Kevin Morby’s Unfancy Sparkle
A Brooklyn singer-songwriter makes an acoustic psychedelic album, Singing Saw, using cheap flattops, a Fender Jaguar named Dorothy, studio savvy, and—yes—an actual singing saw.
Perhaps best known as a former member of Brooklyn-based psych-rock collective Woods, or from his days as the frontman of indie-rockers the Babies, Morby stepped out on his own in 2013. His work has rightfully drawn its share of comparisons to the heroes of archetype, including Bob Dylan and Levon Helm and the Band. However, Morby’s music represents more than fresh fruit hanging from the tree of Dylan-worship. With Singing Saw, his third full-length album, the Kansas expat has solidified his reputation as one of the most intriguing and singular voices to come from the current crop of folk-oriented songwriters.
Singing Saw finds Morby’s writing and singing presented in stark, haunting arrangements and captured beautifully by producer and multi-instrumentalist Sam Cohen of Yellowbirds at the Isokon studio in Woodstock, New York. Flourishes of unexpected guitar fiber abound, and unique touches—like the ethereal tones of an actual singing saw—provide the album with just the right amount of filigree to keep things interesting, while allowing Morby’s inspired songcraft and voice to do the heavy lifting. For fans of Americana, whatever that label has come to mean in 2016, Singing Saw has the makings of a classic.
Self-professed gear minimalists, Morby and Cohen didn’t sweat the equipment used to produce and capture the beautifully written songs of Singing Saw too much. However, the resulting sonics certainly belie the pair’s “nothing’s precious” attitude. We spoke with Morby and Cohen about some of the unconventional recording techniques employed in tracking Singing Saw and the uncanny sounds that resulted, the wonders that hide in the wood of unfancy guitars, and avoiding the clichés of hero worship while still letting important influences shine through.
Tell me about your guitar, “Dorothy.” Sounds like it’s a particularly sentimental instrument?
Dorothy is my red Fender Jaguar, and it was a really big deal for me when I got it. I went on a tour with my old band, the Babies, and we each made around $1,000 at the end of that tour, which was the most I’d ever made in that band at that point. I immediately went to a guitar shop and bought that guitar with all of that money! I was probably 21, and it was important to me that I put that money back into music and buy something nice for myself instead of using it for two months rent or something more practical. I want to do what I do for a long time, and that was a symbolic thing for me. It’s funny, because that was, like, six or so years ago, and since then I’ve bought so many other guitars, and I always wind up selling them again because I only ever want to use Dorothy. Dorothy’s a reissue and she was new when I bought her. I haven’t modified her at all aside from putting in a Graph Tech bridge to help keep things tight and where they belong, because Jaguar bridges can be finicky.
What is it you like about Dorothy so much?
She plays really well, I love the shorter scale ... and I really just love how she looks. It’s actually really funny that I named her Dorothy, because I named the guitar after my grandmother and I honestly didn’t even think about the fact that it’s a ruby red guitar and I’m from Kansas. That connection actually didn’t even dawn on me until after we shot the music video for the song “Dorothy.” But the truth is, there is just some sort of special thing with it being the first piece of really nice musical equipment that I ever bought for myself, and it was purchased with money I made from making music. I can’t quite put my finger on it besides that, but, like I said, I’ve bought nice Rickenbackers and other Fenders since owning Dorothy, and I’ll try to play them live and I just can’t do it. There’s something missing without her.
The way you use silence in your arrangements really works well with the songs on Singing Saw. Do you have a guiding philosophy when it comes to how you use sparseness?
I give a lot of credit to Sam Cohen for helping me see my vision through with a lot of the arrangement stuff. He did a lot of good work and was very much able to take my ideas and help me spin them tastefully into what they became on the record. But it’s generally a case-by-case scenario.
What led you to bring in a saw player?
