Leaning towers of discs seem to stalk R. Stevie Moore's every move. At least, this is what we've gathered from the dozens of publicity shots that have promoted the homemade avant-pop albums he's issued since the mid-1970s. Moore is the original of his own species: the bedroom rock star. The videophone we used to interview him gave us a view of his workspace. This makeshift studio appears in many of the articles we've read about him, dating back to 1978. And here, on our very own laptop, we were greeted by the familiar scene: Moore at the eye of a plastic and cardboard storm.
It's an apt setting for the songwriter, who at 59 resembles a wry yogi, with an impressive mane of white hair and a beard. His speaking voice is deep and resonant, recalling a bygone era of investigative journalism on the nightly news. With similar omniscient authority, he announces his observations, like this one, which struck us as the single most useful tip we've heard for writing a good song: "It's all about the chord progressions," he says. "It's all about adding that little twist at the end of the second phrase. It's like putting puzzles together. And so many bands and genres stop — and they don't take that extra step."
For Moore, such musical insights are second nature. He grew up in Nashville where his father, Bob Moore, was a session bassist on some of Elvis Presley's 1960s records. But as a teenager, the son was more interested in where rock 'n' roll was headed, not where it had been. By his teenage years, that meant Frank Zappa, the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and the Beatles. "I was 16 when The White Album came out," Moore says. "Imagine that! It was the ultimate."
During the late '70s, Moore collected a small but impressive pile of press clippings from such influential papers as New York Rocker and The Trouser Press. This is where his image as a bedroom troubadour began to emerge, and where those pesky towers first vied for photographers' attention. In 1976, an LP limited to 100 copies called Phonography introduced Moore's template: dozens of short songs, written in a dazzling array of genres, each a diamond-dense gem and compellingly opaque. A quintessential R. Stevie Moore moment appears in the song "School Girl" from 1978's Delicate Tension. "I'm working overtime just to try and make you mine," he sings over a folk-rock shuffle. On the surface, it's a sunny tune of romantic devotion. But close attention reveals a disconnect between the lyrics and the singer's interpretation. His passion wanes by the quarter-note until, by the end of the line, he has reduced his croon to a mumble. There's as much drollery packed into these 10 words as an entire Noël Coward musical.
The '80s saw Moore become a poster boy for the home-taping revolution. In 1982, he launched the R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club, a mail-order business which issued hundreds of Moore originals. But the recent attention his work has attracted started to build over five years ago, when Ariel Rosenberg, who records as Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti and is almost 30 years Moore's junior, began citing him as a prime influence on his own genre-raiding homemade CD-Rs.
Rosenberg's endorsement has certainly been a boon. But if Moore has clicked with a younger generation of listeners, it's just as much because of the profound change that has happened with the way music is consumed in the file-sharing age. Once upon a time, even the indie ranks relied on the prestige of such labels as Rough Trade, Sub Pop, and Matador Records to dictate the day's fashions. Today, however, listeners with the most voracious appetites get their new music straight from friends or from blogs, or through gifted .zip files, without so much as a record cover to brand the artist.
"It's generally known that my music is a diary of sound," Moore says. "I don't edit myself. I'm a guinea pig and fodder for whatever listeners' feel I need to be presented as."
For Moore, the little twist he puts into each record has finally, after five decades, become its own imprimatur.