When Brisbane-based singer-songwriter Melody Moko released ‘Last Cigarette’ and ‘Benjamin’, the first and second singles from her new album Two Kids and a Radio, she gave listeners two heartfelt songs that were also sharp and insightful, quite apart from being melodically wonderful. If it seemed too much to hope that the album would be more of the same – well, it wasn’t. Two Kids and a Radio is complex and beautiful, and completely fulfilling for listeners who want songs that will take up residence in their minds and memories.
Moko’s first album, The Wreckage, was released in 2017, and she says that writing for Two Kids and a Radio ‘didn’t really start writing it until after I sort of settled down from touring The Wreckage and having Maggie, my second baby. So I started writing it, I reckon, in late 2018. It was quite a quick record to write, really. And there were quite a few co-writes on there, which was really different from The Wreckage because apart from one co-write with Catherine Britt The Wreckage was all my stuff and it was over a little period of time, but this one was more of a collaborative effort.’
Those co-writes came about, says Moko, because she made strong friendships with other singer-songwriters, like Britt and Natalie Henry.
‘When I was spending a lot of time in Newcastle, when I lived there, I developed such strong friendships with them that I let that writing thing become collaborative when it had always been a really personal thing for me. I guess I found people that I trusted and whose music I really loved. And so I allowed the record to go that way. I guess I got less protective over it. And I said, “You know what – I’d love your contribution on this.” I think it’s definitely a better record because of it, because I let go of my guard a little bit with that.
‘There’s definitely not a co-write on the record that is just a generic “sit in a room and write a song with someone you just met”. All the people that I’m writing with are my close friends or my husband, people that are really a big part of my life. So I think that really helped in that not only was I putting my personal thoughts of myself and the world and situations on paper, they were helping me to see how they saw me looking at the world, if that makes sense. Particularly there’s a few tracks on there, like “Woman So Mean” that I co-wrote with Natalie Henry, I can remember that write and I can remember her telling me certain things, like if I tried to put a lyric and she’d say, “Oh no, I don’t think that’s truthful. I think we can be more authentic than that.” And the same with “Last Cigarette”, which I wrote with Catherine, she actually came to me with the idea for the title. And she said, “I think this is your song. I’ve had this idea for this title, but I think it’s for you.” So I guess that helped in making the record not just personal for me, but other people’s opinion of me too, which I think is really interesting and different.’
There is certainly the sense on the album that Moko is singing to someone, telling a story, almost as if she’s sitting on the edge of a chair, leaning in towards someone and telling them about herself, which seems to reflect the experience she had writing the songs.
‘I didn’t realise that straightaway about the record – how personal and how much like a confession it seems,’ Moko says. ‘But the more and more I get feedback from people about it they say, “Wow, it’s just so honest. You’re really not holding back on being honest.” And I guess that is because there was a lot of co-writing and also because since doing The Wreckage, I’ve had a lot of things happen to me. I’ve become a mum again, I’ve been on the road. I’ve just matured as well and grown as a person. So I think that my truth is more apparent just in the person that I am, so why would I not want that to come across in my music too? I don’t have time for the nonsense any more. So I don’t want to put that in my music. I just want it to be, “Well, this is who I am and this is what we’re doing.”‘
As a performer Moko has is very open with the audience, taking them into her confidence in an endearing way, creating a sense of intimacy which, in the environment of a hall or pub or club, takes great skill. Moko says this is something that has developed over time, ‘and I think it has developed out of a couple of things … out of being on the road with people who also I feel have a real intimacy about their performance and also audiences that want that.
‘On the Country Halls Tour with Fanny [Lumsden], for example, those people that come to those shows, they work on the land, a lot of them are farmers. They’re regional, rural sorts of people. And they don’t want to listen to someone who’s talking shit, you know? They’ve got no patience for that, and that’s not what they’re like, and that’s not what country music fans are like, I don’t think. We want people to be honest, we want people to be intimate. And for me, I grew up never wanting to make music that wasn’t authentically me. I tried that for a while and it just didn’t work.
