Even in a town as full of talent as Austin, the artist known as Mobley has found a way to stand out from the crowd.
Make that multiple ways.
Mobley isn’t just a talented singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. He’s a restless all-around creative who has channeled his technical and artistic skills into a one-man, perpetual-motion stage show, during which he’ll shift among an array of instruments while intricately timed, self-produced — and often self-triggered — sound samples, lighting cues, videos and graphic effects swirl around him.
Watching him onstage, the closest comparison that comes to mind is Prince (minus the outrageous moves and attire). And like Prince, Mobley doesn’t fit into a neat genre category. It’s been labeled “alt-,” but he notes his music is obviously pop-leaning. It’s definitely not hip-hop, though he’s been miscategorized as such by those who assume his skin color dictates his musical direction.
“The United States has a particularly pronounced problem of people hearing with their eyes,” Mobley observes. Indeed, racism forms a central theme of his latest single, “James Crow,” and his upcoming EP, Young & Dying in the Occident Supreme. Today, he’s premiering a live-performance video of the song, for which he’s also created a lyric video (in which he simultaneously plays multiple instruments) and the official music video, an elaborate, single-shot capture that combines a story arc and performance. He also did a behind-the-scenes making-of video for that one.
The EP, Mobley’s Last Gang Records label debut, will be released on Feb. 19, 2021. On Feb. 25, he’ll launch his Devil in a Daydream tour, an innovative virtual concept in which he’ll film nine performances in partnership with venues around the country, including legendary clubs such as New York’s Bowery Ballroom, Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club and L.A.’s Troubadour — places he would have played in non-pandemic times.
“Some of them are going to be conventional performances from the stage of a venue here in Austin,” he explains. “And then others will be these kind of sprawling, unconventional walking concerts, where I’m going to take a field recorder and a microphone and walk through the woods or go down and walk around Matagorda Bay [on Texas’ Gulf Coast] or something like that, and shoot that with a drone.”
He’s no amateur auteur, either; Mobley received a film studies certificate from Duke University while earning his linguistics degree from the University of North Carolina. An internship in Austin caused him to return after graduation; he worked in advertising, including commercials for several Fortune 100 accounts, before deciding to make music full time four years ago. (He also has the distinction of hearing his cover of the Beatles’ “I Wanna be Your Man” in a True Blood episode and soundtrack compilation.)
Tickets for the performances, live-streamed via Noonchorus, will be pay-what-you-want. Venues ideally will get a boost by keeping all tip-jar proceeds from subsequent streams. They’ll also receive a portion of ticket sales. The tour also will benefit the DAWA Fund, an Austin-based charity that helps people of color experiencing financial crises.
Mobley says he “accidentally” created most of the EP while in Thailand, where he and his tour manager/sound engineer, Brooke Fisher, had intended to take a monthlong break following an Australian tour.
“The family separations were really big in the news, and so a lot of the record was inspired by that directly — and by the refreshing experience of watching that stuff from outside of the United States and hearing it talked about in clear and frank, direct terms, with a lot of moral clarity, things that I think most decent people in the world just think are wrong.”
Freed from America’s tendency to examine even those issues as if both sides deserve equal weight was, he says, “really clarifying and liberating, and informed a lot of the tone of the record.”
The first single and video, “Nobody’s Favourite,” was released just before the Covid-19 shutdown, which thwarted plans to release the EP in April. So Mobley turned his attention to documenting a most unique moment in time with his A Home Unfamiliar benefit project, for which he tapped 30 musicians and filmmakers to create a visual album in 30 days, without any interaction between contributors. (They included Shakey Graves, Jackie Venson and Spoon’s Jim Eno, who mixed the EP’s two singles.)
Mobley released “James Crow” in September, along with the second of four videos conceived as a whole to accompany the EP. He “updated” Jim Crow with a new suit and business cards, but he’s still in the same business.
“I wanted to use that as a way of exploring the reality that racism, white supremacy, has a really deft way of adapting itself to whatever the new political reality of a moment is,” Mobley explains. He also dived into W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of double consciousness — the dichotomy between the way one views the world and the world’s view of that person as an “other,” i.e., a racial other. Wikipedia defines it as “the internal conflict experienced by subordinated or colonized groups in an oppressive society.”
“There’s a line that recurs about seeing the world through a dead man’s eyes and selling the world on a dead man’s lies,” he notes. “It’s lamenting the utility of that ability, and also urging us all to collectively kill off the dead man in our brains.”
Mobley says the song, which recalls Pharrell’s “Happy,” is rock-inspired, but also draws on the Motown sound, including the call-and-response chorus structure. That source affected the theme as well, he notes. “I watched this footage of these imminently talented black performers smiling and singing and dancing onstage. And then you see the audience, and it’s completely segregated.
“Then you think about all of the things that they were going through in the world at that time; it just gives the whole affair this creepy dystopian quality for me,” he reveals. “It permeates my experience of that music, and that’s what the song is about — the evolving, adaptive nature of racism and the need to kill off these bad old ideas that are so distorting the world.”
But he points out there’s nothing wrong with sending a message you can dance to.
“I’m very much interested in pop songwriting in the sense of making music that is accessible and appealing, while also challenging,” Mobley adds. “I’m always trying to balance that line of saying a thing loudly and clearly enough that it can be heard, but also saying it artfully enough that it can be understood.”