fine lines

Kevin Morby Breaks Down the Best Lyrics on His New Album This Is a Photograph

Photo: Chantal Anderson

Kevin Morby stays busy. When I met the singer-songwriter in fall 2020, just after the release of his sixth album, Sundowner, he was riding the high of a trip to Memphis to write new songs that he would eventually shape into his next project, This Is a Photograph (out now). The new record carries over some major themes from Sundowner — and really, much of Morby’s solo career before that, which he began in 2013 after playing in the bands Woods and Babies. Photograph is another album inspired by a specific place (Memphis) after Morby plumbed his stints in New York City for 2016’s Singing Saw, Los Angeles for 2017’s City Music, and his current home of Kansas City for Sundowner. (He said 2019’s Oh My God is set in the heavens because of the amount of time he was spending on airplanes on tour.)

But This Is a Photograph is also a shift for Morby. Unlike New York, L.A., or Kansas City, he’s never actually lived in Memphis. He was first drawn to the city years ago for its deep musical history and eventually felt “some sort of siren going off inside of me that’s like, You got to explore this place.” The pandemic gave him the time and space to do that. Though Photograph is another of Morby’s album’s fascinated with death — from that of singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley’s to a scare with his own father that prompted the title track — it’s also the 34-year-old songwriter’s most life-affirming record. “I always describe Memphis, especially through the pandemic, as a resilient city,” Morby tells me on a video call. “There’s a bravery there that I was really feeling.” On top of it all, Photograph features Morby’s richest songwriting — with songs inspired by not only the city he visited but the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces, some of his favorite celebrities, and his girlfriend, Waxahatchee performer Katie Crutchfield. Morby spoke to Vulture about some of the standout lyrics that make up the new record.

“This Is a Photograph”

The year that you were born
The year that you are now

This song was inspired by a photo you found of your dad after a health scare. Tell me about specifically putting yourself in his shoes at that moment in the photo.
He passed out at this family dinner and was taken away in an ambulance. It was obviously a scary night, but he was okay in the end. We ended up having this tender evening after that, where I went to my parents’ house, and for some reason, we unveiled this old box of family photos, most of which I had never seen before. I came across this one of my dad that really stuck out to me because he’s shirtless in this photo, and he’s on the front lawn of this house that they would’ve been living in in Lubbock, Texas. They lived there for a very short period, and I was born there. I’d just seen him shirtless because the ambulance had removed his shirt to take his vitals, and I almost had this A/B contrast of how my dad’s body has changed over the years. And I did the math, where I was like, Wait, my dad would be the same age that I am right now.

There was something to the fact that when my dad fell ill earlier that evening, I was kind of the adult in the room. I was in the role that he’s lived my whole life — my whole life I’ve been falling down and he’s been picking me back up. It felt like this very cinematic, sort of serendipitous moment. It’s almost like this passing the torch: Okay, you can help me out now.

Your recent albums have touched on death a lot, and this album mentions death, but that song twists it into being really life-affirming.
Music is my own therapy for working those thoughts out. But this was a song where I was very conscious that if I’m going to sing about death, I want to come to it from an angle of also celebrating life. When at the climax of the song, where I’m saying, “This is what I’ll miss about being alive,” I wanted that to be twofold. I’m speaking for my parents in these photographs, but I was also like, This is going to be a song that I’m going to take out into the world. One of my favorite things about being alive is performing music for people, and I’ll get to sing this lyric. “This is what I’ll miss about being alive.” And it’ll be true in the moment.

“A Random Act of Kindness”

Sun came up

That line gets repeated and builds to being shouted, which felt like a big shift after the more restrained Sundowner. Why was that right for this song?
I really didn’t want to make a record that was addressing the pandemic, but if any of the songs on this record is doing that, it would be this song. It’s about desperation and suffering and how the sun will relentlessly rise if you’re so lucky to make it to another day. It is coming after I literally wrote a whole album about the sun setting and about twilight. And it’s speaking to that as well. Here’s the next thing — what comes after an album about the sun going down is the sun has to come up, too, and what is it illuminating?

