On a Sunday summer afternoon so sultry that steam swirls from the street and water vapor beads on windows, Christopher Moll flips off the A/C in his Coral Springs condominium. He snakes microphone cables from a bedroom closet to his small recording studio/office, then signals his singer, Tim Yehezkely, who's been pacing restlessly around Moll's apartment. They're working on "Know Which Way the Wind Blows," a mysteriously moody lattice of autoharp, guitar, vibraphone, Hammond organ, farfisa, melodica, cello, violin, and tambourine. The lyrics Yehezkely herself has written -- a vignette about a spy surveilling a woman across a room -- are a perfect match for the somber strains of Moll's music.
Shutting off a fan to further dampen any noise, Moll explains his vision. "You're wearing this long, flowing dress, entering a party," he says, placing a battered pair of Sony headphones around his stocky neck. "And there's this creepy person watching you." He pauses and gropes for words. "You said there was something sexual about this one," he says, jogging her memory.
"No, I didn't," Yehezkely corrects. "I said sensual."
"Well, you know," he says, sending Yehezkely across the carpeted living room into the tiny closet with a huge microphone, its walls soundproofed with padding and draperies. Slender in her sundress, Yehezkely gracefully shuts the door behind her. She's wearing her own pair of headphones, and Moll can speak to her in the makeshift "vocal booth" through a small microphone on his mixing board.
As Yehezkely warms up, Moll cues up on his computer the current mix of the song, making sure she knows exactly where to come in. Each instrumental passage exists as a color-coded bar; soon, her voice will be represented by yet another.
Yehezkely sing-speaks in a detached near-whisper: "Drawing eyes from across the room/Wide open like the curtains of a play/But I cannot stay in the audience/Feeling so withdrawn/At the faces looking on/To applaud at curtain call."
Moll ruminates on the musical trope, comparing it to an earlier take, and Yehezkely steps out of the makeshift booth. "The quality of your voice is better today," he says. "But your rhythm on some parts of that one was a little better." One line in today's chorus, he explains to her, was "a little too abrupt-sounding."
He sings the part to her -- "At the faces looking on" -- in his choirboy near-falsetto. His voice, pleasant but pale, is the fastest route to show Yehezkely that he wants her to climb a half-step between the syllables look- and -ing. Without hesitation or embarrassment, he sings it, over and over, showing her exactly what he wants. She slumps against the wall, her dark tresses covering her face, and exhales deeply: It's going to be a long afternoon.
These long afternoons and late nights are Moll's obsession. Immersing himself in the womb-like comforts of his home studio, he holes up for months, eating, breathing, thinking, and dreaming music. Interruptions or distractions have been eliminated -- no cell phone or cable TV for this guy -- and he's dead serious about completing the final songs, no doubt to the delight of many South Florida music fans who've wondered exactly what the reclusive talent has been up to.
"Just try it again," he suggests, as Yehezkely heads back to the closet. "So it'll be hard-wired into your programming." The spiky, short-haired Moll records another take. Nervous, Yehezkely flubs the line completely. Moll glances at the clock. He's not paying for any studio time, of course, but it's starting to get warm in the office, thanks to all the equipment and sound baffling. Yehezkely sings the part again. And again. And again. "It's better," says Moll, peering through his glasses, "I think. But I still... hold on..." He cues up the chorus again and has Yehezkely get ready to sing it again. "OK," he tells her. "I'm putting you in... here."
Donning the headphones again like a miner following a dark vein with lighted helmet, Moll is extracting unprocessed ore.
After spending the afternoon recording and rerecording the vocal track to the song, Moll will refine the raw materials. He may spend hours editing and polishing a single line, so that it will sound its best when his grand tapestry is finally revealed. Attempting to skirt the no-second-acts rule, Moll -- who once made it to the altar of indie-rock rewards only to have his bride evaporate at the last minute -- isn't going to let this opportunity pass. At 35, he's aware time ain't on his side.
For the past two years, Moll -- a hermit-like songwriter, musician, composer, and engineer who has become one of South Florida's most gifted producers, with a reputation for transforming humdrum recordings into sharply reconceptualized, marketable musical offerings -- has been laboring over his own ten-song suite, comprising what he calls his "suburban bedroom symphony." From the window of his second-story studio, all he can see of Coral Springs are the treetops of a nearby park and occasional swarms of yellow/orange butterflies that flit past. The suite isn't quite finished yet, and Moll -- who has toiled on the tracks with help from both Yehezkely and fellow multi-instrumentalist Jon Wilkins -- exercises a level of quality control that's kept it a secret.
