“To be clear, there’s almost no commercial incentive for me to do this,” says Moby, breaking into a chuckle.
The Grammy-nominated electronic musician is 57 years old, his well-cropped beard more white than gray and his head as bald as it was in 1999 when his breakthrough album Play made him an MTV mainstay.
A “vegan” neck tattoo peeks out from his gray hooded sweatshirt, which stands out just enough from his white wall and beige window curtain as we talk via Zoom, but his minimalist approach to decor stands in contrast to his penchant for intellectual verbosity and philosophical musings.
“At the risk of sounding melodramatic, one of my goals in life is to never go on tour again as long as I live,” he says. “It’s not like I’ve rerecorded these in the interest of promoting an upcoming tour. Also, in the spirit of honesty and full disclosure, it probably costs more to make these orchestral records with tons of guests and fancy orchestras than will ever be generated in revenue. So it’s purely… and maybe I even feel a little guilty about this because it seems quite selfish… it’s just a labor of love.”
That labor is materialized in Resound NYC, an ambitious album on which Moby recreates 15 of his biggest hits and personal favorites with orchestral accompaniment and a powerful cast of vocalists. Grammy-winning jazz singer Gregory Porter, Lady Blackbird, The Temper Trap’s Doug Mandagi and Pussycat Dolls lead singer Nicole Scherzinger all make appearances on a tracklist that includes “Extreme Ways,” “South Side,” “In This World,” “When It’s Cold I’d Like to Die” and more.
It follows in the footsteps of 2021’s Reprise, which was also released on the 125-year-old classical music label, Deutsche Grammophon. Yet Resound NYC feels bigger and bolder, focusing specifically on songs written and released during Moby’s time living in New York City, a period encompassing 1994 to 2010.
“One thing that New York really taught me is how wonderful and exciting juxtaposition can be when it shouldn’t exist,” Moby says. “The fact that New York is a filthy, dirty, hard place that’s also beautiful and can be very elegant and poignant. Especially in the ‘70s and ‘80, walking down the street and hearing hip-hop juxtaposed with someone playing classical cello, juxtaposed with salsa, juxtaposed with Arabic music. I think that encoded itself into my DNA to make me think culture should not be siloed. Culture should be a melting pot. It should be this weird, unexpected surprise that if [the parts] were a little bit off wouldn’t work.”
Resound NYC embodies that mix of sonic flavors, bringing new depth and grandeur to beloved fan favorites, offering fresh and welcomed dimensions to familiar melodies. The album opens with the hopeful tinkering of a piano on “In My Heart” and immediately explodes into a wall of sound that ebbs and swells with furious passion until the final notes of closing track “Walk With Me.”
Moby’s career-spanning examinations of hope and sadness, mortality and exultation, feel richer and more alive as his palette of blues, jazz, funk, rock and gospel are recreated by a sonic army, each song hitting new dramatic heights to elicit tears or dance freakouts, or both.
“When I was really young, like nine years old, I studied music theory, classical music and jazz, and I didn’t love it, because it was more technical and academic than it was emotional,” Moby says. “Oftentimes the most powerful emotional expression can be the most rudimentary. You think of blues or punk rock. Think of Neil Young; very simple music that’s very emotional. I try to take that ethos, that spirit of almost reductive emotional simplicity and apply that to an orchestra — even though an orchestra by definition is complicated.”
“Simple” seems a strange word to describe Resound NYC’s expansive and maximalist layers of sound, but sit with each instrument’s part, and you’ll hear how a series of long-held notes and straightforward rhythms build one piece at a time to create moments of eruption and release.
“I find myself really resenting art and music that doesn’t have that generosity of spirit,” Moby says, “meaning the willingness to try and reach the audience, whether it’s one person or a lot of people, in a way that potentially — presumptuously — might be rewarding for them. A lot of musicians, sadly, are very afraid of emotion, like the pursuit of cool is more important than the pursuit of beauty or the pursuit of emotion. I, embarrassingly, would much rather ignore the pursuit of cool and simply try to create beauty in so far as I can.”
Moby no longer lives in New York. He moved to Los Angeles in 2010, a few years after putting himself through rehab to kick increasingly problematic addictions to alcohol and drugs. Fans who’ve read his autobiographies Porcelain and Then It Fell Apart know how dark and uncomfortable his struggles became. In the latter especially, the producer writes in detail about sloppy and desperate nights spent chasing fame, glamour, ego and sex before finally succumbing to depression and even a 2008 suicide attempt.
Just as with writing those books, the task of transcribing, recomposing and rerecording some of his seminal works from that time has been a strange mirror.
