Music

Over the past year, parenthood and the pandemic have given ARIA award-winning artist Mo’Ju the chance to think big about her next album. By Maddee Clark.

Mo’Ju

Mo’Ju’s workspace.
Credit: Mo’Ju

Mojo Ruiz de Luzuriaga – best known by her stage name Mo’Ju – is a multi-award-winning Australian musician with roots in the Philippines and the Wiradjuri Nation. Her music hit a nerve for her ability to play with genre, and for its authenticity and honest storytelling.

Since the release of her hit album Native Tongue in 2018, Mo’Ju has experienced a long period of touring and travelling. After performing more than 200 shows internationally in 18 months, she took a three-month break at the beginning of 2020, before lockdown forced a further retreat to the home. This period of rest from the global circuit allowed Mo’Ju to focus her energy back on the process, and the joy, of writing and creating new music.

How are you doing?

I’m doing well. I feel like one of the lucky ones in terms of 2020, in that from the outset I knew that stuff was going to be pretty slow through the year. I let myself embrace that. Not to say that it wasn’t difficult; being separated from the family was hard. Our family went through a lot in 2020. Two babies were born and we also experienced loss … death and illness of family members. It was difficult to be kept apart through that. But it put things in perspective. I became a parent this year for the first time, so it gave me the chance to spend time with the little one. If I hadn’t been in lockdown, I’d be touring, feeling like I needed to work. I took three months off at the start of the year because I was really burned out, and I was meant to resume playing shows the week we went into lockdown. So I just went, “Okay! This is what’s happening, I’m going to be present where I am.” That’s a blessing.

I needed rest, I’d been working hard. It gave me the opportunity to actually be home and write. All of a sudden I had perspective and time to reflect on some of the things that I’ve been processing in the last few years.

Where is that taking you now? What is it that you have been wanting to write about, that lockdown gave you the chance to engage with?

I started work on a deeply conceptual record. I’m writing, in some ways, about experiences I’ve accumulated over the past few years as well as experiences I’m having in the present, the things that we’re all living in the midst of. I’ve been thinking about the global pandemic, the waves of protest for the Black Lives Matter movement, that we started the year in bushfires, that every year the environmental situation feels more and more urgent. I’ve been sitting with these ongoing conversations – conversations that we’ve been having forever, that have been given fresh momentum. I have a concept within all of this. I have been able to write that concept down, revise it over and over, allowing it to get pretty meta! I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I’ve felt a real culmination of political unrest.

I really felt that the pandemic forced us to have to look at all the ways that you engage in and interact with the world, with politics, with other people. Everything is intrinsically political – identity politics, race, environmental politics, economic politics. It’s all linked. I felt like everybody is faced with these ethical dilemmas at the moment, with an existential crisis. We’re all trying to figure out what we’re supposed to do, what it means and why it’s all happening now. What can we learn from it? What can we do with it? That’s a lot to grapple with. Music is the way I process all of that. It’s like a deep intensive therapy.

It sounds like you’re working on something you’re really inspired by. How does that compute practically with working from home?

I’m in a really co-operative and amazing co-parenting situation. Our family works really well. We’ve learnt how to communicate in an amazing way, and we’ve been scheduling really intentionally. I’m usually haphazard, definitely not by nature an organised person, but I’ve been learning, and I’ve found out that it works well for me. I’ve been disciplined with how I use my time that is for me to create, that is allocated to the studio.

Do you do some of the writing on paper, theorising things before you begin making sound?

Yes and no. Some days I’ll just get on the instruments and begin making sound and try not to think too much. I will work with sounds, with melodic ideas and patterns. Sometimes it will be in collaboration with other people.

Sometimes, though, I love to conceptually sit down and get an idea of what the album is as a whole. I’m past the point as an artist where I write some albums which are just a collection of songs, and then you’re looking for a thread to tie them together. Lately, I’ve been wanting to work with a concept as a starting point. That excites me, and this album is the most planned and thought-out conceptually that I’ve ever done.

I’ve developed the ability to be ruthless, so if something doesn’t fit with the broader narrative, I’ll keep writing. I’ve been really disciplined in my approach, to keep sticking to that concept. I’ve explored and experimented with lots of different sounds and approaches.

What I enjoy, I’ve realised, is to be still learning, to be still green. That’s the whole point. I believe that the minute we stop being open to learning as artists, we risk becoming bored or boring. I’m not prepared to be bored or boring. I don’t think you have to become that way, and that excites me. There’s only more to learn, and I’m in a growth stage. I get to push myself, that’s a luxury, to grow bigger and better. The creation process is the most thrilling.

I also love collaborating, and during isolation we found ways to make that happen. We’d do Zoom sessions where we’d share screens, working on music together in real time. Other times we’d bounce files back and forth – “I made this today, what do you think?” – and they’d take some of those ideas, mess with them, send them back. We did a lot of phone calls and FaceTimes and talking things out too. I’m all about platforming others, and creating more opportunities for my community. That’s how I like to think of things – you’re creating space for others. You’re just one of many people that have come before and one of many that will come after. You have to clear a path for others; that’s exciting.

Of course, you can’t divorce the day-to-day life of your creativity from the relationships you hold, from your community.

For sure hey, I feel like it’s a lot about family and community. The older I get, the more that idea is reinforced. For me, it’s less about ego or former ideas I’ve held of what “success” is. I’ve become less driven by that. Priorities have changed and other things feel more important. I’m pretty private. I’m not motivated by fame or notoriety. I’m motivated by making art and becoming better at what I do. Of course I want to continue to sustain a career in the music industry. But I also want to stay true to my artistry and remain honest in my songwriting. I can’t compromise on authenticity. 

Mo'Ju is appearing at the Brunswick Music Festival on March 6.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2021 as "Mo’Ju".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor. They write the In Progress column for The Saturday Paper.