The onlookers watching Marc Rebillet scurrying barefoot between instruments weren’t sure what to do with themselves. It was a Sunday night, and a dozen or so strangers were in a Brooklyn office space rented out by Rebillet (pronounced rub-ee-yay), who appeared in jeans and a chic striped shirt instead of his usual performance attire: a bathrobe draped over boxer briefs. On a table before two large picture windows sat his laptop, MIDI keyboard, and loop station—a small, switchboard-looking device that records sounds and plays them back on repeat. Nearby were an upright piano, a Rhodes keyboard, and a drummer and bassist holding down a jazzy groove. There were also snacks, a fridge stocked with booze and sparkling water, some small musical instruments for the guests to play around with, someone’s dog, and chairs and couches that Rebillet picked out and arranged himself.

The guests observed from a respectful, if awkward, distance. Several were visiting from Dallas, Rebillet’s hometown, and one came all the way from Switzerland. But no one really knew what they were in for. Neither, it seemed, did Rebillet, who did his best to break the ice. “You can shake your s—!” he announced. “You can talk too.” Laughter cut the uncertainty. A few people, easing into the moment, used the shakers and jingled the bells that had been left out for them. Before long, some of the onlookers were taking shots of tequila together.

This May evening was billed as one of twelve recording sessions for Rebillet’s debut album, or at least his first “serious” album—his previous records were almost entirely made up of clips from his live streams or songs he first performed online. It was also supposed to be a party. For Rebillet, these two objectives—recording an album and hosting a rager—aren’t completely at odds.

Rebillet crowd-surfs over fans during a show in Brooklyn on October 11, 2022.
Rebillet crowd-surfs over fans during a show in Brooklyn on October 11, 2022.Photograph by Shane McCormick

That’s because Rebillet’s superpowers are musical improvisation and working a room. It’s how he first made a name for himself five years ago, when he was living in Dallas and posting YouTube videos of himself performing before unsuspecting audiences trying to enjoy an early-afternoon brunch. “The very best moments you can get out of Marc are when he’s in an environment where the crowd is resistant to him,” said Sam Wynne, a close friend and Dallas bar co-owner who booked many of those early shows. These days, the 33-year-old Rebillet is less likely to face a skeptical audience than a throng of fans wearing robes and, occasionally, tattoos of his face.

Rebillet usually works as a one-man act, making tracks on the spot, like a hibachi-style deejay. He layers sounds that are played on loop: a steady drumbeat that he plunks from the BOSS RC-505, a jazzy riff from his keyboard, a funky bass line, and so on. Sometimes he tops it all off by singing, in his sonorous tenor, whatever (often ludicrously profane) lyrics come to mind. It’s fun, booty-shaking music, made even more infectious by Rebillet’s over-the-top exuberance. He demands that you feel good about yourself and strip off your inhibitions. It was hit or miss with Dallas brunchers, but it’s filling venues across Europe and North America.

Still, it’s a whole other proposition to make an album with tracks that have a longer shelf life than the ephemeral jams that emerge from Rebillet’s interactions with a live audience, whether it be enthusiastic or hostile. “The sights have always been on do[ing] something creatively that I can be respected for, something that people can genuinely be inspired by and respect,” Rebillet said in 2020, when the notion of making an album was already taking shape. 

Rebillet at Braindead Brewing, July 8, 2018.

Rebillet has gradually folded into his concerts material that hits a different tone from earlier performances. “I think that versus two years ago, probably, there’s more of a bent towards more serious themes,” Rebillet said of his songwriting today. “The split is not so overwhelmingly silly and ridiculous. Close to half of the s— I’m doing is meant to move you without being completely f—ing absurd.”

Rebillet got the idea for these shows, where he would blend recording with live performance, from watching the documentary series The Beatles: Get Back. “I was really, really high. And loving it,” Rebillet said. “So I was like, ‘Wait a second, what if I just do that?’ ” Initially, he wanted to live stream each of the five- to six-hour recording sessions on three weekends in April and May. But he abandoned those plans after the first night. “I was envisioning it being this whole thing where you really got to see this album unfold online,” Rebillet said. But he quickly realized it was a bad idea. “No one wants to see that.”

