ON THEIR NEW ALBUM, Oro, Plata, Mata, a warm, really pleasurable soul/R&B listening experience that still bristles with demands for justice alongside the need for love, Naarm/Melbourne-based Mo’Ju found a new way to be. You might even call it a third way, in the same sense that they are a third culture Australian: with both Wiradjuri and Filipino roots, rural and urban history, traditional and contemporary sounds.
The album emerged from a personally complex period for Mo’Ju, involving Covid and a child, those influences evident on a record that crystalises their sense of self, and one that found a home recently in a concert with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
“I feel really good about this record. Yeah,” Mo’Ju says. “I did have a plan, I think. Probably more than most other records I knew exactly what the parameters were. I feel like I’m making music very differently than I used to. I’m more confident about who I am and what I’m doing. More confident to be that out in the world. And that changes things: you are entering into, or I am entering into every creative pursuit with real intention.”
Restrictions and rules, narrowing options, can have a positive side then?
“I think having parameters sometimes around what you’re doing actually breeds creativity rather than when you have limitless options. And I think you can hear that on previous records where I was like ‘I’m so inspired by some many things, and I have such eclectic tastes’, and it was really hard for me to focus on one thing. I was still figuring out what I was trying to do and what I was trying to say, whereas I feel like on the last couple of records that’s really changed.
“I think being able to home in and go, oh, this is what I’m doing and this is the framework for how it’s going to come together, in a way makes it more exciting and helps inspire me.”
To get inside this head and heart some more, today Mo’Ju undertakes the Reverse Kondo. Instead of getting rid of things, in this exercise I’m asking what five things – place, song, person, book/movie/art, and one other of their choice – Mo’Ju might bring into their life to give them joy.
“I live in Melbourne and I very, very naturally, I think, am drawn to the tropics, and I feel like that there is something about it that feels very at home for me. I struggle through the climate here, but it’s more than that, it’s more than that. I travelled to the Philippines late last year to stay at my family home and visit family and stuff, and there was something about that experience that was really grounding. It just reminded me that I probably need to do it more than I do. When I’m in that climate I think I’m generally healthier.
“I do think that I’d need to go and actively reconnect with home. I do do it here: I go and visit my mum in Dubbo, and that is always grounding. Being on country does that. It is a little easier to get to Dubbo than it is to get to the Philippines.”
A sense of place is very important to the work Mo’Ju’s done. Understanding themselves and then explaining that to us seems to have come from a greater understanding of the place or places that matter to them.
“Yes, that is correct. And I feel that there was a time in my life when I kind of ran away from it, because I didn’t feel understood at home. At home I had to be in the world and figure some things out before I could come back. I don’t think it was about the place catching up to me, but me being able to know exactly who I was to occupy that space.”
Sometimes you only know where you belong when you know who you are and what belonging means. Does belonging mean this is where you grew up, this is the memories you have? Or does belonging mean this is somewhere that actually resonates in you and gives you something?
“That hits the nail on the head.”
“You know what I think it is? That eternal quest, the pursuit of that song. I don’t ever want to stop creating. I’m surprised often at how excited I still get over music, because I’ve lived it and breathed it and been in the industry and seen all the bits that I don’t like. And I still love it. I still love to write and that is the thing that excites me most of all, the creation. I don’t know what the song is but it is the pursuit of that song. Maybe I won’t ever find, and I’m very okay with that.
“That’s why we keep coming back, right? Because you think that there’s something better that you haven’t discovered yet. Or something else. It’s exciting isn’t it? And literally the day that Oro, Plata, Mata dropped, I was on the phone with Henry Jenkins, who is the producer on this album and a longtime collaborator now, going ‘when do we get back? How do we get back in a room together? Can we start writing, I want to write now!’. I’m still searching, still.”
“I think that’s a really obvious answer: I have a child. Again, daily, I’m blown away by watching this person grow and learn and discover new things. Being able to see things through their eyes allows you to do away with all these other preconceptions and the way you overlook things. There is a real deficit of wonder in the world, when you are a grown person and been living in the world. When you see through the eyes of a child, it’s like, oh yeah, wow, why is that? Or, that is really beautiful, you’re right, and that is really interesting, I don’t know that.
“To have the opportunity to grow with them and relearn and reshape your own ideas, to find joy in little things, is really special. A privilege.”
“I recently just pulled out [Collected Fictions, of Jorge Luis] Borges again, who is one of my favourite writers. I haven’t read it in a really long time but he is still one of my favourite writers. I don’t know if it’s technically in the genre of magical realism but I think there’s a possibility and a wonder, and the way the surreal and reality overlap, I really like.
“But right now, what I’ve been reading his Rick Rubin’s Creative Act, and I’m loving it, loving it. I think that’s been really exciting to me to hear about someone else’s philosophy on creating.”
There’s an element of magic in that realism as well. Rubin offers some concrete things but there’s also these intangibles.
“Most definitely, and that is something that I’ve enjoyed. There is an element of you just have to surrender yourself to the process, and I really enjoy that.”
THEIR CHOICE OF SOMETHING TO BRING INTO THEIR LIFE
“Having a person and a child in your life, I think that, to me, naturally extends to community. And that is the thing that I think is most vital for me. I have realised, particularly coming out of the last few years of a lot of isolation, and also having a child, the importance of community. It’s so profound to me. On some level that’s cultural too: there’s always been that. But I don’t think I’ve realised it to the extent that I do now, just how important my community is, and that family that you create in the world. It’s everything. I’d be absolutely lost without it, and that is part of raising my child, it’s part of how I create music, it’s part of how I want to be and exist and interact with the world. It’s all community.”
Why doesn’t it happen more often?
“It’s a side effect of capitalism in the world that we’re living in that we really silo ourselves and we are taught to be self-reliant, and the importance of being independent. Those things are important to know how to be, and to do, but I think without community it doesn’t really mean that much to me. Even these shows that I’ve just finished doing with the orchestra, and this album that I’ve just made, it was so tied up in relationships with other people. It felt like, in a lot of ways … it felt very romantic actually. It’s this platonic intimacy that I have with all of the people are part of that inner circle and family that I’ve created.
"I think we are, again, really socialised to think that there is a hierarchy of relationships and the most important relationship that you have is with a partner or your child. I think those are important but I don’t believe that they are more important these other relationships. You get other things from those relationships. I don’t know where this expectation comes from that you’re supposed to be fulfilled by one single other person, or completely independent and relying on yourself; these narratives don’t add up to me.
"I think about that a lot, I really do, how important my platonic relationships are. They are actually familial. People say you don’t choose your family, but I don’t believe that at all, you do. To me that is the thing that feeds so much of my purpose and my desire to continue to create and be in the world. That’s the life force.”
Oro, Plata, Mata is out now.