KC singer-songwriter Kevin Morby on our present pandemic predicament, how the Midwest was always kind of a quarantine state and the gratitude a virus can inspire
No Rooftop on My Joy
Haines Eason: Let’s dive right in. What is this pandemic … I hate even saying the word, it’s so weird … what has it done to your life? I’m sure you’ve dealt with show cancellations. Were you in a tour, coming off a tour…?
Kevin Morby: It’s been funny tracking this. When something like this happens you have to look at everything that happened on either side of it. I did a tour in Europe for all of February, basically, and I got off of that, and I went straight to L.A., and then straight from L.A. we were supposed to go to Japan and then to Australia. And while I was in L.A., in between Europe and Japan, I saw that it was heating up in Asia, and I made the judgement call to not go to Japan.
It’s funny now… I made that judgement call… We were supposed to play Tokyo on our way to Australia… We really wanted to go, but it just didn’t seem like a good idea. The promoter was saying “the show will still be on, but we’re going to make everyone wear masks and you’re going to have to wash your hands when you come in…”
HE: That’s wild. So they were literally like “green light, but masks.”
KB: Yeah. Because it was at this weird point in time before anything was shutting down, it was in that weird intermediate period where everyone was like “what is happening?” So I made the judgement call to not go, and it made me feel insane, to make a call like that. You’re like “am I giving in to the media… It ended up costing a lot of money and I knew that, but I need to look out for myself and the safety of my band.
So we decided to go to Australia, and in our minds we were like “oh, there’s nothing wrong with going to Australia,” and in the two weeks we were there, each day there was more and more about it in the news… It went from being something that didn’t seem like it was going to affect us at all to being we need to get out of Australia by the end of it. Our last day, we were in Melbourne, and it was feeling like all flights were about to ground. It heated up so quickly. It was like I left Australia, and I got back here, and I went to sleep, and I woke up, and Trump was closing the borders to Europe.
HE: How is your band taking it? It’s maybe different for the guy or girl out front. What are they going through?
KM: It’s funny, because everyone is kind of down and out right now, but at the same time we’re facing this global pandemic so, it’s different than if we had to cancel the tour because I broke my arm and the rest of the world is moving on but we had to stay in one place. I think the problem at hand is so large that no one feels like it’s personal. We know everyone is going through this, so it feels silly to complain about our situation. The band is bummed but they’re more concerned about their loved ones getting the coronavirus.
HE: We have a shelter in place in Lawrence--I need to check the terminology. I know you’re under one, too. But before all this went into effect, being that you live in the Midwest, did you feel at all like “oh, this is getting bad but I have a place I can go where I’ll be all right?”
KM: I’ve never been more grateful for the Midwest, honestly. Living here… I lived in New York for so long and I lived in L.A. for so long… All my people live in those places. But every time I come here … it’s basically like my life is one big quarantine here anyway. It’s not where I socialize, it’s where I rest and work and see my family.
It’s funny. At the beginning of this year I was really feeling like this is the year that I’ll move back to New York. I’ll still keep my place in Kansas City… But now… I have so many friends struggling in New York, also in Los Angeles… I am grateful to be here.
There’s something so peaceful about the Midwest for the same reason people frown upon it: It’s quote-unquote boring. There’s a peace in the fact that life here is slower.
HE: I feel the same way about Lawrence. It’s never going to be an Austin even though it has the Austin vibe. It’s in Kansas and everyone thinks Kansas sucks and I say great, let them think that… So, what’s on the horizon for you? A lot of musicians are going online, they’re doing free shows, they’re doing charity work… What does an average day look like for you, and what are you planning in the near term?
KM: My days have been not too much different than life as usual here. In fact, with the quarantine, it’s made it a little bit easier. The schedule of touring… On the road it can be strenuous traveling as much as you have to travel and being as social as much as you have to be social. But at the same time, it gives you a cut-and-dry schedule. And when you come back, sometimes you can feel like you’re floating through the air, sometimes it can make you feel crazy. With the rules of a quarantine, you just have to stay in and you’re confined to your space, it’s actually … I don’t want to make it sound like I’m glad this is happening… I am not glad this is happening.
But in terms of my own personal experience, it’s been nice to reacquaint myself with my home here. I feel like when I’m here normally I just use it as a landing pad, a place to sleep, and binge watch a lot of TV, but this is forcing me to make every meal in and really take advantage of it. I’ve started a garden in the last few weeks and I’m going through my library and looking at all my records… I’ve rearranged my house… It feels really nice. Other than that, there’s plenty for us musicians to do. I’ve done a lot of live Instagram shows… A lot of people say they bring them relief, which is really nice. I’m also doing a Tiny Desk concert from home, I need to record that later today.
HE: It does feel like there’s more of a sense of purpose right now. We’re all finally … there are dissenting voices, of course. Fox is still doing the Fox thing, trying to make this not what it is. But, for the most part, it does seem like we’re all a little more together, in it, than we have been.
KM: I feel like we’re forced to talk about the positives because if we’re not talking about the positives we’re weighing on the negatives. I think what I’m trying to see out of this is a collective break from everything. It is very frustrating to see people like Trump, and his take on it. It’s a shame that during a pandemic that’s our fucking leader.
