Kevin Morby’s ‘Sundowner’ Offers A Hopeful Prayer For A Divided America

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“It just feels extreme,” Kevin Morby said of the political divide between his Kansas City, Kansas hometown and his former LA dwelling. “Moving back here, it’s interesting when you’re faced with someone who you might love, but then suddenly their politics are the complete opposite of yours.”

Morby was forced to get used to extremes in the past two years. Little did he know it at the time, but the singer had a “weird precursor to quarantine” while recording his cinematic slice-of-life album Sundowner. Isolated at his new home in the suburbs of Kansas and far away from his life in the big city, Morby was overcome with a poignant sense of nostalgia as the sun set each night across the boundless country. While he struggled with seclusion, his newfound free time allowed him the opportunity to contemplate the bigger picture: Death, divisive politics, and why he found himself ceaselessly chasing the sun’s setting rays.

These are themes Morby delicately depicts in Sundowner. He captures the vastness of the American landscape, both political and otherwise, through hushed pleas in “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun” and samples of groaning thunderstorms on the fully-instrumental number “Velvet Highway.” In this way, Sundowner speaks to the stark contrast between rural and city life and casts an auspicious prayer for the future of American children in a time where hope feels as fleeting as ever.

Speaking over Zoom from the same studio where the album was recorded on his 4-track Tascam, Morby and his life-sized cardboard cutout of Elvis Presley broke down Sundowner from its overarching themes to its most personal tracks.

In the press materials for Sundowner, you talk about how you came up with the term after feeling really nostalgic whenever the evening time came and you were watching the sunset over the landscape. Do you think that returning to your hometown played into that nostalgic feeling at all? Especially since you were actually living there and not just visiting, did you find yourself surprised, disappointed, or excited about any of the ways that it changed?

Yeah, absolutely. It played into it. I lived in New York for so long and I lived in LA for so long, and those are two places where I would get home from tour or I’d get home from recording and my life in the music industry would just continue. I was very social and constantly going to shows or going out with other friends who were also songwriters, and the night sort of represented this different thing. I really looked forward to the night and I was really anticipating it. It’s kind of when my day began in a lot of ways. And then coming back here where there are none of those things and there is none of the temptation or opportunity to go out and be as social as I was, I was really faced with myself. So the nightfall really represented this different thing. That seemed to be when it became most apparent that I was really just isolated. I was left to my own devices to keep myself entertained, and then later my girlfriend Katie [Crutchfield] moved in. But then it was the two of us isolated and the two of us left to our own devices to keep one another entertained. It took on this whole new meaning, like the sunset and my life in LA or New York meant one thing — the day’s kind of beginning — and then here, it means a whole different thing. And the product of that was me becoming very reflective and looking out at this whole other part of my life from this different vantage point.

That’s really interesting because obviously New York City is known as the city that never sleeps. Things are open until all hours of the night, but I’m sure that in your hometown things close at eight or nine p.m. and there’s nowhere to go that you can stay out late.

There are some lyrics where I literally depict that on this record because it was just a sort of jarring experience, especially when I got back and I was still a night owl and I was staying up late. It just became a very strange experience. There’s a weird sports bar near my house that no one like us would ever hang out at. But I found myself going there alone and it was an isolated experience and a completely new world. […] I think the biggest thing is that there was no one really to relate to about my “bigger” life — “bigger” in terms of being on the road and having a name for myself in music. Whereas in LA, all my friends are songwriters and in New York, all my friends are songwriters and can relate to that sort of lifestyle, but here, I just kept those thoughts to myself.

Do you have the experience in your hometown where there are a lot of people who just stay there and don’t travel?

Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a totally fine thing to do, but it makes it hard for me to relate to those people. But, in the same breath, I really enjoy being around people who are out of the music industry. I think in its own ways, the music industry can be its own small town. It can be its own form of claustrophobia. So it felt really good to step away from that and gain a new perspective on things. And during this fucking reign of Trump, I think there is something to be said about being an artist who exists outside of this liberal bubble in both California and New York. I took some pride in moving back home where I was out of that bubble and I was reminded that it’s everyday people who maybe have never met an artist or who maybe just have never learned about a different way of life.

I like being back in a place where my vote is going to count more in a state like Kansas than it would in a state like New York or California. And I think that’s important too. When I moved here, I was sort of wondering why I was doing it. And the whole thing now feels like a weird foreshadow of the situation we’re all in now. And I see a lot of friends leaving New York or LA or bigger cities and coming back to their hometowns. I think ultimately that’s good because I don’t think that creative people, progressive thinking people, should necessarily be all in hubs. I think it’s good sometimes to spread that out so that the country feels a little bit more evenly divided. It’s been an interesting experience being faced with a lot more Trump flags. Though I will say, I’m very surprised — and I really hope this is significant of something — but I see a lot of Black Lives Matter and a lot of Biden signs, way more than I ever saw any Hillary signs. So I’m taking that as a good omen, hopefully, for November.

You speak about praying for America in certain songs, like in “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun,” you say “pray for our American daughters and sons.” What specifically did you have in mind when you were writing that?