Moll is a self-taught virtuoso on a variety of vintage keyboard instruments, and their evocative period-piece strains define his latest endeavors. His sensitive, string-laden songs are just as often bitter as sweet. Ascending to a new level of compositional complexity with the yet-unveiled "Project X," he's redefining for his peers exactly what a local band can be.
A mouse-pushing desktop publisher for an insurance brokerage by day, owner of a Ford Focus, Moll creates a complex, sophisticated, self-contained world of meticulously orchestrated, swooningly cinematic lusciousness. "If you cut off Christopher's arm, he wouldn't bleed," says a friend, known simply as Bone. "No, sir. A shoegazy E-minor chord, perfectly orchestrated and played by six different instruments, would pop out and smack you in the tympanic membrane. He's that musical."
Instead of getting together with his collaborators to improvise, producing songs spontaneously, Moll's method is akin to that of a classical composer -- albeit one who can discuss software code and processor speed as easily as diminished-seventh arpeggiated chords. "I don't do well with jamming," he says. "I want to create a universe that feels like it has a blueprint, a purpose to it." His carpeted, red-walled office, covered floor to ceiling in acoustic baffles, is where the magic is made. He edits and arranges his songs entirely within the digital domain. This glove-boxian technique could seem an austere, sterile means of composition, but Moll's suburban bedroom symphony is suffused with post-teenage heartbreak and disillusion.
Working with the sort of painstaking pointillism one would expect from a graphic designer, Moll has sculpted his own records to compete on the same playing field as any world-class artist. Lately, his production talents are bringing in a steady stream of clients looking for that signature Moll sound: clean, orchestrated, detailed recordings skillfully crafted to stand out in the Amazon.com world.
Casey Fundaro, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer/singer/songwriter, enlisted Moll to join a project called timewellspent in 2002. Fundaro, who funded the recording of the album himself, first considered hiring some well-known players from the indie-rock world, like Chris Stamey of the dBs, to help him realize his vision.
"I could have picked anyone," he says. "But after spending a little time with Chris, I chose him. He'll get up at 7 in the morning and work until 6 p.m. with no breaks until he gets it exactly right. Paul McCartney did that. Brian Wilson did that. Records that sound like Project X don't just go poof! -- it takes a lot of time and skill."
Project X started to take shape in the wake of the death of See Venus, the band Moll spent the first few years of the decade honing into one of South Florida's most memorable musical exports.
Born in the Bronx, Moll moved here with his parents from Ogdensburg, New Jersey, when he was 19. A fascination with horror-flick soundtracks led to an interest in organ music; he got a Casio keyboard as an eighth-grade graduation present and took it from there. He didn't even start playing guitar until college. "Just a means to an end," he shrugs. "I've never been afraid to get an instrument and get in there and figure out how it works."
Within a few years of arriving in Florida, he started his first band, Twenty-Three (a number generally acknowledged to have magical qualities, Moll says). The group didn't leave an album behind to document its three-year, early-'90s existence, but Moll (vocals/guitar), Alex Gimeno (drums), and Brian Hill (bass) developed a reputation for a live show that set them apart from the local pack. "We were total Anglophiles!" remembers Gimeno, who now enjoys international acclaim as Ursula 1000, with four albums of all-over-the-map dance workouts under his belt. The trio immersed itself in weekly music tabloids from England like New Musical Express and Melody Maker, and its swirling, psychedelic songs were clearly influenced by Brit-poppers of the day, like Ride and Pale Saints.
Twenty-Three was a "benevolent dictatorship," Moll says with a smile. Gimeno explains that he and Hill were so in awe of their companion's knack for melodic hooks and ability to map out complicated vocal and instrumental passages that they were too intimidated to offer their own ideas. "We just let him kind of run the show because he was so far ahead of us," Gimeno recalls.