I started to write a song and the words “singing saw” just sort of fell out of my mouth for no good reason. A lot of the album was written at my home in Mount Washington in the Los Angeles area, and a singing saw is very alluring in that, while it’s very beautiful sounding, it also has a very eerie quality, and that was exactly the sort of record I set out to make. The landscape of where I live is very similar in that it’s also very eerie, but it’s extremely beautiful, and I felt that it fit really well in tying it all together.
I hear a lot of Dylan in what you do and I’m curious where he comes in as an influence. I think you’ve done an excellent job in keeping that influence without directly biting into Dylanisms.
Well, I’ve always been a huge Dylan fan, and I obviously don’t mind that comparison at all. I’m fortunate to have been compared to a handful of my heroes in my career. I try to take those influences and pay homage to my idols in a way that’s very much my own and tasteful, and I think if you approach it with respect, it’s totally a cool thing to do. But there are people that can only imitate their heroes, and I’m not into that.
I know you were involved with a live tribute to the Band and The Last Waltz. How was that?
It was called The Complete Last Waltz and it’s the brainchild of a promoter from San Francisco named Ramie Egan. He puts it on every couple of years. It’s a live recreation of The Last Waltz with notable artists. I got invited to do it in 2014, and it was the day before Thanksgiving. Ramie contacted me, like, a week before and invited me, and he said he was a fan and thought I’d go well with the group he’d assembled, which was a little out of my own scene: guys like Nels Cline from Wilco, Cass McCombs, and some of the guys from Dr. Dog. But I agreed and I was a little apprehensive as I didn’t know a lot of the folks involved, and it turned out to be an incredible experience. This record would not have happened at all the way it did had I not agreed to do that performance, because Sam Cohen was the bandleader and that was our introduction!
“A singing saw is very alluring in that, while it’s very beautiful sounding, it also has a very eerie quality, and that was exactly the sort of record I set out to make,” says Morby. Photo by Dusdin Condren
Could you tell me a bit about Sam’s impact on the album?
Sam played a fair amount of guitar and a ton of bass, too. He’s very good at both and added a lot on that end. Sam’s also the kind of guy who knows everybody and anybody, and I could say something like, “I want this kind of keyboard player,” and he’d immediately have the perfect person in mind. He can call up anyone and they’re interested in being a part of something just because it’s a project he’s involved with because his work is so good, typically.
I had demoed the entire record and sent it to Sam way before we got into the studio, so he knew the songs pretty well. It made the process really smooth. He brought in his friend Nick Kinsey to play drums and his friend Marco Benevento to play some piano, and we’d do things in a couple of takes. There was still some spontaneity to the tracking despite how prepared Sam was, like the bass line on “I’ve Been to the Mountain” … he came up with that immediately before we did the take and it was the perfect line for that song.
Let’s talk about the guitar solo on “Singing Saw.” Who played that part and what gear was used to get that weird texture?
That’s Sam, and that sound is actually an acoustic guitar being blown out and panned in clever ways to get that spread.
The electric guitar on “Drunk and on a Star” is killer. It sounds like you’re using flatwound strings?
I believe that was played on Sam’s Fender Jaguar. There were no flatwounds used, but the interesting thing about that song is that I’m playing the main guitar part on a standard electric 6-string, but if you listen really closely, there’s a Bass VI on it that Sam played that pops up in the choruses. It’s kind of a textural thing, but I feel like it really adds a lot and made the track.
There are a lot of very cool atmospherics to the album that make it much more interesting than typical singer-songwriter stuff. How did you guys go about adding those flourishes?
We kind of crossed those bridges when we came to them. We really focused on making things tasteful when it came to embellishments, and there were definitely moments where we would track something that we’d have to take out because it was a little too much, or we’d record something with a really weird tone at night and listen in the morning and look at each other and say, “We went too far.”
