Musical Oceanography: An interview with Morgan Kibby of White Sea

By: Laura Studarus

Morgan Kibby is best known as M83’s Girl Friday. Her voice is heard on the retro refrains of Saturdays=Youth, new album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming contains many of her lyrics, and on tour she holds down both keys and backing vocal duties. However, the Los Angeles-based musician is more than just a background player—as evidenced by last year’s EP, The Frontier. Produced under the name “White Sea,” the genre busting, five-song EP skips from heady-dance tunes to ethereal vocal harmonies—touching on nearly everything in between.

Kibby joined WHOA at a Silver Lake coffee shop to allow us a peak behind the curtain of her inspirations. Along the way we learned why she’ll always dance to Katy Perry, how she rebels against traditional rock ‘n’ roll excess on tour, and the benefits of letting your preteen watch art films.

Laura Studarus: Did you grow up in a musical household?

Morgan Kibby: I’ve played classical piano my entire life. I play the cello as well. I haven’t practiced in a long time, but I do play. My dad is very musical. My dad’s like a genius—he has perfect pitch, and he’s one of those people who, if you go to the symphony with him, he comes home to the piano and sits down and just plays and plays and plays. So he’s definitely where I get any kind of musical ability from. I have a classical background, but it wasn’t until my early twenties—only a couple of years ago—that I started writing music.

So how does a classical pianist become a funky, multi-genre—well, I don’t know—how do you classify what you do?

That was the interesting thing about becoming friends and colleagues with Anthony [Gonzalez of M83]. He really plucked me from obscurity. Talk about being fearless—he really just thought my voice was perfect for the project. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have much experience or whatever, which I think is amazing. In the process of touring, because his music is so electronic, I was exposed to this whole new universe of synthesizers and programming. When I came off tour, I was really clear that I wanted to produce and engineer my own stuff. I wanted to experiment and start writing music. I didn’t want it to be piano-based at all. I had this really big aversion to being the girl at the piano. So I came home and started learning how to produce and record. Anthony has been a huge influence on me. If it wasn’t for him I don’t know that I would have the leanings that I do in terms of production and style. He and I obviously connect on a big level when it comes to what we like, what we gravitate towards. I love huge, emotional, dramatic music. So does he. Which is why we connected in the first place.

Do you feel like because you can handle your production that gives you a freedom that other artists don’t have?

Absolutely. It’s been a short time, but the last year and a half of working on my own project, and doing lots of remixes—I come into this new tour and my vocabulary has changed. I can have a more informed, intelligent discussion about how we’re going to bring the album to life on stage. It’s really exciting. It’s like anything, the better you get at your craft, the more creative you can be. I like being able to have more input, and Anthony allows me that.

With the White Sea, do you feel like your background in film and television has given you different inspirations or leanings?

I guess so. I suppose I’m a bit of a drama queen, I’m definitely not your typical girl, indie rock musician for sure. I love creating a story, and I love creating a mood.

With the tracks on your EP, is it more about mood, or are you telling stories as well?

I can look back on it now and say it was clearly an experiment. It’s the first thing I ever did on my own and I was basically trying to get my feet under me. I haven’t found my singular vision yet. For me, I said, “Okay, it’s risky, and there are going to be people who don’t understand it, but I am going to jump genres, I am going to try different things.” I think with an EP you have the freedom to do that. I love that there’s something for everybody on the EP. I definitely think that as I move forward—I’m going to be writing on the road—I’m going to narrow the field of vision and try to create something a little bit more cohesive.

Do you feel like you need to declare your identity? I look at artists like Beck who have made a career of never knowing what you’re going to get from him.

No, I don’t. But, I do think over the course of an album—as opposed to over the course of a career—it’s nice to have a beginning, middle, and an end. And to tell a story, which is why I love working with Anthony because that’s how he goes about it. He has a vision of telling a story over the course of an album. I think that’s admirable and amazing. I definitely would like to get to that point, where that’s what I’m doing.

Do you have favorite storytellers, musical or otherwise?

I take a lot of inspiration from film and photographs. Terrence Malick is my favorite director. When I was a kid I saw two of his movies back-to-back in the course of a week. It was the first time as a child that I was like, “That has to be the same artist.” It was a clear moment for me when I walked away from it, being completely struck at how an artist can have a touch and effect. So yeah, I take a lot of inspiration from film and photographs.

That’s a lot for a kid to take in!

It was weird! I remember I wasn’t too young; I was maybe 10 or 11. I do remember that moment clearly, just being completely inspired by watching the film.

As a kid, and now as an adult, have you always gravitated towards that darker, more dramatic feel?

