The chatter around the world of music this month is all about looking back at the year that was and proclaiming the best albums, songs, moments of 2021. And, by and large, those tend to be the albums, songs, moments made by above the radar artists with healthy promotional budgets or major label backing.
Worthy as some of those accolades are, they’re also reminders of the other musical economy that has, since time immemorial, been snowed over by the names that grace magazine covers and nab the top spot on year end lists. In nearly every developed city and town around the world, working class musicians grind away, soundtracking pub crawls, farmer’s markets, corporate events, and block parties. They are the love laborers who, sure, wouldn’t scoff at some kind of big ticket success—or, at least, be able to pay the bills with their art—but are otherwise relatively content to bounce around their home city/region and make a righteous noise for whomever might be within earshot.
When I think of musicians like this in Portland, my mind immediately goes to the husband/wife duo Mojo Holler. For the past decade, Missi Hasting and John Baker have been a steady presence in and around the city, mining the rich history of Americana, pop, and rock and making fantastic use of Hasting’s ragged, impassioned vocals and Baker’s preternatural gifts as a instrumentalist. Along the way, they’ve built a tidy fanbase and comfortable reputation—not enough to allow them to jettison their day jobs (he’s a landscaper; she’s a private tutor), but more than enough to keep them booked year round.
“We’re very reliable because we no longer drink,” Hasting says with a knowing chuckle. “We reliably make people happy when we play. So over the years, we’ve been able to be a regular or develop a few residencies. Honestly, we’d love to be doing bigger venues for more money, but we love playing. So we go where people will listen.”
There’s a lot to listen to with Mojo Holler. The duo’s latest album ROOT is raw and nervy, intimate and open. A blushingly sweet love song like “Apple Tree” gives way to the punch-drunk blues of “Star of the County Down” and the chilly “River Crossing.” Surrounding those tunes are guitar rags and tender folk and the other various colors of American roots music. Live, Hasting and Baker stretch out even further, playing to their typical barstool bound audience with cover tunes both surprising and familiar and well-rehearsed banter.
I get a touch of the latter when I ask them about how they met. It’s a fantastical story that the pair like to tell while Baker’s swapping instruments or tuning up. Hasting grew up in the South, and for much of her adult life lived in Austin, where she raised a small family, worked at a nonprofit, and made music. And, as she says, “dating musicians left and right.” When she pulled up stakes and came to Portland in 2011, she vowed to focus on her art and only date non-musicians.
Baker came into the picture soon after her arrival, and they hit it off instantly. Though their connection felt electric, Hasting vowed to herself that she wouldn’t invite him up lest he get the wrong impression. When he leaned in for the first kiss, a meteor fell at that exact moment, lighting up the sky for a brief moment and sizzling in the air. She invited him up.
To this point, Hasting only knew Baker as a landscaper. Inside, he spotted her guitar. “I totally exaggerated my prowess,” Hasting remembers. “‘Do I play guitar? Oh yeah, I’m from Austin.’ I said, ‘Do you play guitar?’ He totally downplayed it.” Baker picked up the instrument and played a Bach prelude. Three weeks later, the two moved in together and haven’t been apart since.
It’s a great story, and sounds even better as they tell together, interrupting one another at the right moments with sharp comic timing and ending on a sweet sentiment. “We’ve been making music ever since,” Hasting says. “The last 10 years has been all of my dreams coming true, to the point that I’m just making up new dreams now.”
At the same time, the last two years have been a challenge. Until very recently, the pair couldn’t play any gigs. It was particularly tough to swallow, as they had hit a great groove. “Our income from music was increasing,” says Baker, “and with that, we were doing less of the other stuff.” They were grateful to have the work to fall back on once the pandemic shut down the live music scene, even if it meant Hasting having to mop floors a couple of days a week to make ends meet.
Even now as gigs are happening again—the duo has dates booked up through 2022, including a monthly residency at The Schooner Restaurant & Lounge in Tillamook—the venues are paying less and don’t need Mojo Holler to play for as long as they once did. At the same time, says Hasting, customers “are tipping really well right now. They’re making up for it. People are so grateful.”
The gratitude goes both ways. Even a decade later, Baker and Hasting seem genuinely humbled by the fact that they are able to make music at all. “It doesn’t mean that it can’t be shitty,” says Hasting. “I’ve had a lot of rough stuff happen in my life. But in terms of where I was before, meeting John and making music is just perfect. I can’t complain at all.”
Mojo Holler will be performing at Artichoke Community Music (2007 SE Powell Blvd., Portland, OR) on Saturday December 11 at 8 pm. Tickets: $15. Proof of COVID vaccination or a recent negative COVID test required for entry.
Practice, practice, practice
When I ask John Doe, co-founder of legendary punk band X, about what he and his cohorts are doing to make sure they’re taking care of themselves when they’re on tour, he starts laughing at me before I’ve even finished the question.
“Practice, practice, practice” is his response. “We don’t act like fucking teenagers. We don’t party. It’s just self-maintenance.”
Doe acknowledges that my question is a fair one. X’s merciless guitar player Billy Zoom is in his early 70s and a cancer survivor. The rest of X—Doe, vocalist Exene Cervenka, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake—are all in their mid-to-late 60s. The music the quartet has played since they joined forces in the late ’70s is fast and stinging and sensual. X’s rockabilly-inspired riffs, charged rhythms, and poetic lyrics of hardscrabble living can, at the right volume, feel like a bite to the lip after a deep kiss.
Though the band tempered their attack during their first run together, with the engine rev of early albums like Wild Gift and Under The Big Black Sun giving way to the rootsier gloss of See How We Are and the measured Hey Zeus!, X came roaring back last year with Alphabetland, their first full-length in nearly two decades. Recorded with Rob Schnapf, the record is loud and furious, with melancholy and yearning marking each song like a streak of silver.
The release of Alphabetland caught everyone by surprise. X didn’t announce it beforehand, and critics and fans were taken aback to hear the group in vintage form.
“I think we got a good response because we played to our strengths in writing and rehearsing and arranging,” Doe says. All those steps that a record takes to become real. We didn’t try to reinvent ourselves. Also it came at a time when people were hungry for something. Anything.”
Doe also notes that the process of making Alphabetland was collaborative in a way that X really hadn’t done in 40 years. They’ve been touring frequently since they got back together in the late ’90s to support the release of a career retrospective, and the other three members of the group did what they could to help Zoom as he fought bladder cancer. The last few years were the right time to make new music because they had become closer than ever, and, as Doe admits, softened with age.
“It’s like a family,” he says. “And families are complicated. You don’t talk about certain things and certain things you can. You try to encourage people to be the best that they can. As you get older you tend to sweat the small stuff even less. We’re good. And we have been for a long time. Even when Exene and I split up.” (She and Doe were married from 1980 to 1985.) “This is a career. This is what we fucking do. You make concessions and you make amends. And look at what’s important and not what’s passing.”
As the members of X look around now, they’re happy to see that their music is still having some kind of effect on the world. At the band’s recent shows in their hometown of L.A., Doe couldn’t help but notice the number of younger fans who muscled their way to the front and sang along with every word of the ropy and riotous title track to X’s 1980 debut album Los Angeles.
“It was to the point where it was hard for me and Exene to keep our place in the song,” Doe says. “Then I started thinking about how much that song has meant to people in L.A. over the years and I got all choked up and I fuckin’ blew the end of the song. My sensitivity training has paid off.”
X will be performing at Revolution Hall (1300 SE Stark St., Portland OR) on Saturday December 11 at 8 pm. Tickets: $40. Proof of COVID vaccination or negative COVID test required for entry.
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