Interview by Rodrigo Amarante
Images & Video by Sophie Caby
“I never thought of myself as better than
anybody. I just wanted to see
—Kevin Morbydifferent parts of the big wide world.” — Kevin Morby
Kevin Morby is a bassist, guitarist, singer and songwriter, formerly of New York-based bands Woods and The Babies. After relocating from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Morby embarked on a solo project, releasing Harlem River (2013) and Still Life (2014). His forthcoming record Singing Saw was written in Los Angeles and recorded in Woodstock, NY, with producer Sam Cohen and a cast of supporting musicians and vocalists.
Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Rodrigo Amarante is a songwriter, musician and former member of the bands Los Hermanos, Orquestra Imperial and Little Joy. His career began in 1999 when he formed Brazilian band Los Hermanos, who went on hiatus in 2007 after four albums. During this hiatus, he founded Orquestra Imperial, then relocated to California, forming Little Joy with Fabrizio Moretti and Binki Shapiro. Amarante’s first solo record, Cavalo, was released in 2014 to critical acclaim.
I met Kevin at a bar, or maybe a bar is where we talked about how neither of us remember where we met. One or the other. I know I liked him right away. As he performed on stage, his elbows and guitar—the cardinal points of his figure—moved on an axis like a weathervane in a storm. His lyrics were not propped up by adjectives. He was focused. I liked that.
Kevin walks to be lucky—he’s betting on something, and it looks good. His knees pull him that way, and the corners of his mouth don’t hide it. It made me want to know where he came from and what was on his mind when he left. Maybe he was ignoring all of the odds as I was at 18, leaving my home in Brazil and zig-zagging west. So I asked him.
Rodrigo Amarante: When did you move out of Kansas City?
Kevin Morby: In 2006. I was 18 and bought a one-way ticket to New York on an Amtrak train. The idea of flying was frightening. Just the idea of leaving Kansas City seemed insane. I had an irrational fear that if I left or got too far away from it, I would die. Everyone told me to fly, but I’d never really left the Midwest so I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that I could arrive in a two hour period, as if I just ate a sandwich and watched a movie.
So I took the train. I told myself, “I’ll stop in Chicago and Cleveland, and if I’m still brave enough, I’ll go on to New York.” Chicago is the nearest big city to Kansas City, so I had a lot of friends there and thought, “It’s pretty cool here. I could just live here and not go any further.” But I forced myself to go to Cleveland and visit more friends. In Cleveland, I really thought about getting on the train back to Kansas City.
My friend dropped me off at the train station at like 5 a.m. It was like a movie moment: two trains were there, both going different ways—one to Kansas City, one to New York. I got on the one to New York, and that was a big moment for me. It was the complete opposite of flying because all of the sudden you’re in Penn Station, in the stomach of this city.
“It was like a movie moment:
Two trains were there, both going different ways
—one to Kansas City, one to New York.”
— Kevin Morby
RA: What was your plan?
KM: For most things in my life at that time, there was no plan. I had saved up like 500 dollars, which to me seemed like it could get me through a year. My plan was to meet up with friends and go from there. I didn’t have a solid place to stay or anything. I had a cell phone, but obviously my relationship to my cell phone then was nothing like today—there were no maps or anything.
RA: I also got out of town when I was 18. Dude, if I had a cell phone…
KM: Where did you go?
RA: I lived in a small city in northern Brazil called Fortaleza. Compared to a small American town, it was huge, but in terms of what was happening there, it was small. My dad had a Russian car then, and he gave it to me. It was a piece of shit, but I loved it. It kept breaking down, and whatever money I saved I put into the car until I had to leave it.
This would have been 1994. I had to hitchhike to the town and ask around for a guy with spare Russian car parts, then hitchhike back. It was a pain. By the time I got to the town, the highway patrol was looking for me. My dad somehow managed to find out where I was.
KM: Your trip sounds so magical. It’s easy for me to imagine a scenario in which someone gets in trouble because they don’t have a cell phone, but I also think having a cell phone every day is psychologically damaging. There’s a lot more real danger involved in your story of leaving town.
RA: It’s the same story in the fundamental sense. You turn 18 and want to see the world for yourself. In Rio de Janeiro, which is a great town, everybody believes it’s the best place in the world. When we moved from Rio to Fortaleza, my dad sold it to me in a very intelligent way. He said, “They just think that they’re in the best place in the world, but they don’t know what’s outside. Even if we find out that Rio’s really the best place in the world, you can only know if you leave.”
KM: I was totally convinced New York was the best place in the world—and I do still think that—because it was the first place I went and had an amazing time. Basically what happened is I met this girl and ended up living with her family for the summer. All I had to do was watch her brother, who was in fifth grade. He was into skateboarding and thought I was cool, so we just played guitar and skateboarded, and in return I got to live in this beautiful brownstone in Brooklyn. Everything went so incredibly right for me in Brooklyn. I could have had a terrible time and went straight home.
