Balancing act

Balancing act

The Voice coach Kahn Morbee chats to Rebekah Kendal about that elusive thing
called success

When the Parlotones first donned their Clockwork Orange make-up, it was all a bit of a gimmick. Something to help them stand out, make them memorable. It worked. Maybe a little too well. Somewhere in the filing cabinet of my mind, the Kahn Morbee index card comes complete with mascara, dapper braces, and signature hat.

Although I am not expecting the streaks of black make-up – obviously – I’m momentarily thrown by the casually dressed Kahn Morbee sitting next to me. It’s hard to ignore the beard. Substantial and flecked with grey, it hints at a new maturity. Though perhaps I’m picking up on something less corporeal. Somehow Morbee seems content.

‘The thing I’m trying to achieve now is balance,’ says Morbee. ‘You can chase your tail for decades and you can achieve some sort of success, but at a cost. You miss out on time with your family and friends. After putting the music first for a long time – and I really needed to do it – I came to the realisation that I needed to figure out what was important to me in life and what I was prepared to sacrifice. It’s about being more disciplined in saying no. I think I can do both. I may not get a Grammy … but that doesn’t matter to me.

‘I don’t think I would have been able to make this decision earlier in my career. We all have to make sacrifices. And I still do now. It is still a lot of time away from home, but now it is just a little more balanced, and I am committed to taking breaks and spending time with family.’

While the Parlotones – made up of Morbee, Neil Pauw, Glenn Hodgson and Paul Hodgson – have achieved a degree of success of which few South African bands can boast, Morbee points out that the goalposts are constantly changing.

‘You’ve never really “made it”. When you’ve achieved a certain level of success in your own country, it’s fleeting, so your battle is to remain relevant – because music is fickle and tastes are fickle – and then as soon as you go to a new territory, you go back to being irrelevant. It’s a perpetual cycle.’

Success may feel elusive, but a collection of accolades – which include six South African Music Awards, four MK Awards, and two MTV Awards – suggests otherwise. The band, which has picked up substantial fan bases in South Africa, Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom, has performed alongside the likes of Kings of Leon, Imagine Dragons, Snow Patrol, and even Coldplay. Making it big in the music industry was not just about hard work – although that played a considerable role – it also came down to good timing, says Morbee.

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‘We started out at almost the perfect time, when local talent started getting some real momentum, specifically guitar music, and it started getting lots of radio play, and there were also clubs that had live music that were near varsity towns and were quite well supported.

‘But, even then, the odds did seem impossible. Everyone said you had to sing in Afrikaans or be urban in style to make it. I do think that one thing that youth gives to you is blissful ignorance and the courage of naivety. The more you know, the more daunting it can be.’

The band, which had its first big break when one of their early songs, ‘Beautiful’, was used in a 2006 Irish Fujifilm commercial, soon realised that they would need to create certain types of songs if they wanted to stand a chance on radio. While they were adamant that they would not compromise on what they wanted to be sonically, the Parlotones soon became conscious of trends.

‘By the time we were getting hits, I knew exactly how to craft a song for radio … but then, with later albums, I kind of lost that. Over time, I’ve realised that the more established you are, the more irrelevant you are to radio. These days we could dress a song up as dance music and it would still be old news.

‘For me, it’s a challenge to craft a pop song. People often criticise and dismiss it, but it is far harder than writing a weird prog-rock ambient seven-minute number that only your gran is going to buy because she loves you. To move people, and to move a collective of backgrounds and tastes, is far more difficult. And if you can achieve that without compromising on who you want to be sonically, it is a far better accolade to have than being self-indulgent.’

As their number of fans grew, so did their critics. If the zealous protectors of musical integrity weren’t slating the Parlotones for pandering to corporate interests, they were accusing them of a lack of patriotism because of a song they created for a German television network ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. While they got used to the criticism, Morbee says it wasn’t easy to just shrug it off.

‘The irony is that we spent 95% of our interviews in Germany talking about South Africa and assuring people that it was safe and beautiful. If anything, we were public relations ambassadors for the country. And it was just sport and just music. Sometimes, given the level of animosity, you would think that we were busy committing genocide.’

During a stint of touring and living in the US in 2013, Morbee came to the realisation – thanks, in part, to vocal-chord damage – that he needed more balance in his life. After a falling-out with their manager-cum-record-label, the conflict-averse Morbee decided to quit the Parlotones and pursue a solo career. However, after a messy professional divorce from said manager (which he would rather not discuss) Morbee decided to stay with the band and commit to both projects.

‘I try to focus on one project at a time and allocate a certain number of gigs to each project. It did get a little more complicated because The Voice suddenly popped up, but that has meant that I can put some things on the back burner. Generally, we derive income from touring, and now, in my solo capacity, I don’t have to tour as much. The irony is that now I keep getting offers!’

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A recent SAMA nomination for his first solo album, Salt, suggests that Morbee is on the right track with his career. Because he writes and sings for both, he admits that parallels between the Parlotones’ sound and his own are unavoidable, but he laughingly adds the caveat that he doesn’t really care. He is enjoying playing for smaller, more intimate audiences again.

‘These days I am more comfortable in my own skin, but trying to launch a solo career also comes with its own anxieties. When you are starting out, there’s no point of reference. Now there are expectations. I think the hardest thing has been for people to separate my show from a Parlotones show.’

And now he wears another hat too: Morbee the coach. Long before he was invited to be part of the South African version of The Voice, the singer decided that this was the kind of show that he would like to be a part of.

‘I like the general ethos of it. No one is being ridiculed. Most reality TV is about watching the trainwreck unfold – and I get it – but this is really about revering ability, and that’s cool. We need some of that. It’s aspirational.’

Acting as a coach has helped Morbee realise just how much he has learnt over the past 18 years; the young singers are only just learning things that he now takes for granted. He points out that the biggest challenge on the show has been to avoid becoming emotionally attached to the people in his team.

‘You’re not going to turn all of them into superstars. In fact, you can’t turn any of them into stars – the only person who can do it is themselves. And that’s the lesson that I try to teach them. There is no magic wand, and this little reality show is just the start of their journey.’

Speaking of journeys, Morbee’s has come to be about more than just the music. Having found some semblance of balance, he now has time to play tennis and squash, and the occasional game of soccer. He also has time to read, but he prefers to read synopses of the big books about the world on an app called Blinkist. When it’s a really great book, he’ll make an exception – he has read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything twice, and that book is anything but short!

‘These days, everyone in the band is free to explore their own stuff. My hobby is music, so it is always going to be something related to that. Who knows? A fantasy of mine is to write a musical. I’m not committing to it,’ he says, chuckling, ‘but I might have a story idea…’

Fashion: Jodi Cohen; Photography: Andreas Eiselen/HSMimages.co.za, Gallo/GettyImages;
Grooming: Sebastine Pepler/Birdonawire
June/July 2016

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