Kevin Morby’s River Walk
When Kevin Morby was just 17 years old, he made the all-too-famous “musician’s decision” to drop out of high school and purchase a one way ticket to New York. After moving from Kansas to Brooklyn, working various café jobs and bouncing between crash pads, Morby fell in with the members of local psych-folk group Woods and eventually took up residence at their Rear House recording complex in Bushwick. Around the time of 2009’s Songs of Shame LP, Morby joined on their touring bassist and the rest, as they say, is history.
That may be so for some bassists—content to remain in the shadows—but for Morby, life seems to sing a different tune. See, part of it is that Morby was never a bass player to begin with. He’s a guitarist. He also has trouble sitting still.
While still in Woods, he joined up with Cassie Ramone of the Vivian Girls and formed the indie-rock outfit The Babies; in which he plays guitar. Just this past year, Morby stepped out even further on his own with the release of Harlem River, his debut solo album, which also coincided with his departure from Woods. To top off his year of transition, he also uprooted himself from New York and made the move to Los Angeles.
I caught up with Morby a little while back to chat about going solo, his departure from Woods, and why he likes to root for the underdog.
When you decided to embark on a solo career, did you know that leaving Woods was in the cards and that you’d be going out on your own for the foreseeable future?
I guess at the time I that I recorded, which was about February 2013, I don’t know if I had made up my mind to be in Woods or not anymore. Touring got crazy after that and I recorded the record during the break. After I recorded that, I went out with both bands and realized I had to be realistic. I thought about my solo record coming out and wanted to put all my energy into it. While I liked having a voice with Woods and The Babies, I couldn’t do all three at once. I had to choose something to put my energy into, and it was this.
So are you not with The Babies anymore?
I’m still with The Babies, we don’t have any future plans at the moment.
Okay, so I’m curious about the decision to leave Woods. As you said it’s something you weren’t sure about. Was that a difficult decision to make?
Not really. With Woods it was more like being a “live member,” so it kind of just came to a point where I put in a lot of good time with them and formed some really great friendships. I just turned 25 and it seemed pretty natural to me. You know? There was a lot of thought forming The Babies and having another record out under my own name. I think I kind of expected it.
I know that Jarvis and Jeremy are the core of what Woods is, but there’s something that you, and also [former member] Lucas Crane, obviously brought to the table—especially in the live setting. Were you hoping to become a more permanent member of Woods or was the solo career a natural evolution in your musical career?
I’d say it was definitely a natural evolution. When I first joined them, they had just put out a record and I was a fan turned member. At a certain point I got to have a lot to do with the live show. As you said, the thing about Woods is Jarvis and Jeremy are the core and it will always be an evolving thing. At the end of the day, it’s Jeremy Earl’s project. It’s a rotating cast, which I think is cool and keeps it interesting. There was definitely no part of me that just wanted to be a full time bass player and have that be what I did in life. I wanted to do something with my own creativity.
When it came time to create your own album, what aspects of Woods, if any, did you take with you?
I think a lot of what I learned from Woods was the foundation of how to be in a band. Before I played with Woods I played in a punk band and played house shows and that kind of thing. Before Woods I would just tangle up my chords and throw them in a bag. I remember at the first Woods practice I went to, Jarvis said “You can roll up your chord like this, and it won’t break anymore.” It’s a funny moment to think about, just logistically. I learned how to tour and how to be a performer—and I transferred those kinds of things to The Babies, and with The Babies I took it one step further because I had to learn to sing on stage and stuff like that. The combo of the two set me up naturally doing my own thing.