Mo'Ju: Change has to Come
10 February, 2023
The award-winning songwriter reflects on a decade of music-making, being drafted into the culture wars, and their new album to be premiered live with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
By Hugh Robertson
There was a time, not long ago, when the music industry was built on shapeshifters.
Instead of being trapped in an endless hamster wheel of record-release-tour-repeat, some artists would emerge from hibernation every few years with a new album, a new sound and even a new personality. Bob Dylan, Prince and David Bowie all transformed before our eyes, defying our expectations of what their art “should” be.
Mojo Ruiz de Luzuriaga, known professionally as Mo'Ju, is determined to carry that same spirit of exploration and experimentation with them through their career – and they are well on their way. On 24 March Mo’Ju will release their fourth studio album, but a few weeks before that will celebrate with the grandest of record release parties: on stage at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, with the full might of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra behind them for Sydney WorldPride 2023.
“I've always said I never want to make the same record twice,” says Mo’Ju. “The thing that remains consistent throughout is that I'm a storyteller, and that's what I want to do. For me, it's about lyric and story and feeling. And there are so many different ways to tell stories.”
“I'm not, by any stretch, trying to compare myself to these artists, but you can aspire to the level of artistry of people like Bowie, or Prince, who constantly pushed the boundaries, and explored new music and were really unique unto themselves. That's the aim, that's what we're aspiring to – something that is distinctly my own.”
As is so often the case, Mo’Ju had worked for many years to become an overnight sensation. For several years in the late Noughties, Mo’Ju was in a band called Mojo Juju & The Snake Oil Merchants, a jungle blues rock band that released two albums of rollicking, rambunctious music that recalled Tom Waits (another musical shapeshifter) and could have been the soundtrack to a film of a Raymond Chandler hardboiled gumshoe novel. That mood carried over to Mo’Ju’s first solo album in 2012, before 2015’s Seeing Red/Feeling Blue saw a slick modern soul/pop sound emerge, always with Mo’Ju’s incredible voice at the forefront.
But it was their third album, Native Tongue, that saw Mo’Ju burst into the national conversation. The title track was an unexpected hit, ultimately winning Best Independent Single at the 2019 AIR Awards, its sparse and striking production the perfect platform for Mo’Ju’s hard-hitting lyrics about identity, self-expression and the struggles of moving through the world as a third culture (Filipino/Wiradjuri) kid:
It's easy enough for you to say / It ain't no thing / But I'm the one, you ain't the one / Been living in this skin / So if you want to call me something / Call it to my face / But I will not apologise / For taking up this space
That song, released amidst ongoing global conversations about race, identity, colonisation and more, was immediately swept up into the culture wars, and Mo’Ju branded as an activist and agitator by bad-faith commentators who mistook a very personal lyric for some sort of rallying cry.
“I really wanted to be acknowledged for the merit of my work and not with a disclaimer of ‘queer artist’, or ‘First Nations artist’, or ‘person of colour’, or ‘Filipino artist’,” says Mo’Ju with a slight hint of frustration in their voice. “There are many different intersecting parts of who I am. But the thing that I chose, the thing that I've worked towards in my life is to be an artist. And I wanted to be acknowledged for that.”
“I didn't want to have my identity politicized in the conversation around my work. Now, obviously, I speak a lot about my lived experience through my work, as I think all artists do to some degree. But the minute that I started to talk about experiences of homophobia, racism, or any of those things, it becomes, ‘Oh, Mo’ju’s an activist’.
“But I don't identify that way. Yes, I'll stand up for myself and the things that I believe in. But that's out of necessity, not always out of choice. I'm proud of who I am, the resilience of the communities that I've come from, and the people that have come before me. And of course I have respect and reverence for the people who have allowed me to have opportunities I have today. But also there's still a lot of doors to kick down.”
“But I think we're in a better place at the moment. At least we're having these conversations out in the open, but it can be really tiring. I don’t want to be having these conversations all the time. I have so much to say to my audience, and I'm really excited to talk about the work.”
The desire to talk about the work is totally understandable, especially when it has never been more ambitious or expansive. Mo’Ju’s upcoming fourth album is ORO, PLATA, MATA, its title borrowed from a famous, groundbreaking 1982 film directed by Peque Gallaga, Mo’Ju’s uncle. Gallaga died in 2020, and while they weren’t especially close, Mo’Ju says that having a family member working in a creative field broadened their horizons as a child.
