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Kevin Morby Chases Ghosts, and a New Album, in Memphis

MEMPHIS — Kevin Morby bounded into the lobby of the Peabody hotel on a Tuesday night in late April in a long red coat and twirled twice, stretching his arms toward the travertine columns of the century-old Southern institution. The songwriter, best known for solemn folk rock often fixated on death, beamed.

An hour earlier and blocks away, he’d watched as the Memphis Grizzlies overcame a 13-point deficit to win a pivotal N.B.A. playoff game. The spoils of victory spilled into the hotel’s palatial entry — toasts, high-fives, the occasional whoop. A player piano dashed out a Scott Joplin rag, its pep perfectly scoring the electric scene. “That thing was so eerie when I was here writing,” Morby said, pointing as he passed, his grin briefly sagging. “I was so alone.”

Just 18 months earlier, in October 2020, Morby escaped the impending pandemic winter in his hometown, Kansas City, by booking a three-week stay in Memphis. Since visiting the Peabody two years earlier with his girlfriend, Katie Crutchfield, the singer who performs as Waxahatchee, the city’s complicated history had become a muse.

The sprawling hotel was so empty, the staff upgraded Morby to Room 409, a suite, where he focused on new songs with an intensity and patience that had always eluded him. He became a regular at some of the city’s morbid landmarks, too — the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; the spot on the Mississippi River where Jeff Buckley drowned; the haunted stretch of Highway 61 that leads into the Delta.

“When lockdown was happening, I wanted to go to the darkest place possible,” he said. Memphis was almost shattered by pandemic more than a century ago.

During that stint, Morby wrote the bulk of “This Is a Photograph,” his seventh solo album, due Friday. It is a confident 45-minute sashay through vulnerable devotionals and existential reflections, tuneful folk and handclap soul. Using Memphis as a lens for understanding the frailty of bodies and the dreams they harbor, the album reckons with survival as much as death.

“There was zero urgency for Kevin to make an album, and that is a beautiful place to be as a songwriter,” Crutchfield said, wryly laughing by phone. “He is always working so fast, but a year with nothing allowed him to dial in. The word here is density.”

When Morby was only 17, his third (and last, until this year) therapist asked him why he was there. “I told him I was so afraid of dying,” Morby, now 34, remembered during an interview weeks before the basketball game. “There was this life-affirming moment where he was like, ‘Kevin, what’s so wrong with death?’ I guess nothing!”

As his parents shuffled among various cities for work, Morby had morphed from a sports-loving kid into an especially anxious preteen. In Oklahoma City, he was terrified to learn friends had lost parents in the bombing there; later, in Kansas City, bullets on a playground convinced him his school was the next Columbine.

“He might be sitting on the couch, and he would have these anxiety attacks,” his father, Jim, remembered. “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 awful spell, his parents offered their son a compromise — he could drop out, granted he finish his G.E.D. and try a nearby junior college. “I felt like such a poor parent,” his mother, Sandy, said, “but I water up thinking about the relief on his face.”

When Morby turned 18, he boarded an eastbound train with one goal: joining a band in New York. He started writing songs in seventh grade, lyrics-lined notebooks dotting the house. A Bob Dylan anthology led to the indie rock of the Mountain Goats and the Microphones, who placed less emphasis on production than poignancy. “You’re telling me I can just get a tape recorder and sing?” he said. “It felt like acceptance.” Morby joined the ascendant psych-folk band Woods and toured incessantly, then co-founded the scruffy pop-rock group the Babies. But double duty, plus jobs delivering food and babysitting, exhausted him. He bailed on both bands to take a chance alone. “There’s always something to lose,” he said, “but I thought maybe there was more to be gained.”

Morby wrote and recorded at a feverish pace, releasing an album or EP every year since 2013 except one, even while moving from New York to Los Angeles and back to Kansas City. He recorded in a hurry, embracing mistakes and tossed-off lines while striving for productivity over perfection. “If I wasn’t not working,” he admitted, “I felt crazy.”

This harried schedule stemmed in part from his fear it would all vanish. Soon after arriving in New York, Morby befriended Jamie Ewing, the dynamo leader of the punk band Bent Outta Shape — “this magical, hilarious guy, always ahead of the curve.” Morby loved Ewing and the artistic possibilities he represented. Ewing died in 2008 from a heroin overdose, which jump-started Morby’s drive.

“I had this scarcity mentality,” Morby said, also referencing Jay Reatard, the Memphis garage-rocker who suggested that writing one’s best songs was really a race against death soon before he died. “I had to collect what I could while I could.”

A medical scare in January 2020, though, prompted a change. Before a family dinner, Morby’s father accidentally doubled his dosage of heart medication and passed out at the table. He recovered, but Morby had worried he was watching his father die.

That night, looking at old photos with his mother, he was struck by an image of his father — then 32, the same age Morby was about to be — posing shirtless in the Texas sun. He contemplated his family’s sudden frailty and began writing “This Is a Photograph,” a galloping track about death’s inevitability and the gratitude the fait accompli should inspire. “This is what I’ll miss about being alive,” Morby howls, putting himself inside his father’s former frame. What had his father lost? What would he lose?

Morby took those questions to Memphis. As he drove his blue Ford pickup down Highway 61 to the infamous Crossroads or across Mississippi to sit on Elvis’s boyhood porch, he pondered how big dreams crumbled there. He obsessed especially over Buckley, who had applied for a job as a butterfly keeper at the Memphis Zoo while waiting for his band to arrive in 1997. Passers-by soon spotted his body floating at the foot of Beale Street.

Morby visited the little bungalow where Buckley lived and even recorded the sound of the current where 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 accomplish,” Morby said. “I relate.”

Dual odes to Buckley shape the centerpiece of “This Is a Photograph.” Graced by gospel harmonies, “Disappearing” offers caveat emptor for the kind of tortured artists who might try dipping into the Mississippi. (“I really want to swim in it,” he confessed from its banks, adding he knew it was a bad idea.) “A Coat of Butterflies” slowly unspools like an empathetic eulogy for a musician who spent a lifetime defining himself in light of his father’s fame. Morby realized he’d finally nailed the track as he left Memphis after the album’s third and final session, which he repeatedly called “the best four days of my life.” He’d faced his fear of death and walked away.

The morning before the triumphant basketball game, Morby went for a run along a concrete path that skirts the Mississippi, a hobby he took up soon after turning 30. The trail dumped him beneath 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 beside him for several seconds. It was a sign, he thought, that he was moving in the right direction.

“It’s like you’re a photographer. You know what you want to take a picture of, but I knew I couldn’t take a photo I could develop until I got here,” he said, his voice rising above the Peabody’s din. “The dead can help shape the living. I want to be open to that kind of magic.”

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