Just past noon on Memorial Day, Rebillet relaxed on his couch, legs crossed, a large bowl of takeout salad in his lap. His apartment, in the Seaport neighborhood of Lower Manhattan, was immaculate in its curation, a touch raunchy in its details: stark white walls offset by red plush Togo chairs; a leather sofa with throw pillows embroidered with cartoon breasts. He wore a robe, with shorts and an Austin City Limits Music Festival T-shirt underneath. His long brown hair fell over his shoulders. Even in a quiet moment, his comical mannerisms were there: his eyes darted thoughtfully behind his rounded glasses and his mouth curled frequently into an elastic grin, which was accentuated by his neatly sculpted goatee.

Rebillet has spent most of his life jumping between New York and Texas. Though he was born in Dallas, his family relocated to the East Coast when his father, Gilbert, left a job at Neiman Marcus for the luxury fashion brand Escada. They returned to Dallas in 2000. An only child, Rebillet was put into piano classes by his parents before he was in kindergarten. He claims that he hated practicing, but his mother, Susan, says there were exceptions, like the time on a family ski trip to Telluride, Colorado, when a ten-year-old Rebillet was at a restaurant with his family and saw a pianist performing George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. “He was just completely enraptured. He wouldn’t even come and sit back down at the table, he had to stand up and watch that guy play,” Susan says. She laughs. “Of course, that’s a very difficult piece. But Marc came back and told the teacher that he absolutely wanted to play that.”

After graduating in 2007 from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Rebillet went to Southern Methodist University, where he began to study acting, but he dropped out after his freshman year, having fallen out of love with the art form. Never particularly fond of academics, he saw college as a waste of money and preferred to hang out with friends and smoke weed. “I didn’t identify with the student body at all,” he said. But that left him without a clear direction in his life. He turned back to music, which he indulged in by booking private lessons to learn jazz theory, mixing, and engineering. He fiddled around making his own EPs and creating beats for local rappers. Yet he didn’t commit to music as more than a hobby. “I had big reservations about doing music in terms of playing shows and touring and, like, the whole life that goes along with that. I had this feeling that I would hate that, that I wouldn’t want to do that because of the grind,” he said.

He spent the better part of a decade changing jobs, cities, and continents, including spending a year in Paris, where his father grew up and where his parents first met while Susan was a college student traveling around Europe. Rebillet moved back home to Dallas in the fall of 2014, when Gilbert was diagnosed with dementia and moved into a care facility. “I was able to be close to him in this tender, sweet way that I had always had my guard up about before, because we’d always have to talk about what I was doing or not doing,” Rebillet said. Angie Fiorini, a friend from SMU’s theater program, recalled, “He literally visited his dad every single day for four years.” 

Soon after moving back to Dallas, Rebillet bought a loop machine. He posted improvisational videos he called Idealogues on YouTube and Facebook, where he built a small following. These two- to three-minute clips—with titles like “How Well Do You Know Your Bowel Movements?”—often featured him laying down a riff and then freestyling whatever absurdities came to mind. “I would just get in front of the camera and explain the idea, and then cut,” he said. When he got laid off from a call center job in the summer of 2017, he decided to try playing live music. His first paid gig was a beer festival at a brewpub in Dallas, Braindead Brewing, which then hired him to do a weekly residency. This was the brunch crowd that didn’t always welcome his presence. “No one had any idea who I was,” Rebillet said. “So it just gave me this adrenaline-filled thing where I was like, ‘I gotta f—ing yell or something.’ ” Braindead co-owner Wynne remembered one occasion when an angry customer unplugged Rebillet’s equipment during his set. Rebillet continued the show and kept coming back. 

But his father continued to deteriorate, and by the summer of 2018 he no longer recognized his loved ones. Susan encouraged her son to strike back out on his own. So that August, he returned to New York. Then, just ten days after he arrived there, his father took a final turn. Rebillet immediately flew back to Dallas in an effort to see him one last time, but, stuck in traffic, watched his father die over a FaceTime call. 