What was that like, vocally, to record?
That song took so many different shapes, and at some point, I’ll release the other versions because we recorded other tempos, and verses were different, and they were all cool, but something wasn’t clicking. Then, in the 11th hour, we changed the tempo and started to build up this crazy … I like to think of it as a sort of sonic rocketship, where the song starts out really small and then gradually takes off. And by the end, when I’m just yelling, “Sun came up,” we wanted it to feel like we’re, at that point, in outer space. So we had this great setup where we had a microphone running through an amp, and I’d just never done something like this in a studio before. Sam Cohen, the producer is someone who I feel so comfortable around, where I was just bent over, yelling at the top of my lungs. And Sam was like, “I feel that. Keep going.” We just kept doing it. Like, we knew we had the takes, but we were like, This is really fun. I was like, I can’t wait to do this live every night. It might destroy my voice, but it’ll be fun for a while.

“Bittersweet, TN”

Goddamn, you got old, you got upset, you got sick
The living took forever, but the dying came quick
And oh, just to think you were a little kid
Wondering what you’d be when you got big

On that third line, I heard “Jess,” so in my mind, I was thinking about the late singer-songwriter Jessi Zazu, who you sang about on Sundowner. Then I read through the lyrics, and I saw that it was just instead. Who are you singing about?
What’s funny about you saying that is that Erin Rae, who sings on this song and is from Nashville and knows of Jessi, heard the same thing. To be honest with you, the song is about no one in particular. It’s a sort of universal song of someone who gets diagnosed with something terminal or who’s suddenly very sick or suddenly is in an accident where they’re not going to make it. It’s just about the sudden and finite nature of death — of life seeming very long, but then suddenly you’re hit with some bad news. There’s definitely an element of Jessi in that song, and there’s an element of — I was thinking of a friend’s stepfather who I knew growing up, and how very quickly he was gone. It’s a song for a lot of people and no one in particular, but a lot of people were going through my mind at that time.

“A Coat of Butterflies”

And if you wanna settle down, then you came to the right town
To close your big brown eyes and wear a coat of butterflies
But if you wanna live forever, jump in deep with the mysteries sweet
Wade into the water, close your eyes, boy, and sing
“Want a whole lot of love”

Those lines, to me, are the whole song coming together as this reflection on Jeff Buckley in Memphis. What was it about Buckley that interested you?
When I did that stint in Memphis, I was working on the whole record, and I was tending to each song, but you could almost say that the whole time that I was there was really trying to tackle this song and wanting to do it justice. There were so many moments where I thought, I’m going to ditch this thing. Like, What is this sprawling thing I’m making? Would Jeff Buckley approve of this? I never wrestled with a song as much as I did with this one. And I’m so happy with how it ended up turning out.

In 2019, I did an interview with Vice. They had this series where they would have an artist pick a classic record they’d never heard, and we’ll listen to it and interview about it in real time. And I picked Jeff Buckley’s Grace. He’s someone I’d always been interested in. I knew he had this eerie death. I thought it was suicide. I thought he was from the South. But in doing this interview, the writer, he filled me in on everything, and it just blew my mind. At this point, I had gone to Memphis with Katie, and I knew that I wanted to go there. So it was another arrow pointing toward Memphis. And I just felt like, Oh, wow, I need to go there. I really related to his story because he wasn’t a Memphian. He’s from California. And he had done time in New York, he had done time in L.A. And he had gone to Memphis in search of something. I felt like from everything I was reading about him, he was trying to touch on some sacred ground, some American touchstone, in the same way that I was trying to. There were also these little things about him, where I read that he was always frustrated by how he was way more popular overseas than he was in America, and I really relate to that, or certainly did earlier in my career. I just felt, from what I’m gathering, that he was here for a very similar reason. Then, him trying to get so close to the source, in doing that he ended up tragically and accidentally dying.

When I was in Memphis, I was following this bread-crumb trail and scouring Reddit threads and finding out where he lived and what he was doing during his last days. I had read all these peculiar things about how he was trying to buy a house that wasn’t for sale, and he was trying to get a job at the Memphis Zoo because he loved the butterfly garden. He was trying to just get a volunteer shift there despite the fact that he had money and was famous. And I really related to all of those sentiments — there was some sense that he had hit his 30s and he was trying to settle down in some way. And it was in my 30s that I moved back to Kansas and started to settle down. When I found his house, I was perplexed. I always thought that he would’ve lived in this big southern Victorian mansion or something, but his house kind of looked the same as the house that I lived in Kansas. And I was really getting into his music. I was jogging along the river every morning and listening to his music, and I found it very moving.

