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Kevin Morby reveals music's pathway for a higher power

Kevin Morby's fifth solo album "Oh My God" was released April 26, 2019. It has surprise turns, ascending choirs and a curiosity that has gone through all of Morby's albums. With themes of spirituality and the undeniable presence of God in the everyday, Morby invites listeners to use his music as a way to open themselves up to the intricate powers of the universe.  

We chatted with Morby about faith, spirituality and the role of God in his songs.

Kevin Morby | Photo credit: Barrett Emke

I am a bit obsessive about Leonard Cohen, and when " Nothing Sacred/All Things Wild" came out, I thought it had a lot of musical elements similar to Leonard Cohen. But then comes this dagger at the end of the song; the line "I'm sorry for poisoning you with my song." Is that a reference to "I'm sorry for smudging the air with my song" from " A Singer Must Die?"

It absolutely is. The original lyric was "I'm sorry for poisoning you in my song," but I sang it more like Leonard Cohen without realizing it was going to be the final take. That's when we discovered the mission statement and how we wanted to sonically approach "Oh My God." We tried other things out, but we landed on that. If you see me perform it live, I'll sing the original lyric, which is "Sorry for poisoning you in my song." But, I like the homage to Leonard Cohen. It's cool that you noticed; no one else has brought it up to me.

How did that change the direction? What were you thinking before, and what vision did it give you?

The line, "Sorry for poisoning you with my song/I'm sorry now but I won't be sorry long," is about singing. There are a couple of elements on this record where I highlight that this is my album, and its story is one sided. If I'm singing about another person, whether it's heartbreak or love or a difficult period, I like to highlight the fact that I am the one creating the narrative. I also do that in, "Piss River" when I say "Mama I'm angry" and she says, "I know you're angry but she's angry too." And then I ask "Who's she angry at?" and she says "Oh, Kevin she's angry at you." I'm the one singing the song. It's giving me guidance and helping me with my life.

I think that is why I love, "Oh My God." There is this idea that God is looming over the album. You are voicing what is going on in your mind: thoughts and questions about higher authority.

Yeah, absolutely. I think with the state of the world -- especially in America -- I wanted the record to feel like an open diary entry of all my conflicting thoughts. I wanted it to represent the insanity of everything that's happening up there.

Talking about God is a subject that most musicians wouldn't approach for a million reasons, especially in 2019.  Why is that a subject you wanted to talk about?

I've used a lot of religious imagery throughout my whole catalog. It's something that people have always been quick to bring up, "Aren't you afraid people are gonna think you're some sort of weird Christian songwriter?" or "you're going too far in that direction." But it's all part of the vocabulary of telling a story: God is everywhere and in everything. Even if you choose not to have an opinion on it, you're still choosing that. A big part of naming my album was the fact that every time I opened up the news, whether it be horrifying or at times funny, I just found myself saying one of three phrases: "Oh my god," "Jesus Christ," or "Holy Shit." You can see the bread-crumb trail back to religion, from emojis to pop songs. People always ask if I was inspired by gospel music. On one hand yes, but I feel like everything is religious music.

Oh I totally agree, and it's also so fertile for stories and for collective consciousness. These are symbols that we all know. Whether or not you have read the Bible, you still know who the Virgin Mary is.

Right, exactly.

And how many of those symbols do we as a culture have? Not many.

Exactly. The foundation of our whole vocabulary and way of communicating with one another is very profound. I was in Portugal last summer and I bought a really beautiful painting of St. Fatima. When I was making the purchase a Portuguese woman asked me why I was buying it --  she didn't perceive me to be very religious. I told her I thought it was beautiful and I liked the colors. She gave this whole magnificent and insane backstory of the painting. 

Do you remember any of the story? 

These two kids who were shepherds saw the saint and then became prophets in Portugal. She was telling me that the kids were eating some weird mushrooms that were growing on their goat farm -- she thinks they were tripping. Whether they were prophets and they saw this saint, or they were tripping, no matter, it's magnificent. How crazy is it that I'm buying this painting centuries later?

Even if you don't believe in God, a lot of people look for God in drug experiences or astrological signs. We are all looking for a bigger thing. 

In my album, I mention this church near where I grew up that said, "Stop, drop and roll doesn't work in hell." One of my earliest memories as a kid passing that church and understanding that humor can be in religion. It also put this image into my brain of rolling around on fire for eternity. For as long as I can remember, it's just been a crazy filter that I look at the world through. 

I remember as a kid I wanted to be a priest, because I thought this is the top of the top. You get to stand in front of people and talk, and you get to know all the secrets.

There's so much adjacent to being a rock 'n' roller too. It's the church of you every night. 

Totally. So where are you at with God? What is your belief?

I like to use the word spirituality when speaking about my own beliefs. It all comes from within. People find their own god and their own meaning for the universe, which is bred out of kindness and helping others. It's really about opening yourself up to the magic of the universe. That to me is God.

What do you think happens when we die?

There's a big part of me that thinks nothing happens. We are just animals, we come from water, and we'll keep evolving, but when we die, that's it. But I know there's another part of me that thinks our imagery gets passed around in some way that I can't explain. There's something that probably takes place, it's just so completely beyond me that we'll find out when we get there. 

That is perfect. Going back to the album, I love that the "Glad" song becomes important just by the nature of its repetition. You say it at the beginning, and then there's a track called "Sing a Glad Song." This is also seen in a repeated themes in the Bible. So what is the "Glad" song, and what is its importance?

I was at a wedding in Hawaii and behind this church there was an old graveyard. On a tombstone it said something about having a "Glad" song in their heart. It became one of those things that really spoke to me. And that's what music is for me -- it's something that controls your spirit. I dropped out of high school when I was 17, so I never thought that I would be able to go anywhere or do anything, but music has been this guiding light for me. I look at every song that has had an effect on me, or every song I've written that's had an effect on another person, and I just see it as part of this whole thing: opening yourself up and being able to grab onto something. I see music as this sort of universal and very spiritual language. And that's the "Glad" song to me -- it's the worship of music.