After Twenty-Three, Moll moved from North Miami to West Palm Beach, expecting the music scene to be exciting. "And it wasn't," he recalls. Not until the end of the decade did he hook up with the principals of what would become See Venus. The other players -- including bassist Eric Rasco, singer Rocky Ordonez, and keyboardist Eddie Alonzo -- had all been grammar-school brats while Moll was graduating from high school, which caused much of the friction that gave See Venus its energy but ultimately derailed it. The array of talented control freaks nursed neuroses and perfectionism as well, making for an unstable but irresistible force.
Before the band had played a single show, See Venus gained an international reputation. The group's first five songs were passed around as a homemade CD and posted on its website, resulting in attention from intrigued listeners as far away as Norway, Germany, Vietnam, and Brazil. A Swedish music dot-com interviewed Moll and Ordonez, and the BBC even starting playing See Venus songs. Thai and Italian web pages still pay homage to the band. Intrigued listeners often noted that the music was so good, so professional, that it must have originated from a hipper locale than culture-deprived South Florida.
"Well, I don't see why it couldn't," Moll felt like replying. "I write the way I write and don't care about the ZIP code."
Regional press quickly caught on, but See Venus was invisible on the local circuit. "We weren't terribly into playing live," Alonzo explains. "And our best performances were never in front of people." In fact, See Venus would rehearse for as long as three months to play a single show. With different opinions pulling the band in different directions constantly, recordings were fraught with arguments and disagreements. Moll nurtured a bossa-nova sound with the '60s feel of Joao Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Rasco loved a modern, streamlined sound like Stereolab, and Alonzo was all over the map. Ordonez was a complete newcomer with stage presence to spare and a cute, coquettish voice. As a result, See Venus looked and sounded like nothing South Florida had ever produced. It was European. It was Brazilian, beachy. It was retro. It was cool.
It was slow going too. The band played only two or three shows a year, and by 2003, despite inking a contract with New York City-based indie imprint March Records, no album had emerged. Rehearsals and recordings took place in a Hallandale Beach warehouse owned by Fundaro, who had outfitted it with vintage drum kits, guitars, and keyboards, perfect for See Venus' sound. With so many cooks and ingredients -- including old analog synths prone to breaking down -- disagreements were many.
"We'd get arguing about some dumb guitar tone, and nothing would get done for weeks," Alonzo recalls. "And Chris would go home and micro-edit things we thought sounded fine." Adds Rasco: "It's not like we could go into the studio and do it without him -- he had the key."
But the few concerts the band played locally -- often in an opening slot for national acts like Trans Am and Rilo Kiley -- are mythical. Though the music was entrancing, the band's formula manifested itself in a spectacular look as well. There was a time when See Venus was a six-piece, with two strikingly pretty female singers and Moll, guitar slung across his shoulders, overseeing the whole thing from the back of the stage, like a Svengali conductor.
See Venus played a show in the summer of 2003 in Manhattan at the annual College Music Journal conference, a global convergence of up-and-coming independent artists. "They played in front of 300 people," remembers Skippy McFadden, who runs March Records. "And people were just blown away. I had goose bumps. I was convinced they were going to be a really big thing," he says excitedly. "They told me they'd do a national tour. But..." He stammers, and his voice loses its enthusiasm.
"I guess I should have known something was up when they went three years without finishing the record. They were constantly fighting."
Moll is loath to discuss it now, but See Venus' delicate democracy morphed into something of a mutiny, in which Moll's vision and perfectionism were challenged by his bandmates.
A huge opportunity squandered, McFadden says.
"Incredibly, amazingly so," he continues. "It was probably one of the biggest disappointments I've had, and I've put out 90 records. It's like having a lottery ticket that you can't even turn in."
The deal with March Records meant that Hard Times for Dreamers could be found at Borders or Barnes & Noble. But the band was finished by the time the stillborn album arrived on the shelves. As a result -- with no tour to help market it -- the record has sold only about 400 copies nationwide.
"Which really sucks," McFadden says. "I hope they look back and say, 'I can't believe we screwed that up. '" Alonzo (who now heads a new project called Feathers) and Moll are back on speaking terms, but Rasco reports he hasn't seen or heard from Moll in more than a year.
"None of us were scarred by the break-up the way Chris was," Rasco adds. "For Chris, the pain -- and the martyrdom -- was too great to get over."
