Moby just released his 17th album, All Visible Objects, on May 15, but he’s sanguine as he contemplates how fans and critics may react to it. “You can’t worry too much about the opinions of people you’ll never meet,” he says, calling from his home in Los Angeles. “Your sense of self and your well-being should be informed by your friends, your family, your work, your health, your spirituality, your creativity.”
Moby’s unconventional musical career proves how he has resisted conforming to expectations. “In the ‘90s, people generally thought I was just an electronic musician – and then I made a punk rock record and alienated people. Then I was writing classical music and managed to alienate more people,” he says wryly. “I understand how confusing that can be. A musician has a much easier time if they only do one thing. But I guess that was just never my interest.
“I’ve been very unorthodox in my approach to genre. I’ve written classical music, I’ve written pop songs, I’ve written rock songs, I’ve written weird minimalist ambient music,” he continues. “The only criteria that I apply to making and releasing music is simply, how does it resonate with me emotionally? And to that end, I don’t really care how a song is written or what instruments it involves. I don’t even really care who’s singing it, whether it’s me or someone else.”
This variable songwriting approach meant that Moby veered between traditional and experimental processes as he created the material for All Visible Objects. “Sometimes it’s quite literally just me with an acoustic guitar and a piece of paper playing chords, writing lyrics, trying out vocal melodies. Or, in the most time-honored way of me sitting at a piano, singing. But the more electronic tracks were written by playing in my studio and coming up with different components and putting them together.”
One aspect has remained consistent across all of Moby’s musical output, however: his masterful use of guest vocalists. On All Visible Objects, the singers are Apollo Jane, Mindy Jones, Linton Kwesi Johnson, DH Peligro (of Dead Kennedys) and Boogie. Moby says he’s particularly pleased to bring back Apollo Jane and Mindy Jones for this album, as both have appeared on his songs in the past. “When I find people who have really phenomenal, versatile voices and are nice to work with, I do tend to work with them over and over again,” he says.
But, Moby cautions, it’s actually incredibly difficult to become one of his featured singers. “I would say that quite literally 95% of the collaborations I’ve done with people have never been released because they just weren’t right.” He reconsiders. “It might even closer to 99% of the collaborations I’ve done that have never been released. Sometimes that can be frustrating, both for me in my interest of trying to make music that I love, but also for the singers who often times will come into my studio, work hard, really make an effort – but if it’s not right, it’s not right.”
And sometimes, it turns out that nobody else is needed – many of Moby’s most noted tracks have been instrumentals. Or, he will simply take on the task himself, as he did on the song “One Last Time” from the new album: “It’s me singing in falsetto. The reason for that is, originally, I thought it was going to be sung by a woman, so the demo vocals I made were me singing in a falsetto to try and approximate a female voice. But then once I did that, I realized I actually liked my strange falsetto, and just used that.”
Moby says his adventurous and open-minded approach to his work likely came from the artists that influenced him early on in his life. “The musicians I grew up inspired by were very sonically and experimental,” he says, citing John Lennon, Joe Strummer of The Clash, and David Bowie as particular favorites.
He also remembers discovering at an early age that he didn’t want to be musically confined when it came to his own compositions, either. “I started playing guitar when I was 9 years old. When I was 12 or 13, I was already really frustrated with the guitar because it couldn’t do more. I was playing classical guitar, and classical guitar is great but it never sounds like a drum set or a synthesizer or a distorted guitar. That’s when I realized, as a musician, I want to use whatever sonic elements are available to me and not just be stuck with one limited form of expression.”
Of course, the downside to this type of musical exploration is that it sometimes simply doesn’t work out very well. “I’ve definitely made some music that’s not great. I’ve gone back and listened to some records I’ve made in the past, and there’s some songs I’ve written and recorded that really probably should never have been released,” Moby admits, though he adds that even this pitfall won’t stop him from creating. “I guess it’s earnest, authentic persistence. It’s that idea of, you just keep showing up with the understanding that you’re going to make mistakes, you’re going to do things that aren’t as good as they could be, but you just keep trying with the best intentions.”
This willingness to take risks circles back around to Moby’s core philosophy that artists should feel free to do whatever best serves the song. “The advice I’d give is, make music that you love and don’t arbitrarily deny yourself modes of expression. Meaning, I know some indie rockers who won’t use electronic elements. I know electronic musicians who won’t use acoustic elements. People who feel like they have to adhere to the rules of whatever genre they’ve identified with, and that is so arbitrary and limiting. The most interesting music is almost invariably [by] people who are willing to step outside of a genre and experiment and do different things.”
But, Moby says, he certainly recognizes that he’s in a fortunate position, compared to musicians who must take sales and chart success more into consideration than he does. “In some ways, I think I have this great luxury that I get to make music for the love of making music and not think about what happens to it commercially,” he says, though he’s quick to add, “I certainly don’t judge anyone who approaches things differently than I do.”
But for his part, Moby is happy to focus on his art, not business, as much as possible. “Having a career as a musician is fine, but that’s not the goal. The goal is simply trying to make music that I love…the relationship that I have with music and the ability to communicate through music. And if that results in a career, fine. But the career was always secondary.” (But, it must be noted, what a remarkable career it’s been: Moby has sold more than 20 million albums, been nominated for a Grammy, and is widely credited with popularizing dance/techno music in the 1990s.)
Ultimately, Moby says he aspires to “end up with something that resonates with me emotionally. I’m trying to create music that’s emotional and hopefully at times has a sense of beauty.” And while he believes he has done that on All Visible Objects and much of his previous work, he’s also ready to stick to his craft regardless of what anyone else thinks. “I would hope that even if tomorrow everybody in the world decided to never pay attention to any music I ever made, I would still keep making music.”
Photo credit: Jonathan Nesvadba