Kevin Morby has just released his fifth album Oh My God, furthering his reputation as one of modern music’s finest songwriters. The new record is a continuation of his previous work, but its starkness and intimacy feels like a complete reset. It’s something that has led him to describe it as his most “dense” album yet.

On the night before we met, I attended a screening of the Oh My God short film that he created in collaboration with filmmaker Chris Goode. It expands on the themes of the album, while also extrapolating on Morby’s dreams and ideas into new realms. It’s just another fact of the ambition that has gone into this project, and that the artist harbours within his creative soul.

Fortunately, I got the chance to sit down with Kevin and to have him unpick some of the inspirations for Oh My God - while he also left plenty for the listener to envision for themselves. Check out our conversation below, with great photos from Flore Diamant.

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I saw the short film accompaniment to Oh My God last night, and I want to start where the film starts, which is the photo shoot for the album cover, which is quite a surprising picture. Is that your actual bedroom?

[Laughs] That is my actual bedroom, yes, in Kansas City. It's funny having my body out there.

But that was your idea?

I think it was initially maybe my idea, and then my friend Barrett Emke, who's a great photographer, a very poetic photographer, and I feel like he can really do stuff like that tastefully. My whole idea behind the album cover is I wanted to make it as close to what I'm like when I'm making songs, which is usually getting ready to go to sleep or waking up, and my shirt's off during that time - that's kind of the idea behind it. Also sort of mimicking religious art like angels and beings with their shirts off.

There's a lot of religious iconography in your room.

Uh-huh. That's St. Cecilia behind me, the patron saint of music. The praying hands poster.

But you're not a religious person?

No, I just like it. I have religious art around the house and religious imagery, I'm interested in that, but I'm also interested in Western culture - like the WIld West. They kind of represent the same thing in my mind, just these great sprawling amazing tales.

Interesting; the Wild West is kind of what you covered on Singing Saw?

Yeah, for sure, definitely.

Whereas this one is the religious one if you had to label it.

In a way.

Last night at the film screening you described Oh My God as a "dense" album; can you expand on that?

Well, this whole record stemmed out of a song I wrote in 2016 called 'Beautiful Strangers', and in that song I kind of had this mantra - not chanting but just singing "oh my god, oh my lord," and it's become this very singable lyric in that song. I've seen audiences really respond to it, whenever that part comes up in that song I always find people singing along. That song kind of covers current events of that time that I wrote it - things that are still going on, especially in America – and "oh my god" as a phrase seemed to be the only thing that would sum up my feelings about everything that was happening, whether it be how shocking the news was, or how hilarious the news was, or how tragic it was, I constantly found myself saying "oh my god" all the time. So it's coming from a lot of different angles, and I think that's what makes it dense; there's a lot of humour in it, there's a lot of happiness and sadness - there's a lot of emotion firing on all cylinders.

You decided to strip back the sound in the studio for this album; why do you think that worked well with these stories?

Sonically wanting to make it sound holier or angelic or something. Having my voice really front and centre, just accompanied by an organ or a saxophone or minimal percussion or the voices of a choir. We wanted to build this sonic cathedral around it, so that just seemed the best way to do that.

You've used choirs before but not as much as on this.

For sure.

Was it the same choir throughout?

Yeah it was. The only difference was on the first song there's a male voice in there, which is my friend Robin Pecknold.

Is there a narrative to this album?

I think there is, yes. The way I like to see it is in the first song I'm boarding this airplane, and it starts off with the hammering of the piano keys, it's sort of like this chaos, and then it's sort of this sombre thing and then it's like the flight you're on takes off and you're above the weather, and you're existing in this place above the clouds. Then you kind of stay there until the end of the record. The narrative is kind of being in this elevated state; heightened emotion and being in this sinister kingdom or something - that's why the plane is such a big metaphor in all this, you're in this sort of beauty but something about it is unnatural and you feel scared and your emotions are heightened.

"Above The Weather" is a repeated phrase and notion - was that considered for the album title at all?

It was, actually.

Why did you go with Oh My God?