As if that weren't tough enough on an artist's constitution, the night before the showcase to mark the release of See Venus' star-crossed album at Dada in Delray Beach, Moll and his girlfriend of nine years broke up. He was inconsolable. "That coming-of-age moment that I had been working towards for many years was crushed in one fell swoop," he says wincing at the memory.
Nursing the ache of his twin setbacks, Moll retreated, but he didn't stop working. With Fundaro, he cowrote the songs on the album timewellspent (producing and engineering it as well), adding to Fundaro's acoustic songs an array of guitars, keyboards, and pitched-percussion instruments. A former attorney in the music industry, Fundaro used his connections to get the album mixed by the prestigious Thom Monahan and released by Parasol Records, a well-regarded Chicago label. The result is a showcase for Fundaro's voice and songs but also for Moll's instrumental and studio prowess, and the album gave the duo a presence in the orchestral-pop canon.
Moll and Fundaro traveled to upstate New York to spend a week with Monahan as he mixed the raw tracks. "We were sitting at the mixing board, and Thom was listening to the tracks, pulling them up one by one. At one point, he turns to Chris and says 'Wow, these sounds are incredible -- how did you do this?'"
Some of the Debussyian impressionistic piano pieces on timewellspent point to the sentimental terrain he would later uncover in Project X, but they also reveal a deep understanding of mood and drama that proves that Moll, at the very least, owns a great pair of ears.
"I've started to be sought out as a producer and engineer," Moll concedes now, "but I don't see myself wearing that hat and jacket just yet. I think of myself more as a musician, but I guess people don't think of me that way, because they don't see me up on stage a lot."
Moll's managerial mannerisms -- which have him dropping phrases like "skill set" into casual conversation -- point to his methodology. The tag team of Moll and Wilkins have in the past year transformed the projects they have worked on and contributed to. Summer Blanket, Helen Horal, the Brite Side, and the Freakin' Hott -- all from the north Broward/south Palm Beach area -- saw their records kicked up to the next level. Wilkins usually handles the heavy lifting, as well as the work on the actual arrangement of songs, while Moll plays the detail man, editing, fine-tuning, adding flourishes.
Horal, a young singer/songwriter from Lake Worth, spent $5,000 making There Is Only This Place ("extremely reasonable for the kind of quality we offer," Moll says), released independently last year. The fee included a Wilkins-designed cover -- he's a talented graphic artist who is also a copywriter for the Weekly World News in Boca Raton. The package is as professional, in appearance and sound, as anything in the mass marketplace.
With the Freakin' Hott -- an unabashedly primal rock duo à la the White Stripes -- singer/guitarist Aaron found unlikely sparring partners in Wilkins and especially Moll. "I think enough people had told Chris he couldn't do a rock record if he tried," Aaron says. Wilkins actually recorded the tracks for the band's upcoming release, Slip on the Lips, and Aaron characterizes them as "extremely raw-sounding." Moll, he says, spent several months mixing them. When Aaron and his partner, Maggie, heard the finished product, they weren't sure what to make of it. "It took a few days to wrap our heads around it," he says, before deciding, "This is really, really cool -- and not at all what we expected." The hell-bent rebellion emerged as sharp as a switchblade from the grinding stone.
"Watching Chris work with the computer is almost like watching him play an instrument, the way he's clicking and mixing and dragging and moving things," Aaron says. "Almost anything he and Jon put their hands on turns the corner from something that's good to something that's really, really great."
West Palm Beach singer Keith Michaud, whose band Summer Blanket has included Moll and Wilkins in the past, calls the duo "mentors for songwriters looking for a sound." The pair retooled a pair of tracks on Charm Wrestling, Summer Blanket's 2003 album, and Michaud says he's still in awe of the work they did -- "mind-blowing," he calls it. But Michaud says he felt left out during the process.
"They transformed the songs into different beings entirely," he says, "but Chris and Jon were in their own little world, laughing at stuff that was funny only to them, making it clear I wasn't invited in." His bare-boned original sounded fine to him -- slightly amateurish but not without charm. Michaud wasn't sure he liked what they were doing at first. But when he heard his songs reimagined and retooled, he was speechless. "I was like, 'You guys know better than me, obviously. '"
Michaud, a performer who plays several gigs each month either solo or with his band, says he doesn't understand why Wilkins and Moll aren't more visible. The idea of bunkering down and toiling over a secret project for years makes no sense to him. "I can't believe they're just sitting around on their hands," he says.
