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#11 Kahn Morbee – Dealing With Rejection, Continuous Learning, and Producing Music During Lockdown

PODCAST: Episode 11

Kahn Morbee – Dealing With Rejection, Continuous Learning, and Producing Music During Lockdown

What an honor to speak with a true South African legend and icon, Kahn Morbee. Other than being known for his crazy stage makeup and his incredible voice, Kahn’s depth of knowledge and approach to life and education is truly inspiring. We dig deep into how and why he decided to educate his own children and his current education journey. An episode not to be missed!

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About Our Guest: Kahn Morbee

Kahn is a South African musician and the lead singer of the international alternative rock band, The Parlatones. Formed in 1998, The Parlatones went on to win 7 South African Music Award titles and proudly boast a worldwide fanbase. Kahn went on to be a judge and coach on The Voice, winning 2 seasons in a row.

kahn morbee

Behind the fame, Kahn is a family man currently focused on completing his MBA at Henley Business School and passionately embraces a philosophy of curiosity – something that he credits much of his success to.

Topics Discussed

  1. The challenges of building a career as a musician.
  2. The important role that mathematics plays in music.
  3. Kahn’s upbringing and education.
  4. What the future looks like for The Parlatones.

Full Episode Transcription

Guest Introduction

Philip von Ziegler: In today’s episode, I’ll be speaking with Kahn Morbee. Kahn is a South African musician and the lead singer of the international alternative rock band, The Parlotones. Formed in 1998, The Parlotones went on to win seven South African music award titles and proudly boasts a worldwide fanbase. Kahn went on to be a judge and coach on The Voice, winning two seasons in a row.

Behind the fame, Kahn is a family man, currently focused on completing his MBA at Henley Business School, and passionately espouses a philosophy of curiosity, something that he credits much of his success to. In this conversation, we discuss topics such as the challenges of building a career as a musician, the important role that mathematics plays in music. Kahn’s upbringing and education, what the future looks like for The Parlotones, and a range of other topics. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation with Kahn, and I’m sure you will, too. Without further ado, I bring you Kahn Morbee.

PvZ: Kahn Morbee, thank you for joining me.

Kahn Morbee: Thanks for having me.

PvZ: So for those one or two select individuals out there listening to this that don’t know who you are, please tell us who you are, what you do and how you got here.

KM: My name is Kahn Morbee. I sing and play guitar for The Parlotones and my own solo project. And I got here because some people behind the scenes asked if we could chat about something that I think is very, very important – feeding the mind. So, yes, that’s why we are here.

Kahn’s Personal Education Journey

PvZ: So your personal education journey, you’ve obviously gone down an unconventional career path; incredibly successful as a South African artist. What you’ve been able to achieve with The Parlotones is a real accomplishment. That said, what did your education journey look like and how did you get involved in music?

KM: Yea, look, my education journey is quite removed from my journey in music, but I do believe that all education is the sum of the parts, they’re interdependent. Everything you learn does shape who you are, and ultimately, that shapes the journey that you take in life.

When I left school, I studied BA Communications. And I guess in some regards, being a singer and a songwriter is a form of communicating. So I’m sure some of those aspects helped me. And certainly, what BA Communications was all about was really about communicating, either via PR or advertising or in the workplace. And that is ultimately what we as musicians do.

I’ve always said we’re like traveling salesmen going from town to town, trying to sell ourselves, really. And that, in many regards, extended to social media, so it’s just another form of communication, and it is the way we communicate with our audience.

So, yea, I guess in some regard it did help me, but I never went into the conventional field of advertising or PR. I just used those, I guess, the knowledge or those skills, trying to augment my career as a musician. And I didn’t know actually when I was looking at university, I wasn’t aware that you could actually study formal music, and so I never did. So much of what I’ve learned in my musical journey has really been self-taught, or a YouTube sort of going down rabbit holes, trying to skill up on certain things. And, yea, that’s it in a nutshell.