With everything that's happening politically and how divided the country is, and things like public shootings, gun laws and all this stuff, like I said it's almost like I wanted to make a political record without entering into specifics; the only thing to encapsulate all my feelings is the phrase "oh my god", so I think that's why I really wanted to go with that. And also a phrase like "oh my god" shines light on just how much religion is part of our day to day vocabulary and everything we do, whether we're really aware of it or not.

'No Halo' was the first song released from the record, was that an easy decision?

It was one of the first songs that we came up with that we kind of understood what we were doing and what kind of path we were taking. It was kind of like the show stopper in the studio, where we were like "this one's got something special to it."

Is it autobiographical at all?

Sort of... if you really want to get into it it's about the loss of innocence - you're this sort of innocent, angelic person when you're young and then you see a lot of different versions of yourself as you grow up.

I feel like there's quite a lot of youth in the lyrics of this record, particularly in 'No Halo', and being back in Kansas City, does that help you reflect?

Not really, but it's open to interpretation. I actually wrote that song before moving back to Kansas City - I wrote half the record before moving back to Kansas City - that one's pretty old at this point. But I like that interpretation.

I thought it might be about your youth because of the line "when I was a child nowhere, no how, no one, nothing was not made of fire" - it made me think of youthful indiscretions.

It's like, everything was special. It's about everything feeling incredible, and as time goes on you figure out the mysteries of the world and things aren't as exciting or as majestical as they once seemed.

Very cool. I don't know how you'll feel about my interpretation of the record, but to me I hear the songs as different characters in a small rural township in America, and the perspective shifts from house to house between songs.

That's a very good interpretation of it. I think it's religion through a lot of different lenses.

Some of them end up quite unhappy, particularly 'All Things Sacred / Nothing Wild'.

Yeah, I think so. I think that song is scratching at the same thing that 'No Halo' is - as you get older things seem to not make as much sense, or not seem as promising as they had when you were younger. So perhaps it's a little bit of an unhappy ending in that song.

When you were touring in support of your last album City Music you were playing a cover of 'Rock and Roll' by The Velvet Underground - does 'OMG Rock n Roll' come from that in any way?

Not [‘Rock and Roll’] specifically, but that song is definitely influenced by the Velvet Underground. It cuts to that choir in the middle, but there's this version that exists of me and the band just playing it for a really long time. The Velvet Underground has been a really big influence in everything I've done.

That part where it smash cuts to the choir, it's like your sudden death and arrival in Heaven, especially as the preceding line is "oh when that gun man come…"

Yeah, it's sort of meant to mimic that - I take a deep breath right before, it's like what that fear would look like, just that gasp. I wanted to capture a gasp on the record, because I feel like a lot of it is a gasp - "oh my god" is kind of a gasp in a phrase. That's exactly what I'm talking about when I read something on the news and that's how I feel.

Do you get away from it when you're out of the country or are you still tuned in?

It's always there. If you look at the internet, you can't get away from it.

'Seven Devils' might be my favourite track on the record - although I love a lot of them - is there any significance to the title 'Seven Devils'?

Not really. That song's about temptation, the devil on your shoulder, I guess those are the seven devils. There's not too much significance to the word of it, other than I like how it sounds.

The person in 'Seven Devils', I feel like you really inhabit that person who feels dejected, outcast. When you're recording the vocal do you try to get into that mood?

For sure. I was going through some stuff at that point when I wrote that song. It felt very cathartic to record. It was easy for me to channel.

Reading through the lyrics of 'Hail Mary' is almost like a short story, mentioning plenty of characters, one of whom is Flannery - I was wondering if it's a reference to Flannery O'Connor in any way?

No, I actually used a bunch of different names, just sort of my favourite names. A lot of those names belong to friends of mine - although it's not biographical to any of those people. For example, my friend Naomi has not been married. It's almost looking at different friends' lives through alternative fates, if life had gone a different way for them. It was like a fun homework assignment to myself to write this fictitious story about different friends. For example, there's the line "Finn got a baby girl," and it's kind of about when my sister got pregnant with her second child my nephew really wanted a baby sister, but he got a baby brother and he was really upset when he learned about it, so it's kind of just imagining this world in which he ended up with a baby sister instead.