‘I also grew up really idolising Kasey Chambers. She was the first person I ever ever saw do a show. And I remember thinking how herself she was on the stage and the way she speaks to the audience and stuff like that, like she’s their mate, and I always wanted to come across that way too. So that helped me develop it. And then also I think just life experience and maturity too. I want to be at people to be able to relate to me, so I think the only way you can do that is to just be honest about your experiences and help people understand you as a person, then they understand your music.’
There is always a risk, of course, that the performer can then end up being quite exposed and quite vulnerable, although hopefully the audience has given Moko a soft landing.
‘I guess I’ve realised in the last 12 months when I’ve started on my social media – I do a lot of stuff around body positivity and self-love and body image,’ says Moko. ‘And I’m a mum and I don’t look like I did when I was 21 and I don’t look like girls in magazines, but I put myself out there and I’m happy to celebrate all that stuff. And I have found that taking those more extreme – what people would consider those more extreme – opinions that has been a little bit polarising for me. I was aware of that for a little while, particularly when I started doing that, and I stepped back from being so honest for a little while until I thought, You know what – if people don’t like this well, then, they don’t really like me or my music, so it’s not that important. I never want people to just like my music because they think it’s a fun bop or whatever – there’s so much more to it than that.
‘So yes, it can be polarising, and it can be scary to take that risk that there isn’t going to be a soft landing, but in country music most of the time there is,’ she says with a soft laugh.
Moko says that her ability to create that relationship with the live audience has ‘really has been born out of being a support act for such a long time. I’m not the person that they’re there to watch. Most of the time when I’ve gone on the road, it’s to be a support act. So I feel like I have to endear myself to the audience and it’s really important for me to make a big effort to do that. And I guess my way of doing it is to be really open, honest, and put myself out there and say, well, this is who I really am, and hope that that comes across well. And I guess generally it has. So I’m lucky.’
The album was recorded live, in Nashville, with all the musicians in the room at once.
‘I think on the whole record there’s about two overdubs,’ says Moko, ‘so that means somebody’s coming back and putting something over the top, which these days with recording, generally what happens is you send bits off and people record in their studio and then send it back. And it’s very much a digital thing that happens over time. That’s how we made The Wreckage. And I love The Wreckage and I never discount it as being a really special experience, especially having Catherine as the co-producer and working with [Moko’s husband] Michael, it was incredible. But with this record, I just really wanted to make something that was like a moment in time. Especially because we were in Nashville and it was just so inspiring being over there and the musicians were incredible and it was beautiful and warm and it was summer and all the things, so I wanted this record to really feel like it was a moment and that everybody was there in that moment, and I think you can really only get that from a live recording.’
Moko says that the album’s producer, Nielson Hubbard, ‘really cared about what we were making. So there was a little bit more time taken in working out what we wanted to say. And he was really good at making me see what I couldn’t see in myself as an artist … So he would say, for example, on “Benjamin”, I had imagined it as being this rollicky Brandi Carlyle, similar to The Wreckage, lots of big drums and fun, upbeat thing. And he said, “No, this needs to be rip-your-heart-out. beautiful, vulnerable. You need to be putting that there because that’s what this record is.” So he had this deep understanding of what the record should be.
‘So we did take a little bit more time. It wasn’t like that wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am Nashville thing. But in saying that in recording it live it definitely is a more efficient process because you’re not waiting for people to send their parts. That drives me mad. My brain is way too manic and ADHD to be waiting,’ she says with a laugh.
Moko says that when recording The Wreckage, ‘I never thought about “What is this song trying to say and how can we reflect that in how it comes out on the record?” What I really thought about a lot with The Wreckage was “How can we make this record sound really amazing?” and really put a lot of work into the production sounding perfect and sonically sounding great. And I think that sometimes that can be at the detriment of the message of the song. “Benjamin” is just a voice, an acoustic guitar and a fiddle. Not even a harmony on it. I said, “Oh, maybe we’ll chuck on a harmony.” Neilson said, “No, this is a confession. It’s you talking. It’s not someone else singing a harmony over the top.” And I said, “Oh, I guess.” It was a very different experience.’
‘Benjamin’ is a song about a road less travelled in terms of a relationship with a particular person, and how that’s influenced Moko’s life. Musically, there are any roads less travelled that have led her to the musical direction she’s in today?
