Moby's Home Made Heaven

How one man, alone in his apartment, created a computer-generated nirvana

Moby in his home studio. Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

The room is a twelve-by-twelve-foot zone of peace and efficiency, more like a Zen phone booth, in size and vibe, than a recording studio. The decor is all white walls and glassed-in cabinets, with a single door and a skylight overhead. An orchestra's worth of electronic keyboards sits on pull-out shelves behind the glass. A nook in one wall holds a row of twelve-inch LPs, a library of samples within arm's reach. A table eats up precious floor space; on it, a small mixing desk is connected to three large Macintosh computer monitors.

It is here that Moby makes music. The thirty-six-year-old one-man band wrote, played, programmed and mixed his 1999 technopop hit Play — 10 million sold worldwide — in this cubicle between the front door and the petite living space of his lower-Manhattan loft. He made the magnificent new 18 at home as well. And it was here that Moby found sense and solace in the days after September 11th, as the National Guard patrolled his neighborhood and the acrid smell from Ground Zero pressed against the sealing tape on his door.

In a way, Moby — who was actually born on September 11th, 1965 — just wanted to be with friends. "I know it sounds odd, but I don't see myself being alone with inanimate pieces of plastic," he says, plugging an electric guitar into the console and playing the watery lick from "Harbour," a harrowing portrait of a city in ruins, sung on 18 by Sinead O'Connor. "These things feel lifelike to me. There was one three-year period where I never turned anything off — it seemed pretty happy being left on.

"But because I was stuck here, I worked a lot," Moby says. "Being in my studio was a way of creating my own microcosm of decency and civility — feeling like, yes, the world could end tomorrow, but I'd rather be witness to the end while working on music."

18 is born of the same spirit. In bump and texture, the album reprises Play's addictive fusion of creamy electronica and raw, sampled blues and gospel voices. The sweet heaven in the 18 ballads "In My Heart" and "I'm Not Worried" comes from vintage vinyl by New Jersey's Shining Light Gospel Choir. Moby bases his dirty blues "Another Woman" on "I'm a Good Woman," by the great R&B singer-guitarist Barbara Lynn. In the hip-hop party favor "Jam for the Ladies," Moby mixes shout-outs from the 1996 single "Wherever You Are," by Mic Geronimo, with original diva fire from Angie Stone and MC Lyte.

But there is a powerful narrative pull to 18, through devastation and despair to stoic optimism. Songs such as "We Are All Made of Stars," crooned by Moby with Gothic gravity, and the cathartic lullaby "At Least We Tried," sung by Freedom Bremner, reflect New York's current state of wounded grace — remarkably so, as Moby recorded virtually all of 18 before the terrorist attacks. He reworked one song, "Sleep Alone," after finding some lyrics too prescient for comfort. ("Pieces of fire touch your hair" became "Pieces of light....") And "Harbour" is one of Moby's oldest songs; he wrote it at nineteen, in 1984, during a broiling New York summer made worse by crack and street crime.

O'Connor is stunned to hear that. She says that when she cut her haunting vocal in London just before Christmas, she assumed "Harbour" was based on current events: "I was struck by the references to kids in the street fighting. It reminded me of what had been happening in America since September, and indeed before that, with children shooting and killing each other." O'Connor admits that she did her recording in London because she was afraid to fly to New York.

"I would have made a very similar record if 9/11 had never happened," Moby claims, bouncing with nervous energy in a chair out in the sitting and eating sector of his loft. He speaks in a soft, even tone, but with urgent velocity. "The human condition didn't change that day. What changed was how our most personal intimate emotions were brought to the surface, on a collective level, at such magnitude."

Something else is different, too: Moby's reason for making records. "I grew up with the idea that good music was never successful," he says. His favorite examples as a teenager, an only child living with his widowed mother in Connecticut: the Cure, Public Image Ltd., Joy Division. When Moby graduated from Darien High School in 1983, he quoted a lyric from Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" in his yearbook entry. "When you listen to marginal stuff," he says, "you aspire to be marginal."

