The common narrative about Kevin Morby, the one that sounds part Jack Kerouac novel and part Bob Dylan redux, is as follows: A Midwestern kid graduates from high school early, hops a train to Brooklyn with guitar in hand, navigates the New York music scene for close to a decade, burnishes his credentials with stints in two critically acclaimed Brooklyn bands, then embarks on a solo career that harkens back to a time when a transcontinental road trip might not have seemed so romantic.
The first problem with this narrative, of course, is that it is too simple, too quaint. Morby, 28, is more than just some repackaged music tropes.
The second problem, at least as far as we’re concerned, is that it omits the best part: Kansas City.
Morby, a former bassist in the folk rock band Woods and a former frontman for punk outfit The Babies, has not lived in Kansas City full time for close to a decade — not since he dropped out of Blue Valley Northwest, tested out of high school and headed off to New York. Yet his music remains rooted in an understated Kansas City aesthetic.
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“I think it’s definitely a subconscious thing,” says Morby, who lived in Overland Park from 1999 to 2006, from ages 11 to 18.
In indie circles, Morby is viewed as something of a precocious talent, a young songwriter with wisdom beyond his years, his music owing much to titans like Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
In the local music scene, he is something like a triumphant expatriate, making hay in Woods and the Babies before releasing his first solo album, “Harlem River,” in 2013. Yet at the moment he is still largely unknown to the greater Kansas City populace.
That could be changing: On April 15, Morby released “Singing Saw,” his third solo album and his first for label Dead Oceans. The album drew a coveted “Best New Music” proclamation from Pitchfork, among other critical plaudits.
Morby is on tour to support the record and returns to Kansas City on Sunday for a show at the Riot Room. It’s his first hometown show since playing the RecordBar in early 2014, and as such, it will offer a reunion of sorts. Morby’s parents, Jim and Sandy, will be there. So will his older sister McKayla, who still lives in town.
He will be surrounded by a rather large lineup of friends, including a group that helped produce the music video for the song “Dorothy,” one of the standout tracks on “Singing Saw.”
Kansas City-based filmmaker Christopher Good directed the video. The cast was made up of several friends (“Mookie, Wilson, Iggy and Brooke Tuley,” Morby says), including several members of the Lawrence-based band Ad Astra Per Aspera, a seminal influence during Morby’s high school years.
Morby relocated to Los Angeles in 2013, but he spends a couple of months a year in Overland Park, where he recently bought a home. We caught up with the Royals fan last week to discuss his music, career and love of all things Kansas City.
Q: Your solo album “Still Life” came out just a couple of years ago. What was the process of making your new record, “Singing Saw”? Was there any sort of inspiration for this one?
A. My first two albums were a lot to do with New York and a lot to do with traveling, and this is kind of the first one I did in a rural landscape, even though it’s still within the Los Angeles city limits. (My home) is kind of in a mountainous neighborhood, and I don’t know, it’s pretty secluded, and it’s definitely the most nature I’ve ever lived around.
I wrote it all on my own, as opposed to with a band, and I kind of wrote it while sitting still. I had some time off, and I had moved into this place that had a piano left behind, and I kind of was just able to work every day in this way that I hadn’t been able to before.
It allowed me to stretch out in this way that I hadn’t while working with a band and traveling all the time and living in my cramped apartment in New York.
Q: Some of your early solo stuff has a lot of imagery of New York and literal places there. How do you feel like Kansas City has influenced your writing and music? Is it more subconscious?
A: I think it’s definitely a subconscious thing, and I kind of say this having just been told this a bunch of times: I didn’t come up with this on my own. It’s sort of like a Midwestern moral center, there’s a Midwestern value to it.
I’ve seen it in reviews, and people have just told me: “I can tell you’re a Midwesterner by how you write, through what you sing about.” So while there’s nothing direct, like mentioning street names, I just think it’s sort of the cadence.
Q: So you moved away from Kansas City in 2006. What do you think about the changes over the last few years — more people living downtown, the Crossroads, all that. Does it feel any different now when you come back?
A: Well, I remember being young and hanging out where the Power & Light District is now. There (was) a venue called the Stray Cat, and there were a lot of punk and DIY shows there.
I remember walking around one time with my friend, and we were trying to find where to book a show for our band, and we like stumbled upon this place … and the owners were out front, and they were like: “You guys can play here.”
It felt like this kind of Wild West type of vibe. It was so desolate; no one was around. … And then when the Power & Light District came … it’s a funny thing when a city starts to get gentrified like that, because on one hand, I understand that it brings a lot of money to Kansas City and it kind of puts Kansas City on the map, in this weird way. And it’s good for the economy and stuff like that.
And in another sense, I’m kind of sad that, for example, the Stray Cat got demolished so they could build the parking lot for the Sprint Center.
But at the same time I was very excited to go see Bruce Springsteen at the Sprint Center. You know, it’s just kind of the good and bad. I do think it’s cool Kansas City is kind of having this renaissance. People come up to me and are like, “Oh you’re from Kansas City? I just visited there, it’s such a cool town.”
I love Kansas City no matter what, and every time I go back, I always feel like there’s something to enjoy.
Q: What’s your favorite part of playing in Kansas City?
A: The best part about going back is just showing it to my band. Like, no matter who I’m with, because I’ve been there with Woods and The Babies and now solo once, and this band I’m taking now is a different band … they always seem to have a really good time. Kansas City is just one of those towns where, whenever I take strangers there, they always say, “What a cool place, I had no idea.”
I just think there’s something about being in the literal heart of the country that just spawns this type of person. I’m probably biased, but it’s like the best type of person. And it’s someone that sees everything from all angles, because you kind of get the wash from every other part of the country. It’s a cool, classic town.
See Kevin Morby live
Morby will perform songs from his new solo album, “Singing Saw,” Sunday at The Riot Room, 4048 Broadway. Jaye Bartell will open the show, which starts at 8:30 p.m. Doors open at 8 p.m., and tickets are $12. For more info, go to theriotroom.com or call 816-442-8179.