For 20 years Kevin Morby has been married to music. Here, the American singer/guitarist details their life long relationship - turbulent, isolating, joyous, necessary and defiant.
It is 1996 and you are eight years old. Your older sister buys a CD from a mail order magazine and hands it to you. You feed it into the mouth of the boom box and watch the speakers as the sound comes out, giving you a feeling you do not know how to put into words. What fascinates you is that every song is a hit, every song is magic - there is not one bad one - not one that makes you want to move on to the next. Never in your few years on this earth have you ever heard anything so beautiful. Up until now you've wanted nothing more than to be a baseball player when you grew up - but now things have changed. "I’m going to become a musician" you tell yourself, and you mean it with all your little heart. In doing this you do not realize, but someday will, that you have just taken your vows and are now, for better or worse, married to music.
It is 1999 and your mother hands you a Sears catalog and tells you to start getting ideas for Christmas. You flip the pages until you land on a Yamaha Guitar Starter Kit. "This!" you tell your mother. "I want this!". The guitar appears a month later beneath a tree as if the tree had given birth to the most beautiful child you have ever seen. You and your father, who like you - is touching a guitar for the first time in his life - try to tune it properly but the tuning of an instrument is lost on you both. Your father breaks a string from winding it too tightly, and the rest of them live out their days untuned and untouched. This guitar is a laboratory, and you are no scientist. A year later you sell the guitar at a garage sale.
It is still the year 2001 and you have decided to give guitar another try. You get guitar lessons for your birthday and your teacher is a metal-head named Nate who has hair down his to his mid-back and wears velvet suits. You love Nate and are grateful for his existence. He is like a magician with a wand, or an angel - or both. He can listen to any song, any song at all, and make it come out of his guitar. This is as wild and unbelievable to you at twelve years old as pulling a rabbit from a hat - except this is real - this is no smoke and mirrors game. You buy an acoustic guitar hoping to have better luck with it then you did with the electric, and the first thing Nate shows you is how to properly tune.
It is 2002 and you have written your first song. With its verse-chorus/verse-chorus you know that it is real enough to have an audience. On a Tuesday at 4:30 PM, which is when your lessons happen once a week, you perform this song for Nate. You watch closely as the song lands on him, studying the expression on his face you can tell he does not care for it - but that he is impressed that you have put together a song at all. When you are done he tells you “it’s not bad” and that “someday”, he leans in, “you are going to be really great at that”. This excites you as you know that he is telling the truth - because Nate is not a liar. On the drive home next to your mother you let the sentence echo through your brain: “someday you will be great at that”.
It is 2003 and you and your friends put together a band and perform at a Battle Of The Bands. You put new strings on your guitar moments before going on stage without stretching them and they go unrecognizably out of tune after the first chord is played. You were warned of this but you were too nervous to remember - and now the songs don't sound like songs but like performance art but this does not matter for the fact remains that you are on a stage playing a show, and you think to yourself; I am becoming a musician.
It is 2004 and you find an old tape of your fathers in his fishing boat. The tape is Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Volume 1 and this changes everything. Everything in your life has lead up to this fateful moment. You are inspired but also discouraged after having discovered him. While it’s the best music you've ever heard, and ever will hear, it’s too untouchable, too timeless. There is no way to create anything close to it. It is too raw, the stories too good. No one this day and age could create beauty like this - let alone with just an acoustic guitar and their voice. Then one day someone, another angel perhaps, hands you a copy of All Hail West Texas by The Mountain Goats, and this - again - changes everything.
It is 2004 and your favorite bands are: The Mountain Goats, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Microphones and Modest Mouse. Your first girlfriend gives you a vinyl copy of Harvest by Neil Young, and puts Joanna Newsom, Jeffery Lewis, Elliott Smith and Kimya Dawson on a mixtape for you. These artists all have something in common and that is that you feel that you could be them. Listening to them is just a reminder that there is music somewhere inside of you that is yet to come out but someday could inspire others the way these people inspire you now. It is only a matter of when and where. “Not now”, you think, and - “not here”.