The Challenges of Starting Out as a Musician

PvZ: That resourcefulness that one needs in order to educate yourself online is obviously something that musicians have to have. That said, speaking about your music career, I read a quote once and I don’t know who to attribute this to. But it went something along the lines of, “The metric by which you measure your success one day, will be determined by the number of uncomfortable conversations you’ve had, the rejection you’ve dealt with, and criticism you’ve faced.” And as a musician in the early days, what are some of the challenges that you faced before fame? What were those early days like for you?

KM: Oh, so, ye, I mean, I guess it was predominantly, I mean, if that’s the metric on which we base our success on, it was just rejection. But I think the whole premise on how you become a musician, is at some stage you have to put yourself out into the public. Initially, that version of the public is your friends and family. And they’re not that critical and they’re not that cruel.

But then you enter things like Battle of the Bands and you soon find out that you’re competing against guys that are much better. And there is a panel of judges that are obviously a lot more critical than your friends and family. And then you start to record music and try and submit that to radio, and that also comes with a layer of rejection.

And then it’s quite a bizarre thing that happens, is when you start to get accepted, or you develop a fan base, or a radio accepts a song, the next level of rejection is conjured up. And that’s critics, or people who hate us, or trolls, or whatever you want to call it. That you don’t fit their category of what’s cool or what’s their taste. But they feel the need to be very vocal about their dislike or distaste for you or your style. So then there’s another level of rejection.

And then, obviously because of our aspirations, we then took our music to many places around the world. And it’s almost like we got to relive those layers of rejection again – had some successes, had some drawbacks. The press can say some mean things if they don’t dig your vibe.

But initially, I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why people would spend so much energy and effort hating something. If you don’t like something, just cut it out of your zone. But it’s almost like some people get a kick out of it.

So I didn’t get it, but I soon learned that actually, it doesn’t matter, that’s not why we create music. We do it for ourselves and primarily for the people that dig our vibe, the rest are irrelevant. And certainly, I do embrace constructive criticism, I think it’s very important. And sometimes that comes from family, friends, and your fans, and that’s cool. But if it’s toxic, then I just cut it out, I don’t even engage.

Kahn’s Upbringing

PvZ: Yeah, well, there’s obviously a heck of a lot of confidence that you need as a musician, also in order to persevere in the early years, and then to face your critics. Where does that confidence come from? And perhaps tell us a little bit more about your upbringing and what role did your parents play in your development?

KM: Look, I don’t know if it’s as much confidence as it is ignorance. I think you’re naively ignorant to these things when you start out, and then because you naively ignorant, it’s almost like water off a duck’s back when it does happen. I think if we’d known that this would be the level of chaos that happens on the journey, you might have been more apprehensive. You know, there’s that expression ignorance is bliss, and sometimes it is.

If someone said to you, listen, you’re about to go on stage and people are going to laugh at you or tell you you’re shit. You might be like, oh, well, that doesn’t sound like much fun, and you may not do it. So I’d say there’s a certain naivete that makes you emboldened.

And I was raised by my gran. If anything, she was probably my biggest critic. But I would always reframe that. I’d just say, listen, Gran, I’m glad you don’t like me because you’re definitely not my target audience. So, yea, maybe in some regard, she, by telling me my music was terrible, I got used to a form of rejection.

Look, she became very proud of me, but in the early stages of learning how to sing and play guitar and write songs, the people at home are going to hear it the most. And I guess I can liken it to listening to 5-year-old learn violin. It’s initially not going to be very pleasant.

But I think I had always personally I had a massive curiosity for life. I loved sports, I loved theatre, I loved it all, and I did it all. And when you do those things and you achieve some semblance of, you know, you win a soccer game, or you win a tennis match. Or you enjoy the process of theatre, that builds and shapes your confidence.

And also, I’ve never lost sight of the fact of why I play sport, or why I do music. It’s not actually about accolades or fear of rejection – I like it. Regardless of whether I’d had a success in music, I would still play music.

