Meet Arranger Rob Moose, the Violinist Pulling the Strings in Indie Rock and Pop

Phoebe Bridgers, Justin Vernon, Anohni, Miley Cyrus, and more call Moose when they want to add orchestration to their songs.
Photo by Max Wanger

From the 65th floor of an office tower in lower Manhattan, Rob Moose can see most of the city he’s called home for nearly 25 years. First arriving to study violin at the Manhattan School of Music, he’s since established himself as an in-demand and inventive arranger, developing a subtle but distinctive touch on landmark indie rock records and millennial pop blockbusters. His sensibility largely emerged from the connections he found and forged between the worlds of classical music and contemporary song. “If I had been in another city, I don’t know if I would’ve found this niche area that I occupy,” Moose says.

His introduction to New York’s baroque-inclined indie scene began in earnest on craigslist. In 2002, he responded to an intriguing ad that juxtaposed the influences of Björk and Jeff Buckley alongside composers Benjamin Britten and Pierre Boulez. The ad’s writer was Shara Nova, who’s long made experimental chamber folk as My Brightest Diamond. Soon enough, Moose was seeing strings and woodwinds amplified in clubs amid typical “rock band” instruments. Then came an opportunity to play violin on an album by one of Nova’s friends, which turned out to be Sufjan Stevens’ conceptual masterpiece Illinois. “I didn't know I was playing on a record that would be a record that people talked about. We recorded that in the violist’s living room,” he remembers. “I felt really adept at that and thought, How do I find more work like this?

Along with Stevens’ Ditmas Park compatriots in the National, Nova also facilitated an early introduction to Anohni, whom Moose credits as one of the most significant musical presences of his life. (The pair’s working relationship continues to this day, most recently heard on 2023’s staggering My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross.) Then his buddies in the National linked him to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. That was the start of another deep partnership, with Moose helping to transform the band’s sound from loner guitar ruminations into vast, near-psychedelic sweeps.

In 2008, Moose co-founded the contemporary chamber-music ensemble yMusic with trumpet player CJ Camerieri, and the group continues to bridge the gap between the pop and classical worlds through their collaborations. As Moose’s network has expanded, he’s picked up credits with Paul Simon, Joanna Newsom, Perfume Genius, Blake Mills, Moses Sumney, Phish, and dozens more. “I don’t aspire only to work in pop music, but I don’t look down on doing it,” he says. “If I can contribute something and it survives, maybe it’ll make the song more interesting or unusual, and I will inevitably learn from it.”

Though Moose has been a working musician for his entire adult life, it wasn’t until last August that he released his first “proper” solo project, a five-song EP titled Inflorescence. Moose called on friends—among them Justin Vernon, Phoebe Bridgers, and Brittany Howard—for unfinished or otherwise loose material as his building blocks. Overlooking the urban grid that laid out his lifetime, Moose caught up with Pitchfork about how his craigslist leap of faith has kept him plunging into new territory two decades later.

Pitchfork: How did you come to focus on the relationship of strings and voice only for Inflorescence?

Rob Moose: It’s definitely been a gradual process. Over the years, I would notice in the studio that, after we had laid down strings—maybe just for a chorus or something—where I’d go into the control room, they’d just be listening to strings by themselves to pan them, or get a sound on them. They’d add the voice in, and a lot of times I just thought, “This sounds amazing. What are we doing with all that other stuff?”

When I’m arranging, I’m taking the voice and the chords of the song into consideration. I’m also trying to kind of duet with the voice, in places where it’s appropriate. I’m trying to create secondary melodies that are memorable, but I don’t overshadow what’s going on in the center of the song. I’m already thinking as if nothing else is there. What if we just removed the safety net, and really isolated those two things—what would the result be?

A lot of that comes through in the Copycat Killer EP with Phoebe Bridgers, which seems like sort of an on-ramp to Inflorescence.

Except it wasn’t in that order, actually! We made “Wasted” in like, 2019. I started doing [Inflorescence] in 2018, Sara Bareilles’ song first, when I was on tour with Paul Simon. Phoebe’s was second or third. [How Copycat Killer] happened was, she asked, “You know how we did that song ‘Wasted’? Can you do a whole EP of that?” [Her team] reached out to me two weeks before it was due. I had a four-week old son, and it was during COVID. I had made three of the [Inflorescence] tracks by this point, and I had spent hundreds of hours—Phoebe’s song, I worked on over six months.