You play your first show as a solo artist under your own name opening for local singer at a small book store. The show is to 25 seated people, young and old, and you feel you have hypnotized them all - made them believe every word you sang. You do not look at the crowd while you do this - but instead close your eyes tightly. You learn that while you sing, you exist in a some distant reality that is far from this earth, and afterwards the owner of the book store and your friends mother tell you you remind them of Bob Dylan. You don’t know this now, but you will hear this as a comparison for years to come - and it will forever remain a compliment. A few months later you turn 17 and drop out of highschool. You are almost an adult - a man, and you are going to move far far away and become a musician.
It is 2006 and you are taking an AmTrak to New York City. You have never left the Midwest and are terrified, but excited - you are going to finally swim in an ocean. You listen to only two albums: Leonard Cohens Greatest Hits and Chelsea Girls by Nico. When you arrive, New York is beyond anything you could have ever dreamed and your life is now forever put into two categories: Before New York and After New York. You listen to "Chelsea Hotel #2" on repeat as you walk into Manhattan. You find yourself in front of the Chelsea Hotel that standing before you looks like a kingdom and you think of Nico and Leonard Cohen having once stood where you now stand. Life is more vivid and you feel more alive than you ever imagined possible, as if you had crossed over into Oz, and were seeing the world in colour for the first time.
It is 2008 and your favorite local band asks you to play bass for them. You never imagined such an opportunity and though you have never played bass, you say yes. You are 19 and the three of your bandmates are 29. Your first tour is in Europe and though it does not pay you do not care for you are rich with this experience. The second tour you do with them is of the West Coast and though your best friend has just died the day before leaving, you go anyways and though you are upset about missing his funeral - or worried that he - wherever he has gone - cannot believe you aren’t coming to his funeral - you tell yourself that he would want you to do this - to live the dream. It is both your dream, and his. At some point on this tour you are handed a 20 dollar bill by the band leader. You cannot believe what is happening - you, for the first time in your life, are getting paid to play music.
It is 2009 and you form a new band, one that plays your songs, with your old roommate, who has a band of her own. You do not have big plans or high hopes for this project though people seem naturally interested. You have now begun the life of someone who must juggle two bands at one time. A circus act that you think you can pull off because you are young and immortal.
It is 2011 and your new band releases their first album to horrible reviews. You are blindsided by this. Embarrassed and defeated by what someone has said about you - you think maybe you should quit - maybe this isn’t for you afterall - but then you think again. You imagine your life without this band and you see nothingness. This is a very important lesson and you will later be grateful that the first review you ever read about an album you wrote was a bad one.
It is 2012 and both of your bands have released new albums, both to favorable reviews. You are very busy and you tour for two years straight with very little breaks. You miss your childhood best friends wedding, and another wedding, and another funeral - your grandmothers this time - but everyone understands, even your dead grandmother and her son, your father - because everyone always understands when you are living the dream. At this point you have given up all odd jobs at home. No more serving coffee or delivering food. You are a full time musician and you work 24 hours a day 7 days a week 365 days a year. It is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult job you’ve ever had.
It is 2013 and you feel a part of you has broken. The part of you that used to long for a life of travel and music has broken, or died - you can’t tell which and you don’t care - you just want out. For the first time you feel trapped within music. You believe that you cannot get away from it and that someday it will eventually kill you. In your exhausted mind, a hotel room has become a prison, as has the van you travel in and the stages you play on. Each show promoter is a demon, and each fan who says they appreciate what you do is a liar. Everyone who once said you were lucky to live such a life is nothing but a fool. You have given up your apartment in New York and are confused as to where home actually is. You realize that tour has become Tour; a mobile city in which you have been living in for the past two years and you want to move far away from this place and never come back.
You do what seems to be the only option at this point: you leave the town of Tour and move to Los Angeles where there is sun. When you arrive, you record your first solo album with no real plans of ever going back to Tour - but when the album is released - you talk yourself into a 6 week trip to Tour during a polar vortex. You do this because you imagine your life without the city of Tour, without playing music every night, and again you see nothingness.
It is 2014 and you are recording your second album and you cannot get through vocal takes with the same ease you once could. Your doctor tells you you have vocal polyps and need them removed as soon as possible. You get the surgery and cannot speak for a month afterwards, carrying around a dry-erase board to communicate. You are also told you must suddenly quit your sacred cigarettes that you began smoking ten years previous. You thought this would be an awful experience, but you find peace in the silence and the change. When you are healed you go back out on tour in support of your second album. You do a two piece tour through Europe and end in Portugal, falling in love with a new city all over again. Once more, life feels vibrant and alive and you are reminded of the joy that exists only in a new place.
