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Kevin Morby Wants You To Have Hope

Barrett Emke
Kevin Morby was scheduled to play on March 21 at the historic Electric Park Ballroom in Waterloo, however, the show was canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Kevin Morby has been making music since he was 10 years old when he started playing the guitar. When he was 17, he dropped out of high school, got his GED and moved to Brooklyn where he released his first album.

Fast forward to 2020, and he’s released five solo albums. His newest, “Oh My God,” reflects on our culture’s relationship with a higher power, both in terms of the thoughtful and the trivial. 

Listening to your five solo albums, and especially to your latest “Oh My God,” there’s a recurring theme of the search for meaning. Death and dying also seem to come up a lot in your songs. Why do you think you find yourself writing about those themes? 

"I think these are things we all think about and are constantly trying to make sense of. For me personally, it’s very therapeutic to talk about then - especially in songs. It’s my way of saying, 'this is always on my mind, let’s talk about it. Who feels the same way?'"

We’ve read that many of the songs on “Oh My God” were written on planes, which is fascinating and inspiring. When did it occur to you to channel your anxiety about flying into songwriting?

"Constantly being in the air, I noticed I really started turning to working on projects, mainly songs, while sitting up there. It’s a nervous energy, an energy of 'I need to get something done to take my mind off what’s happening' as well as, 'if this thing goes down I wanna at least be finishing something while it does.' Also, on a plane you’re existing in this in between. You’re not here or there, just somewhere in the middle, and I find it opens my minds creative doors."

What is it that bothers you about flying? Will you be flying to Iowa for your set in Waterloo on March 21?

"I will be driving! I live only a few hours away in Kansas City. And I think it’s a primal thing. The animal instinct of 'I’m too high, I need to get down from here.' But to be honest with you, I’ve grown to really love and appreciate flying. It’s a privilege. But I do always breathe a sigh of relief the moment we land."

Do you have any words of advice for the rest of us who are not big fans of flying about funneling our anxiety toward something productive or artistic?

"Yes - work on something! Draw. Journal. Listen to demos. Use it as a creative space. Think of it as an art desk 30,000 feet in the air."

Each of your records, especially the last three, come across as a set of songs that evoke a particular world, even though it’s not always obvious what that world is. Do you set out to write about a certain theme for each album, or is it a song-by-song process where each record reveals itself over time?

I want people to walk away with a sense of hope. If there's anything people take from my music, I hope it's hope. - Kevin Morby

"I’ve done both. There’s been records like "Singing Saw" or "Harlem River" where the theme exposed itself well into the writing process, where suddenly I looked at the material and felt 'oh that’s what this album is about.' And then there’s albums like "City Music" or "Oh My God," where I come up with the concept before writing the bulk of the album."

In 2016, you put out a single called “Beautiful Strangers.” It’s a protest song, and all the proceeds were donated to Everytown for Gun Safety. Your work confronts big picture issues plaguing our culture and existential questions many of us spend a lot of time worrying about. What do you want people to take away from listening to your music?

"I want people to walk away with a sense of hope. If there’s anything people take from my music, I hope it’s hope."

Who are you listening to right now who is inspiring you?

"Lady Wray, Waxahatchee, Benjamin Booker, Caroline Rose, and Michael Kawanuka are all on my recently played lists. I've also been on a big OutKast kick and listening to a lot of Shadow Music of Thailand compilations."

Lindsey Moon is IPR's Senior Digital Producer
Mark Simmet is a Senior Producer and Studio One Host