Cool. That makes sense with Meg as well, which I thought was a reference to Meg Duffy, but they're not on that song.

That is about Meg! Because then it cuts to an organ solo. Meg was getting ready to leave the band to go do their own project [Hand Habits], so it was thinking about playing that song live I would usually say "take it Meg" and that's where they would solo.

In the little township of my imagination that is this album, 'Piss River' is the river that runs through it.

I like that.

In 'Piss River' you sing "oh Kevin, she's angry at you" - are you singing to yourself?

I was going through a break up, and it's really easy for things to become one sided as a songwriter and state how you feel, and it's kind of just this moment where I'm laying out this landscape of how I was seeing things and how I felt, but then just giving her a voice in that same line. That realisation that every story has two sides to it, and she's probably hurting as well.

Why is it called 'Piss River'?

I think that's a metaphor for just... I don't know... the world... sometimes when I read the news I just feel like it's all like a big piss river - just this endless stream of piss. That's basically what it is, just a shitty landscape.

Is 'Savannah' about Savannah, Georgia?

It is, but it's actually about New York. I've never been to Savannah, and kind of like 'Hail Mary' it's putting a different name with something else. I've never been to Savannah but I felt like if I put that in a song it'll get me there.

The line in that "I know it seems like screaming but man it's only dreaming in time" is interesting to me, what inspired that?

This is probably the song I wrote the longest ago, but I think that lyric means that it may seem like what I'm doing is chaotic, but it's all a part of this bigger vision that I have - if that makes any sense.

Between 'Savannah' and the start of 'Congratulations' you have these clips of people praying and repeating "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" - how does that play into 'Congratulations'?

That prayer is something that I came up with when I was a kid, and I'd say it to myself all the time whenever I'd do something bad, just as a sort of "may be if I say this I won't go to Hell." I was super afraid of Hell. So I just wanted to get that on record. Then it goes into 'Congratulations', which is this hopeful song, just appreciating life and happy to be alive.

Yeah! I think it would be a great wake up song every day, like "you've made it through the night! Congratulations!"

Yeah! I actually wrote it, I was having a dream where this person was looking at me saying "congratulations, congratulations..." and then I woke up and went to the piano and wrote it. There's a lot of stuff, like with 'Piss River', 'Nothing Sacred', 'No Halo', that's looking at everything as this horrible situation, but 'Congratulations' offers this idea that actually it's such a gift to be alive and we have to recognise that as well.

Yeah. I kind of hear it as a preacher character singing that song.

Yeah, I could see that for sure.

In the film you go to this extra-dimensional bar/diner and the first thing on the menu is "Stop Drop and Roll Doesn't Work in Hell" - where did you get that phrase from?

It was on the sign outside this church in Lawrence, Kansas. It was there my whole youth, so I always remember. Lawrence is a town about an hour outside Kansas City, and when you'd drive in you'd always see that.

Did it make you fear Hell?

Sort of, it was one of those things as a kid that's a crazy thing to read. It's funny as an adult and you think "oh someone at this church has a sense of humour," but as a child it's horrifying.

That part of the film in the interdimensional diner is perhaps my favourite segment, and it kind of reminds me of things I've seen in films before but I can't put my finger on it - what were the filmic references for that part?

Mystery Train by Jim Jarmusch, that's a big influence. The scene where the Italian woman in that movie, she's sitting at a diner in Memphis and this guy comes up and starts talking to her and telling her that he met Elvis, and Elvis told him that he was going to meet her, and then when he met her she needed to give him $20 to give to Elvis. It's this very Jarmusch scene where this long conversation that they have where the dialogue is interesting enough to hold your attention. That was the inspiration for when I wrote it.

What is it that the person in 'I Want To Be Clean' wants to be clean of? Is it a desire for purity?

Sort of. It's sort of a break up song, but on the side of the person who's done the breaking up and how that's a difficult position to be in; sometimes much more difficult than the one being let go. It's just having a clean conscience, feeling like you haven't hurt anyone in your life, just wanting that feeling like you haven't done anything wrong. Maybe in the context of the record you haven't sinned.

