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Blonde on Blonde, Morby on Dylan: Kevin Morby Reflects on 50 Years of Bob Dylan’s Classic Album

on May 16, 2016, 12:00am

Photo of Kevin Morby by Dusdin Condren

A fan’s relationship with an artist doesn’t always have a spellbinding story behind it. But ask any Bob Dylan fan, and they’ll tell you more than you’ll ever need to know about how they found their way to the legend. They’ll tell you where they were when they first heard his iconic Midwestern wheeze or how a specific line or turn of phrase left them stunned and slack-jawed. They might even be able to tell you the date, what the weather was like, or what they were wearing.

Kevin Morby, for instance, was a punk rock kid before Dylan steered him down a new and previously uncharted musical path. Fifteen years later, Dylan’s influence looms large over Morby’s musical world. Singing Saw, the third full-length solo effort from the Woods bassist and Babies frontman, is arguably his most completely formed set of tunes to date, merging classic, pastoral folk with a mindset befitting modern times. In this way, it reflects another album that happens to turn 50 this year: Dylan’s legendary double LP Blonde on Blonde.

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Blonde on Blonde, we talked with Morby about his new record, how Dylan helped shape his understanding of “cool,” and how the man continues to guide his music today.

b6ba501958ab5bb52d5377067c128dd5.1000x1000x1How does it feel to have the new record out? Is it relieving? Exciting? Both?

It’s really exciting. The same thing happens every time an album comes out. You freak out, freak out, freak out, and then it finally comes out, and you feel like you can kind of let it go. That’s a good feeling. I feel like I listen to my records a lot between making them and them coming out, but then once they’re out, I never really listen to them again. It feels nice to be free of it, but it’s also exciting.

Yeah, once it’s out there it’s kind of out of your control.

Exactly. It’s funny because I’m already stressing about the next one.

That’s a good problem to have, though.

Yeah, true.

Jumping into the topic of Dylan, you’re constantly being compared to him. How do you look at that perception? Is the comparison a burden at all, or is it something you take in stride?

To me, it’s so apparent, because he’s always been such a big influence. From the first time I ever played a solo show, people have been saying it. Because he’s such a big influence and has been for such a long time, and was there at such a formative time in my life, it’s never at all seemed like a diss to me. He’s an influence, and I know that comes off, but I think I can do it in a tasteful way. It would be one thing if it felt like I was doing a bad Bob Dylan rip-off, but I don’t feel that way. I’ve always liked it. Every once in a while, someone will be dismissive and say, “This just sounds like Bob Dylan.” But it’s like, “Well, yeah. No shit.” I don’t know. I have no shame in it. I love the guy.

Bob DylanI forget who said it, but one person likened their being compared to Dylan as a baseball player being compared to Willie Mays.

Exactly. I remember reading an interview with Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers once. He more than anyone would try and escape those comparisons, but he doesn’t. He said something like, “Look, my father literally wrote the rule book.” That’s how all of us feel. That poor guy’s his son, but he’s right. This guy wrote the rules.

Right. There’s a lot of people that fall under his shadow.

Yeah.

You mentioned Dylan being there at a formative period of your life. What are your earliest remembrances of his music? Do you remember how you found Bob Dylan?

Well, OK. My dad used to have this fishing boat. He bought a bunch of tapes [because] there was a little tape player in the boat. I was going through them one day, and I came upon [one of Dylan’s records]. I remember thinking, “Oh, this is old people music, something my dad would listen to.” But the cover was kind of cool. It was Greatest Hits Vol. I, the cover with the silhouette of his head. I thought, “Well, let me listen to it anyway.” I think “The Times They Are A-Changin'” was the song that gave me that mind-blowing experience. I was like, “Oh, my God. What is this? Who is this old guy?” But then I realized that he was young when he wrote it. It just really blew me away. The music I was listening to at the time — it was way more powerful than that music.

What were you listening to?

