Photo: Aristos Latrou
We caught up with Dutch-South African singer-songwriter Joya Mooi, a few days before her single 'Remember' releases accompanied by a music video. The forward-thinking artist remains untethered to a specific genre, experimenting with Modern Soul and Alt-R&B in her well-received 2020 EP 'Blossom Carefully' and exploring sophisticated electronic soundscapes on 'Remember' alongside longtime collaborators Sim Fane and SIROJ. Joya gives us a glimpse into her life as a creator shaped by geopolitical and social catalysts, the interplay between different cultures and their impact on her artistic vision and more.
I discovered some of your songs on various Spotify playlists from the "Blossom Carefully" EP, and since then, I've just dived in and listened to so much of your music, but for those of us who may not know you, can you tell us a bit about Joya Mooi?
Yeah, sure! I think it's funny because most people get to know me through music, but each project sounds different. I write about identity, belonging, and feeling at home in many places in the world. So that's the main objective. You've listened to me since Blossom Carefully, in this case, so you know my electronic/R&B side, and because every project is so different, it's always another introduction, so it's funny.
It's great that you can transcend these genres, and as you said, people discover you at different times and moments in your journey. From Crystal Growth (2013) to Blossom Carefully (2020), you've blessed us with various musical stylings. What albums have informed your music-making now?
That's a good question. I try not to let my musical reference shine through because usually, 24/7, I listen to podcasts not even related to music. I make a lot of music, do most of the writing at home, and enjoy making music myself more than listening to it because I'm always over-analyzing the things I hear in music. But in 2020, I started writing for my upcoming project and added a playlist during the pandemic; it's called "Hazy Days," and it's mostly full of instrumental music, (John) Coltrane, Moses Sumney, and all these artists that make very esoteric music that's soothing. Sometimes the producers like to say, "Oh, maybe we should try to aim for this," and want to listen to that music during the session, and I'm like, "No, no no, we're not going to do that, we're just gonna think of a creative way to blend these sounds ourselves, and that's it." I think that's the most authentic way of creating because you always have these references in your head, but if you're looking for those cues in their music, then you're researching it and being more theoretical about it. I want it to be a more intuitive experience. I'm not saying I'm not influenced by music. I studied jazz over ten years ago and became so invested in music theory that it created this writing block. I felt like there's nothing better I could make since I've studied the greats, and now I have to do it myself. I felt very stuck. So I've chosen my path and way of creating.
You have South African roots, but you've lived in Holland. How has one culture impacted the other? I'm sure you have a rich family dynamic and have inherited quirks from both sides. Does this interpolation see itself in your songwriting?
Besides identity and culture, my family's experiences (and my own) are the main things that influence my writing; even my world perspective plays a role. Because my parents were freedom fighters, I think I have a different way of looking at politics or music. My father was a political refugee and a part of the ANC. My mother was raised in the Netherlands but moved to Angola in her twenties and met my father there. Your parents' choices influence how you view the world, so I think that it all shines through in all of us, not just my work and music.
Your video for "Bitter Parts" was shot in a room full of mirrors. And this strong visual is such a well-fitting extension of the lines you sing. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience - From conception to execution? It made listening to that song much sweeter.
I had this idea for the song, and I sent it to a director named Michael Middelkoop. I haven't worked with him since, but I liked his way of creating. Generally, with many directors, they have this particular aesthetic, but he is more of an idea guy. So his range of work is vast; he does commercials, makes music videos, and even Dutch series. The idea for this song was about seeing the not-so-great side of yourself, the bitter parts that you want to ignore in the mirror, and he had an idea that was hard to explain because it wasn't done before.He built a little box and got all the walls covered with mirrors, and he put a GoPro camera on top of my head. We didn't even test it out. The day of the shoot, I just got in the box, and a week later, I saw the footage, and I was like, "Okay, this is what you meant, this is very cool."
Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming single and how it came together?
The single is called "Remember." Funnily enough, before the session with my producer, I read a thesis called "What difference does it make who's speaking". When you read an article or a book, does the author matter to the story or how you perceive it? That was the inspiration for the song because nowadays, with social media, you see many book and music references of people who made art in the 50s and 60s. The world thought they wrote about radical stuff, but nowadays, it's like bell hooks is our Tony Morrison, the best ever, but then they weren't seen as great minds. So the song is a little bit of a reminder of all the things people are saying right now that may sound radical or progressive. Maybe we should listen more closely to those opinions and those thoughts because they may need attention now. The song is also about how your opinion can freeze because, a lot of the time, when you're forming an opinion about somebody, a political figure, or a neighbour, that opinion is based on one altercation, meet-up, or just one article. That first impression has a significant impact on all the other people you're going to meet later. So that's basically what it's about. And if you can change your mind about something, that's real growth, I think.
Your 2020 EP 'Blossom Carefully' is a blistering combination of tracks. Every song on there is so dreamy and has such a high repeatability quotient. Can you talk to us about some of the themes and narratives you've chosen to explore on your upcoming EP?
That's a good question. I got to say I don't know yet. As you said, Blossom Carefully was, in a sonic sense, quite 'hopeful' but what we see worldwide with the pandemic and BLM, I feel like I have to be more out there and a little bit more hopeful or expressive. I want change, and to create this change, I think I have to be bolder not only in sound but also in aesthetic. I want more than what the world has shown us. There are still a lot of things going on that I disagree with. The world is just a mess (laughs). The things I am writing about are personal but also geopolitical.
How has life during CoVID-19 been as an artist? How has it changed your plans for promoting/ playing your music? What about Live Performances?
To be honest, it wasn't so bad. I like to take my time with my music/writing. It mostly felt like a blessing because not performing resulted in more time to produce my music, and I even started producing music myself. So that's a big thing.
In terms of impact, what do you aim to achieve with your music?
I think 'achieving' is maybe a strong word for it, but I want to stay true to what I think is important to say in my music, and I'd like to find the right words and production for it. I don't think about goals; I already really feel blessed that I can create my sound because a lot of times, people in the industry say, "You can be more successful if you choose one lane so people would know what your band/artist is all about." I could do any genre, but it's the feeling of freedom and not being tied down to a label that says, "You only make R&B music." The aim is just to explore what I like to do. I believe in the art form of music. It can heal and bring a lot of joy. I'm not in this to make money, or I would create other music (laughs). It's hard to predict the future, but as long as I still enjoy making music, I will always choose authenticity.
What is the best piece of advice that has helped you maintain your artistry?
Ah, that's a good one! When I was 14 or 15, my sister said to me, "If you don't want to do jazz, you don't have to. You know you don't even have to make music if you don't want to. You can do anything you want to do. Remember that you have the freedom to change (It's your choice)." When people choose their lane, they often forget that they have the choice to change their minds. So that was very important advice, and I think about why she said that at that time. She is a theatre major, and so this advice applies equally to her as well. If a project doesn't work out and if you stop, you're not a failure. You tried it. Sometimes, quitting and moving on can be such a relief!
If you could be a fly on the wall in any studio session , past or present, to see how they made the music that they did, which artist's studio session would you pick and why?
Uff, that's a hard one. I am so intrigued about how they used to record things—everything from the 60s and 70s. I am so intrigued by how they did what they did. But songwriting-wise, I would love to see a session with Frank Ocean during his Nostalgia album, or maybe Yussef Lateef or Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. Picking one is hard!
Thank you for taking the time, Joya. We look forward to your new single 'Remember' and the video that's out this week. Good Luck!
Words by Akhil Hemdev & Keerthana Sudarshan