- Deborah Sengupta Stith American-Statesman Staff
A scream rips through the air and the crowd presses forward as Mobley hits the stage at Empire Garage shortly after midnight on a steamy Saturday in mid-July. For the past two years, the local soul pop artist has been touring nonstop, scorching stages around the country. With an uncanny knack for catchy, sing-along hooks, he creates irresistible earworms, well-crafted pop songs that instantly stick. His Spotify spins frequently top 100,000, and his immersive thrill ride of a live show is racking up looks from prominent national music media outlets.
Now, with appearances at Austin City Limits Music Festival and Utopia Fest looming large this fall, the hometown buzz is beginning to catch up.
His signature look is dapper: He sports a black suit coat and matching derby hat over a black and white striped T-shirt. The ensemble is accented by a jaunty red ascot. As he takes his place center stage, surrounded by a keyboard, a drum kit and a guitar — all instruments that he will command during his engrossing one-man show — a message flashes across the projection screen behind him:
“Fellow humans, we are about to engage in a strange ritual. The hour finds you here, of all the places there are. I would urge you to be here entirely. We’ll raise our voices and slap our hands. We’ll coax sound and light from wood and wire. And if we probe each note, each pulse and rhythm, we might just catch a moment of…”
The screen cuts to a shot of Earth, majestically floating in space.
“I think people, when they go to a show, they really want to be given an excuse to have a good time,” Mobley says when we meet for coffee the following week. “It’s an effort a lot of times. It’s an expense and, at least, to a certain degree, you’re putting yourself out there.”
He wrote the text the night before the Empire show to remind the audience to be present, to allow themselves to be caught up in the moment, to lose themselves to the music.
“I think it’s really important to remind people of people power … there’s a thing that can happen when you have 100 or 200 people in a room all kind of experiencing something really similar to each other in the same simultaneous moment,” he says
If the audience really “buys in” to the power of music, the magic of a group of people responding to the same rhythm and moving as one, he says, “you might feel something transcendent happen.”
It’s easy to be swept up in Mobley’s searing electro-soul throwdown. The songs are hot, his instrumental prowess — switching from guitar, to keys, to drums — is engrossing, and his stage presence is electrifying. Whether he’s playing to a crowd of 50 or 500, he conducts himself with the energy of an arena star, and he sells it 100 percent. You can feel the presence of thousands of unseen soon-to-be fans. You feel like you’re part of a movement.
The broad accessibility of his music is deliberate. First and foremost, he considers himself a pop songwriter. As the child of a Marine, he spent much of his childhood abroad with long stints in England and Spain. For a phase of his adolescence, his dream was to become a British pop star, specifically Chris Martin of Coldplay.
“I probably wouldn’t have falsetto if I hadn’t listened to ‘Parachutes’ 100 times,” he says with a laugh.
But don’t get it twisted. His tracks aren’t just empty ditties designed for mass consumption.
“I don’t just write songs if I don’t feel like there’s something relatively important being said in them,” he says. “And if I’m saying something and I think it’s important, I want to put it in a vector that has the potential to reach as many people as possible, because what am I without an audience?”
In 2016, he dropped the excellent EP “Some Other Country.” On the surface, it feels like a collection of love songs, but the backdrop to the work is much more complex.
“I was writing these songs, and they were kind of love songs, and it was like, this is describing relationships, ostensibly with women, that I have not had and that don’t really mean anything to me if I think of them with relationship to women,” he says.
“This was around the time that Eric Garner was murdered, and then the grand jury declined to indict, which was kind of a moment of awakening and activation for me. And when that happened, I remember leafing through some of the stuff I was working on and thinking, this isn’t about a woman. This is about America. All this stuff I’m writing about is about America.”
The thematic through line of the EP, and the follow up full-length “Fresh Lies” he plans to release next year, uses “the form of a love song to explore my relationship with America as a black man.”
“‘Some Other Country’ is an allusion to the fact that there really are multiple countries within this country. That you can have a fundamentally different experience of life in this country from other people depending on how you’re perceived and treated as a result,” he says. “And ‘Fresh Lies’ is also kind of an allusion to the kinds of mythologies, the kind of national myths that we have in this country and the ways that they adapt to fit to whatever historical moment we find ourselves in.”
Many people will hear the songs simply as love songs, and he’s fine with that. “You never convince anybody of anything if you hit them over the head with a hammer,” he says. But the deeper meaning is just below the surface.
“I think there are things that you can illuminate with metaphors sometimes, but you can’t say them directly. Because people have better concepts for, ‘Oh this is a somewhat abusive relationship’ than they do for ‘Oh, 400 years of oppression’…one is an easier concept for most people to get, and if that gets them there, then great.”
In the recently released video for the song “Tell Me,” he spells the message out explicitly. The video opens with a scene he describes as “hipster porn”: A beautiful young white woman drops the single on her record player, then dances around a lovely, artfully furnished home to the song while making coffee. After a minute she glances out the window, appears vaguely disturbed and makes a phone call.
The scene cuts to Mobley standing outside by the curb. He wears a baseball uniform and swings a bat as he sings the hook, “Tell me where you want, tell me where you want me to be.” The song moves into the instrumental bridge and a police car pulls up. As we see Mobley taken to the ground and placed in handcuffs, a young black boy with a baseball mitt is restrained by his mother as he tries to run forward crying. Meanwhile, the young woman inside the house returns to her couch, drinking her coffee and looking satisfied.
The impact of the gut punch plot twist is important, “especially in a place like Austin where gentrification is such an enormous issue, and where I think there are a lot of people who should feel implicated in the gentrification in Austin, that don’t feel that way,” he says.
The fact that Mobley’s videos so effectively reinforce the meaning of his music shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has seen his live show. He has a background in film and photography, and when he performs, each song has an accompanying projection. Agitated crowds; bustling street scenes; misty, sentimental moments all pass on the screen behind him, emotional cues that provoke visceral reactions.
“When I’m making music, I experience that as a multisensory thing. It’s not just the sound; it’s visual, too,” he says. “As I’m writing a song, from the very beginning, it’s like, ‘What’s this going to look like? … What are the lights going to be doing when I hit this chord? And what’s the video going to do?’ The whole show feels like a kind of big instrument that I’m playing.”
The amazing part is how effortless he makes it all look.
“I approach it like a magic show more than a music show … I don’t want people to be thinking about how hard I’m working … I’m actually going to great lengths to hide a lot of that … because I don’t think that’s the interesting part. The interesting part is the music and how you feel about it and how it makes you want to move and all those things,” he says.
“I want you to get lost in the magic of it.”