Secrets of the White Sea: How M83’s Morgan Kibby Made Pop’s Newest Break-Up Classic

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Morgan Kibby, looking like a Manhattan vision of a fourth wife, is trying to eat bacon gracefully. For the most part she’s succeeding — her pot of tea, low-cut cape-blouse, statement jewelry, and effortless mane of black hair help with that. But for those familiar with her music, this study in contrasts feels about right.

Kibby, 30, is best known as a member of M83, providing keys, backing vocals, and co-writing hits like “Midnight City” and “Kim & Jessie.” This week, she releases In Cold Blood, her full-length debut as White Sea, a moniker she’s used for an EP and remixes over the last few years. There’s one moment on this album — a dramatic work of pop perfection that mixes disco, Prince, heartbreak, sci-fi, hard electronics, synths for days, sweeping strings, and just a touch of schmaltz — where Kibby declares, in an earnest falsetto, “You just want that pussy.”

In case you missed that, she repeats it three more times throughout “For My Love,” including once where she stops the beat for a second and launches into a full-on operatic crescendo of the word “pussy.” But honestly, it’s no big deal. The pussy is not the point of the song, but rather, a dispatch from the deterioration of the relationship that inspired the album.

“I was listening to that Miguel pussy song [‘Pussy Is Mine’], and I was like, ‘This is my reply to Miguel,'” Kibby says. “But he did it in such a way that was so romantic. I was like, ‘Why can’t a woman do that?’ Every time a woman does that, it has to be either aggressive or Riot Grrrl kind of a thing. ‘Pussy’ is not a dirty word.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BXlVAhWHwA]

“Prague,” a stunning piano version of which Flavorwire premieres above, is another example of sexual lyrics that are frank but tossed off, not intended to dominate the song. The idea is that women — real women — are complicated creatures defined by neither their sexuality nor a lack of it. “It’s ’70s, it’s sensual, it’s disco, it’s supposed to be romantic,” Kibby says.

“What’s interesting about female sexuality in the context of music is, we are so made to be polarizing,” Kibby continues. “We are whores or virgins, and there’s no ownership of anything in between. To me the expression of sexuality is one that expresses so many different things: loneliness, desperation, happiness, bliss, connection, wonder. I don’t understand why it can’t be used in all those ways for female songwriters.”

We get to talking about Rihanna, whom Kibby loves, along with artists like Kate Bush and Chelsea Wolfe, and the practice of being a feminist while occupying the public eye. “Does feminism and owning one’s sexuality really mean that we prostrate ourselves naked on magazines all the time?” she asks. We have no answers, but the questions raised — here in this conversation and on In Cold Blood — are worth asking. This particular point of view is one of a number of things that set apart the record, and Kibby in general.

Mainstream pop albums tend to be a mixed bag, oftentimes serving as a collection of distinct singles and their accompanying all-star producers. In Cold Blood is a musical mixed bag in each and every song, produced by Kibby herself. Yet the album’s cohesion cannot be overstated. With the break-up as its singular focus, it works through the devolution of a relationship through the eyes of someone traveling the world on tour with a famous band. The final straw is a 45-minute phone call next to a dumpster outside a London venue. “It was torturing: I couldn’t go home, I was without roots, I lost my main person,” she says. “I would lock myself in venue rooms and try to write, try to find some privacy on the bus and snatch moments to program early in the morning.”

The result is an album that does not let itself wallow. Kibby is a warrior, but a vulnerable one. A heroine with true dimension, with a goofy ex-theater kid lurking behind the curtain. Much of In Cold Blood sounds like it would fit in on the Drive soundtrack, or something more surreal. Other parts would sound at home on a Cher or Celine Dion record.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bWoSC4yKNQ]

“It’s the sugar with the bitter pill,” Kibby says. “I was not wanting to go into a girl-at-piano depression hole, and I wanted to continue with the production that I’d been developing with my remixes. I like fun music that makes you excited and makes you want to move. I wanted to put it within a context that wasn’t just like [squeaky stabbing noise] stabbing yourself in the eyeball out of depression. There’s a lot of fierceness and a lot of anger, and for me that doesn’t translate into sad music — that translates into a fiery energy.”

