On ‘City Music,’ Prolific Indie Singer-Songwriter Kevin Morby Keeps It Moving

Adarsha Benjamin

When Kevin Morby was 17, he dropped out of high school and left his hometown of Kansas City for Brooklyn, a place that had seduced him from afar via the magic of film and music. On his forthcoming LP, the mesmerizing City Music, Morby retains this romance for America’s most romanticized metropolis, as well as various other urban spaces to which he was traveled in the past decade as one of the most prolific musicians in indie rock.

“I was just in Paris, which is really important to me,” Morby told me last month. I caught him by phone during a rare moment at home back in Kansas City.

“I was just there on a press trip and it was probably the 21st time I’ve been in Paris,” he said. “At this point, I’m getting to where I’ve spent over a month in most every major city, but I’ve only ever been there one day at a time.”

As a child, Morby’s family moved around a lot, which can be traumatic for children, but for Morby this transient life proved to be transformative. A busy music career has kept him constantly on the move — in the late ’00s he joined the fine indie-folk group Woods and appeared on some of the band’s best efforts, including 2009’s At Echo Lake and 2012’s Bend Beyond. Around the same time, he joined up with Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls in the bubblegum-punk band The Babies.

But it’s as a solo artist where Morby has really thrived. Starting with 2013’s Harlem River, Morby has continued to refine his skills as a songwriter and record-maker, hitting a new peak with City Music, which Morby has fashioned as an eclectic, mixtape-style grab-bag that draws on ’70s punk, ’60s psychedelic folk, and mid-20th century electric blues.

Your records always have distinctive moods. Singing Saw, for instance, had this intense vibe that was reminiscent of, say, religious cult music from the ’70s. City Music has more of a Lou Reed feel on some tracks, while one of my favorite songs, “Dry Your Eyes,” almost sounds like an old electric blues record from the early ’50s. Do you think in terms of atmosphere when you’re making an album?

Yeah, for sure. There’s this record by a guy named F.J. McMahon, he’s a Vietnam vet who came back from [the war] and made one record, this kind of cult record, that was a very big inspiration for Singing Saw. So, maybe that’s why you get that vibe. Something like “Dry Your Eyes,” I was like, “I want to make a song [where] the vocals sound really dry and really up front, kind of like they do on Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby.