Moby on Natalie Portman: ‘The whole thing left me nonplussed’

Moby: ‘It’s ill-advised to let your sense of self and wellbeing be informed or even controlled by people you have never actually met.’ Photograph: Travis Schneider
The musician on cancel culture, the Natalie Portman situation and accepting disgrace

Moby may be a slim, slight figure but you can’t mistake him. He’s wearing a T-shirt in the hot Los Angeles sun, and everywhere there is skin there are tattoos. The more striking and obvious are very large words on the lengths of his right and left arms (“Animal” and “Rights”) and smaller but still easily visible text around his neck (“Vegan for life” and “Protect the innocent, defend the vulnerable”). We have a full 30 minutes for our conversation and we have been asked weeks beforehand by the record label if any of our questions will include the name of actor Natalie Portman. Yes, they absolutely will. Might this be a problem? No, comes the response, Moby is happy to talk about anything. Some might say with good reason. 

Around this time two years ago, on the publication of his second memoir, Then it Fell Apart, Moby came under widespread media scrutiny when Portman, having been informed that he had written about their brief relationship, noted (she told Harper’s Bazaar magazine) several “factual errors and inventions”. She also said, “I was surprised to hear that he characterised the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I had just graduated high school.”

After some initial defensive back and forth that concluded with an abject apology via an Instagram post (“It was truly inconsiderate of me not to let her know about her inclusion in the book beforehand, and equally inconsiderate for me to not fully respect her reaction”), Moby at first retreated and then disappeared from public view. In another Instagram post, dated May 29th, he wrote, “I’m going to go away for a while. But before I do I want to apologize again and to say clearly that all of this has been my own fault … There is obviously no one else to blame but me. Thank you, and I’m sorry.” 

Moby’s Instagram post, May 29th, 2019
Moby’s Instagram post, May 29th, 2019

Since then? Barely a whisper, until now. With a new album (Reprise, which orchestrally reworks some of his best-known songs) and a documentary (Moby Doc) simultaneously released at the end of this month, the musician is undertaking a handful of interviews, and as mentioned, is happy to talk about anything. 

“As the person who wrote the book and who has obviously read the book,” he says in response to being asked how, two years later, he feels about Portman’s comments, “the whole thing left me very nonplussed. One very good side to it reminded me of something I learned quite a long time ago, and that is, generally speaking, it’s ill-advised to let your sense of self and wellbeing be informed or even controlled by people you have never actually met.”

Following an instance of online hate-speech directed towards him more than 15 years ago (“Someone I had never met said they hated me so much that if they ever saw me on the street, they were going to stab me and watch me bleed to death in front of them”), Moby gave himself the “categorical discipline of no longer reading anything that is written about me, never watching myself on TV, listening to my interviews on radio, and avoiding as best I can reading anything written about me on social media.” By doing this, he tells me, “I have let myself be solely informed by normal things such as friends, family, creativity, nature, hiking, music.” 

The short answer

Until, of course, a famous film star took exception to what you wrote in your book? That, he replies, “was impossible to avoid … I had TMZ and other tabloids literally camped out in front of my house waiting for me to go hiking or anything.” Did he think Portman’s comments were reasonable? His answer is the shortest he will give in our allocated time. “You know, it’s so nuanced and there are so many layers to it that I just don’t think I would feel comfortable deconstructing them in a public forum.” 

AREA ONE CONCERT AT JONES BEACH IN WANTAGH, LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK, 2001: THE ROOTS, MOBY, AND NATALIE PORTMAN. PHOTOGRAPH: THEO WARGO/WIREIMAGE

Make of that what you will. Okay, then. I ask why did he disappear so swiftly after Portman’s comments? The level of media interest, he says, “reminded me of that experience I spoke about of handing my emotional state over to the opinions of strangers. Maybe it’s something other people can do, people that have the psychological or emotional fortitude to handle, but I do not.” He paraphrases the Alcoholics Anonymous “serenity prayer”. “It hearkened back to that – the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, which is basically the world and the opinions of the world, and the courage to change the things I can, which is stepping away from it. It was the only rational thing I could possibly think to do.”

Photograph: Travis Schneider
Photograph: Travis Schneider

Does he think he has been treated unfairly? Two years down the line, he is logical if not blasé about it. “At some point, regardless of the truth or untruth of something, regardless of whether something is fair or unfair, you just can’t fight it.” 

How does he feel about cancel culture? “It’s hard to have too sweeping of a generalisation because there are so many nuances to the topic. On one hand, there is a valid utility to it, which is potentially drawing attention to issues that are worth having attention drawn to them, typically Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby – instances where people in positions of power have gotten away with horrible abuse. Drawing attention to those abuses by saying this type of abuse is no longer acceptable is hard to argue against.

“At the same time, I’m a huge fan of due process. It goes back to the 13th century and the Magna Carta, which was the precursor of the Declaration of Independence, the US Constitution and the US Bill of Rights - the idea that an accusation is not proof of a crime, that there has to be a mechanism or a means by which someone can defend themselves. It’s the cornerstone of our global western judicial system and it’s very concerning to me that people are so quick to throw that away in the service of collective outrage. As someone who has been a supporter of the ACLU [American Civil Liberties Union] for a long time, it concerns me that people are so quick to dispense with due process.”

Stopgap album

We talk briefly about the forthcoming album, which seems more of a stopgap than anything else. Moby, who is Zen-like civil throughout, doesn’t necessarily disagree (and he certainly isn’t going to any lengths at all to redirect the conversation around to promoting it). “In a way, I really wish I didn’t have to think about having a career, because nothing should tarnish the actual phenomenon of music itself. When I listen to Heroes by David Bowie, it is more valuable to me than anything I have ever bought. There is a profundity to it and an actual neurologically changing experience that happens in the presence of music you love, so, no, I don’t think of Reprise as a career record.” 

This leaves a fascinating backstory, which is explicitly outlined in Moby Doc. From being born into borderline poverty to becoming a multimillionaire, from being saved (“literally”) by music to embracing the most negative aspects of the rock’n’roll lifestyle, from being “a washed-up has-been to dating movie stars”, success arrived, hung around, had a blast and then shafted him. He says he bought into the benign notion that in order to forget about or at very least deny the existential void that lives within us, we need to surround ourselves with a combined belief system. Social, sexual, philosophical, financial, political, religious and any amount of -isms – with these and more, he posits, we can keep the dreaded human condition at arm’s length. 

Photograph: Travis Schneider
Photograph: Travis Schneider

“I wasn’t even aware I was buying into it,” he says, “because it’s such an insidious and ingrained part of our fabric. Very subjectively, I realised that fame wasn’t fixing my internal issues, materialism wasn’t sustainable. Success – so-called – just wasn’t working for me. I was grateful I was able to go through it in order to be presented with empirical evidence of what works and what doesn’t. As evidenced by alcoholism, drug addiction, psychological issues, suicide attempts, it’s a painful process.” 

‘I was terrified’

He says he had always assumed that being a very wealthy, globe-trotting musician would fix all of his issues and make him eternally happy. “When it didn’t, I wasn’t just disappointed, I was terrified, because I didn’t know what else to do. There is an endless list of people, well-known and not, who think that fame, materialism, and so on, is going to fix everything. When I emerged out the other side, I realised none of them worked. The question that soon arrived, of course, is: if none of these worked, then what does?” 

How you define disgrace matters little. It’s the natural order of things

What does, says Moby with little prompting, is the acceptance that we age and we die. One of his favourite books was bought by him at the age of 15 in order “to impress a girl I had a crush on”. The book was the Tao Te Ching, one of the classic texts of Taoism. 

“One quote from it gives me so much comfort, and it is something like ‘Accept misfortune as the human condition and accept disgrace willingly.’ ”

We are not necessarily reading between any lines here, but it’s fair to say that Moby’s choice of quotation is interesting. “For me, that’s it. How you define disgrace, whether it’s being publicly crucified or just getting old and becoming insignificant, matters little. It’s the natural order of things, and to fight against it is futile, sad and destructive.” 

So what he’s really saying is that in order to be at some level of peace with ourselves, we should, especially in a time of such global upheaval, lower our expectations?

 “I would say ‘modify.’ ”

Reprise is released through Deutsche Grammophon, May 28th. Moby Doc is released digitally on May 28th