We did the initial sessions and sat with the mixes for a long time before we did the final mixes, so we had a lot of time to listen to the rough mixes and make our notes on what should stay and what should be whittled away, and how to treat everything. We threw a lot of stuff at the wall initially, but in the final mixes, things are really tasteful. We’d do stuff like add a weird wood block hit to a song, but bring it down in the mix and throw a unique reverb on it or otherwise treat it in a way that would add sparkle and nuance to the album instead of just weirdness. I think those touches made a big difference in the final product.
Those touches do make a huge difference, especially in a genre as familiar sounding as folk/Americana. Are you ever concerned with avoiding the clichés of the genre or saying something new within the idiom?
It’s kind of whatever comes out comes out. I never really think about the politics of writing when I write. If I like it, I like it; and if I like it, I’ll stand by it.
Let’s talk a bit about the gear you use.
I’m a total minimalist! With pedals, it’s the same thing as with Dorothy, where I’ve gone out and bought the nicest versions of whatever pedal you can get and I wind up going back to my old stuff every single time. For example, I bought a bunch of tremolo pedals to try to find something to replace my Boss TR-2, but I just love the Boss. I like my gear to be simple, to travel well, and be easy to use.
He’s not in his native Kansas anymore, but Kevin Morby has Dorothy, his beloved Fender Jaguar, along for this recent performance of the song “Dorothy” at the Constellation Room in Santa Ana, California.
My rig is super simple. I use Dorothy and a Fender Vibrolux reissue. I use the amp’s tremolo as well as that Boss tremolo, and then I use an Electro-Harmonix LPB-1—just the regular $40 one—and a Boss tuner pedal, and that’s literally it! It sounds great and gets the job done. I lived in New York for so long that it trained me to have only what you absolutely need. There’s a part of you that sees people with really serious rigs and great pedalboard setups, but I had a realization over the past year-and-a-half that you really don’t need that stuff to do your thing … or at least I don’t to do my thing. I used to love reading about guys in really big bands, like Jack White, who use junky or cheap gear to get the sound they want. That was always intriguing to me.
“Less stuff sounds better and bigger to me,” says producer Sam Cohen, shown here tracking in Greenwich Village’s Electric Lady Studios. “And it’s taken a long time to gain that kind of restraint and not just throw every
single idea into the mix.” Photo by Brian Burton
Producer Sam Cohen on Recording Singing SawSam Cohen’s hydra-headed career includes producing, cowriting, and playing on recordings by Norah Jones, Shakira, Joseph Arthur, Trixie Whitley, and others. His latest resume entry is, of course, producing and playing on Kevin Morby’s Singing Saw. He also makes solo albums under the tag Yellowbirds and released Cool It with his own name on the cover last year. We spoke to Cohen to get his take on Singing Saw’s sounds and production signatures, focusing on, no surprise, guitars.
Singing Saw is really lush and clear without being too polished.
My approach as a producer for the last few years has really been to aim for that. Less stuff sounds better and bigger to me, and it’s taken a long time to gain that kind of restraint and not just throw every single idea into the mix, but my friend Kenny Siegal [who engineered the album] kind of summed it up for me when he said, “A mix is a like a pond, and you want to see straight to the bottom.” That resonated really loudly with me. And it applies not just to the sonic mix, but the arrangements and the way silence and negative space add shape to a song.
That said, things were done quickly and we didn’t make them so precious. Kenny is a genius engineer and has been refining his techniques for years, so that made things easy. Kenny brought in an amazing collection of Soviet mics, and he used a really interesting ribbon mic on Kevin’s vocals—a lot of which were tracked live in the room with the drums. So it was minimal miking to keep the bleed down, and we tracked most of the record live and kept a lot of the lead vocals from those performances. We were all in there playing and vibing off of each other, and that’s a lot of the charm of the songs.
How did you track the singing saw?
That was actually the last thing we did on the record. It’s my friend, John Andrews, from Woods and Quilt. We finished all of the basics in Woodstock, and we did the strings and horns and backing vocals over a few days in Brooklyn, as most of the friends I have that play those instruments are based in Brooklyn, and John came over to my apartment and we captured his performance there. It was a really great finishing touch. We tried a few different things before we settled on a condenser, which we used because we could get the gain we needed to really get the sound. We ran that through some delay and reverb, and John is a very proficient saw player. He was able to harmonize very quickly and it was really impressive to watch him work.
