Kevin Morby Conjured Sundowner Out Of New Love, Death, The Midwest, And A Tape Machine
Just last year, Kevin Morby released a new album called Oh My God. It was a sprawling double LP, and even by his own prolific standards, a quick followup didn’t exactly seem likely. That made his new new album, Sundowner, immediately register as something that could’ve been born in quarantine: a stark, more straightforward collection of hushed folk-rock songs emanating from solitude out on the edge of Kansas. And in a sense, it was — just not during this quarantine.
Sundowner, instead, dates all the way back to 2017, when Morby moved back to his hometown of Kansas City, Kansas. He had a shed in his backyard, where he’d hole up with nothing but a guitar and a 4-Track tape recorder, unlocking a whole new way of writing music for himself. The shed was barebones, and he was often at the mercy of nature — sweating and kept company by spiders during the summer months and then bundled in multiple layers while working through the winter. That gives Sundowner an elemental feel, a counter-narrative but relative to Oh My God.
Out in Kansas, Morby was embarking on a new life — one characterized by the early stages of his relationship with Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield, but one in which he also had a lot of time to sit with his own thoughts and history. Oh My God grappled with a lot of the big questions, and Sundowner quietly sits down with them. Even at its most wandering, Sundowner has the feeling of a conversation a person is having with himself or his loved ones, trying to make sense of things with music that was at once fragile and roughhewn, music that gets at a core strain of Morby’s songwriting DNA while simultaneously suggesting the great emptiness of the Midwest American landscape.
Ahead of Sundowner’s arrival next week, we talked with Morby over Zoom to get the stories behind the album and his life in Kansas. He was calling from the Sundowner shed itself, actually, though it looks like much more of a proper living space/home studio now than it did back then, with guitars hung on the wall and an Elvis cutout in the corner. Read our interview below.
STEREOGUM: At first glance, people might mistake Sundowner as a quarantine album. You put out this very ambitious double album last year, I don’t know that many of us would’ve been expecting a full-fledged successor that wasn’t just a bunch of leftovers. But this album actually goes back quite a few years, to when you first moved back to Kansas in 2017. Were you surprised there was still something in the tank while Oh My God was still being completed?
KEVIN MORBY: It was definitely surprising. The whole reason for buying the 4-Track is I kind of had this idea to make a 4-Track version [of Oh My God], kind of demos after the fact. Simply because I was back in Kansas City with no one to keep me company and not much to do. It seemed like a nice way to pass the time. It was interesting, songs started to write themselves in me trying to learn the machine. The machine just really inspired this whole new thing.
Oh My God was really written in this sort of big part of my life, out on the road and touring and backstage and on airplanes and in hotel rooms. This was the complete opposite part of my life. I was shut off from the music industry. You know, I grew up here. It’s always a strange feeling to return to where you’re from, and it did feel very isolating, and of course there are ghosts from the past you encounter. It was an interesting time. When I began to write the songs that became Sundowner I didn’t think I’d release them, and if I did maybe I’d do it under a different name. The whole project took on a different face, kind of. Then when I was sitting with them when it was all done, I actually thought by way of that it was the most “me” record I’ve ever made. It’s the most singer-songwriter-y. I didn’t assemble a band. It’s pretty stripped away.
STEREOGUM: Do you have a lot of old friends and family in Kansas City still?
MORBY: Not a lot of family, but my immediate family is here — my parents, my sister, her kids. That’s really the most social that I get. I do have a handful of best friends I grew up with that also feel like family, but it’s that thing where I’m in my thirties now and so are they, and a lot of them have kids and full-time jobs. I really don’t see anybody, until Katie started coming to town. Outside of my family and Katie I really don’t interact with too many people. That’s what I like about it. Then when I go out, I’m so social, whether I’m performing or going to visit friends on the coasts.
It’s nice to come here and really be able to close the door. But, with that came a whole new set of things I wasn’t expecting. “Oh, I have to learn to sit and be with myself all day long.” I haven’t done that, probably, since I was in high school. I realized this the other day: My parents are moving houses right now. They found a bunch of my old stuff from high school, and I was going through it and there’s this busted old 4-Track. I remember I had it and I really had no idea how to use it, and I smashed it because I got so frustrated with it. There’s something funny about me buying this other 4-Track as soon as I got back here. It’s like I was picking up where I left off from high school.
