Photo credit: Dean Budnick
Kevin Morby has had quite the year. In April, the indie singer-songwriter released his fifth and deepest solo album, Oh My God, which won over critics and fans alike and helped Morby ascend to larger marquee venues around the country. He’s also continued to refine his live show, dividing his time between stripped-down duo performances and his expansive big band. He’s also grown into a key part of two scenes, the DIY-psych world that orbits around his former band Woods and an equally close-knit group of improvisational players that includes Sam Cohen, Cochemea “Cheme” Gastelum and Alecia Chakour, all of whom toured as part of his band in recent months.
In September, Morby also reunited with Woods for a special set at their Woodsist Festival in Accord, N.Y., during a tribute to Silver Jews’ David Berman that included takes on “All My Happiness Is Gone” and “Random Rules,” along with onstage collaborations with friends like Whitney and Waxahatchee. And, on Tuesday, Oct. 8, Morby will participate in Songs for the Mind, a benefit concert on World Mental Health Day at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, featuringDeva Mahal, Josiah Johnson, Phil Hanley and Kayla Kitchen. Morby, who has struggled with anxiety for much of his life, considers the cause to be a personal one and plans to bring a few friends along for a special performance.
Shortly before the benefit, Morby discussed mental health in the music industry, the recent classic-era Woods reunion and what it was like stepping into Bob Dylan’s shoes for a night.
Let’s start by talking about the upcoming event, Songs for the Mind—World Mental Health Day Benefit Concert. What initially drew your attention to the cause?
Sound Mind [an organization that raises awareness for mental health] contacted me. Maybe they heard me talk about it in interviews—it’s a cause that is important to me. Mental health issues are [prevalent] amongst artists, especially musicians.
I’ve had my own history with mental health issues and anxiety—when I was in high school, I really struggled with anxiety. I just think it’s one of those things that goes so hand-in-hand with creative people. There’s this stigma within our world, and with how our society operates, that causes people to not take mental health issues seriously when it’s [affecting] a creative person. As time goes on, and as I get older, I recognize it more as something that people need to pay attention to. It should be part of a conversation.
Yeah, absolutely. One time I saw this therapist who put it in these terms that I really like and really related to. Anxiety, whether I like it or not, is something that’s with me my whole life. He kind of described it as me having a child. Like a child, if I chose to neglect it, it would lash out and become this sort of beast—but if I gave it care and attention and love, it’s something that I could keep under control and even find a lot of positivity within. So that’s really how I like to treat mental health and my anxiety. I like to meet it halfway. And rather than neglect it, I like to understand that it’s there and see what I can do to keep it under control.
That is a beautiful analogy. What are some of the other tools you have sharpened in order to keep your anxiety under control?
Yeah, it is a beautiful analogy. For me, it’s just doing anything good for yourself. You have to look at everything in the world as having a nutritional value. And I think for me, nutrition for my physical being is just as important as it is for my mental being, which comes down to stuff like, “I don’t want to watch TV all day,” or “I don’t want to sit around and eat junk food all day.” Because all of that stuff will manifest itself into being unhealthy, mentally and physically. Maybe those sound like stock answers, or feel cliché, but eating healthy, getting exercise, being around nature as much as possible and not having too much screen time—I have to give myself those rules and those boundaries, or else I’ll kind of slip, even though it sounds like an overbearing authority figure or a guardian giving them. I know that David Foster Wallace didn’t have a television in his house because he knew that if he did, he would watch TV all day.
I heard this interview with Ian MacKaye where he was talking about when 9/11 happened, he made a point to just watch one TV news report and get the facts and that was it. For the next couple of months, he would get the bare facts and then choose to spend his time outdoors, in nature. He wanted to be in the air, around trees, and place himself within these pleasantries of life, because if you get sucked into the media, or whatever, it’s unhealthy. It’s a bad diet for you. I remember hearing that interview and really taking a lot from that. You can create your own environment, healthy or unhealthy—you choose to create it. I like to just keep a steady rotation of reading, of exercise—exercise has become a really big thing for me, especially on the road. I find that if I don’t do it, I feel awful. The same way that, if I don’t eat healthy, and I only have a poor diet, I’ll physically feel awful from that. It’s two sides of the coin: the body and mind. I think you have to take care of both. There’s so much that I do for that stuff. I obviously meditate. It’s all maintenance: We’re given this body and this mind, and we have to try to live to be 100 years old. You have to maintenance the vehicle that you have in order to do that.
You have been touring in a few different configurations this year, ranging from a big band with lush arrangements to duo tours. Which configuration are you bringing to Songs for the Mind?
It’s a duo—I’m gonna have a couple friends up with me. Though, I might also have an extra friend or two come up and join me.
Cochemea “Cheme” Gastelum, who our readers know through his time with the Dap-Kings, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress and Antibalas, has been one of your closest collaborators this year. He’s played in your band and you recently did a stripped-down tour together. How did you first connect?
We connected through Sam Cohen, who produced Oh My God. When I mentioned wanting saxophone to be a heavy player in the album, Sam instantly thought of Cheme and called him in. We really hit it off, and we’ve been having an amazing time doing these duo shows. He’s incredible—his solo stuff is incredible, and he’s such an amazing person.
Are there certain corners of your solo catalog that you feel are more conducive to the duo configuration?
