Parlotones singer and songwriter, Kahn Morbee, started learning to play the guitar at the age of 17, where he began a journey into song writing that would eventually end up defining The Parlotones sound. The band has had multiplatinum hits in its home country of South Africa, and the track "Save Your Best Bits" from their upcoming album Journey Through The Shadows can be previewed on SoundCloud.
In the Musical Exchange Songwriter Series, we explore the craft of songwriting through regular interviews and short videos with songwriters who share inspiration and advice and reflect diverse musical styles and approaches to the art of songwriting.
Carnegie Hall: Let’s start with how you got into music and songwriting.
Kahn Morbee: How I got into music, I think, is how most people get into music: You’re surrounded by it. It happened at a young age. I always loved singing. I was always involved in some sort of musical production, whether it was at school or church. The way I started songwriting was in high school. I went to audition as a singer for a couple of bands, and I got rejected from all these auditions. So then I was like, “Screw that, I’m going to start my own band.” And then I realized the only way that that was going to happen was if I could play an instrument and sing at the same time, so I got a guitar for one of my birthdays and started going for lessons. But I found learning other people’s songs a little bit frustrating. So the few chords that I knew at the time got me into writing my own songs. In short, I became a songwriter by a sequence of events. If I’d been accepted to those bands, maybe I just would’ve sung someone else’s songs, but I never did, so I thought I needed to learn an instrument. And because of that, because I wasn’t really good enough at guitar to actually learn other people’s songs, I thought, “I need to write my own songs with C, G, and D,” whatever the case is. Obviously, I’ve evolved from there, but that was the first. I spent hours and hours on those three chords, writing mainly gibberish.
Meet Kahn Morbee of the Parlotones.
Carnegie Hall: Where do you find inspiration when you’re writing songs?
Kahn Morbee: I say this all the time, but inspiration is from life and from experience, from the human experience. Not necessarily all my own experience—a lot of it’s observation, something a loved one is going through … It could be something in a book to trigger inspiration for a song idea. I could watch a movie, and that could trigger inspiration. That’s the cool thing. When you write about life and the human journey, the list is infinite of what you can write about. I always wanted to write music. People enjoy music in their own way, but for me if there was music I could relate to or something resonated with me, that’s the music I enjoyed the most. So I kind of wanted to write music that people can say, “Hey, that song is about my life or about my circumstance and my situation.” I’ve always said the melody line is what draws people in, but what keeps them listening and really draws them in is the lyrics. The melody is an infectious thing that grips your ear, but what makes people really comprehend—my theory is that the words resonate with them. You know, there’s certain music that has a fun aspect to it, like most stuff in clubs. But that music’s quite fleeting. You’re not going to hear it 20 years from now. You’re not going to have that playing to celebrate a certain moment in your life. It’s certainly not going to be someone’s first wedding dance song. You know what I mean? There’s nothing occasional about that, but it does have a place. Don’t get me wrong. That sort of bump and grind pop music has a place. It’s fun music. It’s meant to be fun and frivolous.
Carnegie Hall: Who are your favorite musicians and songwriters that you admire?
Kahn Morbee: If I go back, certainly Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, if you go to the folky stuff. Definitely The Beatles. Obviously, as a wordsmith, I think of Bob Dylan as a genius mind. Those are early days. Now, there’s loads of artists. Morrissey, I like his writing. He’s a little bit miserable, but I love outlook on life. The early Radiohead stuff I loved, and now I have no clue what they’re singing about. I love a band called The National. There’s some really good imagery in the words. The Decemberists. They kind of take stories and make a whole album out of it.
Carnegie Hall: Who do you think about when you’re writing songs? Who do you think of as your audience?
Kahn Morbee: It’s never that well thought out. I guess you just, instinctively in a way, kind of start on a theme and then you kind of expand around that part. Obviously, certain writers write differently. I’m sure certain writers go, “I want to write a song about,” I don’t know, “World War II,” or whatever, and then they kind of pick out a bunch of themes and punch out the song. For me, it all starts with melody, and then within that melody some words will come out naturally. You’re just regurgitating gibberish, and then based on that you kind of get a theme, and then you kind of write around that. It makes sense. The body of work makes sense. You have to write about what you know about. And what I know about, like I said, it’s not just all my own experience. What I know about is what I’ve seen or witnessed or experienced, so that’s what I write about. That has been how I’ve soaked up and absorbed life, and I’m pretty sure there’s a whole bunch of people out there that have had a similar experience, and that song is going to connect with them.
Carnegie Hall: Do you always have a pad around to write stuff down? If you get a melody in your head, how do you write stuff down?