STEREOGUM: Was there a reason you decided to move back?
MORBY: There was a couple things. I was going through a breakup, and my ex-partner was sort of synonymous with Los Angeles. The sort of thing where it didn’t seem like it would be possible to go through that breakup in that city. I maybe planned on going somewhere else, maybe not Kansas City. But I bought a house here in 2015, and my friend — Chris Good, who has directed a lot of my music videos — was living here, and he had to move out. It was just one of those life aligning things. So I went back for a little bit, and three years later I’m still here.
STEREOGUM: You presented the title Sundowner like it originated with you and Katie, and the idea you both felt this sort of melancholy or depression at sunset. But there’s this recurrence of the title, and especially in “Campfire” it seems like it takes on a different meaning about mortality. One part of the album’s story is slowing down, getting in touch with this relationship and your roots — which is presumably a good place to be. Do you feel a tension within that word?
MORBY: Absolutely, I think that’s a good take on all that. The word and how we were using it was about this sort of depression that comes at night time. I mean, a sunset is inherently beautiful, but it goes very quickly. You try your best to hang onto it but then it’s gone. That’s like any relationship, with any person — whether it be romantic or with a friend.
I think you’re right, there’s a lot of good things happening. I just turned 30 and my life is becoming more domestic. But at the same time, having that sort of solitude, I was having to face myself for, I guess, the first time ever. When I moved out [of Kansas City originally], and I lived in New York and LA for years, life was such a rollercoaster ride of going out all the time, and just being so social and so inundated with sensory overload. Suddenly being back, it was like I had gone out and made this life and name for myself but I was choosing to spend the in-betweens in this place I had tried to escape. There were good things happening [around the album], but within that I had to look at myself and make sense of this life I’d made for myself.
STEREOGUM: You said something similar in your artist statement: You went back to a place you tried to escape. Was there a moment like, “What have I done?” Or did you immediately embrace that sense of needing to sit and reckon with the last 10 years.
MORBY: I think I embraced it. It kind of made sense. I’d see other artists I’ve been influenced by and I’d think, “Oh, in their late twenties or early thirties they did something like this too.” At the same time, I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable going out all the time in LA. That was getting to a point where it was starting to feel exhausting. Or being that involved in the music industry, surrounded by it. I just wanted a break from it. I felt like my creative spirit was really starved for some solitude and space. There were all these other things, that maybe in a different time were beneficial to me. When I was 25, it was probably a good thing I was going out to bars and meeting other band people.
There’s that something inside of all of us that guides us to the next thing that we can’t really explain. I think what’s funny about making a sort of isolated record back in my home. When quarantine hit it was sort of like, “Wow, I have to do it all over again.” I felt both really prepared for it and then like, “But I just watched every Western movie! I already taught myself how to cook, what are you talking about I have to do it all over again!?” It’s a weird precursor to what we’re now all collectively going through.
STEREOGUM: “Campfire” is an interesting first single: It’s almost like two songs stitched together, speaking at each other. And it has specific references to the people who have passed away that were on your mind. Why did this one feel like the lead mission statement for the album?
MORBY: I was writing these songs in real time. I remember one of the first songs was “Valley” and then I wrote “Jamie.” And I thought they were cool, but they almost just felt like a way of learning the machine. When I wrote “Campfire” I was here in the shed, and it was the first one where I thought, “I think I have something here, this could be a record.”
Just for whatever reason, that song was resonating with me. The lyrical content, with it being about Jessi Zazu and Anthony Bourdain and Richard Swift, those were all the people I admired to varying degrees. Being back here with my own self-imposed isolation and looking at the characters I’ve come in contact with or crossed paths with over the years, it just seemed that much more heightened. From this vantage point, where there’s really no other music people I’m surrounding myself with, there’s nothing in my periphery that speaks to the life I’ve been living. Everything else feels so much more amplified.
