Kevin Morby: Midwest American Son
photo credit: Johnny Eastlund
In certain ways, Kevin Morby has been training to quarantine for years. And, now, he’s ready to face the apocalypse head on.
It’s the Thursday after the Presidential Election and Kevin Morby is at home in the Heartland. On the other end of a telephone line, he lets out an anxious sigh and says, “I’m just waiting.”
Morby isn’t going anywhere—not tonight, not tomorrow, not the day after that either. Everything about Morby’s current arrangement is unusual; typically he’d be touring the world or recording in some studio in some strange town, or something. But these are not typical times.
The Thursday after the Presidential Election, America was still waiting to hear who We the People elected President. And as we sat with bated breath, we were also riding the crest of a disastrous second wave of the global pandemic, slowly watching the tidal wave approach as the death count continued to rise at an accelerated rate. It’s a situation that has suspended Morby’s career as a performing musician for going on a year. Like so many of his peers, the interruption has forced him to pivot. But Morby found himself in the unlikely position of being uniquely prepared for the unforeseen circumstances of 2020. In fact, he had a practice run at quarantining a few years ago, when he first moved back to Kansas City—at the time, he was looking to hit “pause” instead of “stop.” Call it a dress rehearsal for the apocalypse.
In the winter of 2017, Morby packed up his apartment in Los Angeles and moved into the house that he had bought in a Kansas City suburb—near where he grew up—several years earlier. It was then and there that he first wrote and recorded the demos for what would become Sundowner, the new album he released in the final stretch of 2020. Morby initially purchased the house in 2015 as an investment piece; after coming into some money from a record deal with Dead Oceans, he bought the property from his dad, who flips houses for a living.
Two years later, when his one and only tenant moved out, Morby saw a path open up ahead of him. “I was touring so much at the time and I didn’t want to pay rent in Los Angeles and also have a mortgage here, so I kinda thought I would just come back since my year was so crazy, and then probably go back to LA in a few months.”
But, by the time that those months came and went, his house had started to feel like a home. “I like the soft landing of the Midwest after being out on the road all the time,” he says. “So, yeah, I’ve been here ever since.”
Once he finished unpacking, Morby set to work, converting his backyard shed into a makeshift home studio where he could lay down basic demos. Using just a vintage Tascam four-track analog tape recorder and his acoustic guitar, he would plug and play, hunched over the microphone while brown recluse spiders scattered out of his way. For weeks at a time, those spiders were his only audience.
“When I first came back here, I thought I’d plug myself into the scene that I was in when I was 17 years old,” says Morby, who reconnected with a few childhood friends before realizing that being landlocked, over a thousand miles away from either coast, was actually a gift. “I became very reclusive here and sort of just stuck to my own little world, which is very jarring after being in a place like Los Angeles, where it’s nonstop socializing and music industry.”
His girlfriend, Katie Crutchfield—better known as recording artist Waxahatchee—came to visit and then stayed. The two of them formed a quarantine bubble before that term really meant anything to most people.
“In a way, it feels like we were clairvoyant, honestly,” Crutchfield says, looking back on their pre-pandemic social retreat. “We had weirdly set up our lives perfectly to have to spend a lot of time at home. We’re just outside a big city, but with access to everything we could want or need. We’re close to all this beautiful nature and can go on long walks without really seeing many other people.”
The musical couple would post up and play house on the home front before one, or both, had to go back out on the road for work, and they found themselves in a rhythm where the chaos of transience was balanced by the wide-open plains of Kansas—a place where you can watch the wind blow waves across the grasslands and life is still casual, pleasant and still.
It’s that exact picture postcard of Kansas that Morby was trying to mail, sonically, with Sundowner. The album’s title track hijacks a word most often associated with Alzheimer’s patients but, here, is used to express the condition in which one becomes increasingly melancholy in the evenings. It is a condition that is emblematic of the Midwestern dusk. When Morby lived in Los Angeles—and New York, prior to that, when he was a member of the psych-folk act Woods—the constant noise of city life would drown out those sunset sorrows, replacing such reflections with the cantankerous machinations of the hustle and the bustle. The urban rat race has a way of leaving inner rhythms behind in the prairie dust.
