Setting is key for ‘City Music’ singer-songwriter Kevin Morby

Morby plays Bugsy’s Cabaret at the Flamingo on Sunday.
Photo: Adarsha Benjamin / Courtesy

Place, politics, love—they’re all themes in singer/songwriter Kevin Morby’s discography. With vocals and song structures reminiscent of a modern Bob Dylan, the former Woods bassist and one half of rock duo The Babies creates vivid pictures of life in its various forms, be it in the bustling city or the sleepy countryside. We caught up with Morby to talk about his latest album, City Music.

How different is touring and performing as a solo artist compared to doing it with the bands you’ve been in? They’re both challenges in their own right, but it’s obviously a lot different. You’re the leader and you’re kind of the boss and get to experience the highest highs and lowest lows. When I was in Woods, I had a great time. I was kind of just along for the ride, but at the same time I didn’t feel like I was creatively getting out what I wanted to, and with this I absolutely do. It’s its own new experience. At this point, I’ve been doing it for five years, and I’m pretty set in my ways.

You wrote “Beautiful Strangers,” a song that addresses gun violence and police brutality, after the Bataclan shooting in Paris in 2015. That song feels especially relevant to Las Vegas following the Route 91 Harvest shooting. When did you become an advocate for gun control? I’ve always sort of been against guns, ever since I was a kid. They’ve always been frightening to me, and it’s just one of those things that places too much power in the hands of someone that could very easily be irresponsible with that power … The song, I wrote it at a time where I felt heartbroken with a lot of different things in the world, and I funneled it into that song. I wanted to make it charitable, because I bring up certain things and certain tragic events and I didn’t want to profit off of that.

The reason why I chose gun control was because it’s something I believe in … It’s a weird thing, every time there’s a new shooting, it’s kind of an awkward feeling [where I’m] thinking, “Oh man, people are relating to my music because another tragedy has happened.” That’s another part of why it’s important that song is charitable. I want that money to be going toward something that can hopefully change. Ideally, people wont be able to relate to that song anymore.

You released City Music last year. It feels like setting has a real influence on you, whether it’s the country or the city. It’s very true. With that record, it was very much a yin-yang effect, where it’s the yin to the album before it. Singing Saw was this rural landscape, it had this openness to it, and I wanted to create something with a similar sentiment but with a different background. I wanted it to feel sort of claustrophobic, and it’s set in the city. I think music and art are fun to play with—you’re telling a story, but the characters will change and the setting will change and that’s what keeps art interesting to me and keeps it fun—changing the color that’s around something.

You wrote the album about New York, but you’re living in Kansas City. Did you write the album before you moved? I did write it before. I wrote it in Los Angeles, but I lived in New York for seven years. I feel like a lot of times, I write after the fact. It’s like I’ll have an experience and I don’t write about the experience while I’m having it. I’ll have the experience, and then I’ll process it later. When I moved to LA, I was able to look at my time in New York and write reflectively about that, whereas when I was in New York, I didn’t have as much time to actually sit down and process my feelings around it.

You recently covered two Songs: Ohia tracks with Katie Crutchfield, the front woman of Waxahatchee, who’s also playing Emerge. How did that collaboration come about? Katie is someone who is very inspiring to me. Katie and I toured about a year ago and we became very close and on that tour we talked a lot about Songs: Ohia and Jason Molina and kind of bonded over that. I’d been listening to a lot of Jason Molina, and I’m on the same label, so I did a demo and I sent it to Chris Swanson who runs Secretly Canadian—he’s kind of the guy who signed Jason Molina so many years ago. He immediately got back to me and was really excited about it, and it kind of felt like too powerful of a thing for me to take on by myself, and I naturally thought, oh, maybe Katie and I can to it together. So that’s how it came about, and I’m pretty proud of that. I think that we did a pretty good job.

You mention Australian singer Alex Cameron a lot on your Twitter feed—any chance you’d collaborate with him in the future? Who knows. I love Alex. We’ve known each other a long time. I actually just saw him in LA. I took him on one of his first tours in Europe, he was opening for me and it was just him and an iPad. Then I saw him the other night in LA and he had a full band and they were really good. Him and [saxophonist] Roy [Molloy] are hilarious, and so that was cool to see Alex’s full vision realized. I was very inspired by that. They’re hilarious and they’re endlessly entertaining.

It’s interesting how social media allows fans to see which musicians are friends and how they like to prop each other up. I have that with Alex, poking each other on social media, and then also with Whitney, we have this prank—we’re always kind of f*cking with one another. We pretend that we have beef with each other and it’s really funny.

Have you ever played Vegas before? I’ve never played Las Vegas. I’ve been there before for sure. When I lived in LA, I would book flights out of Vegas, because it was cheaper and it was a fun excuse to just go there and go to a casino for the night. I’m not much of a gambler, but we’ll see what me and my band get into.

Kevin Morby with Jonathan Terrell, Gold Star, Liz Cooper and the Stampede, Chloe Caroline) Sunday, April 8, 11 a.m.-2 p.m., $20, Bugsy’s Cabaret at Flamingo.

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Leslie Ventura is a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly and Industry Weekly. She’s picked the brains of rock stars ...

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