In 2018 Mojo Juju cemented herself as an artist that bears paying attention to. Her latest album Native Tongue tells her segmented family history through a beautifully personal lens, and since that dropped it’s been all systems go.
There will eventually be a break, Mojo tells us, but with a hectic touring schedule covering the next few months, it won’t be soon. As she heads into yet another huge run of shows including Bluesfest and SXSW, we sat down in Newtown for a chat.
We sat down with Mojo Juju to chat Mario Kart, dealing with negativity, and why extensive liner notes desperately need to make a comeback.
HAPPY: You were raised in a musical household, I’ve read. What was that like and what kind of music did you grow up on?
MOJO: I grew up on jazz, I guess. Jazz was what my grandparents listened to, and I guess they’ve had a heavy influence on my musical foundations. But you know, my dad was into rock n roll and stuff like Sly & The Family Stone, so through my dad I heard Little Richard, those kinds of things. My mum was into the singer/songwriters, like James Taylor, Roberta Flack, Carole King… so I feel like there was a nice…
MOJO: Yeah, a nice entry point into music. I think all of those things have rubbed off.
HAPPY: Normally I’ll ask a folk singer that question and they’ll tell me their dad was a metalhead or something, but that actually seems to make sense for the music you’re making.
MOJO: It’s all kind of rubbed off. Also I grew up in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, so my own journey into my own journey into my musical discovery was Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Boyz II Men, like RnB, hip hop stuff. I think all of those things relate to each other.
HAPPY: Was anyone in your family active musicians?
MOJO: My grandmother was a singer and she did perform a lot. I guess she didn’t have a professional career in an industry sense but was very active locally, and I think had dreamed of having a career but wasn’t able to, you know? Then my mum played trombone, my grandad played the cornet, my uncle played the sax… everyone played something and they were all in bands at different times in their life. I think it was a big deal for Steve and I – my brother, who plays drums with me – to pursue that.
HAPPY: Was there ever another career path up in the air?
MOJO: Not for me, no.
HAPPY: For Steve?
MOJO: He manages somehow, despite our gruelling tour schedule, he has managed to actually hold down two careers at once. He’s an environmental scientist.
HAPPY: Cool, do you think your family influenced you on a conceptual level as well? Less the style of music they played but the way they approached music or talked about it?
MOJO: Yeah. I think particularly my grandad, he was just super passionate about music. He used to do stuff like he’d put on a record and be like “who’s this?”, you’d say it’s Billie Holiday, then he’d say “nah nah, who’s playing the clarinet?”, you know? He’d know every instrumentalist on that record, he’d know where it was recorded and what year, blah blah blah. That kind of passion and enthusiasm for music, that’s something I’ve inherited. When I grew up I was a total liner note freak, like you buy the record, put it on, then you read everything that’s printed on the cover, back to front. That excitement definitely affects the way I consume as a listener, but also how I write.
HAPPY: I find really extensive liner notes have gone to the wayside. The last record I bought just had absolutely nothing on it. ‘Music by so-and-so’ and ‘Artwork by so-and-so’ plus the tracklist, and that was it.
MOJO: I’m not into that, hey. You know, I get that a lot of people don’t read it because of digital… people forget about it. But the vinyl is an opportunity to go all out on the artwork and the packaging, so I’m here for the liner note freaks. I’m here for the music nerds, I’m going to give you everything I can give you, every single person who contributed to the record, I’m going to give you all the lyrics. I’m all about it.
HAPPY: That’s always been an old jazz thing for me, especially the instrumentalist stuff.
MOJO: I love on the old jazz records and stuff, and even early RnB or soul, where there was a bio on the back of the LP, like ‘Fats Waller was born in…’
HAPPY: Like a book!
MOJO: It is really cool. Maybe one day.
HAPPY: I recently went on a jazz binge on Youtube and the comments are insane. They’re like ‘That’s this guy on bass, this guy on trumpet’ and so on, it blows my mind the level of knowledge out there.
MOJO: Well I think that’s awesome, because it is more than just the vocalist, it’s so much more than that. And every musician who contributes has their own phrasing and their own flavour. It’s like listening to Tom Waits records, who I’ve often cited as one of my my favourite songwriters. Marc Ribot, who plays guitar with him, is also one of my favourite guitarists. It’s his tone, his phrasing, I love that shit.
