In March, the entire music industry—like seemingly everything else—stopped. Every music venue closed. Every musician’s tour schedule was canceled. Some artists became proficient at singing into the camera on their MacBook every night, selling online tickets or sharing links where fans could donate. But for smaller-scale independent artists, many of whom are still building up fan bases, their entire careers went on pause.
Anthony Watkins II, who records and performs under the name Mobley, is one of them. Mobley has been a fixture of the Austin music scene for a decade. He’s described his music as “post-genre pop,” which sounds not unlike indie rock–influenced pop acts such as Tame Impala, Portugal the Man, or Foster the People (who released a remix of Mobley’s most recent single, “Nobody’s Favourite,” in late July). As a live performer, Mobley plays as a one-man band, running from guitar to keys to drum machine, often within the same song—an act that, in pre-pandemic times, made it easy for him to go on the road, where he played events like Lollapalooza and Voodoo Fest.
Stuck at home in Austin early in the lockdown in March, Mobley found himself with an unusual abundance of free time, and started looking for ways to stay creative, keep busy, and use his skills to try to be useful during the crisis. He hit on the idea of recruiting other Austin musicians and filmmakers for an album-length game of “exquisite corpse,” the 1920s-era parlor game in which an artist begins a drawing on a piece of paper before folding it over and passing it to another, who picks up on the small fragment of the work that’s left visible, adding his or her own creation and passing it along again to another artist. In this version of the game, each musician and filmmaker would pass a snippet of a track or a video on to the next participant, who’d create their own piece within 48 hours based on what they received. Then that artist would pass it on until a visual album was completed. About thirty minutes in length, the album features sixteen artists who contributed music and video. In addition to a ten-second piece of audio (or, for the filmmakers, a brief final image), each artist was given a prompt: “A home unfamiliar.” Eventually, this became the title of the project.
Through an open call for participants, Mobley recruited a group of musicians that included friends, many of them Texans—including Deezie Brown, Walker Lukens, and TaSzlin Muerte of BLXPLTN—and some high-profile acquaintances, such as Shakey Graves and Kelsey Wilson of Wild Child and Sir Woman, for the collaborative album project that was released today. “I had a feeling that most people’s schedules would be pretty open, so I was able to get some yeses where ordinarily I would have gotten nos,” he says.
Alejandro Rose-Garcia, who performs as Shakey Graves, has had an enviable career by any standard, but during the pandemic he’s enjoyed simpler things: watching Survivor with his girlfriend, riding his bike around Austin, cooking dinner for his mom (who lives in the house adjacent to his), mowing the yard they share, reading books. “My needs are much smaller than I thought they were,” he told me. Participating in A Home Unfamiliar was appealing as a chance to satisfy his creative impulses without thinking about what it meant for his career, he says. “I’m so pleased with just making two minutes of music in two hours so I can be a part of something. I’m not thinking of this in terms of commercial gain. I don’t think anybody is.” He laughed, “‘This is it, dude, this is our break!’ It’s just a great idea, of course I’d love to.”
Kelsey Wilson, whose contribution closes out the project (with a final outro by Jackie Venson that plays over the end credits), also talked about the career pause that came with the pandemic as something of a relief. “I’ve been on the road nine months a year since I started. At first I thought, ‘This is great, I’ll write another record,’ but I haven’t written a fucking thing,” she says—but that’s good, as far as she’s concerned. “The circumstances are fucking awful, of course, but the opportunity to sit still is priceless. None of us would be like, ‘Oh, let’s take a year off.’ You don’t do that. If you stop, then a hundred other bands are going to swoop in. So to have something like this happen, I’m almost grateful.” Her contribution to A Home Unfamiliar, written in late April, was the first piece of music she composed after coming home early from tour.
The musicians completed the album in April, and A Home Unfamiliar was initially scheduled for a late May release. But the protests that erupted after the death of George Floyd changed the plans. The album had been crafted as a response to the relatively quiet early days of the pandemic, as participants found themselves in an unfamiliar situation at home. But as protests changed the tenor of the stay-at-home era, Mobley pushed back the release to reflect the possibility that A Home Unfamiliar might be an even more resonant concept as the circumstances around us continued to change rapidly.
“Any piece of art is going to be received through the lens of whatever context it’s put into,” he says. “I think people are going to be hearing different music, seeing a different film, than if we had put it out when we planned to, despite the fact that we haven’t changed a frame or a note.” The project, which was always intended as a fundraiser, will now split the proceeds between the Central Texas Food Bank and the DAWA Fund, which provides emergency funding to musicians, artists, and service industry workers of color in Austin.
I listened to A Home Unfamiliar a lot for several weeks in May, before the initial planned release of the album, and it did sound different when I revisited it in July. Some of that is because the first artists whose tracks appear on it—Deezie Brown, Muerte, Felix Pacheco, and Mobley himself—are artists of color, long underrepresented in the Austin music scene. Just hearing a diverse collection of voices in indirect collaboration, at a moment when the scene itself has begun taking seriously the exclusionary nature of the city’s music industry, carries a different meaning now than it did in May.
The nature of the project requires artists to check their egos, too—a game of exquisite corpse isn’t a competition to outdo the previous artist, but rather an effort to create a memorable whole—and is a significant statement from a community that’s reckoning with whose voices have historically been amplified. Listening to it now, the parlor game nature of the project feels less like a gimmick and more like a snapshot of a music scene that’s seeking a new way forward.
Mobley says the project has shown him a different side of the community he’s been a part of for the last decade and counting. “I did not know that the craving for solidarity and action was as strong as it is,” he says. “Maybe even some of the other people who are expressing that craving now didn’t realize it. One of the big outcomes of these uprisings is that a lot of us felt more alone than we do now.” A project like A Home Unfamiliar inherently reflects some of that solidarity just because of how it’s structured—and solidarity is going to be critical for independent musicians as the pandemic stretches on, too.
It’s been nearly five months since Mobley sent the final ten seconds of the first piece of music in A Home Unfamiliar to Deezie Brown, who passed it to Felix Pacheco, and on and on until Kelsey Wilson received a snippet of a track from Kalu James and composed the track that concludes the album. Since then, the coronavirus pandemic has grown, receded, and exploded again nationally. Protests erupted across much of the U.S., and economic instability is rampant. The context for A Home Unfamiliar reflects all of those things, from a collective of artists who face deep uncertainty about their futures—even if the lives they were living before this weren’t entirely sustainable, either.
“We didn’t know—and still nobody knows—what’s going to happen next,” Wilson says. “This was the perfect segue back into creating, and settling back into home, and this as reality right now. Music, for all of us, started as a way to deal with our feelings. Being part of this confusing story right now, it was really important to attempt to sit down and write a few minutes about this particular story. I know having something like this record to go back and listen to is going to be really special.”