Tales from the City: Kevin Morby

The urban troubadour takes a minimal approach to big city living.

Whether it’s the ghostly, inverted synths of Suicide’s debut album, the defiantly spoken-word poesy of Patti Smith’s Horses or the razor-thin guitar work of Interpol’s Turn On The Bright Lights, so many of the great “city” records are minimalist masterpieces.

At first blush, this would seem to be a reactionary measure — a revolt led by the cool kids against the bloated, corporatism of radio music. Yet, there may be a simpler, more pragmatic reason for the barebones feel of urban records — a lack of space. Cities are dense, congested places, with tiny apartments and tinier storage options — you can’t exactly stockpile a bunch of Moogs and massive drum kits in your miniscule studio apartment (that you’re probably sharing with a friend).

That feeling — of making do with the little that you got — inspired the mood for Kevin Morby’s latest album, the aptly titled City Music. The album is testament to the power of carefully practiced restraint. The songs are not monolithic — some are woozy bar ballads, others are rollicking punk treatises — but they all adhere to a formula of efficiency. There is not a wasted note or an extraneous melody hummed throughout the 48 minutes.

“There is something about the type of music that one would make in a city,” says Morby, who performs at the Fillmore on April 5. “You have to lug your amps around, you don’t have any space — that lends itself to minimal music. When I lived in New York or Los Angeles, I barely owned anything, because there was no place to put anything.”

City Music is the refractive companion piece to Morby’s prior album, Singing Saw. The country brother of City Music, that 2016 album featured lush orchestration, billowing compositions and exultant background vocals. City Music is a tighter collection of character studies, highlighting the grim, yet exciting environs of 1970s New York (“1234”), the maddening phenomenon of being all alone in a huge city (“Crybaby,” “Tin Can”) and the sorrowful beauty and emptiness of urbanity (“Downtown Lights”).

“There is definitely something fascinating about living in a city,” Morby says. “You can be alone amongst a crowd, and it almost makes you not have the loneliness in a way. It’s different than when you’re alone, with no on else.”

Morby grew up in Kansas City, coming to love both the urban and rural elements of the mid-sized metropolis. But he longed for bigger things, and soon after turning 18 (and one year after he dropped out of high school), he moved east, settling in New York. While there, he played in acclaimed indie bands Woods and Babies, before setting off on his own in 2013, when he released his debut album, Harlem River.

For years, Morby split time between New York and Los Angeles, and City Music is a recollection of his moments spent in those sprawling landscapes. After drinking in the rich cultural histories of those cities, Morby tacked back recently by purchasing a house in his childhood home, Kansas City. Morby says he loves spending time in hometown, but he is only there when he is not touring, and he frequently visits his old environs in Los Angeles and New York.

The itinerant life of a modern day musician — someone who now must earn his income from extensive touring, and not record sales — is obviously challenging. The ubiquity of the internet also erodes the sense of musical communities in cities, with influences and inspirations arising from across the globe, instead of just down the street.

“The landscape has changed so much,” Morby says. “In the ’90s, bands that were getting big would just stay in their hometowns. What I’ve really been missing is how every town used to have their own scene, and now it seems like some cities are void of that.”

Whether its New York, Los Angeles, or Kansas City, Morby will likely end up living in a city where he’s surround by plenty of people, providing plenty of opportunities to chronicle the contradictions of urban life. He can continue to explore these nuances in a classic city way — finding the vastness of people’s lives in the smallest of living conditions. 

Kevin Morby with Hand Habits, Thursday, April 5, 8 p.m., at The Fillmore. $22.50; thefillmore.com/event/kevin-morby

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