Throughout Sundowner, one can sense the country’s vastness in the corresponding spaces between the notes. The song “Campfire” (“There’s a campfire inside my soul/ And it billows”) has a section break where you can actually hear the crackling of a campfire.
The instrumental “Velvet Highway”—inspired by a stretch of road between El Paso and Marfa, Texas—is the sonification of that drive. The world goes by in monotonous images passing by the windshield, like a View-Master toy loaded with nearly identical shots—a spiritual and visual flipside to zigzagging around cinematic curves on California’s coastal highway, or the tense but unremarkable commutes through the Northeast’s I-95 corridor.
Sundowner’s closing statement, “Provisions,” (“And grab provisions/ There’s nothing for a hundred miles”) sounds like the kind of cautionary tale reserved for rocking chair quarterbacking on a veranda overlooking a field of wheat—the cash crop of The Sunflower State.
“It was absolutely something I was going for,” says Morby, of such song-born hallucinations. “I wanted to represent the Midwest both in the subject matter and in the sonic landscape. I have so many friends that I’ve made on the coasts—or in Europe or Australia and all over the world—that have never been to the Midwest. Kansas is known as a flyover state and Missouri is known as a flyover state, so I wanted to create a reason for someone to come and explore here.”
His girlfriend reports a similar sentiment. “We both get a lot of inspiration from the backdrop of the Midwest and, certainly, from being off the grid—or, at least, not in the thick of any music scene,” Crutchfield says. “I definitely like the space.”
But during a year where “staycation” has taken on brand new meaning, and where most people didn’t cross property lines for weeks or months on end, everybody’s had to learn how to travel in place. As such, Sundowner has become a perfect escape album—a virtual passport that can transport you to Kansas from your living room sofa.
“I think it’s a very silent, sort of hushed beauty here that’s not immediately rewarding; but when you tap into it, it’s very rewarding,” Morby says. “It’s not as immediate as the lights of New York or the coast of California, but the plains are this very sort of mysterious, quiet, beautiful thing.”
But while the singer/songwriter wrote Sundowner in his own self-imposed isolation, he was soon off to the races—completing work on what would become his commercial breakthrough album, Oh My God, and getting caught up in the machinery of the industry again. In January 2019, three months before Oh My God’s official release, Morby booked Sonic Ranch—a recording studio in a West Texas border town—where he again hunkered down, this time with producer Brad Cook, to formally record Sundowner. The remote conditions would help capture the “backyard shed” vibe of the initial demos. Once in the can, it was whoosh whoosh and he was off on tour again.
While Oh My God required touring with an eight-piece live band, the songs on Sundowner didn’t have room for all that real estate. Morby performed most of the music on the album himself, including mellotron and pump organ. Cook—who is known for his long association with Justin Vernon—laid down the bass tracks and brought in Big Thief’s James Krivchenia to add some percussive flourishes. The departure from Oh My God’s theatrics made Morby question how he could release Sundowner without it coming across like a whisper in response to a roar, but he had maybe a year or two to figure that out. And then the pandemic hit.
Morby was on tour in Australia when it happened. He had already been aware of the developing situation because his Japanese dates were canceled. Every day, the coronavirus became more and more prominent on the news. And then, suddenly, it became all too real, and scary, right as the band was getting ready to fly home from Melbourne.
“We learned that we had been on a flight a week earlier with someone who had the virus,” he says. “We had to contact the Australian CDC to see if we needed to quarantine, and we were possibly not going to be able to return home.” They were ultimately cleared to depart.
Morby was so relieved to get home that, even though he understood that his entire calendar was about to be canceled, he was OK with it. “We were on the phone with the CDC for two hours figuring this thing out,” he says. “Our management and our booking agent were on the call, and I remember thinking, ‘There’s no way the whole world’s not going to shut down.’”
Crutchfield flew in from an obligation in Nashville to stick out the stay-at-home orders with him and, when she speculated that everything might be postponed for a few weeks, he remembers telling her that he thought it would be more like a year.
“There’s a lot of things I was going to do this year,” Morby says—and this is where his story begins to sound a lot like every 2020 tale, minus the actual details. “I was going to tour all over the world for the majority of the year, but I was also going to get an apartment in LA and I was going to start splitting my time between here and there.”
