MEMPHIS (AP) — Kevin Morby bounded into the lobby of the Peabody Hotel on a Tuesday night in late April wearing a long red coat and spun twice, arms outstretched toward the travertine columns of the century-old southern institution. The songwriter, best known for his often death-obsessed solemn folk rock, smiled.
An hour earlier and blocks away, he had watched the Memphis Grizzlies overcome a 13-point deficit to win a crucial NBA playoff game. The spoils of victory were spilled at the hotel’s palatial entrance: toasts, high-fives, occasional shouts. A player piano played a Scott Joplin rag, his energy perfectly marked the electric scene. “That thing was so creepy when he was here writing,” Morby said, gesturing as he passed, his smile fading briefly. “I was so alone.”
Just 18 months earlier, in October 2020, Morby escaped the impending pandemic winter in his hometown of Kansas City by booking a three-week stay in Memphis. Since he’d visited the Peabody two years earlier with his girlfriend, Katie Crutchfield, the singer who plays Waxahatchee, the town’s complicated history had become a muse.
The sprawling hotel was so empty that the staff promoted Morby to room 409, a suite, where he focused on new songs with an intensity and patience that had always eluded him. He, too, became a regular at some of the city’s morbid landmarks: the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; the place in the Mississippi River where Jeff Buckley drowned; the haunted stretch of Highway 61 that leads to the Delta.
“When the lockdown was happening, I wanted to go to the darkest place possible,” he said. Memphis was nearly ripped apart by a pandemic more than a century ago.
During that period, Morby wrote most of “This Is a Photograph,” his seventh solo album, due out Friday. It’s a confident 45-minute sashay through vulnerable devotionals and existential musings, tuneful folk and clapping soul. Using Memphis as a lens to understand the fragility of bodies and the dreams they harbor, the album considers both survival and death.
“There was no urgency for Kevin to make an album, and that’s a beautiful place to be as a songwriter,” Crutchfield said, laughing wryly over the phone. “He is always working so fast, but a year without anything allowed him to score. The word here is density.
When Morby was just 17 years old, his third (and last, until this year) therapist asked him why he was there. “I told him I was really scared I was going to die,” Morby, now 34, recalled during an interview weeks before the basketball game. “There was this life-affirming moment where he said, ‘Kevin, what’s wrong with death?’ I guess nothing!”
As his parents roamed cities looking for jobs, Morby had grown from a sports-loving kid to an especially eager preteen. In Oklahoma City, he was terrified to learn that his friends had lost his parents in the bombing there; later, in Kansas City, bullets in a playground convinced him that his school was the next Columbine.
“He could be sitting on the couch and he would have these anxiety attacks,” recalled his father, Jim. “He felt it coming, but it would happen anyway.”
There were hospitals, therapists and an alternative school founded by a “Vietnam veteran and total hippie,” Morby said. Finally, after a particularly harrowing period, his parents offered his son a compromise: he could drop out, on the condition that he complete his GED and try out at a nearby college. “I felt like such a poor father,” said her mother, Sandy, “but I got emotional thinking of the relief on her face.”
When Morby turned 18, he boarded an eastbound train with one goal: to join a gang in New York. He started writing songs in seventh grade, notebooks lined with lyrics that dotted the house. A Bob Dylan anthology led to indie rock from the Mountain Goats and Microphones, who put less emphasis on production than soulfulness. “Are you telling me I can get a tape recorder and sing?” he said. “It felt like acceptance.” Morby joined the rising psych-folk band Woods and toured incessantly, then co-founded the scruffy pop-rock group The Babies. But the double duty, plus food delivery and babysitting jobs, wore him down. He got rid of both gangs to risk himself. “There’s always something to lose,” he said, “but I thought maybe there was more to gain.”
Morby wrote and recorded at a feverish pace, releasing an album or EP every year since 2013 except one, even as he moved from New York to Los Angeles and back to Kansas City. She recorded in a hurry, accepting mistakes and dropped lines while striving for productivity over perfection. “If I wasn’t working,” he admitted, “I would feel crazy.”
This tight schedule was due in part to his fear that it would all fall apart. Shortly after arriving in New York, Morby befriended Jamie Ewing, the dynamic frontman of the punk band Bent Outta Shape, “this magical, hilarious guy, always on the cutting edge.” Morby loved Ewing and the artistic possibilities he represented. Ewing died in 2008 from a heroin overdose, fueling the Morby push.
“I had this scarcity mentality,” Morby said, also referencing Jay Reatard, the Memphis garage rocker who suggested that writing your best songs was really a race against death shortly before you died. “He had to collect what he could while he could.”
However, a medical scare in January 2020 prompted a change. Before a family dinner, Morby’s father accidentally doubled his dose of heart medication and passed out at the table. He recovered, but Morby worried that he was watching her father die.
That night, while looking through old photos with his mother, a picture of his father, then 32, the same age Morby was about to be, posing shirtless in the Texas sun, caught his eye. She contemplated the sudden fragility of her family and began writing “This Is a Photograph,” a galloping hint about the inevitability of death and the gratitude that the fait accompli must inspire. “This is what I’m going to miss about being alive,” Morby howls, stepping into his father’s earlier frame. What had her father lost? What would he lose?
Morby took those questions to Memphis. As he drove his blue Ford truck down Highway 61 to the infamous Crossroads or across Mississippi to sit on Elvis’s boyhood porch, she reflected on how big dreams fell apart there. He was especially obsessed with Buckley, who had applied for a job as a butterfly keeper at the Memphis Zoo while he was waiting for his gang to arrive in 1997. Passers-by soon spotted his body floating at the foot of Beale Street.
Morby visited the small bungalow where Buckley lived and even recorded the sound of the current as he waded into the water. “You’re Jeff Buckley, you’ve achieved versions of the dream, but there’s still something you’re trying to achieve,” Morby said. “I relate”.
Two odes to Buckley form the centerpiece of “This Is a Photograph”. Laced with gospel harmonies, “Disappearing” offers a warning to the kind of tortured artists who might try to plunge into the Mississippi. (“I really want to swim in it,” she confessed from her shores, adding that she knew it was a bad idea.) of his father’s fame. Morby realized that he had finally nailed the track when he left Memphis after the album’s third and final session, which he repeatedly called “the best four days of my life.” He faced the deathly fear of him and walked away from him.
The morning before the triumphant basketball game, Morby went for a run along a concrete trail that borders the Mississippi, a hobby he picked up shortly after he turned 30. The trail dropped him under towering overpasses and a small clearing that led to the river, where Buckley is believed to have entered. Just as he turned around, two butterflies fluttered past him for several seconds. It was a sign, he thought, that he was moving in the right direction.
“It’s like being a photographer. You know what you want to take a picture of, but I knew I couldn’t take a revealing picture until I got here,” she said, his voice rising above Peabody’s din. “The dead can help shape the living. I want to be open to that kind of magic.”