I was 15, and at the time I was definitely listening to a lot of emo rock, like At the Drive-In. I liked that band The Weakerthans a lot. It’s funny, because I started listening to Bob Dylan, and all I wanted to do was listen to people with an acoustic guitar. Through him, I got interested in record stores and listening to vinyl and stuff. And by hanging out at record stores, I discovered bands like the Mountain Goats and Neutral Milk Hotel, bands who were doing a similar thing in this day and age. It was almost like I discovered indie rock through Bob Dylan.

With “The Times They Are A-Changin'”, what was it specifically you were reacting to? What caught your attention? Was it the lyrics, the music, or both?

Definitely both, but the lyrics really grabbed me. There was this feeling of “This is real, man!” I had one of those cheesy moments. The lyrics were super powerful, and I can say that about my other favorite songwriters, like Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, or whoever. But Dylan couldn’t really sing, and it made me think, “Oh man, maybe I could do it.” It just felt very real.

Your voice definitely has a very Midwestern, Dylanesque affectation to it.

Totally, totally. That was another thing I liked — that he was from the Midwest. I could relate to that. But I just started following the timeline of his records. I was obsessed with the first three, where it was just him and his guitar. In my later teens, I got Bringing It All Back Home. I got that when I was, like, 17. That of course led to Highway 61, which led to Blonde on Blonde. Then I went to New York, and I had this moment. I met Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors. He was playing a solo acoustic show at Roosevelt Island in New York. He played only Dylan songs, late-period ’60s Dylan. He played a song called “I Pity The Poor Immigrant” off John Wesley Harding. It was still in the ’60s, but it was his first country rock record. I had never heard that part of Dylan — like, I never even knew it existed. He played that song, and I talked to him afterward and was like, “That song you wrote, it’s great.” He said, “Oh no, that’s a Dylan song.” I thought I was the biggest fan in the world, but I’d only heard the first seven records. He just said, “You’ve gotta dig deep with Dylan.”

Is that inspiring to you, knowing that you’re only limited by how far you’re willing to go?

I know! I feel like I could live to be 100, and I’ll think, “OK, now I’ll get into ’90s Dylan.”

You mentioned how Dylan was your inroad to indie rock. I’ve always thought of Blonde on Blonde as an indie, or pre-indie, rock record. It has a lot of the attitude, aesthetics, and creativity that would go on to define the genre.

I really think that those three records (Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde) are connected in a way. They come from the same place. Two of them were made in 1965, and Blonde on Blonde came out in 1966. But that’s a good way of putting it, what you just said. I think it’s an indie rock record, all three of them are. But they’re also like punk records. They’re very hip to that time and place. It was very beautiful and fabulous, and everyone in his entourage was the same way. I don’t know, there’s just something endlessly cool about those three records. Blonde on Blonde, from what I’ve heard, is named after Edie Sedgwick, because she was bleaching her hair. Which I thought was cool. But it’s this forever cool music. As a kid, I just remember actually watching the record spin around. It just made me think, “Maybe I could be this cool. I need to move to New York and meet people like this.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 9.46.34 PM copyI’d imagine every musician has that one record where they think, “If only I could somehow make a record as good or as influential as that.” Is that Blonde on Blonde for you?

Absolutely. It would be wrong for me to say just Blonde on Blonde, because for me it’s really that whole era. His first four records very much spoke to my Midwestern roots. It felt very outlaw and open plains, just very folk. I’d listen to it and have images of Woody Guthrie and freight trains. But these three, that’s what got me interested in that New York scene, you know, wearing sunglasses and smoking cigarettes. It just made me want to be cool.

One of the commonalities I found between Singing Saw and Blonde on Blonde is that they both really straddle the line between classic and contemporary. The new record is obviously indebted to folk and singer-songwriter music, but it’s also got elements of electronic music and other modern touches.

I think that’s a really important thing to do with records, to find certain elements that could only be done in this day and age. That sort of grounds it, in a way. I definitely love a lot of Americana records that could be made at any time, but whenever I hear someone like Kurt Vile, for instance, it sounds very modern, but he’s combining new and old. I think that’s why people respond to him. There’s a magic to that. And that’s absolutely what Dylan was doing at the time. It’s what helped him stand apart from everybody else.