And certainly, our successes have peaked and troughed and waned and plateaued, and all of those buzzwords. It doesn’t mean we’ve stopped. In fact, when lockdown stopped us, we didn’t stop creating. We didn’t stop trying to put shows on, even if it was in a digital form, or not in the way we liked it, and we didn’t stop rehearsing.

So I often liken it to my friends that play golf. I don’t enjoy golf; they do, they play golf every weekend. Not with some sort of grandiose delusion of becoming Tiger Woods. They do it because they enjoy the vibe. And I think at the core of everything, that should be central to why you do it. Not for accolades, and don’t not do something that you like because you fear some sort of toxic criticism.

PvZ: Yea, and is this philosophy something that you’ve carried on and passed on to your kids?

KM: Well, look, they’re a little bit young. I have the twin boys that are 3 and my son is 5, the older one. Yea, I guess I might. I’m never going to impose a philosophy, but I guess I’ll always encourage them to be curious. And I’ll always encourage them to be very certain on why you do something. Do it because you derive enjoyment out of it, not because you’re seeking some full accolade, and don’t not do it.

So, yea, I don’t know they may be a bit young for me to espouse my philosophical meanderings. And really, I’m not there to project my journey. If anything, I’m there just as a guide. I’m there as counsel if they ever need to ask me something. But I’m never going to go, hey, that’s how you’ve got to live your life.

I can certainly say this is how I lived my life, and if there’s something in that resonates with you, cool. If not, I encourage you to go on your own journey, and you can only go on your own journey.

The only thing that I’ll ever encourage anyone to do is to be curious because that is what will spark your personal journey. What that means, what that entails, I don’t know. And what you learn or glean from that, I also don’t know. But I can say that that’s the spark that will certainly make you life a lot more colorful.

PvZ: Yea, curiosity, and an Internet connection.

KM: Yea, and an Internet connection, definitely.

Kahn’s Continuous Education

PvZ: So moving onto something a little bit different. You’re currently pursuing an MBA, is that correct? What led you to make that decision at this stage in your life?

KM: Well, so it was all kind of serendipitous because, at the beginning of last year, I’m always reading these books on business or marketing or this or that. Or I’m going on YouTube to try and figure out how to do something, and then often that’s the long way around. You learn it, you pick it up and you glean it. But they are, I guess, refined or honed courses that will steer you in the right direction and I’ll get a certificate out of it.

So I was like, I want to kind of go down that route. And then I got a phone call from Henley Business School, from the dean, whom I’d met sort of four or five years ago, and we kept in sporadic contact. And he phoned me up and said, would you be interested in doing one of our courses? And I’m like, hey, this is serendipitous, I was about to take on some courses.

I was going to do little six-week things, and see where I arrived at, and I ended up doing this MBA. So I’m maybe just past halfway and it’s going well. So, yes, I decided to do an MBA and I do believe that I’ll be a musician for as long as I have air in my lungs. But at some stage, I’d like to try something different. Bring, I guess, my creative mindset into a more corporate space, just for a while.

PvZ: Okay, and obviously, the industry is just so much bigger in places like the US. Do you have any sort of long-term visions outside of South Africa? Or are your roots so deeply rooted here that you see a future here?

KM: No, no, look, these days it’s hard to see a future anywhere, but I’m never with 100% affirmation going to say that my life is forever in South Africa, or that my life is forever elsewhere. I do know that I do want to, on a personal level, adventure. I do want to experience other countries and other cultures at some stage in my life. Not because of any negative sentiments attached to here, or positive sentiments attached to elsewhere.

Whether it’s music that takes me there or not, that doesn’t matter. But I certainly will at some stage in my life, spend at least 5 or 10 years in other zip codes. That just goes back to that thing of being curious and music will always be there. And I’ll always create albums and I’ll always perform live and tour. It just might take different shapes.

So your question was more do I see pursuing another territory? We always have.  We’ve never stopped trying to pursue other territories. We still have audiences in different parts of the world. This year was a little bit of a curveball because touring, as we know, it got cancelled.