Kahn Morbee: I have a pen and pad, and I have loads of types of lyric ideas, and then I’ll sift through them. When you write songs, you don’t write them as you would speak them. You almost have to be quite melodic with them. There’s your melody and syllables. You’ve got to be quite syllabic about the way you construct. So I’ve got all these ideas for lyrics, and then I’ll go, “OK, cool. That part fits what I’m trying to say, but I need to tweak it slightly.” There’s lots of those lyric ideas that I write down, because often someone might say something that would make a cool lyric. I might just put it into my phone and add it to my lyric idea book later. I know Morrissey writes mostly that the title came first, and he’s got some great titles.
Carnegie Hall: When you’re writing and you come up with an idea, how do you disseminate it to the rest of the band? How does that work?
Kahn Morbee: Most stuff I write just with the guitar, and I pretty much write the entire structure, but everything sounds like a folk song or a singer-songwriter song. And then I’ll take three songs to the band and I’ll play them. I always say that if something works on an acoustic guitar, then it can work.
Carnegie Hall: Why?
Kahn Morbee: For me, that’s a real song. You can max it out with cool production and strip it down to its core. Ultimately, the song is melody, words, harmonies. All the other stuff is just bells and whistles to make it sound more grandiose. It’s like food. The ingredients are the ingredients. You can flower them up and add this and sprinkle that and put ornaments around the plates, but ultimately you’ve got to strip away all that stuff to see whether it’s a good dish or a good song, for me. So that’s where it starts, and then the band works on the third one you sang, and then we just kind of flesh it out and make sure that the rhythm, and the delivery of the vocal lines …
Carnegie Hall: So you’re basically creating the structure of it, and then you’re bringing the band in to …
Kahn Morbee: To create all the bells and whistles, really. To flower it up.
Carnegie Hall: Have you written with anybody else? Do you do any co-writes or stuff like that?
Kahn Morbee: In the early days, my bandmate Glenn and I did maybe three or four songs together, but he doesn’t write so much any more. And then on the last album, there was a guy that joined the band for like a month, and I think he joined at the wrong time because in that month we had more shows than there were days. He was just like, “this is not for me.” But he’s a really good songwriter, so two of the songs on the previous album we co-wrote together.
Carnegie Hall: What were the name of those albums?
Kahn Morbee: Stardust Galaxy was the name of the previous album, and it’s two songs: “Push Me to the Floor” and “Brighter Side of Hell.” Our current album is Journey Through the Shadows…. He was living in Germany. We met somewhere in Germany. We got the songs together. On our current album, “Save Your Best Bits” was a co-write. I’m all for co-writing, and I probably will write some more songs in this style in the next album in the future.
Carnegie Hall: How do you know when your song is good? When will you know if a song is complete?
Kahn Morbee: I suppose you don’t. You can even go back to old albums and say, “I should’ve done this. I should’ve tried that. I should’ve taken that out.” I always say that with music, you try to pursue the perfect product at the time, but you have to move on, otherwise you’ll just get stuck in this perpetual desire to want to enhance it, and then five years later the song that you wrote sounds dated or you find something else you don’t like. I think that’s the beauty of music. There’s so many styles and influences. There’s so much to grasp and digest. You’ll never actually reach perfection. You can only try and do the best you can at that time, and then move on and try and do something different the next time.
Carnegie Hall: When do you find yourself writing? Do you write every day?
Kahn Morbee: I write all the time. Every day doesn’t really bear fruit, but I write all the time. Remember, for me it starts with a melody, so I could just be humming some sort of melody. And then when I finally get an instrument I can kind of work it out. I never used to do this. I never used to write down lyrics or ideas for lyrics.
Carnegie Hall: You would remember them?
Kahn Morbee: Yeah, I would remember them. Now there’s all these years of songs crammed into my brain. It’s impossible. I soon realized I’d get to writing a song and like, “Wait, what was that lyric line?” So now I write them down because the line changes. In a conversation, someone says something cool. I’ll often read a book and the author might say something really with a lot of imagery or quite poetic, and I’ll kind of take that sentence and say, “How can I say it differently?” And then I’ll write that down. So there’s no plagiarism. I’ll read something like, “The sky was painted orange,” or, “The morning came to paint the sky orange.” I’ll go, “How can I say that differently?” I’ll say—I don’t know—“the morning drips down its orange,” whatever. So I’m saying the same thing just …
Carnegie Hall: In a different way.
Kahn Morbee: But I think that is art. There is nothing that is original. Humans like things for a reason. It fits together nicely. So you draw from those inspirations and you kind of just repackage it slightly differently.