Instead, he spent the rest of the year sheltering in place in Kansas, adjusting to domestic with his girlfriend, working from home and watching livestreams on his devices. A baseball fan, Morby follows the MLB on social media and he recalls, anecdotally, watching an Instagram Live with Alex Rodriguez, toward the beginning of the pandemic. “He’s married to J. Lo,” he recounts. “And J. Lo just happened to walk past him, in her pajamas, in the background. And he was like, ‘Come say hi to the camera.’ The world had just been flipped upside down and I saw J. Lo—with bedhead, in what she wore to sleep the night before—walk through the frame. I had this thought: ‘That’s the inside of their house and that’s what she looks like when she just wakes up.’”
As he was discovering, given that everyone has a black mirror within reach, the planet wasn’t suddenly barren and life did not suddenly stop. It was just much different. He realized that he had to adjust—that industries had to evolve. The internet has the ability to keep everybody connected and live video allows people around the world have a shared, communal experience in real time. “On the one hand, it’s intimate,” Morby says, thinking about being able to get a glimpse of A. Rod and J. Lo’s home life. “On the other hand, it’s not really tangible. You can’t reach out and touch that person.
“I feel I had already trained for quarantine because I’ve been doing this between my tours for extended periods of time for the past two years,” he adds. “So it felt like, ‘Wow, I’m back in the same place and now we’re all collectively in our own Kansas,’ if you know what I mean. We’re all collectively having to go through this thing.”
Morby saw an immediate resemblance between everyone’s shared experience with the global standstill and his personal experience during the time in which he was writing Sundowner. “It was always a little bit of a curveball,” he says, of the album’s left turn from Oh My God. “But then this pandemic created a strange landscape that was actually perfect for it… There’s a lot of things within the subject matter that really speak to where we are now.”
Had the world not come to a halt, he muses, Sundowner definitely would not have been released this year and, when it did come out, he admits it would’ve had a much different rollout. Instead of touring, he had to pivot to virtual experiences. He spent a month filming webstreams in which he performed all of his albums in their entirety, including Sundowner.
“It’s such a bizarre thing to play at a computer screen, knowing there’s hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people on the other side of it,” Morby says.
He recalls meeting Willie Nelson via FaceTime, in front of a virtual audience, for a livestream celebrating the Red Headed Stranger’s birthday. “It’s at once so personal and also so impersonal. It’s a very strange thing, but I’m glad to be able to connect with people on that level—at least we have that.”
After the Sundowner stream aired, he remembers feeling depressed. “It all hit me at once,” he says. “That was my year of touring, and it was gone in a two-hour period. And I think the smoke cleared and I was just looking at our harsh reality, like, ‘Oh, wow, we’re still in this thing and, who knows, this might not even be my only quarantine record. There could be another couple.’”
But art is supposed to be a reflection of culture and what is culture but an expression of the times. And to that end, Morby sees the silver lining. “Everyone’s collectively going through basically the same thing,” he says. “I know everyone’s version is different but, usually, you have a breakup album or an album about someone close to you dying and they usually seem unique. This is another shared experience that [all these musicians] are going to look at through these different lenses. It is going to be interesting to see, as everyone inevitably releases the records that they made during this time, what comes out of it.”
The Kansas state motto is “Ad Astra Per Aspera,” which means, “To the stars, through difficulties.” In other words, the road between here and our destinations might have potholes and obstacles and it might be bumpy. But there is a road. So Morby performed a month of livestreams and, while he passed on doing any drive-in concerts for the time being, he’s thinking ahead to different ways in which he can push on as the pandemic progresses.
“I would love to do a tour where I play outside, with only natural light, around sundown in front of small, socially distanced crowds,” he muses. He’s been taking the pandemic seriously and has followed all the protocols. He wears a mask, he keeps his distance, he washes his hands—but he’s not afraid of coming up with safe workarounds until he’s officially out of the woods. And in the meantime, it’s about working with what he’s got.
“To be alive—to be human—you can find that the most boring thing can actually be the most interesting thing, and vice versa,” he says. “It’s all about perspective. What artists do best, historically, is just work with what’s around them. Artists can get inspiration from any angle. I’ve done a lot of stuff this year that I would never have done, had I been out on the road. So I’ve just been counting all my blessings.”