But we would have been in Europe and the UK round about now. But that obviously got shifted, with no clear indication of when it will reemerge. But, yes, we’re always harboring it. And I always say, from the minute you pick up a guitar and you’re strumming in your bedroom and you form a band. As much as you’re aware that it’s a hobby and that it’s a delusion of grandeur, you do still harbor in the back of your mind, aspirations of being some sort of global band and having a long, illustrious career. And that will always be there.

But I’m also acutely aware that it’s a very small, small percentage that actually get to realise that dream. But in saying that, we’ve realised so many dreams on the journey already that we never believed would transpire. So we are very grateful and very fortunate and still carry on.

PvZ: So obviously, 2020 has been a challenging year, needless to say. But what are some of the challenges that you’ve had to overcome? And how did you, for example, use technology to overcome those challenges in 2020 specifically?

KM: Yea, so, I mean, it’s almost ironic that music had a massive disruption over a decade ago because of technology. And it’s almost like our whole consumption of music went from this physical realm of CDs, first cassettes, then CDs, to this digital space. And our revenue stream was predominantly, almost 90%, was the communal physical realm, which was live, playing live. And then that obviously got completely disrupted with COVID. So we had to kind of hustle, and obviously, our revenue stream got completely throttled.

But we had to say, well, how can we, as best as possible, recreate that shared communal live experience with our audience? And so we put on a few digital shows. It wasn’t the same, it’s never going to be the same. I mean, I think we are social creatures.

And, as much as those things were cool, and it was cool to embrace technology, I don’t believe personally that it replicates the atmosphere. You can’t inject atmosphere through a laptop. I guess in many ways it’s why people gravitate towards the busy bar, rather than the empty dive down the road. It’s because of atmosphere; it’s this intangible elixir.

So it certainly helped us keep in contact and helped us perform, and helped us earn some revenue during that time. Certainly, the connectedness with our fan base was maintained, but it was not replicated. Maybe VR will do it one day and they’ll inject pipes into your roof that can spray atmosphere in. I don’t know, I don’t know what the future holds, but for now, it’s not the same.

PvZ: I mean, some of the things the guys are doing through Fortnite in and of itself is quite impressive.

KM: No, no, sure, and in many, many ways-

PvZ: But as you said, it’s not the same.

KM: And for me, it’s not the same, and remember, that’s what I alluded to earlier. I do these things because it’s my version of events that I enjoy. There certainly were people that were probably going at home saying, shit, I don’t have to queue for the bar; I don’t have to queue for a toilet. My alcohol’s a lot cheaper, and I get to sit on my couch and watch my favourite band while eating some popcorn in my gown. So there are different people out there that dig different things. I’m just saying, I didn’t feel the vibe, to be honest.

How Kahn Navigates The Work-Life Balance

PvZ: So, again, obviously with a focus on your family, you’ve got three sons. You’re still very involved in the music industry, and obviously, it’s a very demanding career path that you’ve taken, specifically with the level of fame that you’ve reached. How do you balance it all, family life and work-life?

KM: I must admit, last year and the year before, when you are very busy touring, it was more difficult, but this year it was far easier. So there are some upsides to COVID. The quantity, certainly, and the quality of time that I got to spend with my kids, was the best it’s been because of that. We were forced to be at home and in each other’s company and I think that it was very enriching.

But I guess at some stage, life will have to continue. How do I balance it? I think it’s being conscious or aware that life needs balance. So it’s important to say no to certain things, to not tour excessively, and to certainly make time for your family. Diarise it, otherwise, the year can easily run away from you.

And certainly, in our earlier years of our career, we just said, yes, yes, yes, we’ll play there, everywhere. But now I guess we’re a little more selective and we got a little bit better at saying no.

The Future of The Parletones

PvZ: Yea, obviously, you need to be. So the band’s been together for a long time. I assume, as time goes on, it becomes more and more challenging to keep the band together. What does the future look like for yourself and for The Parlotones?

