The Coming of Kevin Morby
Playboy sits with the performer to discuss ‘Oh My God’, God, and his transformative tour
For most of his life, Kevin Morby has hated flying. Pressed into the seat, sweaty palms clasped, he’d brace himself as each jolt of turbulence and ping of the fasten seatbelt light would swing the pendulum of his thoughts to the worst possible extreme. “Dear God, please forgive me. I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I’ll try never to do it again. Amen,” Morby would recite to himself, a makeshift prayer he wrote as a child now stowed in adulthood’s back pocket.
Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Morby didn’t have a particularly religious upbringing—his parents informed him that they were Methodists, but never got around to going to church. Still, when confronted with the right dose of mortality, even the most staunch unbelievers can be compelled to humble themselves before some kind of higher power. “I formed this true love-hate relationship with planes, where they scare me, and I just didn’t ever want to do it,” Morby tells me on a late spring afternoon from his hometown. “But a lot of the times, when I was finally on the airplane, and we were up above the clouds, above the weather, I was met with this urgent peace. I would be like, ‘Well, my fate is in somebody else’s hands. I have to just learn to live with that.’”
That strange faith would come to form the backbone of Morby’s fifth studio album, Oh My God, out now via Dead Oceans. While touring behind his last album, 2017’s City Music, the skies came to be a spiritual workspace where Morby could settle into existential discomfort, embracing the journey’s fraught peace as a respite from the turmoil below—including, but not limited to, the election of Donald Trump, police brutality, mass shootings, and the wildfires blackening the skies of his then-homebase of Los Angeles. “I felt like every time I opened up the newspaper, I was using the expression, ‘Oh my God,’” Morby, 31, explains. “That phrase was really speaking to me at that time, with everything happening politically, racially, and with violence in America. Above the clouds became this place where I could unplug from the rest of the world and be with myself.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever heard music that in some way, shape or form is completely untied from a religion. All music is spiritual and religious.
Place has long been the thematic anchor of Morby’s sprawling brand of indie folk, from the gothic noir of 2013’s Harlem River, to the L.A. solitude of 2016’s Singing Saw, to the itinerant New York spirit of City Music. Oh My God, accordingly, hails from a kind of limbo—above the weather, and the deluge of headlines and bad news and existential vertigo, skimming heaven but still fated for the chaos below. The result is a spiritual record for a secular generation, exploring the ecstasy and ubiquity of its titular exclamation in a world where shouting feels increasingly muted and bereft of meaning.
Part self-aware concept album and part earnest spiritual excavation, the record is arguably Morby’s most ambitious work to date, a culmination of the thematic and stylistic elements he has explored for the better part of a decade—wonder and anxiety, humor and despair, minimalist folk and gospel-infused rock—but here now sublimated and fully realized. “The truth of the matter is that ‘Oh my God’ is so implemented into our society, and into our brains, and into our psyche, that there’s just no getting away from it,” Morby says. “‘God’ is just this word that we’ve come up with that we attach so much to, and its meaning is different from person to person. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good or bad thing that it’s happening. The same thing has been happening for a very long time.”
Its themes are inextricable from religion, from the lost innocence of “No Halo,” to the desperate absolution of “I Want to Be Clean,” to Morby’s own childhood prayer read at the intro of “Congratulations.” Still, the record is less a religious album than an internal reckoning with the nature of faith itself.“I don’t know if I’ve ever heard music that in some way, shape or form is completely untied from a religion,” says Morby, who cites the band Suicide and the Ethiopian nun-pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou as influences on the album. “All music is spiritual and religious.”
Taking a page from Suicide’s guitarless, synth pad-heavy orchestration, Oh My God’s compositions are alternately sparse and saturated—often within the same song—allowing Morby’s long-undersung prowess for arrangement to shine. On the record’s opening title track, for example, Morby instills an old worker hymnal with universal resonance. “Oh my Lord, come carry me home. Oh my God, oh my Lord, oh my God. Gotten too weak for this heavy load,” he sighs over a jangling piano. The melody trudges on as if on the verge of collapse, before being disrupted by the surreal hum of a synth choir, which in turn gives way to a lilting saxophone as the song trails off.
“I found myself getting really anxious about dying, or being killed, or everything with the internet, or just the world coming to an end—everything just felt incredibly overwhelming,” Morby says of the record’s conception. “I was sent into the thought process of, ‘Well, you know, if I die, it’s not that big a deal.’ That’s where the spirituality comes in, and wanting to write songs that explore that, because it’s that thought process where you get so scared, and you get so upset, and it’s all to stay alive.”
That same vitality fills the room on a spring evening as Morby stands on stage at Los Angeles’ Theater at the Ace Hotel for the opening date of his current tour. Framed by cloud cut-outs and the historic theater’s Spanish Gothic interior—patterned after Segovia Cathedral, and once home to the broadcasts televangelist Dr. Gene Scott—Morby could as easily be delivering a sermon as a rock concert.And it is a sermon, of sorts, a theatrical two-part set divided into Oh My God tracks, and, following an intermission, songs culled from Morby’s earlier catalog. “It’s important to take stock of the fact that it feels nice to be under this roof together brought together by this thing called music,” Morby tells us, helming a rose-adorned mic stand.
Armed with a newly-expanded band that includes album producer and guitar virtuoso Sam Cohen, backup singers, sax, flute, and percussion, Morby for the first time steps out from behind his guitar, a bed-headed pastor in a patchwork suit leading his band and the audience to commune. The new set up is simple but engrossing, injecting a lushness and urgency to the songs that at last elevate Morby from a songwriter to a performer.
“I didn’t want to have to cut any corners with the live show on this,” Morby tells me later of his Springsteen-style gambit. “With the record, I really went out of my way to make it sound a certain way, and I wanted to honor that live for the first time.”The tour has since helped the record take on a life of its own. Morby admits he’s been taken aback by an outpouring of fans writing letters and coming up to him after shows, describing how the album has helped them cope with grief and loss of faith. “It’s intense,” he says. “It’s its own entity, where this person has this relationship with a thing that I made, and it’s their relationship. I guess that’s what I’m getting at—it almost has nothing to do with me.”
As for the handful of critics who have written Oh My God off as “more of the same” from Morby, he sees the polarizing responses as a success. “You either love it or hate it, and I’m proud of that,” he says.
Back on stage at The Ace, the instrumental downpour of “Storm (Beneath the Weather)” gives way to the childhood prayer intro of “Congratulations,” read aloud by Cohen’s four-year-old daughter Simone. The lights dim, obscuring the delineation between the cloud decor, the band, the gothic facade, and, at last, the audience. For a moment everything is still, and we sit in silence, together above the weather.
Morby is currently on tour. Learn more about his upcoming dates here.