Yeah—with Oh My God, I feel like half the record is this big bombastic thing that calls for the big band, and the other half is very quiet, with everything is stripped down to it’s parts. A lot of Oh My God’s material is fitting for the duo formation, and then I’m making the older songs work in that. I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge—it’s just fun. I’ve always dealt with my live configuration being different than the record. They take on life forms of their own. They almost become new songs altogether.
You mentioned Sam, who has produced your most recent albums, opened for you on the road and even been part of your touring band. For a while, you seemed to be living parallel lives in the New York psych-rock community, but eventually crossed paths. How did you initially meet?
We met in 2014 at a recreation of The Last Waltz, which I actually ended up doing last year. It’s called The Complete Last Waltz, and it was at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. It’s cool, because last year I got to return, and I got to play in the Bob Dylan slot, kind of the headlining slot, whereas the first year, I just sang a Band song, probably the second person to go out there and sing.
I didn’t know any of that crew—I didn’t know Sam or [Tedeschi Trucks Band singer and sometimes Morby bandmate] Alecia Chakour or Marco Benevento or Stuart Bogie. I went there totally blind, and it was a scene totally different from mine.
Literally, my first thought when they asked me to play was, “They want to pay me money to sing one song? I’ve never done something like this.” I was really young and I was very green and I went in there, and Sam was the bandleader and the director for the whole thirty-piece band, with full brass ensemble and multiple keyboardists and guitarists and all these people. The way Sam conducted himself while leading all these people really impressed me. Then, I heard his record and found out about his solo work. He had self-produced it, and when I had heard the record, I was like, “You should produce my record.” That’s how it all happened—he made my record Singing Saw, and we’ve been best friends and collaborators since.
In late September, the classic Woods lineup, with you on bass, reunited for the first time in years for a set at the Woodsist Festival. You left Woods in 2013 to focus on The Babies and your solo career. How did it feel to step back into that material?
It’s funny. Going into it, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. There were about five songs out of the 15 that we were going to play that I was like, “OK, I think I sort of remember these five.” But I thought to myself, “The other ones I’m going to have to completely relearn, which can take forever.” And once I was in the room with those guys, it literally just came back to my hands. It was super weird, like riding a bike, but I couldn’t believe that the songs were just buried in there somewhere, and they came out.
It was great! Those guys, they’re like family to me, and it was really fun to go back into that role. We played a warmup show the night before in a really tiny bar called Tubby’s, in Kingston, N.Y, and that was really special to me because it was sold out at like 70 people—it was really tiny, sweaty, and the sound was crazy. Everything was really loud. That’s sort of how we began as a band, so it was really nice to go back to that as well, to a venue we would have played in the past. It was a walk down memory lane, and I really loved it.
You sat in with a number of bands during the Woodsist Festival weekend and it struck me just how many groups and performers are connected to that world.
It was honestly amazing—it was probably my favorite thing that I’ve done all year. Everyone was in such good moods, and people were seeing each other for the first time. I hadn’t seen G Lucas Crane, who played the tapes with Woods, since his last show with Woods, which was Cinco De Mayo 2012. So, it was truly like a family reunion; it was a lot of fun. And to speak to that, we did a David Berman song and my girlfriend, Waxahatchee, and I did a Jason Molina song, honoring these people who have passed away and have died tragically. It was nice to be in the environment of artists who are still working really hard and trying to fight the good fight.
David’s passing brings us back to better metal health care for musicians and other creative types.
Yeah—so Jarvis Taveniere and Jeremy Earl from Woods, they’re like brothers of mine. They produced David’s [final album under the name Purple Mountain, which came out around the time of his suicide this past summer]. The fact that a new David Berman album was happening at all was so surreal and a dream come true for them, and my friend Anna St. Louis, whose record I put out, grew up with me in Kansas City. She was on the record, and the whole thing was this weird dream come true, with an obviously very tragic ending. And Cyrus Gengras, who plays bass in my band, was going to play guitar in Purple Mountain. Jarvis was going to be in Purple Mountain—they were getting ready to do this tour. Very tragically, David took his own life. And I think that has hit my own community very hard, harder than any sort of indie-rock celebrity death I’ve seen. I think that’s because he was making this great resurgence, and he was on this great path. And my friends were on the front lines of it—they were there when he died, and they were getting ready to play in his band and be a part of this magical thing. So, it’s just been on everyone’s mind. And what I would say, going back to the first part of this conversation, is that there’s this reputation that musicians have. People like to look at rock-and-roll and the music industry as this party—like, “Oh, you’re The Rolling Stones, so you get to just go out there and drink, do drugs, sleep around and just have this wild and crazy time!”
That’s what you’re supposed to do, but I think what people don’t understand is that the reason that’s become the reputation is because you’re dealing with creative people. The reason they’re able to take this thing out of thin air and create songs is because they’re sensitive and they’re open to the world in a way that most people aren’t. That’s what makes them desirable in the first place. What comes with that a lot of times is mental health and addictions—I don’t think people understand what a sort of epidemic that is, that there’s a lot of people really suffering. Someone like David Berman, who was putting out arguably his most critically acclaimed album, and he still takes his own life. People really are suffering. It helps to make good art, but I also think that sometimes the art isn’t the most important thing—it’s keeping people sane and healthy that should come more into focus.