I think there’s a lot to be learned from this. I think that it’s good the environment is getting a break. I think it’s important for us all to zoom out. Things like this have happened around the world for as long as I’ve been alive but we’ve never really cared. The fact that now the West, that Europe, Australia, America are facing the same problem as people in Iran or China… I think it’s good. I think it unites us all. It’s a shame there are going to be a lot of casualties to this thing… It’s like when you personally get really sick. When you’re finally well you remind yourself to not take it all for granted. I think it’s so easy to take the simple things for granted. I’m hoping the collective consciousness can come out of this thing just a little more enlightened.
HE: Have you faced any challenges in your life where your mortality has been questioned or any grave circumstances? I have personally, so I very much appreciate what you said about a new perspective post trauma…
KM: Nothing too personal in terms of life or death… More in terms of losing someone close to me. You know what’s funny, last year I had to cancel a tour because I had a bad virus, I was really sick. It was the day before the European tour, and I had to cancel it, and the virus didn’t go away for two weeks, and it was a freak virus—the doctors never could fully diagnose it. Something was wrong but they couldn’t put their finger on it, and then it just went away. But it’s interesting to me that the last time I was locked down in my house for two or three weeks I was very sick while the rest of the world was just going about its daily life. And then, I was very sick and doctors couldn’t tell me what it was, and now, we’re all taking these preventative measures … it’s just … it’s interesting. The tour I was able to do this year, I was so grateful for it. As a musician, when something is sort of taken away from you like that, you wake up and you’re supposed to go on tour and suddenly you can’t because of your health, it really makes you spin out. It really makes you think “are people going to be mad at me, am I going to be able to go back,” you know, these silly questions that are kind of so stupid. Of course people aren’t going to be mad at you.
I think just having these experiences … it just makes you so grateful that you can do something like [make music] at all. But now that we’re facing this global thing, it makes me grateful for the smaller things, just that I have a home and that my family is safe for the time being. It makes you zoom out. Humanity, we’ve just been on this race track just going so many miles an hour.
Photo credit Johnny Eastland.
HE: I want to pause for a moment have the obligatory conversation about your influences. It will become clear why I’m going this way in a minute. The internet tells me of course you like Lou Reed and Bob Dillon and Nina Simone… I also saw a Simon Joyner reference out there. But, when I listen to you, I pick up The National, I pick up Townes Van Zandt and I pick up a little of John Fahey. Do any of those ring any bells for you?
KM: Townes Van Zandt is very big. The National, some of those guys are friends of mine. I never really listen to them that much, but we’re probably pulling from similar influences…
HE: Now I can’t let you off the hook there—who would those influences be?
KM: I think John Fayhe, Townes Van Zandt, and the other names you listed.
HE: Now what is it about John Fahey. That’s not a name a lot of people talk about any more. When I hear you, my mind locked on him—bam. What is it about him? Sunflower River Blues. Something I heard in one of your songs, and I can’t pinpoint which song it was… I’ve been listening to “Gift Horse” on repeat. I’m going down a wormhole here and making this more about me than you, and I apologize, but what is it about Fahey. Am I crazy?
KM: John Fahey is someone… I definitely learned to finger pick by listening to his records when I was a teenager. He’s just somebody who created a style that became the style. He’s someone who made his way into any folk musician’s music whether they know it or not. He sort of wrote the rule book to a certain style of guitar playing. It’s just sort of in the ether, I think.
HE: Kind of like a Link Wray. Kind of like a bookend. That person just defines it.
KM: Yeah. Exactly.
HE: Now, the reason why I cued on those artists, Fahey maybe less so but Townes Van Zandt and The National for sure… Their focus on mortality. They can be morbid; they are musicians who grin in the face of darkness and like to lick a wound… Is that you?
KM: I definitely like to speak on those subjects and those are very inspiring subjects for me. I think for me it’s a comfort thing. Broaching those subjects, death or the grim tales of the universe … it’s the same reason why I’m reading the plague by Camus right now. There’s something about walking into the darkness. Embracing it… If you confront it, then it can’t have too much on you. But if it’s looming over your head, or on the periphery, then it’ll agitate you. But if you look it in the eye, you can size it up as much as it can size you up.
HE: Maybe that’s why you’re comfortable at home during this crisis.
KM: Yeah, maybe…
HE: I’ve been stuck on this one lyric. I’ve been listening over and over to “Gift Horse.” There’s the second to the last stanza… The second half of that stanza… “Time ran away with everyone / It’s a crime to be so young and dumb / No one made you act so tough and rough / But still those shaking hands.” The shaking hands stick with me. I’m struggling for a question. I just want to put those lyrics in front of us. I’m really putting you on the spot.
KM: That’s fine. It’s funny you bring up that song. That’s one of the only songs I’ve ever written in the studio. I wrote it on a whim as we were setting up the mic to record another song… In setting up the mic I just started to write it and we recorded it instead of the other song…
HE: So it came out fast.
KM: It came out in like an hour. The lyrics are kind of just pulled out of thin air. But the sentiment of that song… Youth, the destructiveness of it. When you’re young you do the things that shape you. It’s also the time in your life where you’re rambunctious. You’ll dive into things that maybe perhaps you shouldn’t dive into. You can try to be tough and strong, but I think the shaking hands … but still you’re a kid.
HE: Or still you’re a human. You don’t realize what your limits are until you’re past them and your body is saying “you’ve gone past what I can handle.”
KM: Exactly. There’s always humanity.