Yes, absolutely. The funny thing is, I know I’m capable of doing other things. But that’s inherently what I tend towards, the more dramatic and bombastic. [laughs] I like things that hit you in the gut, and make you feel. Not to say that happier music doesn’t do that. I can listen to Katy Parry’s Teen Dream and be like, yes! [laughs] My guilty pleasure. But yeah, I do tend to gravitate towards the darker, for sure.

Do you think some of the lighter stuff can still contain deeper meanings or universal truths?

Absolutely.  I don’t think you can make generalities about serious music verses happy music. I think everything plays a part and has a time in the soundtrack to your life.

You mentioned guilty pleasures. Do you believe in that idea?

Oh yeah, absolutely! Not even a guilty pleasure—I think someone like Katy Perry is fun, and she writes great songs. Great pop songs.

With songs like “Ladykiller” on your EP, have you always had an ear for dance music?

Not really. It’s a perfect example; I really wanted to try to do something different. I didn’t want to make a serious, emotional song—I wanted to do something sleazy and fun and sexy. I think it still has a twinge of that seedy underbelly darkness to it, but I wanted to do something that feels like disco, I wanted to do something that feels fun, I wanted to do something that when I get up on stage I don’t have to be stationary and I can interact with the audience. It was thinking about the live show as well, it wasn’t about just writing the song. It was an experiment.

Am I dreaming, or is there a certain Spaghetti Western, Ennio Morricone feel to some of the EP?

Absolutely. I take a huge amount of inspiration from his music.

Did you grow up with the movies?

I didn’t. I actually knew the music before I knew the movies that they were scores to, just from my Grandmother. She had a lot of his soundtracks on vinyl. It’s a perfect example of creating mood. I obviously take a lot of inspiration from that.

It’s funny, that doesn’t strike me as the traditional LA band influence.

Yeah, no. [laughs] That’s something I really wasn’t concerned about. I want to make music that I’m passionate about. It definitely doesn’t fit. Trying to play shows and stuff with people was definitely a challenge at first! But there are bands like Active Child who have similar inspirations and similar vibes, whether it’s vocal or production or otherwise.

How has the reaction been?

I’ve really been amazed. People come up a lot after shows and are like “oh my God, this is the most interesting thing I’ve seen in ages. I’m lucky enough to play with four incredible musicians. I play with Jonathan Bates who has his own project with Big Black Delta, and Amy Wood who plays with Big Black Delta and a couple of other bands, and the Ray Suen who I met on The Killers tour. So I’m lucky that I have incredible collaborators. We were committed when we were putting this live show together to really bring out the vocal harmonies and to really do things live, and to not have it feel like pseudo-electronic music.

Do you feel like because you’re known as a collaborator with M83 that’s given you a leg up in the LA scene?

Yeah, definitely. It makes people more inclined to listen, but not to necessarily like what you do. I can only obviously speak to the EP, but the EP is different enough from what M83 does, that it’s very clear whether you like it or not. But I definitely think I’ve been very lucky. It’s been a very great response. I’m excited about actually writing new material

I guess that’s the big question—are you actively working on a full-length

I am. We have one song that really sets the tone for the record. I’m really excited about it. I wrote it with Ray. We collaborated on it. I’m really really excited about it.

Anything you can say about that song yet?

It’s very big. It fills a lot of space. It’s very anthemic I think. I love pop music. We’re not afraid to go there. One day I’ll write an ambient album. But not today.

That’ll be in your “serious artist phase.”

Exactly. When I try to tone it down.

Do you have a timeline for finishing the album?

I would like to have all the demos done by the time I get off the road with M83. Literally when we get off the road, the next week I want to be in the studio. But I’m looking for the right producer. I don’t want to do it on my own this time. I just need someone who’s better than me. [laughs]. I think it’s helpful to have a second set of ears, to help me craft the vision. I get very in my head with the process sometimes, I get very frustrated. I hit lots of roadblocks. So I’d like to work with somebody who can help me push through those.

As your own project, is it easy to let people in, or do you feel a bit protective?

It depends on the day, obviously. There are days when I’m like, “Oh God, help me!” There are other days when I’m possessive, and I don’t want to have anybody else’s stamp on the music. So it depends. It depends what mood I’m in.

Is writing on the road daunting? Or is it easier to write when you’re away from your natural habitat?

You know, I don’t know! This remains to be seen. I really hope so, because I need to be writing. On the last tour, I used to get up a lot earlier than everybody, and just sit in the back of the bus and listen to records while we were traveling to the next festival date, or the next whatever date. I’m really excited about being disciplined on tour, and using the inspiration. I think it’s going to be very inspiring. At least I hope so.

That’s probably the least rock ‘n’ roll statement I’ve heard: “I’m excited about being disciplined.”