Another cool thing about Blonde on Blonde is that it was the first double LP, the first rock double LP. Going back to the rule book thing, it’s amazing that he did that. The last song, “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” one of the best songs ever, it’s fucking 11 minutes long, so it needed its own side. I just think it’s cool that he was someone who was brave enough and had the confidence to put together four sides of a record. He literally just made the rules.

Not only that, but he suffered the slings and arrows of doing it.

He made the rules by breaking them, yeah.

Right. The chances he took, even today it’s still so remarkable to think about.

It’s weird. You have to stop and think about what someone would have to do now to get that reaction out of people, like, “I can’t believe they did that.” You know? I don’t know. Even the cover of Blonde on Blonde… I should try and find this thing and send it to you. I have this photo my friend took of me when I was 17. We tried to basically recreate the cover.

Really?

Yeah, if I can find it, I’ll send it to you. I know I can get it. But the cover of [Blonde on Blonde], it’s a little bit blurred. With the photo shoot that I did for Singing Saw, it came down to the photo that we ended up using, which was blurry, and another one that was clear, where I’m looking straight at the camera. The label wanted me to use the more clear one, but I really liked the blurry one. It’s one of those things where I’m like, “Dylan will always influence me.” I wanted to use the blurry one because Dylan did it on Blonde on Blonde. Blurry’s cool, you know?

morbydylan Blonde on Blonde, Morby on Dylan: Kevin Morby Reflects on 50 Years of Bob Dylans Classic AlbumPhoto of Kevin Morby by Brandon Eastham

Sometimes you’ve got to go with artistry over accessibility.

Sure, totally. There’s so many people who try to get to being famous by playing by the rules. But when someone can pull it off by being completely themselves, it’s the most honorable thing you can say about someone. He’s always been that figure in my life.

Locale also played a big part in the making of Singing Saw. How did environment play into these new songs?

I wrote it and demoed it where I live in Mount Washington in Los Angeles. That played a lot into it, into the subject matter and how I went about it sonically. Where I live now feels very rural compared to where I once was. It’s kind of a little mountainous community, and it’s very beautiful. It’s really easy to go into town and be social when you want to, but if you don’t want to see a person all day long, that’s very easy, too. I would write and demo all day long. I’d have to go out at some point, like around sunset so I could see a little bit of daylight. I go on these walks through my neighborhood, and I don’t know, it just became a part of the creative process. My two albums before were written either in New York or on tour and with a lot of other people. This one was just sort of written on my own, in solitude.

That comes out on the record. There’s a lot of space therein, especially on some of the longer songs.

For sure, for sure. I agree.

kevin morby singing saw album new Blonde on Blonde, Morby on Dylan: Kevin Morby Reflects on 50 Years of Bob Dylans Classic AlbumI bring up the issue of location and environment because that also proved to be a factor with Blonde on Blonde. It all clicked when he and his band went to Nashville to record.

The big thing for me is wherever I write the record, I want to record in the opposite of that.

For the contrast?

For the contrast, but also if I’m writing in LA and living in LA, if I record in LA, I feel like I’m getting up and going to work or something. I don’t want to do it like that. Or I might have the temptation to go to the bar with a friend or something afterward. I don’t like that, so when I talked to Sam Cohen, the producer, about recording, I said we shouldn’t do it in Brooklyn, because I used to live there, and I didn’t want to do it in LA. So we contacted Dan Goodwin, who engineered it, and we went to his studio in Woodstock. It just became all-encompassing. You wake up and you’re in the studio. At any point, you could be having a beer and a second later think, “Oh fuck, I had an idea. Can you hit record?”

And it goes without saying that Woodstock has its own Dylanesque legacy. It seems like he’s always there over your shoulder.

Absolutely. He’s been like this guiding light. I like to think of him as this mythical character. What would have happened in my life if I hadn’t discovered him, you know?

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