It is Spring 2015 and you are on a tour that shouldn’t be called a tour but instead a paid vacation. Each night a better show, each meal more delicious than the last, each passing moment more photogenic than the one that precedes it. You skinny-dip in many different bodies of water you have always longed to swim in, and with your best friends no less. The Mediterranean in Southern France, the Adriatic in Italy, the pools of the Swiss Alps - the cleanest and freshest water you have ever been in - so fresh that you swim out to the middle and drink a mouthful. All of life has come together and put you in this moment, a moment where you are drinking the same beautiful water that you are bathing in.
It is fall 2015 and you're on tour in England. KLM, the dutch airline has lost your suitcase and you have no clothes. You play a festival in the Birkenstocks and sweat pants you wore on the plane in the pouring rain. As you tour through England no one comes to the shows and you are losing thousands of dollars. Right before taking the stage at the one and only well attended show in London, your girlfriend calls to tell you that your friend, and her best friend - has died. This confuses you as you had just seen her a week ago, the day before leaving - and now you will never see her again. In the two weeks you will have been away she will have died and already had a funeral. You take the stage and the first song you play is the same song you play every night which you wrote for another dead friend whose funeral you also missed because you were on tour. KLM will not find your bag until the last day of the tour, and so you are forced to buy new clothes in England. You buy a sweatshirt and a pair of shoes and while looking at them over your body in a full length mirror of the hotel room you speak out at your reflection: “I hate this shirt and I hate these shoes”. In a few months time you will realize that these have since become your favorite articles of clothing.
It is 2016 and your new album is about to come out. You do a press trip through Europe in promotion for the album. You count the times you have been to Europe since first going with the band you didn’t know how to play bass for. 16 times. You are not used to traveling this far from home without the comfort of your band, and you feel very alone. Because you cannot sleep, you drink until eventually you must lay down and close your eyes - and like clockwork - awake four hours later in a fog that is somewhere exactly halfway between jet lag and a hangover. You write new songs from your hotel bed each morning that you find yourself in this position and you can’t help but think: this is how it happens - I live like a crazy person and songs eventually find their way out.
You go back home and go straight to Austin, Texas for SXSW with your band. You are not looking forward to this and infact, in 2010, while you were lost in the rain at the same festival, swore you'd never go back. But despite this - you go - and on the first night you are sitting on the porch of the rented house and because you are in Texas you put on a live Townes van Zandt album that was recorded in Houston and at some point, while staring into the night you hear him sing:
"Legs to walk and thoughts to fly
Eyes to laugh and lips to cry
A restless tongue to classify
All born to grow and grown to die"
And you yourself begin to cry - in this company of friends and with another strange city in front of you, you have once again become overwhelmed with the beauty of the life that you have created for yourself - and you begin to cry. You take this moment to meditate on the memory of your dead friends who you did not get to say goodbye to because you were touring - because of music, and within doing this you realize that without music you would have never gotten to say hello in the first place. You make a note of this, and in doing so, whisper into the ear of music: thank you for everything.
You return home to Los Angeles where you continue to do press before your album comes out and are asked to write an essay on music which is what brings us here:
It is somewhere in the future and I am having a bad gig.
It is somewhere in the future and I am having a good gig.
It is somewhere in the future and I am aboard a plane that is taking off into a storm. My guitar in a soft case hangs like a halo in the overhead bin above me.
It is somewhere in the future and I am wondering why I do this.
It is somewhere in the future and I am meditating a different reality, a reality without music and again I see nothingness
It is somewhere in the future and I am again crying at what someone is saying through a stereo.
It is somewhere in the future and I am in and out of a fever dream while tangled, like a pretzel, in the backseat of a van
It is somewhere in the future and I am on yet another plane, and the pilot is speaking over the intercom, telling us to fasten our seatbelts, to expect turbulence.
It is somewhere in the future and I am again wondering why I do this
And then I remember,
because I am married to music, and have been for a long time
because I love music more than I have ever loved anything.
in sickness and in health,
til death do us part.