That feels like a very "above the weather" kind of thought; when you're in an airplane you have time to sit and think about that.

Yeah, for sure.

But then 'Sing A Glad Song' reverses that feeling.

I guess it's sort of like 'Congratulations'. I was in Hawaii, at a wedding, there was a graveyard behind the church, and one of the tombstones said "sing a glad song," and that's what put that phrase into my mind. I just really like that, just that whenever you're down or feeling blue the joy of music always uplifts the spirit.

Cool; that makes sense with the "it told me to sing about my soul," in that song - but what is a "Velvet station"?

That one is about The Velvet Underground.

Cool. And also in that song "each coffin is a top, man, each circle is a bottom."

Yeah, that's just about how with every achievement you get, you go back to zero. In terms of money or anything, I feel like you're always trying to get to this next phase, and then when you get there it's a new bottom. So that's what that means.

Do you experience that between every album?

Sort of. Or just with anything, you know? Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. You see something in the distance and you accomplish it, and then it's only natural to start working on the next thing. It's just getting at the sentiment that it's about the journey.

We finish the journey of this album with 'O Behold'; was that always going to be the last song?

Yeah, when I wrote it I was like "this feels like the last song." And it's got the reference to the plane being on fire. In the first song you're boarding the plane, so it felt like the perfect book end.

And on ‘O Behold’ you sing about holes in everything; what's the symbolism of the hole?

Imperfection. "O behold the imperfection." Every human is imperfect, and it's about embracing that imperfection and not being too hard on yourself or on others; seeing the beauty in that, seeing the beauty in humanity no matter how chaotic it all seems.

Has writing this album made you want to re-engage with religion in any way?

No, not at all.

You just like using the vocabulary.

Yeah. It's just fascinating to me in a way that the Wild West is, or noir crime films are. It's just a way that I like to see stories, it's a way I like to tell stories.

Let's just mention the film a little bit more. Have you always wanted to make a film?

Not hugely, but my friend Chris Goode who's such a talented director and lives in Kansas City and has made music videos for me before [suggested it] ... I've always wanted to write a book or a collection of short stories, and this seemed like a platform for my writing to exist, in a way. That scene at the diner, I wrote that scene and it was just a fun way to bring that to life. I've always written little things for my records; for City Music I wrote some notes on the back of the album, and this kind of just gave it more of a platform. It was fun to make and it also made me start watching movies differently; I was watching a lot of movies to get inspired. It was fun, it was a really cool experience.

Which movies did you watch for inspiration?

A lot of Jim Jarmusch and Michel Gondry; Chris gets compared to him a lot. But mainly Jim Jarmusch, that was a big influence because it's so dialogue based. I like the idea of movies just sort of being long dialogue, where you really need your attention span to watch it and get something out of it. That's what I was really going for.

Are you still trying to write short stories?

For sure. Always writing short stories. I’d really like to release a collection in the next year or two.

Can you tell us anything about what they're about?

Well, I started writing a new record and it's kind of based off this whole new record - which I don't want to get too into. But they're just like a collection of poems, but poems that read as very short stories, and they're not too different from anything you can find on my records. I mean, the prose is different, but the subject matter is in the wheelhouse of stuff I write about.

Are you a big reader as well?

I try to be, probably not as much as my ideal version of myself would. This year I'm trying to read a book at least every month.

Is there anything you've read recently that you'd recommend or anything that is linked with the album?

I just finished this book called Grace After Midnight, which is written by Snoop from The Wire [Felicia Pearson], it's her autobiography; it's really good, it's really intense. I just rewatched The Wire; talk about good religious imagery, that is full of it… Right before that I read this book about the dustbowl that's really good. I also just read Bill Callahan's book which is cool, it's interesting, it's an epistolary. But during the making of this record I definitely read books, but there wasn't a huge literary influence...

James Baldwin is my favourite author, I'm always reading or re-reading something by him, my favourite book by him is Tell Me How Long The Train's Been Gone. I'm so into his writing that somehow he's an influence on everything I do.

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Kevin Morby’s new album Oh My God is out now on Dead Oceans. Read our review.