Kevin Morby Chases Ghosts, and a New Album, in Memphis

MEMPHIS — Kevin Morby bounded into the foyer of the Peabody resort on a Tuesday evening in late April in an extended purple coat and twirled twice, stretching his arms towards the travertine columns of the century-old Southern establishment. The songwriter, greatest recognized for solemn folks rock typically fixated on dying, beamed.

An hour earlier and blocks away, he’d watched because the Memphis Grizzlies overcame a 13-point deficit to win a pivotal N.B.A. playoff recreation. The spoils of victory spilled into the resort’s palatial entry — toasts, high-fives, the occasional whoop. A participant piano dashed out a Scott Joplin rag, its pep completely scoring the electrical scene. “That factor was so eerie after I was right here writing,” Morby mentioned, pointing as he handed, his grin briefly sagging. “I used to be so alone.”

Simply 18 months earlier, in October 2020, Morby escaped the approaching pandemic winter in his hometown, Kansas Metropolis, by reserving a three-week keep in Memphis. Since visiting the Peabody two years earlier together with his girlfriend, Katie Crutchfield, the singer who performs as Waxahatchee, the town’s difficult historical past had grow to be a muse.

The sprawling resort was so empty, the workers upgraded Morby to Room 409, a set, the place he targeted on new songs with an depth and persistence that had all the time eluded him. He turned a daily at among the metropolis’s morbid landmarks, too — the Lorraine Motel, the place Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; the spot on the Mississippi River the place Jeff Buckley drowned; the haunted stretch of Freeway 61 that leads into the Delta.

“When lockdown was occurring, I needed to go to the darkest place attainable,” he mentioned. Memphis was nearly shattered by pandemic greater than a century in the past.

Throughout that stint, Morby wrote the majority of “This Is a {Photograph},” his seventh solo album, due Friday. It’s a assured 45-minute sashay by means of susceptible devotionals and existential reflections, tuneful folks and handclap soul. Utilizing Memphis as a lens for understanding the frailty of our bodies and the goals they harbor, the album reckons with survival as a lot as dying.

“There was zero urgency for Kevin to make an album, and that may be a lovely place to be as a songwriter,” Crutchfield mentioned, wryly laughing by cellphone. “He’s all the time working so quick, however a 12 months with nothing allowed him to dial in. The phrase right here is density.”

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When Morby was solely 17, his third (and final, till this 12 months) therapist requested him why he was there. “I advised him I used to be so afraid of dying,” Morby, now 34, remembered throughout an interview weeks earlier than the basketball recreation. “There was this life-affirming second the place he was like, ‘Kevin, what’s so improper with dying?’ I assume nothing!”

As his mother and father shuffled amongst varied cities for work, Morby had morphed from a sports-loving child into an particularly anxious preteen. In Oklahoma Metropolis, he was terrified to study buddies had misplaced mother and father within the bombing there; later, in Kansas Metropolis, bullets on a playground satisfied him his college was the following Columbine.

“He is likely to be sitting on the sofa, and he would have these anxiousness assaults,” his father, Jim, remembered. “He felt it coming, however it will occur anyway.”

There have been hospitals, therapists and another college based by a “Vietnam veteran and whole hippie,” Morby mentioned. Lastly, after a very terrible spell, his mother and father provided their son a compromise — he may drop out, granted he end his G.E.D. and take a look at a close-by junior school. “I felt like such a poor mum or dad,” his mom, Sandy, mentioned, “however I water up serious about the aid on his face.”

When Morby turned 18, he boarded an eastbound practice with one purpose: becoming a member of a band in New York. He began writing songs in seventh grade, lyrics-lined notebooks dotting the home. A Bob Dylan anthology led to the indie rock of the Mountain Goats and the Microphones, who positioned much less emphasis on manufacturing than poignancy. “You’re telling me I can simply get a tape recorder and sing?” he mentioned. “It felt like acceptance.” Morby joined the ascendant psych-folk band Woods and toured incessantly, then co-founded the scruffy pop-rock group the Infants. However double obligation, plus jobs delivering meals and babysitting, exhausted him. He bailed on each bands to take an opportunity alone. “There’s all the time one thing to lose,” he mentioned, “however I assumed possibly there was extra to be gained.”

