Kevin Morby Interview: Religion, Heroes, and Oh My God
A concept album about religion, written at 40,000 feet, Oh My God is Kansas troubadour Kevin Morby’s fifth solo record since going it alone. He tells Gary Walker why it could be the best thing he’s ever done…
The evocative draw of the Harlem River, the sun-dappled open spaces of the “poor man’s Laurel Canyon” Mount Washington and the weathered grit of New York City: each of Kevin Morby’s albums has been imbued with a sense of place.
In 2019, that place is nowhere. In a celestial no man’s land above the clouds, halfway between terra firma and the heavens, the Kansas singer-songwriter who has called both US coasts home constructed his most ambitious record yet as he jetted around the globe on tour.
Oh My God is the fifth album the former Woods and The Babies member has released since going solo in 2013. Its 14 tracks are a naked exploration of religion, the incredulous titular exclamation embodying Morby’s dumbfounded reaction to recent global events. While religious imagery is sprinkled liberally through his previous work, this time it’s the central tenet. Morby’s entirely comfortable with the label concept album at a point in his career where he’s earned the right to make one.
Relaxing on a rare day back in the Midwest state he’s again settled in, and on a hiatus from a seemingly endless world tour which provided him with the air miles to write the album, Morby explains its genesis.
“Oh My God is a record that’s outside of a place,” he says. “There’s a motif through the record where it describes being above the weather and, if anywhere, I want to relate the record to that. I did write a lot of it on aeroplanes.
“My other records are tied to a place. I’ll definitely make my middle-America, Kansas record one day, but Oh My God I shot for to be a little outside of that, in an imaginary kind of place.
“It’s fine to call it a concept album about religion. Where I come from in the middle of America, growing up, religion is just in your vocabulary. It’s everywhere. The truth is that religion is everywhere, all over the world. I’ve always found it a really good way to tell a story. Using the imagery and idea of religion, you can tell many different stories, not just the story of something biblical. I just think it’s a beautiful part of our vocabulary.”
From the opening anxiety-inducing piano ascent of the title track, via ethereal mid-album instrumental Storm to the moment land comes blessedly into view on O Behold (“If the plane’s on fire/ Know I love you”) Oh My God is a spiritual journey played out on a plane. But Morby, who was raised by Methodist parents in deeply Christian Kansas, points out that his own perspective is a secular one.
“I’m a curious observer,” he explains readily. “I don’t belong to any religion. I’m definitely a spiritual person, but in terms of organised religion I don’t associate with anything.
‘The truth is that religion is everywhere, all over the world. I’ve always found it a really good way to tell a story.’
“The absurdity of the whole thing: the reason I decided to call it Oh My God is that it’s a phrase we all use so commonly. It’s fascinating how it’s weaved into our culture whether we’re religious or not, these terms referencing God or Jesus Christ. It’s a play on that, the idea that religion is there whether we know it or not.
“My whole point of the record, and the reason I made it is religion is everywhere and we’re constantly existing in its terminology and patterns.”
The phrase ‘Oh my god’, as well as the concept of being above the weather, first appeared in Morby’s music back in 2016, a mantra at the heart of the hymnal protest anthem Beautiful Strangers. The single addressed the barrage of saddening world events Morby found himself struggling to process, not least the death of 25-year-old African-American Freddie Gray while in police custody.
“There’s a line in that song, which I also use in the song Oh My God and OMG Rock N Roll on this album. When I wrote that, it was the first time I found myself with the chant or mantra of ‘Oh my god’. I wrote that song largely about current events and what was happening in the world at that time. ‘Oh My God’ seemed to be the only thing that captured my feelings surrounding everything happening.
“Politically in America… Bataclan happened that year, public shootings, police brutality against African-Americans in America… I just found that every time I turned on the TV or opened a newspaper, I was saying the phrase ‘Oh my god’, be it because the news was so ridiculous and hilarious or because it was so devastating. It was the only thing that summed up my feelings.
“It became one of my bigger songs and I noticed people really relating to the part in the song where there’s the mantra of ‘Oh my god, oh my lord’ and people really took to that. It’s why that phrase has lived on as long as it has, and in 2019 when we see something funny, or sad, or tragic, or disgusting, we say the phrase ‘oh my god’, it’s something people inherently feel. So I ran with that as the foundation of my new record.”
Standing on stage, facing audiences in countries all over the planet, Morby is perfectly placed to gauge the collective reaction to the spiral of bad news he references. “It’s a collective gasp,” he says, “as if your breath has been taken away, and that’s the best way to sum up what Oh My God is to me and people’s reaction. People are very angry, people are very divided, especially here in America. I’ve never quite felt it like this before, even through the Bush administration. Things were bad then, and the country has been divided before, but nothing like it is now. People are so angry, they’re so divided and it’s a tough time.