I know, right? I think, for my own project, it’s a really tender time. I’ve been lucky enough that a lot of people are going to be excited about what I do next. I feel so great about that, that I don’t want to disappoint. I feel like the full-length needs to be focused, and I can’t wait too long. I don’t want to wait too long. It’s already been almost a year. Granted I’ve done like 12 remixes over the last year, so it’s been a lot of focusing on that, which has been a lot of fun. I’ve learned a lot, but it’s definitely time to get something new out for people, because it’s getting more and more, “when is the record coming out? When do we get new music?”

Is the accelerated cycle of music consumption a concern for you?

It’s so annoying! It’s so frustrating. I don’t really know how to say it. It’s frustrating because I feel like it’s this machine that chews you up and spits you out. There’s really no time to fall in love with music any more. I feel overwhelmed when I’m trying to listen to new releases and I’m trying to stay up on what new people are doing. There’s this weird thing where if your press isn’t right, or if you don’t play with the right people—there are just so many ways to succeed or fail. It’s frustrating. I think the most important thing is connecting with people who are passionate about your music. That seems like it’s getting harder and harder to do. In that sense I feel very lucky to be with M83. I can come away from that experience and people respect what I’ve contributed to the project.

Did you grow up going to the record store and having the physical experience with music?

Yeah, absolutely! I still have that relationship with music! When I first heard Bon Iver—that’s probably one of my top 10 albums of all time—I remember I bought on an Mp3 format on iTunes, and that was one of the albums I listened to repeatedly to every day on the bus to wake up. It just put me in this really creative headspace. As soon as I got home I couldn’t wait to go and buy it on vinyl, and actually have something in my hands I could connect to and have a physical relationship with. It’s like a friend! [laughs] when you get to listen to a record a million times and discover more and more with it. I love it.

Do you believe that old adage, that you get your entire life to write your first album, and then only two years to write your second?

That’s a very good question. [laughs] I think you have less and less and less time. Even for, me, I have the luxury of being in this wonderful family that is M83—obviously people love Anthony’s music and respect him greatly—even with that I feel the pressure to produce. Okay, you’ve got to get something out there! You’ve got to take advantage of that while people care! I do hate that a little bit. It takes time. I felt really pressured this past year to start working on the LP, but I just didn’t have anything to say. I feel like I’m finally getting there. But ideally I would have had something out already. I’m trying not to be concerned with that.

On behalf of the music press, I apologize.

[Laughs] Thank you! No, I love it, I’m so lucky that people care. I don’t take that for granted at all. I feel extremely luck that people care and want to hear something. I could be extremely prolific and no one could care. But that’s not the case, I feel very blessed.

Do you feel like your teenaged-self would believe where you are now?

I’ve gone through many different phases. I was an athlete for a very long time. I was a gymnast until I was 13. I was very competitive; I got to regional completions and all that good stuff. My goal was to go to the Olympics, and one day I woke up and said “I don’t want to do this anymore.” When I was young I was an actress, and I was always in musical theater as a little kid. I was on a television show, that’s why I moved to LA. I was acting and I was working, and then I woke up one day and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Music has always been a constant for me. I’ve always played, and I’ve always been a singer. I’ve always loved to sing. Being a full-time musician wasn’t a dream for me until a couple of years ago. It never seemed like something I was supposed to do—until recently. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.

So you found it, this is the end of the road.

Who knows? Knowing myself I’ll wake up one day and want to become a chief! [laughs] But I doubt it, seriously.

Let me know. I’ll come review your first restaurant.

[laughs] Okay, awesome.

Is there any advice you wish you could go back and give yourself as a young gymnast, or as the young musical theater kid?

I think the thing I keep learning more and more as I get older, is that it really is just about having fun. I was raised in a family that was really focused on physical accomplishments. I’ve had to wean myself off of this idea that I have to be in a certain place at a certain age. Things happen the way they happen. I keep learning to relax and let it be what it’s going to be, and really just focus on doing good work. That’s the most important thing.


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2 Comments on “Musical Oceanography: An interview with Morgan Kibby of White Sea”

  1. M. Forse
    October 2, 2011 at 4:57 pm #

    Great interview with Morgan, but why no mention of her earlier projects and albums such as “Beggar’s Alchemy” and “…and the moon was hungry…”? She wrote some amazing lyrics and music during those previous musical incarnations, too. Morgan’s not as new on the music scene as this interview makes her out to be. And weird…I just realized as I’m writing this that I happen to be wearing a Morgan Kibby promo t-shirt today. Still love the hot pink flock of crows across the front.

  2. asthmacat
    October 2, 2011 at 5:41 pm #

    Soooo talented. And sooo hot.

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