“Growing up, I always knew I had this uncle that was a filmmaker,” recalls Mo’Ju. “He was one of the few creatives on that side of the family, and I could look to him and realise that not everybody had to become a doctor or nurse. As a young person, I was really intrigued by him, and inspired.”
“I actually applied to film school straight out of high school. It was always going to be music or film – and I'm so glad that it ended up being music, I tell you. But that said, I feel like there's always been something really cinematic in the way that I've approached music.”
That cinematic scope is writ large on this new album, which is inspired not so much by the themes of Gallaga’s film but by the structure of it – a structure that is itself inspired by a Filipino superstition about the power of three.
“It's an architectural superstition,” explains Mo’Ju. “You can't build things in multiples of three. So for example, if you are building a house, you can't build a staircase in multiples of three. You have to count it – oro, plata, mata. It means ‘gold, silver, ‘death’, so you can’t end on mata.”
“The film is set in three parts. This album is set in three parts, but the intention is that you have to start it again – it's a cycle. There are three songs in each chapter of the album, and three instrumental introductions to each chapter as well. And some songs have three movements to them, as opposed to a more traditional verse, chorus, verse structure. Even the chord progressions [are informed by the number three].”
“There are layers and layers and layers to it – this album was made during the pandemic, so I had plenty of time to go full concept and really dig deep on this one.”
Adding to the layers and layers, ORO, PLATA, MATA will receive its world premiere on 21 February, live in concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra at the Sydney Opera House. Performing even well-known songs with a full orchestra is a complex and complicated task, but performing brand new material for the very first time with a few dozen musicians added in is incredibly ambitious. But far from feeling overawed at the thought, Mo’Ju is hugely excited at the possibilities provided by performing with an orchestra.
“It's really cool,” says Mo’Ju. “I think it's really exciting that the very first time we get to perform this album will be with an orchestra, and it is really interesting to see how that happens.”
“A lot of the soundtrack for [my uncle’s] film was Puccini. Henry Jenkins, who is my producer and a very close collaborator of mine, we were listening to a lot of opera and of taking inspiration from that as we were writing the album. So the two of us were kind of digging into all of this. So it is really interesting to think that we were inspired by Puccini and opera, and then we've made this electronic version of that. And then we are coming back around again, and now that version will be performed by an orchestra. It's quite a little loop!”
“As it was happening, we were certainly thinking that there was an orchestral feeling in in a lot of the arrangements. And when we started working with Jamie Messenger on the orchestral arrangements, he was asking us, ‘How much of this will you guys be performing live and how much of it can we actually take and perform with the orchestra?’ So there was stuff that immediately lent itself to the orchestra, which is definitely going to be challenging for us to perform them without an orchestra!” says Mo’Ju with a laugh.
“For me, as a contemporary artist and an independent artist, I didn't really know if this was a realistic thing. I thought maybe it was a bit of a reach to have this opportunity. So when the wheels started to turn, I started to think that maybe this is happening because it's the right thing, you know? Maybe it's meant to be. And I am very privileged and very grateful for the opportunity.”
Perhaps because this concert is such a major milestone in Mo’Ju’s career, they are also taking the opportunity to reflect on the decade that brought them to this point, revisiting some older material to include in the show.
“This performance happens to be just a few months after the ten-year anniversary of my very first album,” explains Mo’Ju. “I was reflecting on that, and I just thought it would be a nice opportunity to do a little bit of a retrospective. So I am going to play something from every album and EP just as a way of kind of acknowledging that journey.”
“For me, it's hard because there's always a cringe factor, you know? I've evolved so much as an artist and I've matured and I've grown. But this allowed me to revisit some of this material and fall in love with it again, especially hearing it through the lens of Jamie Messenger. He helped me realise that these are good songs, they just need they need to be dusted off and given a little shine, a little bit of love and care.”
“I just want to create something that's memorable. I'm hoping that the long-standing, loyal fans who have been there from Day One and allowed me to evolve and change and grow, I hope that they feel acknowledged through the retrospective aspect of it. But I also want people to see the vision of this new album, which is The Thing.”
“I feel every artist thinks that their new project is the best thing they have ever done. But I really feel that, and I'm very excited for people to hear this album, particularly in this context. I want them to be fully immersed in it and to leave there feeling like they've witnessed my greatest performance to date. Not to put too much pressure on myself!”
"It keeps it interesting for me to be challenged outside of my comfort zone."
The ever-fascinating Mo'Ju talks us through their creative process and restless artistic vision, and their excitement at premiering their new album live in full with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra as part of Sydney WorldPride.