“I think the internet plays a big part, too. It’s almost like people don’t know what’s real and what’s not anymore.”
It’s easy to forget Morby only went solo six years ago, such is the swift efficiency with which he’s built a refined body of work that marks him out as one of the most eloquent craftsmen of his generation. Indeed, there was a real danger that Oh My God would follow too soon after City Music to allow time for reflection and a refreshing of the sonic palette.
‘I found that every time I turned on the TV or opened a newspaper, I was saying the phrase ‘Oh my god’… It was the only thing that summed up my feelings.’
With the assistance of close friend and longtime musical conspirator Sam Cohen and drummer Nick Kinsey, Morby stripped back the initial album sessions, setting aside the vivid colours and lo-fi guitar folk of his previous records in favour of a monochrome picture. Morby’s voice is foregrounded and given more room to breathe, with fewer instruments in the mix.
This doesn’t mean that these are minimalist sketches lacking in substance, though. Quite the opposite – at the heart of this luxuriant double album is the outstanding Dylan-esque Hail Mary, honed down from an initial 15 minutes to three incisive verses. It’s one of the best songs Morby has ever released. Elsewhere, Mary Lattimore’s harp playing, the saxophone of Cochemea Gastelum and a seven-voice choir add to the celestial air, while some gloriously wanton guitar playing from bandmate Meg Duffy lights up Piss River.
“Sam and I got together to make this record and put a band together,” Morby remembers. “What we stumbled into wasn’t bad, but when we went back and listened to it we felt we were making Singing Saw part 2, which we really wanted to avoid.
“We put our heads together and asked, ‘What are we trying to say here? What do we want it to be?’ Sam came up with this idea for the song Nothing Sacred / All Things Wild. He said, ‘Nick, instead of you playing drums, just play the congas. Kevin, don’t play guitar, I’ll just play organ and Kevin you just sing. Just be the singer’.
“We tracked that song that way and the moment we did that we had stumbled into what we were trying to find, the sonic territory. We wanted to create something that felt timeless but also very modern, like something you’d see in a modern museum, like the MoMA. A sonic form of a painting with only three colours. A Keith Haring or something: black, white and blue, with not much going on – it could have been made 50 years ago or it could have been made two years ago and that became the mission statement of the record. That was the sonic territory we were trying to reach.
“Singing Saw was very colourful. When I hear that record, I see a lot of greens and oranges and blues. This time, we wanted a stark image with only one or two colours.”
The Bare Bones
In constructing that stark sonic framework, Morby again instinctively channelled some of his favourite writers. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell were central to the DNA of Singing Saw, while City Music resonated with the scratchy New York City lo-fi energy of Lou Reed and the Velvets.
“There’s always the basis of my heroes, like Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed,” Morby acknowledges, “but for this one I wanted to achieve a different sonic plane. I was listening to Yoko Ono, John Cale, Arthur Russell, Suicide… bands that are good at deconstructing a song and breaking it down to its parts. They’ll strip elements away and make these bare-bones songs that are very powerful and very naked.”
It’s no stretch to see Morby as a fitting recipient of the great American songwriting torch from some of those icons that have informed his past records. But what does it mean to be a folk singer and songwriter in the face of today’s fragmented musical landscape and seemingly desensitised populous? Can Morby’s music really make a difference? He’s upbeat about the job.
“I began to notice a couple of years ago that having a platform, a soapbox to stand on, whatever you do, you can choose to use that for good. I try to do a charitable single every year. Beautiful Strangers was for charity, last year I did a song called Baltimore for a charity in the city. If you see what your strengths are and apply that to something good, you can help make a change in your little minor way.
“On stage, I talk about the fact that we’re all in one room, getting along in that time and place, and choosing to spend our time together. Sometimes music provides the fire for people to gather round and enjoy themselves, and I really like providing that.”
A Different Step
California, New York City and a little secular heaven above the weather; we ponder where album six might take Kevin Morby. While his answer to the question of whether he’s already working on that record is simply a tantalising “I am”, he’s satisfied he’s made a defining statement with Oh My God. Asked whether he thinks it’s his most complete, fully realised album to date, he’s emphatic.
“I do. I think my last few records were complete as well, but through all my work in the studio and on the road, I’ve kind of earned this record. I was able to do a double LP and do things like Storm, which is just the sound of a storm for two minutes, which I maybe wouldn’t have done on a past record.
“My goal with the past records was to deliver the music to people as quickly as possible and convince them to listen to me.”
“This feels a little bit more on my terms, I’m coming at it with a different sense of confidence having been doing it for quite a while. It feels like a different step for me.”