Kevin Morby: Hallelujah

Mike Ayers on August 29, 2019
Kevin Morby: Hallelujah

photo by Barrett Emke

Having fully embraced the “old-soul” reputation he earned when he was the baby in the Woods family, Kevin Morby looks inward on a deeply spiritual and meditative new LP.

Kevin Morby is a bit sweaty and slightly out of breath. It’s an odd sight on this cool spring night. But he just biked 60 blocks, darting a weaving through rush-hour traffic as the sun started to set over New York City. And now he’s ready to be at peace.

“I’ve gotten really into Transcendental Meditation,” Morby says, standing outside Inscape, a wellness and meditation center in the Flatiron section of Manhattan. He’s tall and built like a power forward, but possesses a laid-back, sun-soaked aura.

This meditation spot is clean and chic, a bit like an Apple store but with numerous CBD products lining the shelves. It’s selling a lifestyle built on the idea that you can be a better person, with more clarity, more focus, more perspective, through mindfulness classes like “Total Calm – Deep Relaxation,” “Tree of Life – Inner Journey” and “Reset – Mental Fitness.” On tap for Morby this night is “Spaces in Sound – Deep Sound,” which that boasts you’ll reach a deep state of mind with the guidance of instruments.

“I’m so glad to be doing this,” Morby says, taking a sip of cucumber water. After a few moments, he’s ushered into a hexagonal room that feels like a sacred space. Little pallets line the floor, with pillows and blankets on each one. The room is awash in a purple-ish glow, emanating from the low ceilings; Morby finds a spot close to the door and promptly lies down. The space is filled with twenty and thirty-somethings, presumably just off work.

And it’s quiet. Morby has already seemingly gone into a relaxed state, or he’s at least prepping for it. “What I really believe is that the higher power comes within,” Morby would say hours later. “It’s probably chaos that brought us all here, but there’s magic in the universe too, just like there’s evil in the universe and disease in the universe. It’s all existing and it’s noticing that magic—taking time to talk to yourself. I’m trying to take care of myself. The world is an open vessel.”

That ethos is the essence of Morby’s fifth solo album, Oh My God, a phenomenal musical leap forward in a solo career that has taken off in the past six years, starting with his 2013 debut, Harlem River. The new album is a meditation on religion, weather, higher callings, football metaphors, love, death and, perhaps, the afterlife too. At its core, Oh My God finds Morby wanting his listeners to find something to hold on to. As he puts it: “finding your own salvation in a world that has no salvation.”

The meditation guide enters the room and, in a hushed voice, delivers instructions on what to expect: “You may fall asleep. Let the sounds guide you. Let go.” With a ringing of a chime, the session starts and Morby just lies there, still. More chimes envelop the room, making it nearly impossible to have competing thoughts that weren’t focused on the music.

Raised in Kansas City, Mo., Morby didn’t grow up in a religious household, but religion was all around him. His father worked for General Motors before pivoting to a career in house flipping, while his mother worked for various insurance companies. Morby started playing guitar when he was 10 but was always conscious of the Midwest’s religious roots. “It was a very God-fearing atmosphere,” he says. “There were billboards everywhere and churches would have marquees with banners on them. There were a lot of situations where my friends’ parents would ask what church we belonged to and I’d say ‘Methodist,’ and they’d ask what church we went to and I’d say, ‘Well, we don’t really go to church.’ And they’d call my mom up and ask us to go to church—very passive-aggressive Midwest.”

So one day, he went. “My mom didn’t go, but my dad and I went,” Morby recalls. “And my friend’s father was crying throughout the service. There were tears in his eyes and he was very moved. I looked at my dad and he was asleep. I remember this mentality: ‘We work all week; we don’t want to have to go to this chore—serve the Lord or something.’” I remember at the end of the service, my dad was like, ‘I’m not going to come back here. You should if you want to.’”

At 17, Morby dropped out of high school, got his GED and, a year later, moved to New York City, despite the fact that he didn’t have a job or even any contacts there. During his first weekend in his new home, he went to a show where the Dirty Projectors were doing Bob Dylan songs and he was smitten with everything: the city, the music it contained and the creativity it seemed to spawn. For years, as he was making the right musical connections, he got by doing jobs like babysitting, bike delivery and working as a barista. “I really paid my dues,” he says of those early days. “It was the best. Fucking unbelievable. I was 18 [and] that DIY culture of the time—it was unreal. Then, after a couple years, I fell into playing with the right people—and I slowly let myself be vulnerable and put myself out there.”

After meeting the members of Woods while he was working in the service industry, Morby joined the psychedelic folk-rock band as their bassist in 2008 and quickly got an early education on what life on the road is like. Morby played with Woods up until 2013, engraining himself in a close-knit musical community that included the members of Real Estate and Vivian Girls. In 2009, in the wake of his close friend Jamie Ewing’s death from a heroin overdose, he also formed The Babies with the late musician’s Bossy bandmate, Vivian Girls’ Cassie Ramone. Though they only released two albums, he credits the group as the first true vehicle for his original songwriting. The project’s sobering origins were a sign of the inward, personal approach his solo career would take.

Morby left New York City for Los Angeles in 2013, just as his solo career was about to start in earnest. “New York was bubbling over,” he says. “Everything I loved about it was going away. LA felt like a small town.”

The move proved to be serendipitous. In 2016, right after Trump was elected and the world seemed to be in a state of upheaval, Morby penned a song called “Beautiful Strangers,” a number that was inspired by current events like the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Bataclan terror attack in Paris and the suspicious death of Freddie Gray.