The one water lyric (“Pray for our American water and sons”) pertains to the environment and everything that’s happening. Speaking to then the Dakota pipeline or the pollution, the rising oceans, the wildfires. And I know that’s a global problem, but just more specifically, I think the pipeline stuff was really happening at that time and the California wildfires. Also, speaking to the youth and thinking about what the youth are going through. I think about the stark difference between kids who grew up with Obama as their president and then now, people growing up with someone like Trump is the president. And also that stark difference in terms of things like social media. I think we’re in such an interesting and sort of scary and exciting time in history. And to be a kid right now — my heart goes out to them. I’m very grateful to have grown up without a lot of these things. Growing up with a president that, even if I didn’t agree with, I could make sense of, and growing up without an iPhone. So now, it just seems like the wild west out there.

A theme that I noticed throughout the album is you talked about running. Either running from something, someone running ahead of you, or in “Sundowner,” talking about the sun running away from you.

In both situations, the sunset or the running, I’m speaking about a relationship. My girlfriend, Katie, and I had just started dating at that time. It was almost like we were existing in this incubator, like we had this force field around us when we were here. Then, we’d go back out into our lives. In the beginning phases of dating somebody, you never know what’s going to happen, but it felt like a very safe place. We had our own little world, but then we’d go out to the world and we’re subjected to any sort of danger. It just felt like we were existing in this life, but always running from it — running to the next tour or just the next thing that was pulling one of us away.

And then the sun running from me is the idea that I was never conscious of the sun’s patterns. In these other places, I didn’t have too much time to think about it or if I did, I really welcomed the night time. But it was here that I really became anxious. Once the sun goes down, I’m just faced with the night and it’s just me and my thoughts. So it just felt like I was always running or that I was trying to chase the sun, trying to get as much of the day as possible because I didn’t want to confront the night and all that it brought on.

Your song “A Night At The Little Los Angeles” is your longest song on the entire record. You moved to LA after being born in Kansas and you touch on a lot of different midwest states throughout the lyrics. I personally read the song as a way of describing the city through the eyes of somebody who grew up in a small town, especially when you talk about the sand looking like sugar and being buried underneath the concrete, but you also refer to Kansas itself as the little LA.

That song came about when I first moved back to Kansas from LA. I bought this house and I was decorating it. I totally made it look just like a California house and I had a friend comment, ‘Oh, you can’t decorate your house like this. You moved out of California, you got to decorate it with something different.’ It was all agave plants and cacti. It looked like I was trying to live in Joshua Tree or something. So, my buddy gave it that name and some creative part of me really ran with that. I really liked the idea of being in rural Kansas having a hotel that is Los Angeles themed. […] I think of a hotel as a brain. It’s got all these brains within it and there are so many stories to this one building. I’m actually working on a short novella about that — the song but a longform of that song.

Driving through Kansas, it’s just so flat and so boring. There are a couple of rest stops that have palm trees. They try to make it seem like a tropical resort. And there’s also this big billboard that’s in Manhattan, Kansas. It says, ‘We have flights to Los Angeles!’ It’s a big picture of LA, but it’s out in this ugly, barren place. I just love the juxtaposition of someone in the Midwest really romanticizing a place like LA, but perhaps never having been there.

Speaking about your song “Jamie,” it deals a lot with death and the afterlife — death of friends, death of musicians that you really idolized. And it seems like it’s your way of paying homage to those talented musicians. You write about both being sad and angry about death, but also acknowledge that that’s not always the best response — there’s even a sense of hopefulness.

Jamie’s a really good friend of mine and one of my best friends. When I was 20 and he passed away and his death made a very big impression on me. Up until that point, I’d never really lost someone close to me. It just changed my outlook on everything. Jamie has been a constant muse, probably once on every record I mention him or something that he inspired in some way. When I wrote that song, it’d been around 10 years since he had died. So in my own mind, he’d become this mythological figure in my life. He’d inspired so much and I feel like I was able to carry on and do all these things he never got to do, but I got to do them because of him. I wanted to finally give him a name as this person who had inspired stuff but whom I’d never explicitly named. It felt very personal when I was writing it into my 4-track and it was kind of like, ‘Oh, I’ll never release this — this is just too personal, it’s too explicit.’

But then, when I was sitting with a collection of songs, I thought it was good to put his name out there like this. And also the song mentions my friend Desiree, who passed away and who I wasn’t that close with at all. But she’s someone who I knew in passing and who was this popular person in Los Angeles when I was living there. She was a surfer and she died surfing. They were both two people who, when they died, I wasn’t able to go to their funerals. I chose not to go to their funerals because I had a tour plan and it was a kinda crazy thing you deal with as a touring musician. You end up missing a lot of funerals, weddings, and a lot of big life moments for a lot of people. Both of them were such influential people to the people around them and had such big personalities that both of their funerals, having not been there, sort of exist like these big parades in my mind.

You talk about the fire of one’s life “continuing to billow” after it goes out, does that relate back to your song ‘Campfire’ as well?

Yeah, absolutely. That’s the song, which I think about those other people. I never really made fires, but when I moved back here, I have a fire pit in my backyard. I was making a lot of fires in the winter. I was always blown away by how long it takes to put out a fire. You put it out, but it’ll keep smoking and you’ll think it’s out. Then you’ll come back there’s still some wood burning. I would look out my window and be like, ‘The fire is still burning, I don’t know how to put this thing out.’ But I like that as a metaphor for someone’s life — the embers burn on. People, especially those who leave us with music or arts, they really make an impression long after they’re gone.

Sundowner is out now via Dead Oceans. Get it here.