Kevin Morby’s newest album Sundowner was written pre-pandemic but it feels more relevant than ever now. Conceived on a four-track Tascam after an unexpected move back to his hometown of Kansas City, Sundowner embodies a feeling of isolation and self-reliance that’s become all too familiar.
It had been a long time since Morby had been back home. After spending nearly half a decade in Los Angeles, and seven more years in New York before that, he’d almost forgotten what it was like away from the bustle of the big city. He made the move in 2017 and describes his lifestyle as slow and quiet, a juxtaposition to the life he’d grown accustomed to living on the road.
Though he was eventually joined by his partner Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee, who was in our May issue), Morby found himself increasingly isolated from the outside world in his hometown. Partially looking to finish up his 2019 album Oh My God, and partially just looking to pass the time, Morby bought an old four track Tascam off a friend.
“It’s funny, when I was in high school I had a four track and I could never figure it out,” Morby tells me over the phone. “Actually I smashed it at some point. And so it’s funny, it’s like I smashed it and then I left town and went out into the world and became a musician. And then I came back and it’s kind of a full circle moment. You know what? I’m back in Kansas with nothing to do. I’m gonna get a four track and force myself to learn it.”
While the Tascam didn’t help complete Oh My God it did inspire a new album and a new process for Morby. He describes Sundowner as both a depiction of isolation and a portrait of the Middle American twilight.
Morby says he and Crutchfield found that they shared a “mutual melancholy that seemed to appear every night around sunset.” The couple began to refer to themselves as “sundowners” a term Crutchfield reappropriated.
“Sundowner is one of those words that has so many meanings depending on who you ask,” Morby says. “I know the most popular meanings relate to Alzeheimers, or a cocktail you have at sunset. I’ve actually been seeing it in the news a lot lately, when describing these wildfires in California there’s these sundowner winds. But the way that we sort of were using it was one who feels the melancholy or depression that comes with nightfall.”
From 2017-2018 the album took shape on Morby’s Tascam. During that time he suffered the loss of several dear friends and inspirational figures, who he eulogises in the album’s first single “Campfire”, comparing their legacies to smoldering campfires.
“Richard Swift had died and Jessi Zazu had died and Anthony Bourdain had died,” Morby says. “Those three kind of hit all in a very quick period and I felt like I was processing them very quickly in between tours. But then I’d have to go back out. And there’s something strange about it. You’re reading about how their lifestyles kind of broke them down, but then you’re going out and living that lifestyle. You don’t even have too much time to process it because then you’re out on the road. You don’t have time to think about it.”
Morby finished up the demos for Sundowner and before he had much time to think about it he was back out on tour.
In January 2019, he came together with friend and producer Brad Cook at Sonic Ranch in Texas to put the finishing touches on the record.
“My end goal was to capture the cadence of what I had found inside the four track but make it three dimensional, and Brad seemed perfect for the job,” Morby says.
Morby played most of the instruments himself with Cook and James Krivchenia helping out when needed. But almost as soon as the record was completed Morby was out for another, longer tour supporting Oh My God.
“Sundowner sat inside of a hard drive back at Sonic Ranch and did not see the light of day until I found myself, as did the rest of the world, stuck inside their home and in quarantine in March 2020,” Morby says. “My second year of touring for Oh My God was cancelled.”
Realizing that he was going to have a lot of free time on his hands, Morby focused his attention back on Sundowner.
“Brad, Jerry Ordonez – who engineered the session – and I worked from our respective homes, sending notes back and forth as we worked alone but together to mix the album, and suddenly, just like that, Sundowner was finished,” Morby says.
Many artists have pushed their records back due to the pandemic, but Morby says releasing Sundowner early was as much a creative decision as a business one.
“I think I saw the parallels and I wasn’t afraid of the parallels and in fact created this platform that I felt it was maybe good to release the record sooner rather than later,” Morby says. “Because I had been so busy with my last record and touring that though Sundowner had been done for a while, we didn’t want it to come out till next year. But it just felt like it should come out in an isolated period. It was made in that time, created in that time, and it should be consumed in that time as well. So it only made sense.”
While mere coincidence, lyrics like “Grab provisions / there’s nothing for a hundred miles / and cast your vision on the dark road / for a while,” from “Provisions” could retrospectively read like a chilling prophecy.
The music video for “Campfire” features a lone Morby walking through a desert playing the guitar. Eventually he comes across Crutchfield in a pickup truck and the two lovers embrace and dance in the light of the setting sun. Then Morby pulls out his nunchucks. Yeah you read that right.
During quarantine Morby has picked back up the childhood hobby of nunchucking (or is it nunchuckery?).
“I’ve been getting better at the left hand which is a big improvement,” he tells me. “I know that there’s a sort of funny connotation that comes with nunchucks. People think of Napoleon Dynamite, or y’know children. But I think it’s actually a beautiful, very meditative art.”
The nunchucks turned out to be a hit with the internet, but according to Morby it actually took some convincing to get them in the video.
“I was saying ‘I think we should put nunchucks in the video. I think there’s something cool to it. It’s a little funny but I think it could be cool,’” he says. “And they were like ‘no!’ And I was like ‘I’m gonna bring em and you’ll see.’ And then in the end they were like ‘the nunchucks looked cool!’ So I’m glad they made it in there.”
Aside from nunchucking, during quarantine Morby and Crutchfield started a garden and Morby started swimming daily, which he credits with keeping him sane. One of his biggest challenges has been the absence of live shows in his life. He tells me he misses the camaraderie of his bandmates most of all.
“I’ve had so many bandmates and so many people have played in my band over the years. But I’ve found that we’re all really talking a lot lately, we’re all reminiscing, sort of just wide-eyed at the fact that we were able to ever go do all the things that we did that seem so impossible now,” he says.
“I really just miss those moments of being in an unfamiliar place but you’re with your adopted family and you’re making incredible memories,” he says. “That and of course I miss that moment of walking on stage before a crowded room and just getting to enjoy an evening of making music with a bunch of people.”
He’s started experimenting with digital concerts, and has been playing each of his solo albums in full in the weeks leading up to Sundowner’s release.
“It’s been great; but at first I hated it,” Morby says. “Just because it’s sort of depressing when you zoom out of the moment and think ‘why have my live shows been reduced to my living room?’ But then you get into it. I’m really happy that I can bring something to people, and it brings something to me too. I’m really longing to be able to connect in the old fashioned way as soon as possible, but in the interim I’m grateful that at least we have this. At least we have the technology where I can reach people and people can reach me. Had this happened in the 90s there would be no way of performing live music. So at least there’s this.”
Still unsure when he will be able to properly tour behind Sundowner, Morby is already working on its followup. Or considering Sundowner itself was completed in 2018, it could be the followup to the followup, he didn’t specify. Either way Morby seems to be always looking forward, much like his hero Lou Reed. When I ask him what’s the best songwriting advice he ever got, he brings up a Transformer-era Reed interview.
“(The interviewer) said this thing in the making of — ‘You made this hit record, then what do you do?’” Morby recalls. “And he just had this really stark, dry response where he’s like ‘well then you make another one.’ And I thought that was so beautiful. That’s what you do, you make a record and you move on. For whatever reason that’s always been something that I’ve really held onto. Whether your record does really well or does really horrible, you just do your thing. You just do your craft. And if it’s important to you and you indeed love music, then you’re always working on the next thing.”
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