Moby now regrets the confrontational temper of his early records: the bipolar swings from jubilant house to glacial techno on 1995's Everything Is Wrong; the harsh guitar punk on 1997's Animal Rights. "Play and 18," Moby declares, "are motivated by the same thing: the desire to make compassionate records that meet a need in someone else's life. But I have records that I love, that come into my life and give me great joy and satisfaction. I want to make records like that."

Moby was born Richard Melville Hall in Harlem, where his parents, James and Elizabeth, lived in a basement apartment with a menagerie of pets, including three laboratory rats. They nicknamed their son in honor of Herman Melville, his great-great-great-uncle and the author of Moby Dick. When James, a graduate student at Columbia University, died in a car crash in 1967, Elizabeth moved with two-year-old Moby to Connecticut. It was there, not Harlem, that Moby discovered the transformative might of black church song.

He was living on his own in the late 1980s, in an abandoned factory in a crack-ravaged area of Stamford. "But there were a lot of storefront churches," Moby says, "in the crappiest buildings with these hand-painted signs. I would wake up on a Sunday morning, walk through my neighborhood and hear these amazing choirs. I was too afraid to go in. But I would spend a long time outside, listening." (Around then, Moby, a former philosophy student at the University of Connecticut — he dropped out after a year — became a devout Christian. Or as he puts it, "a militant Christian dance-music enthusiast.")

Moby's own singing is low, dark and grainy. When he was ten, he auditioned for the school choir; he was one of four kids who didn't pass. "I've always wondered what it would be like to just open your mouth and affect people in such a powerful way," he says. "Singing is the only nonartificial way of making music. Everything else involves some kind of device, even if you're just banging on wood. To express yourself in a profound way, not employing anything other than yourself — I can't imagine that."

His records are as close as one man with a bleak, flat voice can get to that kind of nirvana. The key hook in "Go" — Moby's first major dance hit, released in 1991 and made for peanuts in the label owner's living room — was a long, simple "yeah," sung by a woman in a Holy Roller moan. To this day, the voices on Moby's albums are nearly all female; the exceptions are usually high tenors. "Dance music is all about beauty and utility," he explains. "And on a primordial level, the first sound anyone hears when they're born is a woman screaming. It's imprinted on all of us."

Moby's image as an electronica star — tapping keyboards, cribbing from old wax — is unfair. On 18, the songs with new vocals outnumber those built from samples. Moby plays live instruments all over his albums, too. He somehow fits real drums in that tiny studio, and he is an accomplished guitarist. Moby took classical lessons when he was ten. His teacher, however, was a heavy-metal and progressive-rock fan. Moby learned little Bach or Segovia. But "I can play 'Roundabout' by Yes perfectly," he boasts, picking up an acoustic guitar and zipping through the song's knotty opening licks.

"My songs are quite conventional," Moby contends. "There is nothing on 18 that is particularly avant-garde. I'd rather make songs with a strong emotional quality than unconventional songs that appeal to me intellectually."

He was not always so sure of himself. In March 1999, he sat down in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, a long, thin stretch of green on New York's Lower East Side, and came to the conclusion that he'd blown it in the music business. He had mixed and sequenced Play; the album would be released that May. "I was sitting by the little tire swings that had been chewed apart by the pit bulls," he says, "thinking to myself, 'When this record comes out, it will be the end of my career. I should start thinking about what else I can do.'" By the time he stood up, he had a plan: "I wanted to go back to school and become an architect."

Play went on to become Moby's biggest album. He makes no such prophecies about the future of 18. Instead, he describes a revelation from 1997 while driving to a show in Portland, Oregon: "The place held 800 people. I was talking to my manager on the phone, and she said, 'We're a little concerned, because we've only sold 400 tickets.' My first reaction was, 'Oh, no, what does that reflect about me?' Then I thought, 'Those are 400 people going out of their way to come and listen to music I've made.'"

Moby smiles. "That's something to be celebrated, not concerned about."