Interviews

Kevin Morby on Red Rocks and the Nuances of Songwriting

Kevin Morby co-headlines the Gothic Theatre with Hamilton Leithauser on Monday, November 8.
Kevin Morby co-headlines the Gothic Theatre with Hamilton Leithauser on Monday, November 8. Johnny Eastlund
The last time that Kansas City-based singer-songwriter Kevin Morby performed here was a six-night gig opening for Nathaniel Rateliff at Red Rocks. It was September 2020, and for five of those nights, he played to an audience of just 125 people because of COVID restrictions (Red Rocks has a regular capacity of 9,500). Filming took place on the sixth night, and the venue was empty. Morby appears on Rateliff's resulting live album, Red Rocks 2020, on a cover of Leonard Cohen's "There Is a War."

“I was so grateful to be able to play music at all,” he recalls. "But it's funny, because people ask if I’ve played Red Rocks before, and I say I've actually played it six times, to a total of 500 people or something.”

Morby will be at the Gothic Theatre on Monday, November 8, with singer-songwriter and former Walkmen frontman Hamilton Leithauser.

For Morby, whose most recent album, Sundowner, was released in October 2020, the songwriting process can start in a very casual, almost unintentional way. Sometimes songs come to him before he goes to sleep or when he first wakes up — or even when he’s sitting on the couch, half-watching a movie with his guitar in his hands.

“I’ll just start messing around with something, and for whatever reason, certain chords or keys at certain times sort of click, and [I'll] kind of find this entryway into a song and think, ‘Oh, this is the beginning of something,'” he says.

With each of his six studio albums, he adds, he’s started writing songs and eventually gotten to a point when he became aware of a thread running through them, at which point he realized that he had the foundation for a record.

Sundowner started taking shape about four years ago with the song “Valley"; that was followed by “Sundowner” and “Campfire.”

“By the time I wrote ‘Campfire,’ I was referencing the song ‘Sundowner,’ and it was like, ‘Oh, there's a little universe. I’m building its own little universe right now, and there's a thread between these songs,'" Morby says. "When I wrote and recorded that on the four-track, I realized there was something special about ‘Campfire,' and I was like, 'I need to follow this.'”
He noticed that he'd used the word “sundowner” in several of the songs, along with other thematic and sonic similarities, including the fact that they were all written in the key of E or A. He started sketching the tunes that would eventually become Sundowner on a four-track recording in the winter of 2017, after moving from Los Angeles back to his hometown of Kansas City. He dubbed the back shed where he recorded the demos "the Little Los Angeles."

Last month, Morby released those demos as A Night at the Little Los Angeles, as a way to give listeners a chance to hear the initial recordings and the essence he was chasing. He notes that while his demos are usually a set of pretty sparse ideas, the songs on A Night at the Little Los Angeles were more fully formed.

“Things can be pretty complete or just little tiny sketches of a blueprint,” says Morby, who likens refining a demo in the recording studio to taking something from two dimensions to three.

“The idea is there, but you're wanting to give it more of a body, more of a life and a presence,” he explains. “So you take it into the studio, and often you'll have a producer, and you kind of just throw things at the wall and try to do what you need to do to make it bigger sonically in terms of the arrangement.”

While there’s a degree of intimacy in the home demos of A Night at the Little Los Angeles, he acknowledges that that same feeling can get lost in the studio.
“There’s something really sacred about demos and about home recordings that you get so attached to,” Morby says. “And there hasn't been a record that I've made where I don't take the demos in and feel like something gets lost. I always say that when you make a record, at best, it's always going to become something new and something different than what you thought it was going to be. The best-case scenario is that it's going to become something new that you like.

“It's hard to explain, but those rough recordings, it's almost like they're like your children or something, and you kind of have to give them away," he continues. "That isn't the best metaphor, but they’re just very close to your heart, and you know that they're not for the public. You know that the public isn't going to want to hear something that rough around the edges, so you have to refine them, but you always loved that one the most.”

Like most performers, Morby is happy that live shows have returned, and says his tour with Leithauser has been a great way to “come back into the world." The two artists are sharing the same band, and opener Jess Williamson, an L.A.-based country singer, is also performing with them.

“It feels like a talent show, or like the Rolling Thunder revue or something," he says. "It's like a variety night, where we're all kind of passing around the microphone and sharing songs and sharing stories."

Hamilton Leithauser and Kevin Morby will play the Gothic Theatre, 3263 South Broadway in Englewood, at 8 p.m. Monday, November 8; tickets, $32.75-$37, are available at axs.com.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon

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