After M83 finished touring behind Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming in late 2012, Kibby returned to LA, moved in with her parents for a couple months, and picked up where she left off with the writing. “It was very childlike,” she says. “I didn’t have a studio. I had just the bare bones: my computer and a couple keyboards. I gave myself permission to travel and just kind of feel. When the songs I felt were written, I hired an engineer and I recorded all the live parts of the record.”

She asks me if I know the feminist artist Judy Chicago, best known for her large-scale installation The Dinner Party , in which 39 historical women are represented via place settings that bear an unmistakable resemblance to vaginas. I nod.

“She’s famously quoted for saying that she was not given the technical tools, whether it was welding or pyrotechnics or whatever, to be able to do her art,” she says. “I think the same thing applies to women today in the music business. I wish more women were encouraged to just go and do it. You don’t need a dude to come and help you figure out the technical parts.”

I understand now why the only conversation topic where I observe Kibby holding back even the slightest bit is when I ask her about the contributions of Greg Kurstin and Mark Ronson on In Cold Blood. Both have produced and written with some of the world’s biggest female pop stars, from Amy Winehouse to Adele to Lily Allen to Kelly Clarkson. There’s the pop music stereotype of a male production “genius” coming in to guide a female ingénue — a tradition that brings to mind Phil Spector and all those girl groups he brought to fame under such duress — and then there’s this.

Kibby had two five-hour days with Kurstin, and they focused their work on two songs: “New York Loves You” and “Flash.” She started one song, “Future Husbands Past Lives,” with Ronson when she was in London almost two years ago. A nerve-wracking introduction in the cafeteria of Tileyard Studio led to a two-day session that consisted of programming a beat.

“I just want to be,” she says. “I want someone to say, ‘Oh damn, that’s a cool synth sound. That’s a cool beat.’ That is the kind of stuff I’m interested in. As opposed to, ‘Oh, she has a vagina — and she produced a record!'”

A few weeks after our breakfast, I email about getting a comment from Kibby’s M83 bandmate, Anthony Gonzalez. Even the band’s publicist at Mute notes how proud they all are of Kibby. The response I get from him is so shining, it could appear as a promotional sticker on In Cold Blood.

“Morgan creatively evolved during the last three years,” Gonzalez writes. “This shows on her debut album. Unique, ambitious, and surprisingly pop, Morgan is going all-in, delivering strong vocals and beautiful melodies.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QA8idH0LZ3w]

There are a lot of people in Kibby’s corner, but the thing that continues to strike me about the album is that it was one that really needed to be made in near-isolation. Almost all of her career up to this point has been marked by collaboration of some kind, from her childhood years in the San Francisco Opera to fronting the orchestral indie band The Romanovs to singing in movie trailers to remixing everyone from Britney Spears to Manchester Orchestra to being nominated for a Grammy for her work with Gonzalez. What comes next is also marked by collaboration: touring this spring with The Naked and Famous, finishing her first stint producing for another act (the upcoming EP from LA band Wildcat! Wildcat!), and at some point, continuing her work in M83.

“I’ll always make music with Anthony — we’re very much kindred spirits and we have a lot of the same references,” she says, adding that Gonzalez’s fascination with nostalgia and childhood sets them apart musically.

“It’s a tricky situation, because you don’t go to an M83 concert and expect to see anybody else but Anthony onstage,” she says later. “I gave a lot of my 20s to that project, so to have to go from the bus to the van fucking sucks. Part of me feels exhausted at the prospect of building something again over the next decade, because it takes that long if you’re a true artist to really build something worth listening to. But there’s also another side to it: when I finished SXSW it was my victory. I didn’t have to share it with anybody.”

To have a moment to oneself, spinning there in the spotlight under the disco ball, taking stock of the bruises both faded and yet to heal… well, that’s at the heart of this music. It would be easy to say Kibby is adhering to the “living well is the best revenge” philosophy when, after breakfast, I get a look at the full fabulousness of her outfit: luxurious cream coat draped just inches above her red carpet-ready pointed stilettos. But to read too much into her clothes would be a terribly simplistic way to sum up someone as emotionally aware as Kibby.

“I actually ran into my ex [who inspired In Cold Blood] at a restaurant the other day, and we just had that weird moment where you lock eyes, and I just walked right past him,” she says. “When we broke up, he said, ‘I will never give you closure.’ In that exact moment, he give me closure by showing me what an ugly person he was being in a place of anger. I don’t think we’ll ever speak again.”