10 Jun 2023

Kevin Morby: finding songs in family photo albums

From Saturday Morning, 11:06 am on 10 June 2023
Kevin Morby

Photo: supplied

American musician Kevin Morby pays tribute to the nostalgic power of family photo albums in his 2022 song 'This Is A Photograph'.

Now he's inviting others to upload their own personal take on the song to the website thisisaphotograph.com.

To lead with an example, Kevin first enlisted the Kansas City Congolese samba band The Salvation Choir.

"I would listen to their version before my version any day," he tells Kim Hill.

This audio is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

The song 'This Is A Photograph' (from an album of the same name) was written after a family dinner at which Kevin's father fainted and was taken away in an ambulance.

Later that night, after his dad returned home, the family huddled around a pile of old photo albums and Kevin saw some early photos of his parents for the first time.

In one taken the year he was born, his father was 32 – his own age at the time.

''I'd seen him earlier that night faint in front of his family and get taken away in an ambulance, and I couldn't help but feel there was some kind of conversation happening between the photograph and this incident… seeing the reality of my father as an older man with some health problems and this younger version of him looking confidently at the camera.

''It felt like this serendipitous night, all of these things happening.''

When a number of people told Kevin they felt inspired to create their own version of 'This Is A Photograph', he thought he might as well encourage it.

''It was almost like my song was a template for other people to be creative and I thought that was cool … I don't know if people will ever feel the need or desire to tell their own story over a song that I've made [again]."

"Making art promotes other art is an important and cool thing when you can do it."

Kevin grew up in Kansas City and moved to New York as a teenager. Six years ago, he moved back there and is now happily settled in.

''I feel like most everyone I know always has mixed feelings on home wherever they're from. It's a place I couldn't wait to leave when I turned 18 and I moved to New York.

''Once I started doing well with my career and touring all the time it kind of didnt make sense to be paying city rent in a place he never was.

''I moved back here almost as a financial decision to make some money because I was so surprised to be making money at all for the first time, making music, living my dream.''

Kevin says his family is now very close and spends a good amount of time together.

''It didn't use to be that way but I think as we all get older we appreciate each other more.''

After years of living in NYC and LA, Kevin was surprised by how interesting he found Middle America.

''I only like it more and more, to be honest with you."

Now he's touring internationally again, and tired all the time, Kevin sometimes gets nostalgic about days at home during the pandemic.

''My whole life I've been saying 'Some day I won't tour so much and I'll start a garden and I'll read this book and watch that movie… And suddenly I got to do all those things.

''I miss not feeling like I had to hustle or I had to prove myself to anyone.''

In 2020, he and his girlfriend Katie Crutchfield (who performs as Waxahatchee) spent several weeks exploring Memphis, Tennessee, which he first fell in love with years earlier.

''A lot of that city feels like a museum and it was nice to be around stuff that existed in a time before Covid."

They stayed at the Peabody Hotel, which is famous for its resident ducks, and wrote the bulk of This Is A Photograph there.

Jeff Buckley

Jeff Buckley Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music

On the album, he pays tributes to the American songwriter Jeff Buckley, who was living in Memphis when he drowned in 1997.

Before his death, Buckley lived in a "shotgun shack" next door to Memphis Zoo where he spent lots of time.

It's been reported that Buckley even applied for a job as a butterfly keeper there – an idea Kevin finds "strange yet relatable".

"As a touring musician when you're off tour, you kind of don't know what to do most of the time so I related to it in that sense."

It's a great honour to be able to travel as a musician, he says, and he's looking forward to his third visit to Aotearoa later this year.

New Zealand is a lovely place that feels "very far from home in an exciting way", Kevin says.

"The last time I landed in Auckland and I got in a cab and they were playing [my song] 'Harlem River'. It felt so cool…"