Tim Yehezkely grew up in Connecticut and loved music from childhood, enrolling in band in fourth grade so she could learn the oboe. "I gravitate toward strange instruments," she says (she also owns and composes songs on a battle-tank accordion). By the time her family relocated to Boynton Beach and she started school at Florida Atlantic University, she was recording her own songs on a primitive cassette four-track. Two years ago, she found the courage to take her guitar to Dada in Delray Beach for an open-mic night where Wilkins was playing drums with Summer Blanket (he did the same for See Venus and is currently a member of I Am Stereo and the Freakin' Hott).
"I was very nervous, because I'm very shy," she says, followed by a high, sweet giggle. "I had never played in front of people before." As Wilkins recalls, all the elements of a sure-fire disaster were in place: "She had a classical guitar which didn't even have an input, so we tried to mic it. And she sang very softly, so you couldn't really hear anything."
To their surprise, the Sunday-night crowd at the busy restaurant grew still. "That was the first time I've ever heard the place just shut up," Wilkins recalls. She was a big hit. When Wilkins got the ongoing Popscene showcase for local artists up and running at Dada, he invited Yehezkely to perform. And he called Moll.
"I know you're working on your new secret project, but you have to come see this," he exclaimed. "She's amazing!" Sure enough, Moll was struck by her winsome naiveté and by the crowd's reverent reaction.
"I was surprised she could handle that," Moll remembers. He introduced himself and passed her a CD of his music. "I didn't take it seriously at first," she said. "When I listened to it, I thought, 'Wow, he's really doing something. '"
Staring out his window at the greenery and butterflies, Moll had been immersing himself in Project X's ten songs. At first, they were weighted with melancholy. Eventually, they became more hopeful and romantic. British kitchen-sink dramas from the '60s, old spy movies, and the French film Amélie were important touchstones as a sort of soundtrack emerged. Wilkins recorded bass and drum parts, while Moll played guitar, farfisa, glockenspiel, and vibraphone, making for a classy, continental sound. Most of the instruments were older, classic models to capture the feel of a period piece. "Knowing Jon was heavily into soundtracks appealed to me," Moll says, "because we were going to go in this lush, cinematic direction."
He also took the orchestration concept a step further. Paying them when he could, Moll found nine professional musicians to contribute cello, violin, viola, piano, trumpet, trombone, cornet, French horn, vibraphone, flute, clarinet, recorder, toy piano, theremin, Chinese violin, and pedal steel guitar. Moll uses a computer program that actually prints out sheet-music scores from keyboard parts he's written. "We knew guys who can play horns, but we wanted to go the extra mile and get someone who can really nail it." Moll says. "We wanted to go beyond."
How to fit Yehezkely into this pastoral, inward-focused world presented its own set of challenges. First, Moll worked up a trial run through Astrud Gilberto's "Dreamer" to test the waters of compatibility. "And that's when I knew she had it," he says. "I could hear it in that take. "
Says Yehezkely: "I didn't really know Chris very well at that point. I didn't think anything would come of it. I wasn't worried at all -- I didn't know I was being tested." She shoots Moll a sly glance, and he laughs sheepishly.
At first, Yehezkely wasn't sure she liked Moll's dark orchestrations. They were elaborate and complicated, miles away from the simple recordings she'd been making in her bedroom. "I couldn't find a place on top of it at all," she laments. One night at Dada, beer was drunk and words were had. "How am I supposed to fit into something that isn't me?" she yelled. Frustrated, she told Wilkins that Moll's secret project just didn't feel right to her. "I don't know what he expects from me!"
"Chris had this whole vision, and it wasn't opening up to me," she says now. She wasn't sure she was up to the task. Wilkins and Moll, though, were certain they'd found the right singer, that Yehezkely's nearly blank, innocent voice was the perfect foil for the music.
"I said 'Trust in us, believe in us, this is going to happen, it might be hard, but it'll work. '" Wilkins recalls. "That's when we locked on the tractor beam and sucked her in."