“It’s like being reintroduced to yourself, but you’re sort of a stranger,” he says. “I was a mess, and sometimes it was a fun, dramatic mess. Other times it was just an embarrassing mess. There’s a temptation to be dismissive and say ‘I was just young and stupid,’ but that was still me. I was that awkward person making bad choices and having bad priorities. To lead a full integrated life, sadly, you have to be willing to look at that Jungian shadow self. I always thought the Jungian shadow self was your cool, violent, sexy, dark, goth self. But I’ve come to realize mine is just awkward, uncomfortable and probably talks too fast.”
Living in L.A. has given the artist a chance to refresh his own lifestyle and perspective. It’s also given him a front-row seat to the cartoonish attempts its citizens make to grasp ageless glamour, “from face-tuning to vampire facials.”
“I’ve been having this conversation a lot because of the rise of A.I., but there is a psychological, philosophical, existential aspect to [the] many ways in which humans feel they can technically improve upon themselves,” he says. “It’s so much more interesting when people accept their humanity, accept aging, the vulnerability [and] frailty. True strength, as far as I’m concerned, is both accepting the entropy that comes along with the human condition and being willing to be seen in that vulnerable, human state. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there, but one of my goals is to push myself to try and express that, either on my own or working with other people.”
He speaks at length about his love of the human voice for this very reason. It’s the instrument that best reveals the nuanced levels of emotional complexity.
“It’s almost comical the number of singers I’ve worked with and the weird diversity,” he says, “everybody from David Bowie to Ozzy Osborne to Britney Spears. I can’t even begin to think of the hundreds if not possibly thousands of singers I’ve worked with, all in pursuit of that vocal beauty and power. When it works, it’s remarkable. When it doesn’t, it’s incredibly frustrating.”
One of his favorite tricks? Recording a singer’s first few practice takes under the auspices that he’ll “do the real passes later,” knowing he’ll most likely get a more vulnerable performance when the singer thinks they’re not in the hot seat. Technical perfection is so rarely the harbinger of emotion. Like Moby says, “Would you rather listen to a 19-year-old pop singer with perfect pitch who’s been autotuned within an inch of their life? Or Leonard Cohen singing ‘Hallelujah?’”
No such ruses were needed to capture the soulful vocals on Resound NYC’s version of “Run On.” One of the barest and most stripped-down tracks on the LP, the tune originally started with a big brass section, live drums, percussion, a quintet, electric guitar, bass and piano.
“I had this big version of the song done, and [singer] Danielle Ponder was visiting her dad, who’s 89 years old and very ill, in his hospital bed,” Moby says. “He remembered singing this song when he was a little boy, so she held her iPhone up to him while he sang it. She sent me the recording, and I threw away everything I had done for that song and rewrote it around his vocal. Then she came in and did a duet with her dad’s hospital bed iPhone recording.
“In terms of authenticity? Dear God,” Moby continues. “I could listen to just an isolated acappella of him singing that song. It’s so special.”
When he isn’t seeking to expose the gooiest parts of humanity on record, Moby’s been keeping busy recording his Moby Pod podcast and launching a film and TV production company called Little Walnut.
The team recently released Punk Rock Vegan Movie, a full-length documentary that explores the little-discussed connection between the rise of plant-based lifestyles and the hardcore scenes of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Moby narrated, directed and soundtracked the effort, which includes on-camera chats with members of Bad Brains, the Misfits, Crass, Fugazi, The Damned, The Germs and many more. (Punk Rock Vegan Movie is available to watch on YouTube.)
“As time has passed, I’ve come to realize that my day job is actually animal rights activism,” Moby says. “That’s my primary purpose, and part of that was making this movie and giving it away for free. I wanted to try and do my little part to remind people that principles are good, and compromising principles is generally a bad idea… This algorithm accommodating culture that we live in it, it’s making my brain hurt. Who on their deathbed wants to remember, ‘Oh, I did a mildly effective job accommodating algorithms invented by someone in China.’ That’s not a good life.”
The decision to retire from touring is part of his own eternal search for that philosophical “good life.” The whole idea of moving from plane to green room to stage to hotel over and over again feels “unhealthy” and “uncomfortable.” Instead, he’s content to sit in his studio “which looks a lot like a monastic cell,” transcribing his life’s work into orchestral movements, recording podcasts, writing activist documentaries and just generally being.
“I really love sleeping in my bedroom here with the windows open, waking up, having a smoothie and going for a hike,” he says. “It doesn’t pay well, and there’s no ego gratification there, but it just feels so much healthier and nicer than waking up on a tour bus in a parking lot somewhere, sitting backstage waiting for some ego validation. I am thrilled that I finally ended up in a banal place, that I’m very happy.”