Feeling old at the age 25 is one of those strange New York phenomenons, though, in the case of Kevin Morby, dropping out of high school, taking an one-way train from Kansas City to New York, and kicking around in bands as accomplished as Woods and The Babies, it's at least somewhat understandable. In the end, it's a feeling that compelled Morby to recently make the move to Los Angeles and manifests in a forthcoming solo debut. Harlem River, out November 26 via home-base label Woodsist, hones his practice of crafting small songs to say big things, this time in the mode of 60s golden age singer-songwriters. Following tradition, then, songs are softened around the edges so the bittersweet melodies can run deep, parting ways for the emotions that come with travel, world-weariness, growing up, being lost, and then found. We spoke to him about going solo, kids these days, and avoiding the dollar sign-shaped hot tubs of L.A.
Have you been sitting on this material for a while or was there a decision to make a solo record and then you started writing from there?
There are a few songs that I just recently wrote, but it's more stuff I've had for a long time, from when I first moved to New York. A couple songs on it are from far before I was in The Babies and maybe a few even before I was in Woods. I used to play alone as a kid—it'd probably be embarrassing if I'd listen to those songs now—but I've always been interested in solo careers and have always wanted to begin one at some point and [continue] it for the rest of my life. It’s funny, I went in to record, and I had maybe 20 songs. It's ended up as just an eight-song record, but it’s 45-minutes long, so they turned into something pretty different than what I had initially planned.
Were there any songs you had vetted out to The Babies or was there always the intent to save some for a solo project?
I think maybe one of them we had tried with The Babies, but it's lot more rootsy and not as favorable towards a rock band.
Would you say that's the defining difference between the two bands, stylistically?
I would say [the solo material] is more mature in some respects. It’s definitely pulling from a different circle of my influences than a lot of The Babies’ songs. More rootsy. I’ve always been drawn to singer-songwriters, and a lot of my favorite albums have been from them. I feel like there’s a cool resurgence with it right now too—there are a lot of really talented singer-songwriters out there.
I know the country thing gets thrown your way a bunch, but that actually seems pretty fair?
For sure. Absolutely. But I don’t like any actual [Top 40] contemporary country. It's all the "indie" country, which especially seems to be having a moment right now, like with Angel Olsen.
The country influence and a "western outlaw" narrative got talked about a lot about with [The Babies' last record] Our House on a Hill, but the polar opposite is at play too in a sort of sweet, Jonathan Richman-esque innocence and the idea of domestic bliss that's woven throughout—like right there on the album cover. When you call your solo album "more mature,” is it focusing away from that side of things?
With The Babies—I really noticed it on our last U.S. tour—we posted the dates and there were a lot of disappointed people because the shows were mostly 21 and over. We’ve got a younger fanbase, which is rad and amazing. But I think there's a crossover right now where Cassie [Ramone]'s and my songwriting is coming from such a difference place as opposed to a band like Wavves, but the younger crowd maybe sees the two as the same thing, a little bit. I feel like people who would get into The Babies through that sunnier, pop-song pipeline would hear my solo record and be like, "What the fuck is this?"
Did you ever think about releasing the new album under anything other than your own name?
I was actually going to call [the project] something different. I was toying with the name "Singer;" I took it from the sewing machine company. Their text is really cool and beautiful, and I thought I could use a variation of it. I Googled it and nothing came up, and then I put in a little more effort and found out there's a band with that name on Drag City, and they just put out a record. It was too good to be true, though, I mean, that could've been cheesy for a solo venture. That was me nervously trying to get out of using my own name.
After a songwriting debut that was co-written with someone else and there always being connotations of "side projects" with the other bands throughout your career, is having sole ownership of an album even more nerve-racking?
With a solo thing, it can be as casual or serious as you want it to be. I’m serious about it—I’m serious about the songs I write—but if it sucks and it fails, and you’re name is attached to it, there’s no hiding from it. It’s all or nothing, which is kind of cool. You ever watch that Netflix series on famous albums? There’s one really great Lou Reed one about Transformer, and he’s talking about how his first record was a flop. I’m a huge Lou Reed and Velvet Underground fan, and I’ve always looked to him as a huge source of inspiration, not only in songwriting, but also in how the Velvet Underground were never really popular, then they had this sort of renaissance when they were done. I just love stories like that. But he has this great quote where he’s like, “If you had a record that flopped, you just make another record." Then he says, “You make a record, and then you have the rest of your life ahead of you.” I just really like that sentiment a lot.
In hindsight, if you could flip the order of your career thus far and have your solo record come first, then have The Babies stem from that, being free of any Woods "side-project" associations, would you go that route?
