The first thing that strikes you about Mojo Juju is her look. She cuts a fine figure in a tan three-piece pinstripe suit topped off with a natty hat, looking every inch the Pachuco gangster. The second thing that hits you is her voice. This woman can sing, from a breathy murmur to a sexy swagger to a bestial howl.
Mojo Juju may play her own brand of noir jazz but she is no chanteuse. She is a passionate artist with a stack of creative projects on the go and a stunning new self-titled album under her belt. We recently caught up to have a chat about that very album.
Mojo wears her influences proudly. She waxes lyrical about detective fiction luminaries Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammit and the classic films of Jim Jarmusch, clearly inspired by film and fiction as much as music.
“I’m a total nostalgia-file,” she admits, “always looking backwards, but you have to be relevant. You are not evolving the form if you’re not taking it somewhere.”
She sees her new album as a collection of short stories as much as a set of songs, and her band do a great job setting the tone for the rich world she evokes with her lyrics. The rhythm section of drums and upright bass nod towards the Vegas grind of 1950s strip clubs, and Mojo’s tremolo guitar sound entwines with the guttural moan of Darcy McNulty’s baritone saxophone to conjure up a sordid underworld of gin soaked nightmares and cigar smoke stained dreams.
“I work with musicians on what I think would serve the song rather than going in and arranging for them. A lot of melody lines are written on guitar but I’d be a fool if I didn’t say, ‘here’s a block section where you can improvise’. Everything that comes out of that guy [Darcy McNulty] is genius.”
Mojo tells me her greatest songwriting hero is Tom Waits, and that can be heard in the bittersweet melodies and dark underbelly of her songs. In a way, the new album feels like it’s picking up where Waits left off on his 1980 opus ‘Heartattack And Vine’, taking in both the musical world of off kilter jazz, gorgeous lullabies and gritty urban blues and the lyrical themes of hoods, bad girls and broken hearts.
“I’m also a fan of ballads,” she says. “When Tom Waits was writing ballads, that was my favourite era. Even on his latest album, it’s those songs I come back to.”
The yearning melancholy of her own ballad, ‘Train Down The Hawkesbury’, is one of the standouts on the new album. The band drop away and Mojo’s sweet and sad voice is accompanied by only electric piano. She sings of the broken dreams of the passengers on the train from Newcastle to Sydney. She tells me she wrote a hell of a lot of songs on that train line when she was based in Newcastle with former band The Snake Oil Merchants, and has just been back there shooting a clip for the song.
While the album is already out on CD and download, Mojo is thrilled for its imminent release on vinyl with some extra tracks, including a version of the old country song ‘Pyscho’ by Leon Payne (previously made famous by The Beasts Of Bourbon). She explains that she’s taken the song down a doo wop line, bringing in backing vocalists The Bangin’ Rackettes to add their distinctive flavour to the track.
“It was one of the very last songs we recorded. While we were tracking our drummer actually tore a hole in his snare by accident. He hit the snare, we said, wow, that’s perfect. If we can nail this take before that skin dies, we gotta use that. We somehow got through it and managed a perfect take; it couldn’t have worked out better.”
Mojo has made the transition from hardworking independent artist to being signed to Universal Records (licensed to the ABC) and managed by Russall Beatty from Sydney agency Tenderloins. She is clearly happy with the genuine support of management and label, allowing time to focus her creative mind and energy on the art rather than the business.
“All my musical idols, the people have inspired my creatively – writers and filmmakers – they have not had flash in the pan careers, they are people who have had a long slow burn.”
With Juju’s hectic pace, that slow burn could just grow into a raging fire.
Mojo Juju launches her self-titled debut album at Black Bear Lodge on Thursday November 15.