Moby: ‘When I was looking for singers for this album, I wasn’t looking for people who would be singing soap commercials’

In an airy white-walled room bathed in Californian sunshine, Moby is discussing his new album, Reprise, with a virtual roomful of journalists.

Moby. Picture: Travis Schneider

We are gathered online via Zoom for a listening party that also includes amiable contributions from the singer Gregory Porter, who features alongside Amythyst Kiah in a powerful re-reading on the record of Moby’s best-known song, Natural Blues.

Fifty-five-year-old Moby – real name Richard Melville Hall – explains the idea to revisit a cluster of old songs in a classical setting formed four years ago, when, after a concert with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, he was approached by a representative from Deutsche Grammophon asking if he would like to make “an orchestral, for lack of a better term, greatest hits album”.

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“I immediately said yes for so many different reasons,” he says. “For one, I’d never made an album with an orchestra and I thought it would be such a fascinating approach to making a record because normally when I’m making music I’m by myself in my little studio. Working on an orchestral album by definition involves a lot of people.

“I guess more relevant, perhaps, was simply my desire to avail myself of the unique ability that orchestral and acoustic music has to communicate emotion. I love the way electronic instruments communicate emotion but there’s something so special and organic in the way that you can create emotion with an orchestra, with a string quartet, with a gospel choir, so that really is the ultimate inspiration, just to revisit these songs – in many cases, like with Gregory and Amythyst Kiah, with singers as opposed to samples – and to expand upon the original emotional quality of all of them.”

Moby is self-deprecating about his own ability as a singer, saying as a teenager he aspired to sound like David Bowie but his earliest bands merely required him to “yell punk rock songs” or impersonate Ian Curtis. “I didn’t have a huge, beautiful voice,” he says, “so in the late 80s, when I started making music under my own name I realised that to have beautiful voices on my records I had to work with beautiful voices.”

On his 12 million-selling album Play, that involved sampling archive recordings by the likes of Vera Hall and Bill Landford. When it came to revisiting the songs for this project, Moby made a list of ideal singers for each song. Among those he eventually landed were Kris Kristofferson, Mark Lanegan, Jim James of My Morning Jacket and gospel singer Dietrick Haddon.

“I wasn’t looking for perfection,” he says. “It’s wonderful when people are talented but the best case scenario is when you have great technical ability attached to that ineffable sense of beauty and character. I would say Gregory’s vocals are a perfect example of that – he has phenomenal technical ability but his vocals are anything but generic, they’re emotional and resonant and they’re so reflective of him as a person.

Moby. Picture: Travis Schneider

“So when I was looking for singers for this album, I wasn’t looking for people who would be singing soap commercials...I was looking for voices that had that emotional resonance and personality.”

Moby made Reprise in one of his favourite studios, Studio Three at EastWest in Hollywood. “It’s like a time capsule from the 50s,” he says. “Everybody has worked there. Brian Wilson made Pet Sounds there, Lou Adler recorded The Mamas and The Papas there, Frank Sinatra used to work there – in fact they still have Frank Sinatra’s grand piano in the studio and you almost feel like it should be a Spinal Tap moment. You almost expect someone to say, ‘Don’t even look at it’, you’re certainly not allowed to play it.

“The mixing desk they have was the one they used to mix David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. So that’s where we recorded my parts, which were guitar, bass, electric piano, piano and percussion, then we recorded the drums and a string quartet. There was something about sitting in this control room, which is unchanged from the 60s, with a phenomenal string quartet recording through valve microphones, it was so rich and special. The song that features that most on the album is called The Great Escape because it really is more about the string quartet than the orchestra.”

Orchestral parts were recorded separately in Hungary, with Moby listening remotely. “I can do arrangements but I’m not a conductor,” he explains, adding: “One of the most challenging aspects of the recording was the gospel choir because everything we’d done before this point was right before the pandemic. What I did was invite each member of the choir to my studio, I set up a microphone outside and everybody recorded with phenomenal safety and social distancing. If you listen really closely you might hear a car horn or some birds chirping when the choir is singing.”

The lone cover version on the album features Mindy Jones singing David Bowie’s song ‘Heroes’. Moby says he included as a tribute to his greatest musical hero, who he knew as friend and neighbour in New York.

“My favourite musician of all-time is David Bowie,” he says. “The first job I ever had I carried golf clubs as a caddy just long enough to buy some David Bowie records when I was 13. Then in 1999 we became friends and he and Iman actually moved to an apartment across the street form me in the Lower East Side in Manhattan. We were friends, we were neighbours, we went on tour together, we had holidays together and we had this one phenomenal morning where he came to my apartment and we sat on this green mid-century sofa and we played an acoustic version of ‘Heroes’. It was just the two of us on a beautiful Saturday morning, drinking coffee, playing ‘Heroes’ and I still can’t believe that that happened, that I was able to play the greatest song ever written with the greatest musician of all-time.

“The version of ‘Heroes’ that’s on Reprise is a testament to the song, a testament to David Bowie, a testament to my friendship with him, but it’s also supposed to be an emotional homage to this moment of sitting on my couch playing ‘Heroes’ with David Bowie.”

Reprise is out on Friday May 28. moby.com