I was able to sort of take stock of how wonderful and chaotic the life is that I’ve built for myself; it made me appreciate that for the first time. Those three deaths happened — Jessi died right after I moved back home, and Anthony Bourdain and Richard Swift weren’t long after. I felt like I was processing those in these weird two-week periods before then going back out on the road. Those people were all working in similar fields as me, they were people who traveled and lived similar lives. It was weird to process those things and then be out the door two minutes later. I didn’t have time for it, it was like all my feelings were waiting here for me in my home, to be swallowed up and shot back out into the world.
STEREOGUM: Before I really dug into the lyrics I thought about the album more in terms of it being this new life in Kansas, this new life with Katie. But it does seem like death is pretty overarching when I listen to it more. I guess it started to feel like a darker album to me.
MORBY: I think there’s definitely an element of making peace with it. “Jamie,” that’s about my best friend who passed away when I was 20. That really rocked my foundation. I’ve never thought about life the same way. I thought we’d all live forever when we were young. That drastically changed my viewpoint on the world. He’d been dead 10 years, and with these other people dying, there was this feeling of what I do, who I am, I’m attracted to these people — we’re all attracted to this thing, to art and music. And with that, there can be a lot of tragedy.
I think it was really just wrestling with those feelings behind closed doors. It’s something as simple as, in other parts of my life, I could go to a bar with a group of friends and mourn that way, but in this situation it was thinking about it and seeing it all for what it was. I don’t set out to write a song about death, but I like talking about it — it’s therapeutic for me. I also like the idea that someone like Jessi, whose music was influential to me and who was such a star but maybe not everyone knows, that someone could find her because of my song. That’s the idea in [“Campfire”], people’s lives billowing and it carries on after they’re gone.
STEREOGUM: At one point you talked about the idea that Singing Saw was LA in the ’60s, and City Music was ’70s New York and punk. These older albums almost had these historical and aesthetic parameters, a thesis to them. Then you’d said Oh My God was this other thing up in the clouds, written on planes and concerned with abstract, celestial ideas.
Within that arc, Sundowner feels like a moment of coming back down to Earth. The raw, physical humanity of this image of being back in your hometown, sweating in this shed writing these rugged or unadorned songs. Do you realize early on in the process that you want to make an album in a specific tradition, or addressing a certain aspect of your life?
MORBY: I notice it at the time, a bit. Once the ball gets rolling. I create a few songs and then I stumble on something like “Campfire” and then I realize I have four songs and there’s a lyrical thread running through all of them. Once I have the seed of something, then I can build a world around it. I view Oh My God and Sundowner as two chapters in the same book in the same way that I view Singing Saw and City Music. Like Singing Saw and City Music, I wrote and recorded Oh My God and Sundowner in the same year. It was like, because I was making one there was a part of me that wanted to make the other.
That was exactly what happened here. Oh My God was one part of my life on planes and in backstages, and Sundowner was the opposite, these quiet moments I had to myself. But then there are surprises. There are things about them where I think they tell the same story, or they get at the same sentiment that I didn’t even realize. Someone told me, “Oh, it’s funny that you’re on a bed on both covers.” I really hadn’t thought about that.
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] That occurred to me today for the first time too.
MORBY: It’s a funny thing, I feel like that happens to artists all the time. It’s one of those things where, when someone said it to me, I had just never thought of that. On Oh My God I’m sitting on my bed in my room, and on Sundowner I’m on this prop bed meant to be my bed and it’s supposed to reveal I’m in Kansas. On Oh My God, I’m not wearing a shirt because I didn’t want it to be rooted in a time or place and it’s this stark white thing. Then on Sundowner you zoom out. There’s funny things like that that are revealed. On City Music and on Singing Saw, I sing about the nighttime a lot, in the sense of being eager for it to come. And when I lived in those places, I felt like my day began with the night, when the sun went down. When I found myself out here, the nighttime represented something much scarier, when I had to be with myself and there’s no distractions. I found myself chasing the days, which is what “Sundowner” is about. Not wanting the sun to go down.