Within weeks, however, Rebillet’s career was taking off to a whole new level. The timing felt uncanny. “It was almost like he made way for me to do this, you know?” Rebillet said of Gilbert’s death. His YouTube streams exploded, and soon New York venues were getting in touch and a booking agency signed him and scheduled his first North American tour. 

By the time the pandemic came around, Rebillet had almost one million followers on Facebook and 345,000 subscribers on YouTube. He grew even more popular during the lockdown: while scores of artists around the globe suddenly had to learn how to provide online entertainment, Rebillet was already set up to perform live streams. His knack for comedy and his earnest positivity provided a psychological balm during dark times, such as when he uploaded to YouTube in April 2020 the song “Essential Workers Anthem,” an upbeat, danceable shout-out to health and service workers, which was picked up by national news outlets eager to find a feel-good story. In between making hilarious, catchy songs, he’d applaud Black Lives Matter, eviscerate Donald Trump, and cheer on his listeners just for choosing to get out of bed and get on with their lives. The man that fans saw on their screens didn’t feel like an act. “He doesn’t have to put on a mask to be Marc Rebillet. If anything, he takes off his mask and that’s it—that’s the real Marc Rebillet when he performs,” said Wynne. Today, Rebillet’s Facebook and YouTube followers number more than two million on each platform. On Twitter, his fan base has tripled, to 500,000.

Rebillet finally returned to performing live in the fall of 2021, and thanks to his virtual shows, he found much bigger and wilder audiences waiting for him. “Palpable. You could feel it,” he says of the pent-up energy from those gigs. One of the highlights was back-to-back weekends at ACL Fest in Austin, including performing to an audience of 10,000 people in the festival’s second weekend. That was his biggest crowd to date, but he topped it by playing before 15,000 at Pukkelpop festival in Belgium in August. 

His successful touring has allowed him to scale down his live stream performances to just a few in the past year. “I’m tired of that particular format,” he said.

Recording an album remains the white whale of Rebillet’s career. Whether or not it makes sense is open to debate: his role to date has been as a disrupter who proves that the social media–savvy artist doesn’t need to work with the record industry. The fact that he’s collaborated with some of his heroes, including a live stream jam with Reggie Watts and Flying Lotus in 2021, has softened the fear that he wouldn’t be taken seriously until he recorded a real album. “I was still feeling very insecure, and sort of [had] impostor syndrome,” he said of his mindset a couple of years back. “Getting the respect and validation from these people I really look up to has made me feel comfortable that I’m doing something worthwhile.” More important, perhaps, “It made me realize that I really enjoy making music with other people.”

From the outset, Rebillet’s goal with the album has been to work with other musicians. That previously meant hitting the studio with some of his famous friends. He made his first stab at recording an album in L.A. last year, when he cut tracks with Snoop Dogg. “That was fun,” he said, but he ditched the project when he felt it wasn’t going anywhere. “That’s always the way it’s been with me: I set my eyes on this album thing, and then I just ended up sort of farting around.”

This most recent time, in Brooklyn, has been different, with the help of his producer, Koal Harrison, a Toronto musician who performs under the name “the Kount,” and a rotating cast of players. But crafting his ideas into an album worth listening to repeatedly is a challenge; improvisation remains an ingrained part of his personality. “I don’t like doing something again and again and again, until it’s just great,” he said. “I don’t do well with that for some reason.” Despite getting the outlines of “ten to twelve really solid tracks” from those Brooklyn sessions, Rebillet continues to hedge his bets about the album’s future; there’s no firm release date in sight. 

Part of him just wants to get back to basics. He’s considering buying a motor home and traveling the country, playing pop-up shows at street intersections in various cities for unsuspecting members of the public. A sense of the unexpected, feeding off the audience’s confusion, is what he misses most. That, more than anything, may be what he never stops chasing.

“It’s [people saying], ‘You are in my space. I’m just trying to walk, drink a beer, whatever. And you’re yelling at me,’ ” he said, wistfully. “I miss that dynamic. Trying to win people over wasn’t just fun—it also made me come up with better ideas.”

Jeff Gage is a writer living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, and the Washington Post.

This article originally appeared in the January 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Thrown for a Loop.” Subscribe today.