion I didn’t like.’ Is that something that resonates for you?
Kevin Morby: Love that. You know, I’m a little bit illiterate when it comes to most religions, but I think in a very sort of broad strokes way, yes—all religions are beautiful. When I’m on tour in other countries, when I’m anywhere… [Listening to the song playing in the bar:] My favorite Deerhunter song! It’s a very good song. I think the best representation is religious art. I was in Portugal recently and I went into this tile shop where they sell tiles and there’s all these religious paintings of saints on tiles and I bought this really big one—sort of expensive and really heavy—and the woman was very curious as to why I as an American would want to buy this saint. The saint is named Saint Fátima. I was sort of explaining to her that I just have an interest in religion and religious art, and then she told me the story behind the saint and it was funny that she ever was so curious as to why I would like it—the story was so interesting, you know? It was about these two shepherd children who had a vision of a saint coming to them and so everyone began to worship these children as these prophets. But the woman telling me the story, she’s like, ‘My interpretation of that is that these kids lived on a farm and maybe they ate something that was psychedelic and they had a vision.’ I don’t know—I like to collect religious art. And I really like what Leonard Cohen said and I really relate to that: ‘I never met a religion I didn’t like’ because all of it’s going to tell its own tale. In the same way that I’ve never met a city that I don’t like, you know? Everything’s got its story and everything is interesting if you look at it the right way.
The new album features some unexpected sounds. You’ve got flute, harp, choirs … There’s even a storm. And neither of the two singles you’ve released are guitar-based songs. Did you set out to create like, maybe, a more sacred sound?
Kevin Morby: This is my fifth solo record and on the first four, it’s mainly guitar-based. With this one we went into it kind of making another guitar-based record, but given the subject matter it just didn’t feel appropriate to make this holy or spiritual record. [Listening to the song playing in the bar:] It’s funny, I think this is Spiritualized… We wanted to make something with the instrumentation that you would see in a cathedral or something—piano and organ and a choir and a harp—and we wanted to break the songs down to their parts and have it be the bare essentials and have the vocal be front and center. We wanted everything to be naked in this way, because I think there’s something holy about that. And on the album cover, I obviously have my shirt off … which is a decision I now have to live with for the rest of my life!
I was wondering if you were going for like a sexy Jesus vibe or…? [laughter]
Kevin Morby: No, more than anything … honestly, it’s two things. Number one is I write a lot in bed before I go to sleep and when I wake up, and I don’t wear a shirt when I do those things. So … I felt like if I wore a shirt I’d be lying, you know? I don’t wear a shirt in bed. And number two, the whole thing’s supposed to be naked and exposed, like … This is my body. This is my soul. And you look at any religious art and all the baby angels—no one’s clothed, you know? [laughter] It’s definitely a decision I now have to live with, but you know what? I’m happy with that because I didn’t want to wear some vintage t-shirt that I have or something and put it in a time and place, and that’s what this whole record’s about, you know? It’s not specific to any time and place. I want it to exist in the air and I want it to have no time or place. Sometimes with clothes it’s like, ‘Oh, this shirt makes me look like maybe this photo was taken in the 60s’ or maybe, ‘This shirt is a shirt that people recognize from the 90s.’ I wanted it to be very exposed. I wanted to make myself uncomfortable a little bit. I mean, I definitely see that now they’re making posters of it and stuff and I’m like, ‘Oh, God. This is going to be hanging up…’ [laughter] But I wouldn’t have it any other way…
KEVIN MORBY WITH SPECIAL GUEST SAM COHEN ON WED., MAY 8, AT THE THEATRE AT THE ACE HOTEL, 929 S. BROADWAY, DOWNTOWN. 7 PM / $22.50-$32.50 / ALL AGES. GET TICKETS HERE! KEVIN MORBY’S OH MY GOD IS OUT NOW ON DEAD OCEANS. VISIT KEVIN MORBY AT KEVINMORBY.COM.