STEREOGUM: When Oh My God came out, so many people talked about how sparse it was. Now, your albums weren’t ever exactly big, blown-out things, and there was less guitar on Oh My God. Even so, to me, there are ways in which it feels like there’s more going on. Whereas Sundowner, to me, feels way more sparse. Whether it’s the solitude, or the location — you know if you’re in a big valley or desert out in the middle of nowhere and you feel like you can kind of hear a car coming from three miles away? Where in the city you can’t hear someone halfway down the block because of all the noise? It has that feeling to me, like the songs are coming in off the wind from far away.
MORBY: I like that a lot. That’s definitely something I was going for. I think when I said that in interviews for Oh My God, I was really only talking about one or two songs. If you look at the personnel for that album, it’s a mile long, and the majority of the songs — and the singles — are not sparse at all. It’s actually pretty chaotic. It was a dense record, and the live show was very dense, and the whole idea of it was to make it this bombastic thing. For Sundowner, I wanted it to be stripped away. If I was able to tour right now, I would love to tour Sundowner in a van playing record stores and people’s backyards with only natural light — whereas for Oh My God we were in a bus for the first time and playing theaters.
I did want it to feel like songs coming in off the wind. Growing up in the Midwest it’s like the ugliest, most boring place in the world. I got to New York and it was so magical, life was so magical. Then I moved to LA and the beach, the way the desert air feels, are both so instantly beautiful. Then I moved back to the Midwest, I did see it with this new beauty I had never seen it before. It’s the sort of stuff you don’t notice when you’re growing up and want to go somewhere else. The Midwest, they’re called the flyover states because most people fly over it. I wanted to do my best to put what I thought was beautiful about it into my sound. That’s why I tried to leave this space on the record, to have it feel vast and sparse.
STEREOGUM: So that brings me to one of the songs I wanted to focus on, “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun.” You said this was your favorite on the record.
MORBY: When Katie and I started dating and she would come out here, she was coming from Philadelphia and I had just moved from LA. We were both leaving these bigger lives, and suddenly we were in the suburbs. Like, not even Kansas City itself. Even people in Kansas City are like, “Why do you live out in the suburbs?” It’s isolated even to them. The suburbs are sort of the most anonymous, behind-a-closed-door-you’re-not-going-to-be-bothered you can get. Even more so than the country, in a way. It was Katie and I existing out here getting to know one another kind of in this incubator, but then be pulled in our different directions and have to go back out on tour or whatever.
So that song, it’s just depicting that sweet time at the beginning of any relationship. The honeymoon period, where you don’t want anything to take you apart but things will inevitably change. I think it’s also my best depiction of how it feels out here. I have a lot of friends from the Midwest — some still out here, some now on the coasts — who have written to me about that song and say, “That really feels Midwestern to me.” It’s just one of those songs where, as an artist, I felt like I really got what I was going for. I love the space of it. Me and Brad Cook, we really just embraced space on that as much as possible.
STEREOGUM: Where in the chronology does that sit?
MORBY: Honestly, it was kind of in the middle. I think it was in the middle of the writing process just as it’s in the middle of the record. I think like the Midwest itself, it takes patience. But if you have the patience, I think there’s a beautiful payoff. It’s almost like the listener has to have the same patience of someone who’s used to the Midwest has to have, to see its beauty. I don’t think I could’ve written that song anywhere else.
STEREOGUM: Another song I wanted to bring up was “A Night At The Little Los Angeles.” This comes from a nickname applied to your house in Kansas City; you’ve brought the West Coast to Kansas in terms of décor and vibe, apparently. But you sort of turn it into this desert noir hotel story. It’s interesting in the song that it becomes mixture of real life and this seedy mythology, like everything’s colliding out in this big Midwestern expanse.
MORBY: Right, right. It’s as simple as, when I first moved back and was decorating my house, my friend was like, “You live in Kansas, you don’t live in Joshua Tree. Stop buying agave plants and painting your walls pink.” So I got this idea, a sort of Hollywood of the plains, the Little Los Angeles. I ran with that. I’m actually working on a short story I think I’m going to try to publish next year that’s a longer form of that song. I got into the idea of a bunch of people who have never been to Los Angeles but they go to this hotel in rural Kansas where it’s like stepping into a Little Los Angeles, or someone’s mythological fascination with it.