But Yehezkely reckoned that if it felt difficult, it would erase the fun of organically creating music. "When something moves me, I sit down and write a song," she says, curling up cat-like on Moll's couch, playing with a buckle on her ballet slipper. "When it doesn't, I don't force myself. If it was going to become work, I decided I wasn't going to do it. I already had a lot of work at school and my own music which I enjoyed doing and was proud of."
But she gave it one more shot. She asked Moll to strip down his elaborate demos to their basics. "From there," she says, "I pushed: 'This is what I need; this is what I will and won't do.' And Chris responded, which I think is huge. He could have easily said, 'I'm not going to listen to your ideas. '"
Says Moll: "She has a very romantic way of looking at things, and we wanted to make sure the music matched that. I wanted a heart-on-sleeve-type deal."
Lovely and inscrutable -- it's hard to tell if she's sullen, pensive, moody, or just bored -- Yehezkely is a whimsical wild card, her empathic nature bouncing against Moll's stolid work ethic.
They agreed to tackle a tune provisionally titled "The Piano Song." One of Yehezkely's poems was adapted to fit the rhythm. They recorded her singing atop it, then had a listen. "And right off, I knew," she says. So did Moll and Wilkins. "We're grateful to have stumbled upon her," Moll says.
Given their mixed-up schedules, the Project X songs aren't quite finished. Moll is still adding those special Easter-egg sound effects that make headphone-wearers smile. A fly buzzes past. Waves break. Rain batters a window. A car slips down a slickened street. Moll says he aims to "produce songs that sound like they have always existed and will always exist." Instead of sending half-baked ideas to record companies looking to groom new acts, he figures they'd rather have a finished product. "You have to shoot for the national level," he maintains. "That's where your competition is going to come from."
In fact, Wilkins, Moll, and Yehezkely have never sat down together and played the songs live, nor are there any live performances planned. For the moment, choosing a name for Project X is more crucial. That won't be easy either, as Moll has already dismissed several Yehezkely suggestions as "too charming or frivolous." First at the finish line is the Postmarks.
With Yehezkely's romantic wordplay and beguiling sense of restrained emotion projecting an air of vulnerability, the songs came alive. An avid Francophile who began learning French in college and finds inspiration in Edith Piaf, Nina Simone, and Françoise Hardy, she wrote French lyrics for three more Moll compositions.
Moll has crafted his suite into a cinematic mini-opera, where daydreams and reveries abound. The lyrics to "Goodbye," the sparkling, orchestrated opener, is a kiss-off to busted relationships of the past: "Goodbye/I'm not gonna cry/As I'm hopping that train/Knowing I won't see you again/Don't leave a key/Underneath the mat for me/'cause I won't be coming back around here."
Flowing like a brook under a cobblestone bridge, each song builds upon and adds to the mood. Suddenly, you're sitting in a dark-paneled pub on a rainy Sunday, enjoying a pint after church. It's 5 o'clock, the sun is setting, and you're not sure if it's going to be bangers and mash or fish and chips when the door blows open and the draft creeps in. A tap on your shoulder -- it's an old friend popping in -- and soon you're sitting in a leather armchair, playing a game of chess in the corner near the fireplace. The last two tracks -- the harpsichord heartbreak of "You Drift Away" and the wan half-light of "End of the Story" -- make a tear-jerkingly pretty finale.
"The reason it took such a long time," Moll states, "is that we had the ingredients, but we didn't know how to cook the dish. I knew I wanted something that was passionate, romantic, kind of epic, but I hadn't quite clarified what it was yet."
Now that the songs are cooling on the windowsill, he's offered friends small samples. To him, all the fine-tuning and post-production feels like plastic surgery. "And now we're taking the bandages off," he says.
Those who've heard Project X, though, are eager for the world to hear it too. Fundaro says he will use his music-industry connections to shop the finished album to larger labels like Sub Pop and Matador. After all, he says, that's all it took for Miami's bearded boy wonder, Sam Beam, to find a major-label home for his Iron and Wine project. "Chris is just like that," Fundaro insists. "His stuff is that good."
McFadden's eager to hear what Moll has been cooking up. "He's Brian Wilson -- he should be recording and producing other people," McFadden says. "He's remarkably talented for his age, and he's had a lot of ups and downs. You get your heart broken -- that's one of the best reasons to make records. I see that as a formula for greatness."
To hear a sample of the "suburban bedroom symphony," visit www.thepostmarks.com.
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