3 Things That Influenced Kevin Morby’s New LP ‘Sundowner’

The Kansas City songwriter explains how Terrence Malick, Bonnie "Prince" Billy, and Larry McMurtry inspired his intimate sixth album.
Chicago, United States
October 15, 2020, 11:00am
Photo by Johnny Eastlund 

Few artists are able to capture the essence of a physical place quite like Kevin Morby. Across six albums, the Kansas City-raised songwriter has evoked both lyrically and musically his adopted homes. He wrote his debut Harlem River as a love letter to New York City and paid homage to Los Angeles on 2016's Singing Saw. He directly references both on 2017's City Music, on which he shouts out the New York City icons Ramones on “1234” and covers L.A. icons Germs on “Caught In My Eye.”While the religious themes of his 2019 LP Oh My God felt like he was broadcasting his songs straight from a church, his latest, Sundowner, out Friday, feels more intimate and inviting.

"With this album, I wanted to make a quieter statement, not necessarily a smaller statement,"  says the 32-year-old songwriter. "Where Oh My God felt like I was in this big cathedral, I wanted this to feel like it's from a small cabin room."

The songs on Sundowner do have a strong sense of closeness as singles like "Campfire" and "Don't Underestimate Midwest American Sun" are often hushed and unhurried but still immediately resonant on first listen. That's exactly what Morby intended. He wrote these songs in 2017 through a "summer [of] isolation" on a four-track in a makeshift studio in his backyard. He had just moved back to his Kansas City home from Los Angeles and started a new relationship with fellow songwriter Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee. You can hear the competing feelings of solitude and hope throughout the plaintive songs on Sundowner and especially in the pastoral and gorgeous music videos that accompany the singles.

In the press bio, Morby says this LP is his "attempt to put the Middle American twilight—its beauty profound, though not always immediate—into sound" so we asked him to come up with three things that inspired it: a film, a book, and an album. For the first installment of Pick Three, read on how Morby found inspiration in Terrence Malick's first film, Larry McMurtry's Old West masterpiece, and an underappreciated LP from Will Oldham.

Badlands, directed by Terrence Malick (1973)

This is such a beautiful film but it's also so horrifying and disturbing. When did you first see it? 
It would have been in 2013 when I was on tour in Australia and our host took us to this beach town where we watched it. It blew my mind. It was cool to watch it that far away from home, because it's such an American film and when you're away from home, you watch something that overtly American, it makes you miss home. It made such a big impression on me. I know that there's like a correlation between the stories it's depicting in that film and the film itself to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, which is one of my favorite records of all time.

How did it impact the album?  
When this lockdown took place, my girlfriend Katie had never seen it. We watched it and then I just had it on for days. When I started work on this record, there was a lot happening in my life at a time: I moved back home, and I was in this self-isolation. But then I started to date Katie, and she'd come to town, and it would just be the two of us here in the weird Kansas suburbs. I couldn't help but compare it to that film, because it just felt like we were two strange adults that were acting like children in middle America like the main characters. Terrence Malick is the master of depicting American landscapes and twilight. Everything that I'm influenced by in the natural world is depicted perfectly in that film: the Midwest, and the way the landscape feels. It's just poetry watching that movie. Every scene is eye candy. That really went on the music videos for this album, which is our own Badlands.

Your music always feels like it evokes a certain place. How do you try to capture that? 
I think you're just tapping into the air around you. There are things that are so embedded in different parts of the country, which is perhaps why the Beach Boys sound like California, or why the Velvet Underground sounds like New York City. You're tapping into some larger thing that's happening in the atmosphere. The Beach Boys were able to make you feel how it feels to be in the ocean in a wave coming at you: They're able to do that in the sound. That's what I was trying to do with this album: I wanted the air in the moment between the lines on my record to feel like the air feels in the Midwest when it's a humid summer or when it's freezing cold in the dead of winter and the sun is going down. It's really about immersing yourself in the environment, and it'll naturally just start to play out.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry (1985)

I still have yet to get around to Lonesome Dove because it seems like a pretty daunting commitment at 850 pages. 
You could easily do it. It's hilarious because everyone who recommended it told me, "give it the first 400 pages and then you'll be all in" which is a huge ask. But by page 200 I was not getting off the ride. When I was reading it, Katie and I had started dating and we went on a trip to Marfa, Texas. I'd never been to Marfa before I love West Texas and I love Texas in general as I was born there. It took me a bit to finish but it was always there while I was working on Sundowner. The big parallels to draw between the record in the lyrical content is that there's a lot of reflection happening on the album. I'm calling people out who influenced me explicitly by name or reflecting on people who have passed away that I've known to varying degrees, whether they were my best friend to someone like Anthony Bourdain, who was a hero of mine who I didn't know.

How does that relate to the book? 
There's this whole theme in Lonesome Dove, which is about these cattle ranchers moving from Texas to Montana. They don't really know why they're doing it so it's about the pursuit of humanity: how people in earlier stages of society just did these things just because something inside of them told them that they needed to do it. They're these roughhouse Texans who aren't that well educated, and who they think they need to appear smart so they write on a sign in Latin. They don't know what the Latin phrase means and brilliantly, the book never explains it so you have to look it up yourself. When you do, the Latin phrase translates to a "grape ripens when it sees another grape." Everyone is, for better or worse, influenced in ways big or small by everyone they come in contact with. No matter who you encounter in this world, they're going to influence the next thing you do in some way, shape or form. That's humanity in a nutshell and something I was really speaking to on my record that looking back Lonesome Dove had an influence on. I actually have a sign in my apartment with that phrase a friend recently gave me.

I was reading a profile of Larry McMurtry and he said, "as soon as I finish a novel and ship it to the publisher, I almost immediately lose interest in it and never read it again. I don't hang on to any of my books. If I did that, I wouldn't have time to think about what I'm gonna do next." Do you relate to that as a songwriter? 
That's awesome. I absolutely relate to that. I obsess with my work until it's released out into the world. So not at the moment that I sent it to the label or whatever but the moment it comes out. Once it's out, I will lose all interest in it. Right now though, I'm constantly thinking of how it's going to sound to someone who hasn't heard it and all the little intricacies that are going on throughout it up until the moment it's released.

Ease Down The Road by Bonnie "Prince" Billy (2001)

When I heard your song on Sundowner, "A Night In Little Los Angeles," it reminded me of Bonnie Prince Billy's "After I Made Love To You," which both take place in seedy hotel rooms. Is that part of the connection?
It's funny you say that because there definitely is some sort of graphic sexual content on that record, as there is in Sundowner. That's definitely a parallel but that wasn't why I chose this record. After having lived in New York and Los Angeles for so long, the stark difference of moving back to the Midwest was bringing out this whole different collection of records that I hadn't thought about in a long time. I don't know too much about where this record was made or what Will Oldham's life was like when he made it but he's from Louisville, which is a city that really reminds me of Kansas City.

I was drawn to this record because it does have Midwest quality to it, like out on the farm or something. I can relate to this with Sundowner because what I was really going for was a quiet-loud statement: it feels everything's coming out of someone's living room, but it still rips. It's just this sort of timeless record that's not punching you in the face with a huge statement or anything, it'll kind of live for a long time. I would love it if Sundowner lived a similar fate as this record. I want it to exist in this intimate place where I'm in like a small wooden barn which is exactly where I wrote it as opposed to a big bombastic thing.