I think anybody else would’ve said, “No, sorry, I have a newborn baby, and I don’t know how to do this that fast.” I just said yes without thinking. I’ve always just trusted myself to figure it out, but when the materials got to me, I was like, “I have no idea how I’m gonna do this in five days.” My solution was to stay up all night, four days in a row, from the hours of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. I didn’t feel like I had to create the version of each song. I could be even more weird, use more negative space, and be more whimsical. It felt like being in the U.S. Open or something, where each song was like a match, you go on to the next one, and then it’s just over. I wouldn’t have been able to do Copycat Killer if I hadn’t done the other tracks.

Have you conscientiously rearranged your workload away from touring and toward being in the studio more, or is that just how things have shaken out?

I feel like I sort of peaked with touring. Like, touring with Bon Iver 10 or 12 years ago for the self-titled record, seeing the band go from playing to 2,000 people to, by the end of the touring cycle, playing to 20,000 people in Europe. That was amazing. Another one was Paul Simon’s farewell tour. Between those two experiences, it left me a little bit like, what else could I do?

Some of it was just that my recording career kind of took off, and it became a liability for me not to be able to record music at the last minute. I get asked all the time to do something tomorrow. It’s really weird if somebody’s like, “I need this next month.”

You’ve called Anohni your most important musical teacher, what has that relationship been like?

I’m mystified by the fact that Anohni stuck with me, because when we met, I was a 22-year-old fresh out of college. I’m sure I was a huge pain in the ass. I worked really hard, I believed in what we were doing, and I was bowled over by Anohni’s voice the first time I heard it. But I had no awareness of the cabaret scene in New York City. Indie music really was all new to me. The approach of it felt very similar to what I had studied in chamber music. The way that we listened to each other, the sensitivity, the trust, the way that we could spend time and create these magical moments with the audiences—it was like classical music on drugs.

From that point, I got to work on a few of the [Anohni and the Johnsons] records that came after that and then started conducting the orchestras for those shows. It was like a whole other schooling—not just about the music, but about what matters about music, what you’re trying to communicate, and learning to empathize beyond what you personally understand. It all started to take on much greater meaning for me.

With people like Anohni, Sufjan, and the National, you’ve been working together in different capacities for around 20 years at this point. How have you developed in tandem with all of these acts as they’ve branched out?

It’s a hard thing to find as a musical community, especially coming from a conservatory experience—I don’t really know anybody that I went to school with anymore. I found this family through the indie rock, New York City world. It was those people—the National, Shara, Anohni. The family just kept getting bigger. Like, “Oh, hey, Dave Longstreth is coming by today.” It was and is an incredible orbit, and it’s not like all these artists sound the same at all, either. I’m still like a little brother to all those people, even as I feel so proud of what I’ve accomplished. Working on Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran records with Aaron [Dessner] is something I would’ve never anticipated.

In the case of Taylor and Ed, or with Miley Cyrus’ “Flowers,” do you have a different writing approach for these big pop songs?

I always assume that I’ll be fired quickly, but I’ve learned to trust my weird instincts. After a while, people are coming to you for you. I’ve always been interested in working with people who are seemingly very disparate from me musically but could be excited by what I would do, and I could also be proud of it.

One of the hardest ones to work on was “Flowers.” I had no idea it was going to be a massive song, but we had to go back and forth a lot of times. Usually, in these situations, I don’t interact with the artists, it’s the producers. They kept revising my line, and the changes they made were really good. If I listen to the first thing I sent them, it’s all the same notes and all the same order, but the little changes they made really made it better. I wouldn’t have known that I’d be talking about a Miley Cyrus collaboration in that way, where somebody improved my idea, and we stuck with it. Everybody has heard those strings.

Sometimes I worry that, as my career goes on and I work with more types of people, I will lose a certain edge. But I think what’s happening is that I am taking in more influences, more experience, and I have more confidence in my initial idea.