The acclaimed songwriter bids farewell to New York City in classic style.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
In 2006, Kevin Morby rolled into Penn Station on an Amtrak train from Kansas City as a wide-eyed, too-afraid-to-fly 18-year-old. As the train wound its way down the Hudson River Valley and into the city, Nico’s Chelsea Girl and a Leonard Cohen mixtape played through Morby’s headphones. Like a lot of NYC newcomers, those artists and others forever affiliated with the City would soundtrack Morby’s time in New York.
Seven years later, Morby would leave for Los Angeles, having used his time in the City to make his bones as a full-time musician. He’d toured a good portion of the world playing bass for Brooklyn-based psych-rockers Woods and as singer/songwriter for the more pop-oriented Babies. In that respect, New York City had delivered on its “you can make it anywhere” promise.
But the real prize he took with him to Los Angeles. That’s where the 25-year-old Morby recorded his compelling ode to New York City, Harlem River, in the winter of 2013. The eight-song solo debut has the feel of an instant classic, embracing Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan circa-Blonde on Blonde influences (among others) without being beholden to either.
Morby may have felt like he needed to get out, but it was just as essential that he take New York City with him.
“It was important to me that my first solo record bring to life some songs that I had around for a long time that were specific to New York,” says Morby. “I didn’t want those songs to get lost. They wouldn’t have been written had I not been living in New York, obviously. It’s an endlessly inspiring place, and whether I never move back there or not, it’ll always be this source thing – it’s like first love, you always remember your first love.”
Morby insists his record doesn’t look back through rose-colored glasses at his former home. Like any long relationship, the “it’s complicated” status applies. It hints at the partly imagined, partly personal world of lost love, addiction, violence and death that his songs portray with the city as the constant backdrop.
You can hear that conflict on the LP’s epic title track, inspired by a six-hour walk from the top of Manhattan to the tip of the island. Along the way, Morby took note for the first time of the waterway that James Baldwin, the great chronicler of Harlem life and another influence on the musician, decried for its “garbage-heavy banks” in his novel Another Country.
Over a sinewy guitar riff that ebbs and flows for nine minutes like a river with the tides, Morby sings, “Harlem River swallow me, put your hands around my neck/Harlem River I can’t breathe, they’ve got the lights down now/Harlem River give me wings, put my head up in the clouds/Harlem River, all because I’m nowhere now/Harlem River, the music true.”
As Morby explains, he’d burned out on the hustle of life in the City. The Harlem River walk came at a time when he needed a reminder about why he’d come in the first place. And, ironically, the river – which is actually just a waterway between the East and Hudson rivers – provided the answer: A sense that the city was still capable inspiring surprise.
“It’s funny, it’s famously this dirty, gross river, but I really found some solace in it,” Morby says. “Something about the fact that it’s above mid-town, above the chaos of the city – I don’t know, it really spoke to me.”
You can sense that search for normalcy throughout the LP’s eight songs, all but one of which stretch languidly past the four-minute mark without ever over-staying their welcome. Together with his behind-the-beat vocalizing, it’s as though Morby’s narrators hold back the city’s chaos by remaining calm in the face of whatever gets thrown at them.
The shuffling “Slow Train,” for instance, isn’t about any particular subway line – instead it captures the calming glow of an opiate buzz and its tempting pull, as well as the dark side following inevitably in its path. Over slinky guitars and Will Canzoneri’s Al Kooper-worthy organ fills, Morby sings with Cate Le Bon shadowing him, “Slow train, won’t you numb my pain/Swim through my veins on a slow train/I am lost, all around/I am barely on the ground/Around the bend comes a slow train/Release the fire out of me/I don’t want to burn from the inside.”
A few of Morby’s songs on the last Babies record – 2012’s Our House On the Hill, also recorded with Rob Barbato, who adds bass and guitar throughout Harlem River – hinted at his stellar songwriting skills. But they won’t prepare you for how instantly timeless these tracks sound.
Part of that, Morby concedes, is the influence of the Velvet Underground’s chief songwriter Lou Reed, nodded to in the song title, “Wild Side (Oh, the Places You’ll Go).” What sets this jaunty, organ-fueled, city-abuzz track apart is that, just as Reed did in the 60s, Morby provides an unflinching, un-romanticized look at New York City – only this time he’s contrasting the imagined Lou Reed city with the pretentious hipster haven it’s become.
“To be my honest, I feel like my whole idea of New York, my daydream of New York, which isn’t actually what New York is like, is built up in my head by New York authors or New York musicians that I like, and the biggest one of them would be Lou Reed,” Morby says a month after the rock icon’s passing. “I feel like I’m just walking through the soundtrack of his songs throughout my seven years there. That was really inspiring to me and what kept me there for so long and what makes me still think about it.”
Over time, though, the imagined and real cities diverged with finality for Morby. He recognized that it was time to get out. Now he lives in Montecino Heights, a bedroom community in Northeast L.A. comprised predominantly of lower middle class Latin Americans and Asians. The change is stark, but one that Morby’s embracing.
“I don’t have to have five different roommates and I don’t have to live in a shithole,” Morby says of his new digs. “It’s like I traded certain comforts for different ones – like I traded always having something to do and living within this thrill of New York for this more domestic lifestyle. I moved to L.A. – that’s me checking in with myself.”
Part of that check-in process has been trimming down his schedule. Morby’s no longer a member of Woods, and has pushed the pause button on the Babies. For now, touring behind Harlem River and writing its follow-up consume all his energy.
“I’m not trying to make a bunch of friends or indulge in the nightlife – it’s almost like I’m coming here to work,” he says of his new home. “I just want to put all of my efforts into one thing and focus my energy on that.”
So far, that’s paid off handsomely with a classic-sounding record. And as he said, New York City, like that first love, will always be there for inspiration.