There’s been a sense of me going to Memphis and wanting to get close to the source and being afraid, almost like I don’t want to end up somehow dying here. I don’t want to get so close to the source that it kills me. But the other day, I went for a jog. The point where he entered the river became this place that I would go to frequently in Memphis. It’s this beautiful spot in the river; I totally understand why he’d want to take a swim there. I went down there the other day, and there were two butterflies right at the entry. I just have to believe that that’s Jeff Buckley’s way. I felt proud of the song, and perhaps he was giving me his blessing. I’m glad that I saw the song through.

“Five Easy Pieces”

My tears in the cum rag, your hands on my jeans
A song in my mouth that you won’t ever let me sing

How do you know when a line like “My tears in the cum rag” works? Like, “Yeah, we’re putting that to tape”?
That song is pretty directly about the film, and that’s the last song I wrote for the record. It’s probably the song that’s most out of theme with the rest of the album. It’s just a movie I watched one day, it was raining outside and I threw on a movie. I’d seen it before, but not in like a decade. And I started writing this song. The dynamic between the two characters is he’s so awful to her. Karen Black just thinks the world of him and is always trying to impress him. She’s trying to sing him songs, and he tells her she has a bad voice. It’s so brutal to watch, but it’s still a beautiful movie. When I write a lyric like “My tears in the cum rag,” this imagery comes to mind of Karen Black’s character, perhaps at some point he’s made her upset and he’s made her cry. And she reaches for a rag to dry her tears, and she realizes it’s this disgusting, filthy cum rag of his. It just paints a vivid picture of a tumultuous relationship.

It’s one of those things that you come up with and you’re like, I’ll probably get rid of that because how on earth am I going to keep that in the song? But then you’re in the studio and you start thinking, Well, what am I going to replace it with? In the kitchen rag? And you’re like, No, I’ve got to be brave about this. It just feels right. When we were adding the orchestra, Oliver Hill, my bandmate, he got his mom and his sister to play strings. They were coming in, and I was like, “We have to mute the vocals for this. I can’t have them listening to this verse over and over. I can’t subject them to that.” Then Oliver’s mom was like, “I can handle it, don’t worry about it.” So I thought that was a good sign. I played a private gig in San Francisco recently, and the promoter’s kids were there, and I changed the lyric.

I know you’ve written songs from a female perspective before, too. What is that like for you?
The bulk of City Music was from this sort of make-believe female character. As a songwriter, I like to reverse perspectives. Gender is something that’s very fun for me to think of from the other person’s perspective, the one that is not me. Perhaps a lot of people would write that song from the perspective of the male protagonist, being a male songwriter. But I felt like I had more sympathy for her story and wanted to tell it from her perspective because the whole movie is his perspective. And Karen Black, I’m such a fan of hers. Rest in peace. I think the way she portrays that character is so powerful.

“Stop Before I Cry”

Baby if we part
Katie if I hide
Then I can live in your songs forever
And you can live in mine

I got Oh My God on vinyl recently, and it has the lyrics real big, and I didn’t notice that Katie’s name is in the background of “Congratulations.”
It’s not in the background. It’s just in the liner notes.

Okay. I was thinking about that, and then she’s singing on the last album, and now there’s this song that’s super-direct. Can you walk me through your thoughts on writing about your relationship like that?
Being in this public indie-rock couple, people can pick up when we’re writing about one another. With Saint Cloud, there were a few songs where she’s singing about being in a relationship with another songwriter, and I would see it get picked up in the press, and my name was thrown around. There’s a lot happening with this record, like the “cum rag” line, where I just wanted to have no filter. When I first wrote that song, I wasn’t saying “Katie,” I was saying “baby,” and I was doing that to disguise her. But I’m like, There’s photos of us in bed kissing in magazines, and we’re on social media constantly. I’m going to call it for what it is. And it came out naturally in the studio. I think she has a pretty name, and I wanted to make no mistake who the song is about.