KM: Yea, it’s all good, we’re busy. I’m actually in a studio at the moment, we’re busy recording a new album, which we will start announcing, the marketing hullabaloo, sometime in November. We’re doing a photoshoot and music video next week and the week after. So I can’t tell you what it is yet, but you’ll soon see or hear.

So we took the decision to create a new album while lockdown was happening to be constructive, so that’s the immediate plan. Obviously, we hope that at some stage touring opens up properly and feasibly, because that’s the thing. I mean, 50 people isn’t feasible. And not being able to tour properly globally, also doesn’t help us, and so we hope. Although we don’t know, second waves are coming and blah, blah, blah. But regardless of where our life journeys go, I think The Parlotones will always exist.

PvZ: Yeah, great, I think your fans need that.

KM: [laugh]

PvZ: It’s a great representation of South African music. So, yea, I think it makes anybody proud when they see a local South African band perform on an international level.

So another question for you, and, we’ll wrap up with the next three questions. But for anybody that is pursuing a career in music. If you could look back and give 15 or 16-year-old Kahn a bit of advice, what would that advice be?

KM: I think the first bit of advice is something I said earlier – remember why you do it. You do it because you love music and you get lost in music. It’s not the pursuit of fame, fortune, accolades. And certainly don’t not do it because you fear some sort of rejection.

And then I do believe theoretical application and lessons and being taught, can speed up the process. But also remember that there is an innate quality to music. Music came before the theory. People made music, created music, and then people tried to pick it apart and analyse it.

So it’s the marriage between what’s instinctive, plus the knowledge of it. The knowledge of it will speed it up. I certainly didn’t do enough of that, to be honest. And, depends what you want to do, but I would say the guitar and piano and instruments, they’re all there to support your creativity, so don’t get bogged down too much on the theory. The theory is also there to support your creativity.

There’s a jazz trumpeter that summed it up the best. And he said when it comes to music, we first assimilate as much as we can. We then imitate, and then we innovate. And forget about everything I said, just do that. Assimilate, imitate, innovate!

Kahn’s Musical Education Journey

PvZ: In terms of your music, where did you learn music? Was it all something that you self-studied, or did you actually have instructors and have classes and things of that nature?

KM: It was mostly self-study, but along the way, I had some guitar lessons. And then, obviously, when I was doing theatre and drama and stuff, there would be a vocal coach going, la, la, la, la, la, and you would pick things up from there.

I’d say most of it was through doing. No one ever really taught me how to write songs. And that was the primary reason I learned how to sing and how to play an instrument, is because I liked the creative process. And that’s often why I never really got bogged down in theory, because I’d start learning five minutes of theory and then I’d be like, oh, that’s a pretty sounding chord. Let me write a song with this new chord.

Or, ah, there’s a nice little lick, let me change it round and write my own song. So that was my journey, but everyone’s journey will be different. And some people feel more comfortable with the whole kitchen sink of theory. Then they feel like, cool, I’m armed with all the tools to perform adequately.

I guess in many regards I was learning on the job! Still am, actually, and I think that’s important. I think you’ll never master an instrument; you’ll never master songwriting. I think some very few people get that close to doing it, but as long as you still have the desire to want to learn more about it, then it can still be exciting.

PvZ: Is there a connection between something like mathematics, for example, and knowing how to play music? Or at least, in terms of playing a good instrument?

KM: Yea, 100%, definitely. There’s even a genre called math-rock almost. But definitely, so put it this way, they both have a theoretical application. But they both provide a foundation to come up with creative solutions to a problem. So you can’t say music’s a problem, but you’re trying to solve something. You’re trying to say, okay, how can I write a song that’s going to make people happy, and make them dance?

And then you apply the theoretical application of chordal harmonies, rhythmic patterns that will solve that problem of trying to make people happy and dance.

Maths is very similar. You have this foundation of logic and rational thought, and that’s just the foundation. But then, because the foundation’s strong, you can then come up with creative solutions to problems. Like why is the sky blue? Or how do I build this bridge without it collapsing, because it’s three kilometers long? I don’t know.