RA: Not necessarily saying that everyone has to go to New York…
KM: See, I love Kansas City. I actually just bought a house there. But people get very bitter about people who leave, or at least they did at the time that I left. It has a stigma. You’re giving up on Kansas City—which is kind of a hard town. It’s hard to exist there as an artist. So when someone leaves, people say, “Oh, they got too good for this place.” I never thought of myself as better than anybody. I just wanted to see different parts of the big wide world.
RA: I remember that in Rio, too. Rio was the capital of Brazil until 1960, then they built Brasilia, which is the new capital, in the middle of the country to bring it together. Rio lost its crown, and you can imagine the consequences economically and all that. In a literal sense, Rio became “decadent,” but when you say “decadent” in English it means exquisite and opulent. I never understood that because “decadent” means something’s decaying. It’s not what it once was anymore. Rio became decadent, in that sense. And I felt the same way as you—I didn’t want to go somewhere better, I just wanted to have different conversations.
“It is important to me to
live in each region of America
before I die.”
— Kevin Morby
KM: It is important to me to live in each region of America before I die. I would like to expand that to the whole world, but realistically because I’m from America, I’d like to get a sense of it all. I’ve lived in the middle, on the East Coast, in the Pacific Northwest for a short time and now I live on the West Coast. All I have to do is move to the South someday.
RA: If you’re telling a story with your records, what kind of chapter would this be?
A Brooklyn-based musician and producer, Sam Cohen founded the band Apollo Sunshine and released several albums in the early 2000s. Cohen released two albums under the solo project Yellowbirds, then in 2015 recorded the album Cool It under his own name, playing all of the instruments. From 2012-14, he was Musical Director for The Complete Last Waltz, a concert series featuring contemporary musicians reprising a concert by The Band in 1976.
KM: This is definitely the more orchestrated record, which is why I chose to work with Sam Cohen. He has a Rolodex of names for any sort of sound I wanted. I could say, “Do you have these kinds of backing vocals? Could you play this kind of piano part?” And he’d be like, “Yeah, I know just the person.” He’s such a good, lovable guy that everyone’s excited to work with. All the people who he called up were people that I would have thought were out of my league. But they were like, “Oh! Definitely! Who are you working with?” Some of them kind of knew who I was, but most of them didn’t, and Sam would be like, “Oh this kid, he’s got great lyrics. Just come down.”
We recorded in Woodstock in an A-frame house that was converted to a studio. My intention was to make Singing Saw a very crafted record because I wrote it here in this house, and I demoed the whole thing on my own, whereas the other two records were played with a full band and tested on the road. With this one, I wanted to get a bit out of my boundaries—something that my live band couldn’t even physically play, like introducing backup singers, horn sections and string sections. Some people shy away from doing stuff that way because they could never represent it live. But my idea of making a record has always been that you get it to sound how it sounds in your head, and playing live is a completely different thing.
RA: I see how it could be fun to write a record thinking of the live show as a limitation, but it’s just as fun to be like, “I’m going to do whatever I want.” It doesn’t matter because you resolve it with a band somehow.
KM: It’s like you’re a movie director and your choice is: Am I making something autobiographical or am I going to dig into my fantasy? I chose Sam because I thought that he was a person who could really help me elevate it to
RA: The record sounds amazing, and the choir and strings sound amazing. I like your writing because it seems to be anchored in nouns instead of adjectives. And that’s a compliment because I feel like the beauty is in nouns and verbs, meaning it’s in things and what they do rather than in describing it. Adjectives are like giving direction, and it’s bold to not do that. What does river mean? It means a body of water that runs through a crack. I could see that anchored with the real things, and I like that. It feels uncomplicated and mysterious.
“My intention was to make
Singing Saw a very crafted record.
I wanted to get a bit out of my
boundaries—something that my live band
couldn’t even physically play.”
— Kevin Morby
KM: I try to shoot for both of those things. Uncomplicated and mysterious. It’s on my dating profile.
The Complete Last Waltz
A live rock show featuring all 41 songs from the historic 1976 concert The Last Waltz, the “farewell” concert by The Band, which was made into a critically-acclaimed documentary film by Martin Scorsese. The Last Waltz was held in San Francisco and featured specials guests Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and many more. The Complete Last Waltz was performed from 2012-14 by a cast of contemporary musicians and led by Sam Cohen.
I met Sam through a recreation of The Last Waltz by Bob Dylan and the Band. It’s called The Complete Last Waltz. I was called to play last minute and flown out to Upstate New York. It was incredible. Sam was the band leader. When I later thought about who I wanted to do my record, I thought about him because he was so good with everyone. I was so impressed by the way he could handle 30 people.
RA: A producer has to be very skilled to deal with the psychology of creating something, especially with all the people, their ideas and egos.
KM: He was so emotionally invested, and it felt really good. I think this record’s very special in the way it came together because I had always worked with the same people prior to Sam, and they were great, but I was ready to work with someone different. Sam had just put out a solo record, then it just all fell into place. We couldn’t have done that if we planned to do it.
RA: That’s the funny thing about luck. It seems you have to prepare yourself to be lucky by betting on it. You’re not gonna be lucky if you don’t take any chances. You went to do that concert in New York last minute, then you considered working with someone you had just met. If you had to calculate and do the safe thing, you wouldn’t go deep into it with someone you just met.