The acoustic guitars on the album are really beautifully recorded. What guitars were used and what roles did they play?
Readers on a budget will be very happy to find out that we didn’t use anything fancy when it came to acoustics on the album. We used Kevin’s steel string a lot, which is just a newer Blueridge, and we weren’t precious about it at all. We would break strings on it and steal strings from other acoustics lying around the studio to replace the broken ones, and there was even a point in the tracking when we were getting too much cut through on the G string of the Blueridge, so we pulled a deader G string off of a different acoustic guitar to solve that problem. We would do that a lot to balance the guitar—swapping brighter or deader strings in and out. The string-swapping was often just out of necessity, because we were out at my place in Woodstock and didn’t have access to a shop all the time and would say “fuck it” and make it work. But we did do it strategically a few times.
So all the steel string was Kevin’s Blueridge, and all of the nylon string stuff is my pawnshop acoustic, which has no branding information of any sort, but it’s name is Lesler, which was carved into the back of its headstock by its previous owner. I was in San Francisco years ago and I had an entire trailer full of gear stolen—this was back in 2003—and we scoured the pawnshops out there trying to find some of our stolen instruments, none of which ever turned up. But I was in a shop and decided I was going to buy this old nylon string, just because, and while it certainly doesn’t come anywhere near the monetary value of the gear we had stolen back then, I’ve written at least 100 songs on Lesler. So in a weird way, it kind of replaced all of that stuff that I lost.
I’ve read that Jeff Tweedy of Wilco is a huge fan of dead strings on acoustic guitars. I was actually pretty bummed when Kevin broke strings and we had to replace them with newer ones. I really can’t stand fresh strings on acoustic guitars or bass.
The electric guitar is often used as a counterpoint and color to the acoustics on the album—particularly the more angular, fuzz-drenched stuff that really pops over the gentle acoustics. Things like the fuzz guitar on “Dorothy” come in really unexpected places, and I’m curious who played that stuff and how you went about applying those flourishes?
The electric guitar on “Dorothy” is both Kevin and I. The weirder fuzzy chord parts are Kevin, and the fuzzy tremolo parts are me, and that song was really fun to do. Some of those fuzz sounds are actually a totally blown-out acoustic guitar! We daisy-chained four tube mic preamps together and put them all on 10, and ran an acoustic through that and got just the gnarliest sound! So it’s transistor-based fuzz—a much more aggressive/abrasive thing than typical tube overdrive.
Those little “bleep bloop” noises on the beginning of “I’ve Been to the Mountain” are actually a Z-VEX Fuzz Factory with some self-oscillation. Those pedals are like a synth; they just give you so much!
Who played the lead guitar on “Singing Saw?”
That was me again, and it’s an acoustic guitar through the blown-out mic preamps, though not as intense. That’s the same trick with an echo added in. It’s actually not double-tracked. It’s just got the effects on an aux and we panned things in an interesting way to give it that range.
Could you tell me about the bass gear you used on the record?
I used a bass called an Opal that I believe is a Soviet instrument, and they’re really difficult to find. I borrowed one, and it has a different pickup than the ones I’ve found on eBay. It looks something like what you’d find on a Hofner, which works nicely because it’s a short scale with a wood bridge and it has some of that vibe. We recorded that through a Twin Reverb and we didn’t use any DI on it. I tend to record basses through guitar amps, and often smaller guitar amps like Princeton Reverbs. I think that’s where the best percussive quality comes from, and it really allows you to hear the tone of the bass. I generally find the low end is still there if you mic it correctly and boost those frequencies a bit. I find the bass frequencies eat up the tone of everything on a lot of records, so I prefer a narrower bass tone on most things. It doesn’t suck everything up.