“There was a lot of tension at the time,” he says. “I was going through a bad break up and the world was just insane. I had this breakthrough in my career with my [2016] record Singing Saw, but it wasn’t changing the fact that I was unhappy. I got back from tour and was living in LA and, literally, it was on fire. I was living in a strange sublet, and I started to feel like I was living in hell. There was ash in the air [from the wildfires]. It started to feel like the world was elevated.”

“Beautiful Strangers” drips with Dylan-esque folk—Morby surrounded by some guitar, soft rhythms and gospel-tinged background singers. It’s six minutes long and explores everything from death to gun violence to the police (or, as he calls them, “the coppahs”). But around the four-minute mark, Morby starts to look upward, in a chantlike style, singing, “Oh, my Lord, come carry me home. Oh, my god, oh my Lord, oh my God, oh my Lord.” It’s that line that was the impetus for Oh My God.

“Came out of nowhere,” he says. “And it’s this mantra. I’ve noticed people really relate to that. When I sing it live, they chant that. Whenever I opened up the news—whether it was funny or tragic—‘Oh, my god’ was the only thing I could apply to my emotions. Once I had the concept and wrote a few songs with that embedded in it, I just ran with the spiritual aspect—both sonically and within the subject matter.”

There’s always been an old-soul vibe buried within Morby’s music, even when he was considered the “baby” among his DIY Brooklyn peers—he mines from the ‘60s and ‘70s folk and psych scenes often, coming off like Leonard Cohen at times with his vocal phrasings. Oh My God doesn’t deviate from that formula too much, but it also veers into some new territory: A choir shows up often on “Beautiful Strangers” and songs like “Piss River” and “Seven Devils” are more complex narratives. “OMG Rock n Roll” could be a lost Velvet Underground jam, while the opener, “Oh My God,” is driven by piano and an ultra-smooth sax.

But the running thread throughout Oh My God is the phrase, “Oh, my God.” It shows up in numerous songs, almost taking on a life of its own. It’s a phrase that people use casually, and have forever at this point—and Morby uses it as a device to not only frame his album, but also his worldview. “It’s an incredible tool to tell a story,” he says. “And it’s a breadcrumb trail back to religion.”

The album, too, was written as close to God—or at least heaven—as Morby’s ever been: He says he composed a vast majority of the music above the clouds, while on airplanes. And the way the album is tracked mirrors a plane trip, from takeoff to landing.

“I wanted it to exist nowhere,” he says. “Above the clouds, above the weather. Everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Sonically, I wanted to represent that.”

“We really wanted to make a strong statement, and make a cohesive album that would stand out from his past work,” says musician and producer Sam Cohen, who sat behind the boards for Oh My God and Singing Saw.

They laid the initial groundwork for Oh My God at Cohen’s Brooklyn studio over a week in January 2017, starting with the songs “Savannah,” “Nothing Sacred/All Things Wild,” “No Halo” and the title track. From there, Morby went out on the road to support City Music (which hadn’t even come out yet) and toured for almost a year before returning to Cohen’s studio with a fresh batch of music to work on.

“What seemed most exciting were the songs that felt like they could have a levitational quality, where we could strip away acoustic guitars and band instruments and do something more modern,” Cohen says of what would become the very first Oh My God session. “Modern in the art sense—minimal, abstract, trying to communicate a pure luminous feeling, as opposed to creating the mood by using musical references.”

“Flying became this escape through everything I’m talking about: Trying to get away from the internet, trying to get away from the news,” Morby says. “They say humans are afraid of two things: heights and loud noises. So you’re in this elevated state when you’re up there. And I do a really good job at making decisions when I’m up there. I’m always finishing songs. I’m always listening to demos and I’m like, ‘Here’s the last lyric I’m going to do.’ It’s do or die up there.”

Back at Inscape, the sound meditation becomes much louder about 30 minutes in. It’s enveloping the entire room in a very droney way and Morby continues to lie there, motionless, taking it all in. Later, he says that he felt like he was in a state between consciousness and sleep, and the sounds were only enhancing that. But situations like this, he says, are as close as he can ever come to a religious experience. Connecting with yourself, with your senses, with music, is really the only thing that makes sense to him spiritually.

As the session comes to a close, he drifts back into full consciousness and quietly shuffles out of the room alongside the rest of the class. Morby’s still flying under the radar in many ways; he can attend something like this, remain unrecognized and tune out the world that has weighed on him so heavily in recent years.

Oh My God was released a few weeks later, and most critics greeted it with kind reviews. And, Morby has a lot of excitement on the horizon: He’s been touring marquee clubs and theaters with an expanded backing band that includes Dap-Kings/Robert Walter saxophonist Cochemea “Cheme” Gastelum, Tedeschi Trucks Band singer Alecia Chakour and Cohen. In late September, he’ll reunite with the late-‘00s Woods lineup for a special performance in upstate New York as part of the Woodsist Festival. The homecoming show will also function as something of a comeback for Woods, who have been quiet for much of the past year while singer/guitarist Jeremy Earl started a family and multi-instrumentalist Jarvis Taveniere hunkered down on a variety of studio projects in LA. (The Woods principals also worked with Silver Jews’ David Berman on his first new music in 11 years and, along with the current Woods lineup, backed him on the road this summer.)

But just as important, Morby is proud his new LP resonates with fans in ways he hadn’t seen with his previous records. “It feels like it’s on a larger scale,” he says while on a break from rehearsing for the Oh My God tour. “When a record comes out, critically, there are going to be people who are obsessed with it or who are disappointed with it. For me, it’s always gauging a general fan response. That felt really strong. I’ve had people already writing and telling me how much it means to them. That feels the best.

“The earth is so manmade at this point,” he adds. “Everything is so affected by humans and everything is how humans perceive it—these stories we try to tell ourselves. It’s a record about trying to find hope within the chaos.”

This article originally appears in the July/August 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.