I think that they’re very similar in that regard, they probably trigger very similar patterns in your brain. And I think that is life. Life is just a series of hurdles, a series of problems. Some of them are grandiose, some of them are small. And the more tools you have to tap into; you don’t always use all of them. Sometimes it’s just a G chord that will solve my creative problem when it comes to songwriting.

And I don’t know what it is in maths, but knowing how to tap into that as quickly as possible, to come up with a creative solution to what life may present you at the time. Yea, so I think maths is a hell of an important foundation, but so is linguistics.

PvZ: Yes, the communication.

KM: Because I can tap into all those tools, but if I can’t effectively communicate the essence of what I’m trying to achieve, then it also falls flat. So numeracy and literacy are the foundation of it all.

PvZ: Yea, it seems far more complex than what one would actually assume. It’s not a simple question of left brain, right brain, creativity versus problem-solving and analytics, it’s really a combination of both, which is fascinating.

So if you had to look back at yourself in 10 years’ time, what would you be doing too much of right now, and what are you doing too little of?

KM: I may be trying to do too much late learning, I guess, like juggling an MBA. I’m still learning piano and guitar, I’m still down that journey and creating albums. And I’m also doing another course in digital marketing. Same story – I kind of thought I might as well get a certificate that shortcuts my journey in the social media space, which is very imperative with what we do.

So I’m juggling a lot of balls at once and maybe I’m not focused enough, but I’ve never really been completely focused in one interest. I often have half-read books, some are fiction, some are nonfiction. I eventually do finish them all. And it’s probably not the right way to learn, because I guess it’s very hard to just compartmentalize everything that you’re learning at once.

But yea, I don’t know, I’m probably doing too much of that; I always have done too much of that instead of just zoning in. Yea, it’s too late to put that rabbit back in the hat, but maybe I will after I’ve completed these two diplomas, degrees, whatever.

Kahn’s Personal Views on Education

PvZ: Then just to round things off I’ve got one question that we ask all the guests and you can take your time answering it. But that is, what do you believe about the education system, or about education in general, that most people may disagree with?

KM: What I believe about it? Yea, it’s … I do believe that we do need to be introduced to all of it in some regard. A 100% goes back to what I said earlier about numeracy and literacy – they are the foundation. If you’re able to grasp language, it means you can learn anything, because that is the foundation. And obviously, if you understand numbers that can also take you into another world, and, I guess, they shape the brain. They are the seedlings of curiosity!

So, I think where we’ve fallen short, and I can certainly say where it fell short in my life, is that it’s often not presented in a sexy way. And I don’t know if they’ll ever get that right, but if it was made more alluring …

And I don’t know, I also don’t know, because then again, it’s not like anyone ever made music alluring to me, and I still chose to go down that journey. In fact, most people in society dissuade it. Like, there’s no ways you can make a career; there’s no ways you can make money. You guys suck. And regardless of that I still went down that journey. So then part of me goes, well, chuck a whole bunch of shit at some kids. They’ll naturally gravitate to what resonates with them.

But I would say with education, if those seedlings if we can make those seedlings a little sexier and more attractive, so maths and numeracy. Then at least the foundation’s there. Then you can say, all right, be free and enjoy your life.

Because it is pretty magical. All this shit that just the human brain has created, is phenomenal. But it starts there – those are the seedlings. So we could just, psst! It would be great if we could just inject it and say, all right, now, there we go. Do your thing!

PvZ: No, that’s great. And look, I’ve had a real pleasure talking to you, and thank you so much for your time. I think just for those that are listening, that want to find out a little bit more about what you’re up to at the moment, and what The Parlotones are doing, where can they find you? And maybe just say a little bit more about what it is you guys are currently doing?

KM: Yea, so, whatever your social media platform is, I guess that’s how most people discover the world these days, whether it’s YouTube or Google or Facebook and blah, blah, blah. It’s The Parlotones, or if you personally want to follow me, it’s Kahn Morbee, K-H-A-N M-O-R-B-E-E. And we’re at two albums, creating learning, and staying curious.

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