HAPPY: Your shows on the Native Tongue tour included a lot of storytelling…
MOJO: These shows that we did at the Opera House and the Arts Centre, that was the band, there were three of us on stage, my brother and Yeo, and then we had all these guest vocalists on stage. Everyone who performed on the album came and performed it live with us, and I told all the stories behind the songs and gave a bit of context to the material. It felt really special to do that.
HAPPY: It seems like something that would be really conducive to a solo show, like just you and the audience.
MOJO: Yeah! But we had a full choir, you know, some beautiful lighting design by a guy called Pete Ruby, a full set design, there were a lot of people involved in that show. But it was probably one of the most intimate ways of showcasing an album.
HAPPY: Despite the fanfare?
MOJO: Oh yeah.
HAPPY: Pyrotechnics too, I’m sure.
MOJO: All of that. I’ve even got my own neon sign now, I got to do all of that kind of shit. Now I know how Beyoncé feels, right?
HAPPY: Those shows where you were telling these stories about your family, did your family come to any?
MOJO: Yeah, I actually cried on stage one night, it was really intense. I didn’t really think that through… how that would be. But it was really good, it was really nice, and I think it was a completely different way for them to see what I do. They felt really connected to it, and like they could own a part of it, which is cool.
HAPPY: How about fans? What are some of the messages like that you’ve received since the album and tour?
MOJO: It’s been really awesome, just the amount of people who have reached out and said that they relate to the material in their own personal way, and that it means something to them. When you’re writing stuff you try not to think about how it’s going to be received because you want it to be authentic and true to itself, and because it was such personal material I wasn’t sure if people were going to relate to that. But apparently they’re really common stories, because a lot of people thought it spoke to them and their experiences.
HAPPY: Not to give these people a platform, but what about negativity? I think a lot of people tend to underestimate the amount of hate and shit that people can get in an online forum.
MOJO: 100 percent. I’ve definitely experienced a lot of negativity and a lot of backlash to certain aspects of what I’m doing and what I’m saying, and who I am. And it comes from both sides; the places that you expect it to come from, but then your own community which can be shocking sometimes, and kind of confronting. Ultimately what I think it exposes and what it highlights is that the conversation around a lot of this stuff is really relevant and really necessary, particularly when it’s coming from within your own community. I try and meet that anger with empathy and compassion, because I understand why people who are marginalised can feel angry about certain things, but it’s often come out of a misunderstanding. People have their own reasons, I guess… distrust maybe. I’m definitely trying really hard to exercise a healthy level of self-care because you know, that’s part of it.
HAPPY: On a lighter note, I saw you recently did something like a Mario Kart tournament?
MOJO: [Laughs] That is true. We did a little bit of a partnership with Nintendo.
HAPPY: Sick! They’re on the top rung of partners you want to get, I reckon.
MOJO: It was pretty cool, it was probably one of the most fun things I’ve ever done for work… I don’t think it really constitutes as work. But you know, I’m going to take it. Not only am I a musician, but I’m a professional Nintendo player. And… Steve won. He beat me. He beat me at Mario Kart.
HAPPY: What were the stakes?
MOJO: There’s bragging rights!
HAPPY: What am I talking about? There’s always stakes.
MOJO: It’s siblings!
MOJO: No. I haven’t had a holiday yet, it’s just been non-stop. It’s just been festivals and all sorts of things, I think leading up to SXSW we do Friday and Saturday nights at Port Fairy [Folk Festival], Sunday night at [A Festival Called] Panama in Tasmania, then Monday at WOMAD in Adelaide, then we fly direct to Texas and play on the day we land.
MOJO: I may or may not survive…
HAPPY: You’ve made it this far.
MOJO: True. It sort of looks like that ‘til the end of May, so I’m looking forward to sitting on a beach somewhere in June. I might throw my phone in the ocean.
Catch Mojo Juju live:
Fri 8 Mar – Mon 11 Mar – Port Fairy Folk Festival, Port Fairy
Fri 8 Mar – Mon 11 Mar – WOMADelaide, Adelaide
Sat 9 Mar – A Festival Called Panama, Launceston
Fri 22 Mar – Spiegeltent Hobart, Hobart
Fri 5 Apr – Spiegeltent Canberra, Canberra
Thu 18 Apr – Mon 22 Apr – Bluesfest, Byron Bay – Tickets
Thu 25 Apr – Sun 28 Apr – The Gum Ball, Hunter Valley – Tickets
Thu 25 Apr – Sun 28 Apr – Bendigo Autumn Music, Bendigo – Tickets
Grab your tickets here.