No. I think this is great. Woods taught me how to be in a band—how to tour and perform in front of an audience. Then The Babies taught me how to sing in front of an audience and how to write songs better. And I can take all of that, everything I've learned, onto this new thing.
When recording the album, did you think about how it was going to translate live? Or are you not looking to tour around it?
A lot of the record is going to be hard to always recreate live—there's a lot of organ, and there are a lot of really talented people on it [Tim Presley from White Fence, Cate Le Bon, Will Canzoneri from Darker My Love and Cass McCombs' band, etc.] who probably can't tour all the time. But that's another thing I really like about the solo idea. The freedom of it being that band, and then the next time it just being me. I absolutely want to play it live, but I want it to always be changing.
The album title Harlem River is an obvious reference to New York. What was the thought process behind that?
It’s all very New York City-based songs, in a way, as an homage to New York. Like a goodbye letter, a little bit. Like I was saying earlier, a lot of the songs I wrote when I first moved here.
And why the decision to leave?
I love New York City, and I love the idea of New York City. I love the romanticized daydream of New York City that I live inside my head 24 hours a day… but it’s really not actually like that. I turned 25 [a few months ago], and I feel like I’ve reached a time where I’m really craving some sort of privacy and space, which I don’t think I’d crave if I weren’t touring all the time. And I think the scene in Brooklyn right now is cool, but I feel like I was part of a [different] up-and-coming crop. Now when I go to shows, I feel like a veteran. I’m like, these people are listening to this music that doesn’t make any sense to me.
What do you think has been the biggest change in the local music scene since you first moved here?
Williamsburg was something completely different than it is now. There were DIY art gallery spaces and way more venues. Just that alone has changed. Monster Island is no longer. I think with 285 Kent, that's when I started to feel a little bit old—like 285 Kent and the DIIV crowd. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I just remember being at those shows and feeling old—and I think DIIV are actually older than me. That’s when I started to be like, “Ok, this has changed.”
It was a really awesome time when I first moved here. All those bands like Matt & Kim and Japanther [were coming up]. It was just a super cool place where DIY was really a thing, and that was amazing. I feel really lucky to have caught the last leg of that. It’s just that all the bands that I know and have been a part of have all started out on a very small platform and then have gone on to grow. Like, I remember when friends’ bands were first playing Music Hall of Williamsburg, and I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I know someone playing there!” I moved along with the times, and the times have brought different things. And now I know there are new young people who are just moving to New York and are in touch with some DIY thing I don’t even know about.
Were you aware of the DIY scene that was happening in New York when you first got here, or did you just happen to fall into it?
I kinda knew it was happening, but not really, just because there were bands I wouldn’t have known about in Kansas City. I remember going to one of those Todd P Roosevelt Island shows. It’s such a funny day to think about: it was my third day in New York, I had no idea where I was, but I was like, “This is amazing.” Woods played—there’s a picture of me sitting there watching them, and I remember thinking, “This band is cool.” This girl came up and she was like, “I’m in this band we just started. It’s called Matt & Kim.” I met Todd that day too. I knew this was all something super special.
When Woods was starting to gain wider attention around Songs of Shame and you guys were playing with a lot of friends’ bands like Real Estate, did you consider yourself part of a scene?
Oh, 100 percent, for sure. It was super cool to be a part of that, or to have been a part of that. When it was happening, I remember constantly thinking how I grew up idolizing the K Records scene and late-70s punk in L.A. and New York, and I [couldn’t believe] that I was part of a scene. I thought it was cool that we were all such good friends, but the bands were all different. We’d all go on tour and people just couldn’t believe that we lived in Brooklyn—like, the coolest place.
Even with [frontman] Jeremy being upstate, Woods still tends to be referred to as a Brooklyn band, and The Babies always get the Brooklyn label. If it stays that way, even with you on the West Coast, will that bother you?
That’s totally fine. I like being in New York City bands. I hope people don’t call my solo thing “L.A. songwriter Kevin Morby…” I don’t want to be that. L.A. to me is a weird middle ground. I’m not obsessed with it; I don’t love it. But I like it a lot. It’s like moving back to the suburbs, but not in your lame town. I can have a house and the weather’s nice. I can go on hikes and go to the ocean. It’s like what you wanted your childhood to be.
What’s funny is, coming from the Midwest, when you tell people you’re moving to New York, they think you’re selling your soul or something. But in New York, the only place people get mad at if you move to is L.A. People are like, “Oh, you’re giving up!” But people have the misconception that I’m moving to L.A. and am doing cocaine in a dollar sign-shaped hot tub. But I’m just hanging with good people. New York is my favorite city in the world. We’re in a relationship, and we just need a little break.
Follow Lauren Beck on Twitter @heylaurenbeck.