‘I’ve always loved country music and it’s always been a huge part of my life,’ she says, ‘but I actually spent most of my teen years and early into my twenties in musical theatre, and that was where I was always going to be on stage. I was always going to be an actress. I really acted a lot more than I was a singer all through my teen years. And then my dad actually had a heart attack when I was 21, and he got through it but I remember thinking he’d always wanted me to play the guitar and he’d always said, “Oh, why don’t you just pick the guitar up? You could write songs! You don’t have to sing other people’s songs. You could write songs if you only picked up the guitar.” Every few years he’d come back with it and he’d try and give me lessons. And he’d say, “I’ll just show you some chords and we’ll see where it goes.” And I said, “No, Dad. I love country music and whatever, but I’m going to be actress or I’m going to be in musical theatre, I’m going to WAAPA or NIDA or whatever.”
‘Then when that heart attack happened and I was in a bit of a going-nowhere period myself, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life – I hadn’t gone to uni, all of these things hadn’t worked out for me – I thought, You know what, I’m going to pick the guitar up because that’s what Dad wants me to do. And if my dad had died when he had that heart attack on, I remember thinking how much I would have disappointed him that I never, ever picked the guitar up and just gave it a go and saw what I could do. Could I write a song?
‘And so I picked the guitar up and like started learning Taylor Swift songs at 21. I actually was quite a latecomer to the writing, playing guitar thing. Most people would have done that way earlier on. So I just sat on my bed and that first Taylor Swift song that I tried to learn was “Fearless” or something. And I literally would sit on my bed for hours and hours, just strumming, trying to get it right, trying to get it right.
‘And then I really quickly developed a love for the guitar and my dad was right,’ she says, laughing. ‘Then I started writing and it all went really quickly from there. I really loved writing. And the whole dream of being a musical theatre star just fell away because I realised that my first love isn’t actually really performing, it’s writing.’
However, Moko’s background in musical theatre goes some way towards explaining how compelling she is as a live performer, and also how well she understands the relationship with the audience.
‘I guess that I spent my whole life training to talk on stage and to be an actress,’ she says. ‘And so I think that all of that has been valuable to me as the artist that I am now …
‘I think that is such an important thing that we do really well in country music, is we care about the audience, we care that they’re there to have a good time … We think about them. We’re not just saying, “Well, this is my thing and too bad if you don’t like it”, and strum the guitar. It’s, “This is important that you guys have a good time and you’re part of what we do.” So I love that so much about country music … I think it’s what draws a lot of people to country music and particularly people who, say, come along to a show in the later years of life and they’ve not ever been a fan of country music, and then they sit through a show and they say, “Oh, wow. I really do love this.” And it is because they feel a part of something, I think.
In ‘Coming Up Roses’, one of the songs on the new album, there’s a line about ‘filling up the cup’. When Moko is asked how she fills up her cup of creativity and life, she says, ‘I feel like filling up my cup creatively has been an unconscious thing for the past five years, probably since Miller was born or since I married Michael and was exposed to so much music and so much on a day-to-day basis. Michael’s always producing or he’s playing with other people. So I’m always hearing things in the house. I’m always travelling and touring.
‘My cup kind of just gets filled by default,’ she says, laughing. ‘I don’t have to feel like I have to seek out my cup being filled musically and creatively because it’s such a part of my life that it just happens by default, and I’m so fortunate that that is the case. But I guess apart from that, filling up my cup outside of music, I’m really lucky to have two amazing, beautiful children and I really do enjoy time with them that isn’t crazy, busy travelling time. And sometimes I wish that I had a little bit more of that, but in saying that another thing that really fills my cup is them being on the road. We just took Miller, my oldest, on the road for a few shows of the Bush Pubs tour with Catherine Britt. And it was just so beautiful seeing him experience that, with the Outback, and experience what the gigs were like and meeting different people and things like that. I just love seeing my kids live that life and getting to experience things. So that definitely fills my cup.’
It is no doubt the case that Moko’s music ‘fills the cup’ for others – that it is the balm and the remedy they need to make a day better or, sometimes, to manage life. That’s one of the functions of art, and in creating a work of art with such care and mindfulness of the audience Moko has offered a gift that sustains her audience. It will be a treat to see her perform these songs live, once time and border openings allow.