Listening back to it now, it makes me think about other songs that have people’s names in them. I’ve always figured, Oh, that name is to cover up for another name. When Tom Petty sings about Angela, maybe he’s singing about another person but he just calls her Angela to keep her anonymity. But with this, I’m like, Maybe a lot of these people, it’s a direct song as well. And maybe you can hear this song 20 years from now and have no context of our relationship and think, Who’s Katie? or something, who knows. But I like it. It’s a song for Katie. So I want her to be able to listen to it and think, This is Kevin singing directly to me.

What was it like showing the song to her?
I sent her the demo before I was addressing her as Katie, but it was obviously about her, and I knew she liked the song a lot. Then, when I sent her the rough mix, when we cut it and I got the file for it, she just sent me a bunch of crying emojis. I felt vulnerable showing it to her, and I wanted to get her blessing to do it. And she was like, “Well, I cried. You didn’t stop before I cried.”

“Goodbye to Good Times”

When my father was a young man, he got Mickey Mantle’s autograph
And with the M shaped like the moon, he would contemplate the stars

This part in the beginning punctuates the fascination with celebrity throughout the song, and I really like “contemplate the stars” as a double entendre. But I wanted to broaden this a bit. What was it about the four people who get mentioned in this song — Mickey Mantle, Tina Turner, Otis Redding, and Diane Lane — specifically?
Some of it is literal and some of it is make-believe. My dad does not have a Mickey Mantle autograph, but my father’s a huge baseball fan, and it’s because of him I know who Mickey Mantle is. One day I was looking up famous autographs, and one that kept being mentioned was his because he does this amazing crescent swoop on the M’s — he makes them look like moons. I love that line as well. Sam Cohen and I share the same brain, and he’s one of the only people that I’m comfortable with ever giving me feedback on lyrics. The original lyric was “With the M shaped like the moon, it made me contemplate the moon.” He was like, “You should change it to stars. You’re singing about stars.”

Then there’s Tina Turner. That was a very literal one, where I asked my mom one day, “When you were this age, who was inspiring you in terms of fashion, or who were you listening to?” Otis Redding, that’s direct — I was in Memphis, and he was everywhere, and he died tragically young in an airplane accident. Then Diane Lane, she’s the most random one. I was watching every movie during the pandemic, and I’d watched The Outsiders, which is one of my favorite books and movies growing up. I hadn’t watched it in years, and she’s such an iconic figure in this movie. She’s also in Rumble Fish, and she’s in black-and-white. She’s one of those people that I was like, Is she still alive? And I looked her up, and she’s only in her 50s, and she’s still killing it. She is one of these people from a certain generation where she made it in these iconic movies that seemed so far in the past, that it’s kind of unbelievable that she’s still around. I was thinking a lot about River Phoenix, too, and I almost put his name in there as someone who passed away young. But I think it’s important also to tell those stories of, sometimes the good survive. Sometimes these people who are such icons, they’re still out there, and that’s a beautiful thing.

That song made me think about the influence of Anthony Bourdain on Sundowner. We’ve been talking about Jeff Buckley and Karen Black and all these celebrities. It’s something that I find striking, and vulnerable, almost, to be talking about looking up to these celebrities, or relating to them, or finding them important. It’s something that everyone does, but there aren’t songs about it.
It is vulnerable. I think it’s a good word. I, in no way, shape, or form, am trying to say, “I’m like these people.” What I’m trying to say is their stories are famous stories, so I’ve come across them, and I relate to them in my small way, and I want to honor the fact that I’m relating to them. And something I’ve noticed, as a songwriter over the years, is when I talk about these people that are such celebrities to me, inevitably, there’s always someone who’s like, “I never had heard of Otis Redding until I heard your song” or “I had never heard of Jeff Buckley.” And it’s a cool thing to honor the past in that way, to move certain stories forward. I just think it’s good to honor your heroes and honor people who paved the way for you to now do what you do.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Zazu was one of three deaths that inspired Sundowner, also including Morby’s producer Richard Swift and the TV host Anthony Bourdain. Jeff Buckley died from accidental drowning in 1997. Bob Rafelson’s 1970 film Five Easy Pieces stars Jack Nicholson as a difficult oil worker and Karen Black as his girlfriend. On the song “There Goes Angela (Dream Away),” off Wildflowers.
Kevin Morby on the Best Lyrics Off This Is a Photograph