We’ve been making videos in western Kansas. There’s this rest stop area that has palm trees and stuff. It’s designed to look like the coast. And then there’s this sign I love, for Manhattan, Kansas, which is a pretty small town but it has this big sign on the open plains and it says, “We have flights to Los Angeles!” And it’s got a flight taking off. They’re so starkly different, Kansas and the California coast. I love putting them side by side and seeing what happens. That song is a bunch of personal details of my life mixed with — I was actually reading a lot of noir at the time. It was the one time on the record I wanted to dip into some fiction.
STEREOGUM: With the song “Provisions,” there’s a literal quality. It reminded me of driving across the country on tour and when you’re going through areas like West Texas, and if you have not gotten gas or water or food, you’re in trouble. There’s nothing for hours. But as the closer for the album, I felt like there was this spiritual quality as well, whether you are speaking to Katie or friends or family — on the other side of this grief and looking at these lives billowing out, this sense of carrying those with you for the long haul.
MORBY: Absolutely. The second to last song, “Velvet Highway,” and “Provisions” both came out of a trip Katie and I took for her birthday to Marfa, which was a precursor to when I went on to make this record at Sonic Ranch, which is outside of El Paso. For this trip, which would’ve been in the beginning of 2018, we flew to El Paso and we drove four hours to Marfa. So we were in West Texas. There is really something about those roads out there — it feels like you could just disappear. You need to take some precautions, have some water and food in case something happens.
“Velvet Highway,” that’s what everyone calls that road from El Paso to Marfa because so many jackrabbits run on it and get killed. But there was also this moment we saw a dead deer, and that just opened [“Provisions”] up to me. It just seemed like a bad omen. That then did open up the metaphor to me. Again, I was going through this breakup and I was beginning this new thing and I was back in my hometown… it was just, things are in flux and things are shifting over, and things always get worse before they get better. Just, take care of yourself. That’s the essence of that song. Focus on the thing ahead, the destination. That’s another one of the songs that, I think, really brought me over to thinking “I need to release this song during quarantine.” It just felt apt.
STEREOGUM: When Oh My God came out you said it felt as if it was the culmination of the preceding albums, and earlier you just said you now regard Oh My God and Sundowner as chapters of the same book. After that arc, does this feel like an epilogue, or a prologue to something else? Now that you’ve already had it sitting there for so long I guess I’m wondering where you’ve situated it in your head.
MORBY: I think it’s both an epilogue and a prologue, maybe hinting at what’s next to come. I think it definitely put a stamp on a lot of things I was saying on Oh My God. It’s only one chapter, but I think it did open up this new way of me writing songs. A big part of this record was, I wrote every part and was then just able to go into the studio and do it. In the past, I never really had that confidence. I would have to get the best session players, or get my tour-tight band. I think this opened up a lot of doors for me in some ways. In a different way… I don’t know, it’s my sixth record, and it definitely feels like the ending of some period. It’ll be interesting to see what that leads to.
STEREOGUM: I know you partially reached the point of finishing and deciding to release Sundowner because of quarantine — in that sense, it is kind of a quarantine album. But now that, as you said, you had to kind of do quarantine again, how has it been for you? Did you find yourself writing new stuff?
MORBY: I’ve been writing a lot of new stuff. Sundowner has been written for a really long time. So I’ve demoed a lot of new music, and at some point I’ll record all of that and get into that process. I’ve had as good of a time as one can in quarantine. I’ve been safe. I refuse to complain. I know there’s people out there whose struggles are much greater than mine. In the beginning, it felt like we had to do this all over again but at the same time, I was ready for this. In the beginning, we were in Australia on tour and we had this scary moment where we weren’t sure if we were going to get home. So I’m just so glad to be home and not locked out of the country away from everyone I love. I’m just trying to proceed the best I can. Just work on music and record it and get it out into the world as soon as possible.
Sundowner is out 10/16 via Dead Oceans. Pre-order it here.