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Kevin Morby Has Been Here Before (Kind Of) 

The folk-rock troubadour goes looking for new life in familiar places.

by Kayla MacInnis

Photo by Katie Crutchfield

Listening to folk-rock singer-songwriter Kevin Morby’s latest work might make you feel like you’ve been hit with a case of déjà vu. Actually, he’d prefer the energy to be more akin to the act of looking at the same thing daily but finding something new in it. With More Photographs (A Continuum), a companion piece to his 2022 album, This Is a Photograph, Morby is getting a little Ancient Grecian — as the philosopher Heraclitus famously said, no man steps into the same river twice, for the river is constantly changing, and he is never the same man.

With reimagined tracks like “This Is A Photograph II,” “Bittersweet, Tennessee,” “Song For Katie,” and “Five Easy Pieces Revisited,” Morby, who is adept at world-building, tells me he wasn’t ready to leave this universe behind just yet. 

“Anytime I make an album, there’s always leftover songs that usually feel like we got rid of those because they’re not good or they didn’t jump out. They’re easy to leave behind. Whereas, with these songs, eliminating some of them felt like a tough decision. The universe I built with this record is so expansive, which gave me the confidence to resurrect songs I would normally have just gotten rid of. I felt they needed to be heard and were good enough to stand on their own.”

The same themes from This Is A Photograph remain–a pensive album inspired by place, sung with an intonation similar to Lou Reed or Jeff Tweedy, with a patchwork quilt of keepsakes and that old Americana-esque world of soul, gospel, rhythm, blues, and rock and roll that was once born in the heart of Memphis, where he recorded the original album. Morby acts as curator, merging presence with contemplation, introspection, and intention, but it is the notion of time that lingers.

Morby didn’t return to Memphis to record this time around but continued working with producer Sam Cohen in his studio in upstate New York to reimagine that world with lower stakes and more freedom while venturing down avenues they perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise—layering in disco fusion, a heavy string arrangement, and meditative riffs that thread throughout both albums. Morby relates it to looking through a kaleidoscope, a sense that can sometimes feel fractured and distorted but also effusive and full of wonder. 

In This Is a Photograph, Morby felt called to examine the past after facing his father’s mortality when he collapsed at a family dinner. He found himself in the living room where he had spent his formative years, digging through a box of old family photos, when a photo of his father that he hadn’t seen before caught his eye. 

My father, young and shirtless, seemed almost to taunt the camera with his overconfident gaze. Illuminated by the West Texas sun, his look seemed to shout at the world beyond the camera, ‘Give me everything you’ve got,’” he shares on his Substack page. 

It was not lost on Morby that the photo displayed the same bare chest he had seen earlier that evening, giving him a side-by-side visual representation of how things have changed over time. 

Nothing is permanent, and Morby uses that transience to interrogate the synthesis of time, looking forward, backwards, and then standing still in this very moment. Rivers certainly thread their way through both albums, and these interrogations and abstractions of time are what brought him to the Mississippi in Memphis for This Is a Photograph—the Mississippi being the river that took singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley’s life in an accidental drowning in 1997. The past is a relationship to time; we imagine the past, but we don’t fully know the past. 

Photo: Chantal Anderson

It’s Morby’s research methodology, however, that adds a multi-dimensional layer to his work. Through the use of physical mimetics, infusing affective spatial encounters as he travels to various meaningful places, narrative inquiry, and engaging with other multimodal layers such as field recording, each piece is informed by ephemera, inquiry, and lived experience. I mention to him that we often do this in creative writing and that it’s almost like a writer’s residency. 

“You know, what’s funny is right before recording the album, I did actually take a creative writing course,” he says. “Maybe that had something to do with it. We would get these writing assignments, and I really loved the idea of giving myself an assignment after that.”

Initially, he thought this type of research would crescendo and lead to a big reveal. Instead, he learned that it’s a slow accumulation, a gradual expanse of putting in the hours for it to pay off. “At first, I was having a lot of self-doubt, thinking, ‘Why am I here? Why am I spending the whole day at the Memphis Zoo?’ I felt crazy,” he says.

Photo: Lauren Withrow

“What I took away from those experiences in that method of writing was that those little things will rise to the surface when you sit down to work on the song. You’ll remember one tiny detail that you would have never gathered otherwise. Maybe I saw a bird, or someone said that one thing to me and a word from that sentence stuck out, or I saw a section of the river that helped me describe it so much better.”

The song “Bittersweet, Tennessee”—which has a version on both albums—is perhaps a testament to life’s duality and fleeting moments. When watching the music video to the song, viewers wouldn’t know that Morby and his crew were hiding in a woodland sauna earlier that day during an active school shooting after the gunman fled to nearby woods.

“Another day in America,” he reflects, saying he assumes guns are nearly always around while comparing the saturation of guns in America to the disorienting sensation of being on an airplane and suddenly realizing how high above land you are. But life is full of these disparate senses, and the range of emotions contained inside each moment is something Morby explores often.

His working process often involves spending three or four days shutting out the world and inundating himself with his instruments and pen in his shed-turned-makeshift studio–a feat many artists can relate to–before he needs to step away and not think about what he’s creating for a while. As artists, it’s vital to engage in the act of play, which can be a slow process that often doesn’t involve any output.

“I like to always be reading something, whether it’s a book or a collection of poetry.”

“I’m trying to collect ideas all the time. I like to always be reading something, whether it’s a book or a collection of poetry. I like to take photos and get out in the world, filling my brain with other artists. I’m consistently going to museums, or reading stuff from other writers, or reading articles online, whatever it is. I like to stay engaged in that way and have the art of any medium there as inspiration.”

Morby’s engaging mind constantly explores, feels, receives, filters, and reflects on all he sees. He just finished reading Ocean Vuong’s book of poems, Time Is a Mother, and has a poetry book by Mary Oliver next to his bed from which he tries to take out a few poems daily. “It’s spring, and poetry has been calling me these days,” he shares.  

In a way, we all live our lives as a type of archivist, and as Morby moves to close off his world of Photographs, we can’t help but compare our time spent with him to that feeling when you first visit the home of someone you care about—those moments where you take the time to carefully explore the artifacts they’ve collected, preserved, and shared in their space over time. 

What have they built their lives around? What have they carried with them? What have they tried to dispose of, but its essence still lingers? The books on their shelves, the stack of vinyl, the little handwritten notes, and the photographs. It is a moment of intimacy built on reciprocity and trust, and Morby invites us to be living witnesses to his exploration.