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Morby wrote and recorded at a feverish tempo, releasing an album or EP yearly since 2013 besides one, even whereas shifting from New York to Los Angeles and again to Kansas Metropolis. He recorded in a rush, embracing errors and tossed-off traces whereas striving for productiveness over perfection. “If I wasn’t not working,” he admitted, “I felt loopy.”

This harried schedule stemmed partly from his worry it will all vanish. Quickly after arriving in New York, Morby befriended Jamie Ewing, the dynamo chief of the punk band Bent Outta Form — “this magical, hilarious man, all the time forward of the curve.” Morby liked Ewing and the creative prospects he represented. Ewing died in 2008 from a heroin overdose, which jump-started Morby’s drive.

“I had this shortage mentality,” Morby mentioned, additionally referencing Jay Reatard, the Memphis garage-rocker who recommended that writing one’s greatest songs was actually a race towards dying quickly earlier than he died. “I needed to gather what I may whereas I may.”

A medical scare in January 2020, although, prompted a change. Earlier than a household dinner, Morby’s father by chance doubled his dosage of coronary heart treatment and handed out on the desk. He recovered, however Morby had frightened he was watching his father die.

That evening, outdated pictures together with his mom, he was struck by a picture of his father — then 32, the identical age Morby was about to be — posing shirtless within the Texas solar. He contemplated his household’s sudden frailty and commenced writing “This Is a {Photograph},” a galloping monitor about dying’s inevitability and the gratitude the fait accompli ought to encourage. “That is what I’ll miss about being alive,” Morby howls, placing himself inside his father’s former body. What had his father misplaced? What would he lose?

Morby took these inquiries to Memphis. As he drove his blue Ford pickup down Freeway 61 to the notorious Crossroads or throughout Mississippi to take a seat on Elvis’s boyhood porch, he contemplated how massive goals crumbled there. He obsessed particularly over Buckley, who had utilized for a job as a butterfly keeper on the Memphis Zoo whereas ready for his band to reach in 1997. Passers-by quickly noticed his physique floating on the foot of Beale Road.

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Morby visited the little bungalow the place Buckley lived and even recorded the sound of the present the place he waded into the water. “You’re Jeff Buckley — you’ve achieved variations of the dream, however there’s nonetheless one thing you’re attempting to perform,” Morby mentioned. “I relate.”

Twin odes to Buckley form the centerpiece of “This Is a {Photograph}.” Graced by gospel harmonies, “Disappearing” provides caveat emptor for the sort of tortured artists who may strive dipping into the Mississippi. (“I actually wish to swim in it,” he confessed from its banks, including he knew it was a foul thought.) “A Coat of Butterflies” slowly unspools like an empathetic eulogy for a musician who spent a lifetime defining himself in mild of his father’s fame. Morby realized he’d lastly nailed the monitor as he left Memphis after the album’s third and last session, which he repeatedly referred to as “the very best 4 days of my life.” He’d confronted his worry of dying and walked away.

The morning earlier than the triumphant basketball recreation, Morby went for a run alongside a concrete path that skirts the Mississippi, a interest he took up quickly after turning 30. The path dumped him beneath towering overpasses and a small clearing that led to the river, the place Buckley is believed to have entered. Simply as he rotated, two butterflies fluttered beside him for a number of seconds. It was an indication, he thought, that he was shifting in the fitting course.

“It’s such as you’re a photographer. You understand what you wish to take an image of, however I knew I couldn’t take a photograph I may develop till I acquired right here,” he mentioned, his voice rising above the Peabody’s din. “The useless might help form the residing. I wish to be open to that sort of magic.”

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