Moor Mother ‘Jazz Codes’ Interview

Sometimes the artists you think will be scary as hell one-on-one turn out to be the nicest people around. A couple of years ago, I interviewed avant-garde vocalist Diamanda Gálas, whose art is often terrifying and who regards audience and cameras with the withering glare of a witch queen. She turned out to be open and friendly and laugh-out-loud funny, and the hour or so we spent on the phone was a pure pleasure.

Moor Mother’s work is often stark and excoriating. On her albums Fetish Bones and Analog Fluids Of Sonic Black Holes, as well as her work with Irreversible Entanglements, the artist born Camae Ayewa forces the listener to confront blood-soaked history and the bottomless sorrow of multi-generational mourning, coming at you like a priestess of the apocalypse. You want to turn away sometimes, but her low, infinitely patient voice draws you in and forces you to listen, to look, to think. She’s often furious, and rightfully so, but just as often she lives up to the second half of her stage name, delivering some of her most accusatory lyrics in a tone that brings to mind the line your mom could always stab you right through the heart with: “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed.”

But both times I’ve interviewed her, she’s been incredibly friendly and open, almost blissful at times. She thinks very deeply about every aspect of her work and her presentation, and is happy to discuss her creative process, her own status within not only the “music scene” but the art world as well (her collective, Black Quantum Futurism, appears at international art events like Documenta). I called her on July 1, the day her latest album, Jazz Codes, came out; she was in Paris and in a particularly good mood, despite being surrounded by chaos. “Right now I can’t even cross the street because there’s some sort of parade,” she said.

Jazz Codes is very different from Fetish Bones, Analog Fluids Of Sonic Black Holes, or even the work of Irreversible Entanglements. It started out as a collection of poems, many if not most of which were written as tributes to people she knows or just artists she admires; the names mentioned include Amina Claudine Myers, Mary Lou Williams, Woody Shaw, Betty Davis, Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Milford Graves, Albert Ayler, Nina Simone, and scholar and critic Thomas Stanley. Joe McPhee gets a shout out in a track title as well. And throughout these intricate sonic collages, built with frequent collaborator Olof Melander, samples and drum machines blend with live instrumentation until it’s hard to tell what’s what. Pianist Jason Moran, flutist Nicole Mitchell, and various members of Irreversible Entanglements appear, along with a vast array of guest vocalists including Melanie Charles, Elaine Mitchener, Wolf Weston of Saint Mela, Justmadnice, Alya Al-Sultani, AKAI SOLO, Fatboi Sharif, and more.

Jazz Codes is an album about love: love for art, love for artists, love for oneself, love for one’s community. And over and over in our conversation, Moor Mother talked about positivity, community building, and that kind of deep humanistic love. Has she still got seething rage to spare? Oh, yeah. But for this album at least, Moor Mother is coming from the love side.

Was this album assembled as a single thing, front to back, or did you make one track after another until you had an hour’s worth of material? And how unified is the concept? Explain how this record manifested for you.

MOOR MOTHER: I sent Olof [Melander, Swedish producer and frequent collaborator] an email and I said, hey, I got this poetry book, I just wanna read a couple of poems, with just some simple jazz loops. You know? Just really short, nothing like an album, and then I picked some tracks that I liked, and I ended up singing the poems instead of reading them. So I made about 10 tracks of just me singing, having fun with the poems, and I just loved them. So I wrestled with it for a while, like, okay, let me get a singer to sing it with me, let me just keep trying to sing these over and over and over again to get ’em where I want it, and it was kinda like that. They just sat with me as these kind of songs that I loved to sing that were poems. And then I started to reach out to some of my friends in Philly and have ’em come over and sing something and — you know, it just wasn’t working out to what I needed it to be, so during quarantine I was really kinda like on a hunt for someone I can be brave enough to approach that would, you know, sing on the track with me or just sing exactly what I was singing on the track, without me. And that’s kinda how it worked, how it started.

A lot of the tracks are very short, especially when compared with Irreversible tracks, which really stretch out. What is your compositional principle? Is it just “Get this one idea across, then end”?

MOOR MOTHER: Well, Irreversible’s a whole different band. Moor Mother has always had short songs, since I started. But yeah, I don’t tend to make long songs. I have just a handful of four- or five-minute tracks in my catalog, you know? But that’s actually gonna change with the next record [laughs]. Yeah, so that’s kinda why it’s like that.

You’ve just always thought in those concise terms?

MOOR MOTHER: Yeah, well, I’m always coming from punk rock, and I’m also staying true to the poem on the page with these pieces. They’re this book I wrote of poetry called Jazz Codes. Some of the poems are dedicated to certain people I look up to, honor, played with, so they’re not long. Maybe some were long, but not a lot of the ones that I wanted to put on the little booklet CD, you know?

How much of the music is sampled and how much is live? For example, on “Arms Save” there’s flute, which is Nicole Mitchell, who’s credited, but there’s also sax and trombone. Are those sampled, or was somebody playing those?

MOOR MOTHER: Yeah, they’re like — not so much sampled but treated. They’re treated sounds. Found sounds, treated, and then some are live players. So when I have the loop, I sit with it, I’m like, okay, I want this type of singer. Then I’m like, hmm, I hear a little extra flute on this, I hear some opera, I hear strings, I hear whatever I hear. Then I go out and source, but they don’t always… the live playing doesn’t always go to what the people think they’re playing to. Things get moved around. Sometimes maybe the flute works with this [other thing] better, you know? So it’s not something that’s assigned. It’s more like orchestrating once you get all the pieces. That’s my job, to just bring all these things together.

So you have a library of sound files that aren’t particularly assigned to a given track from Day One.

MOOR MOTHER: Yeah, live sounds, yeah.

What tools are you using to make this music? Is it all done on a laptop, or did you put in any time in pro studios or anything like that? What’s your process for solo work?

MOOR MOTHER: No. I always record at home, and Olof, who [helped] with the production, he works at home also. So no one — I mean, I don’t know if maybe Aquilles [Navarro, Irreversible Entanglements trumpet player] went into the studio when he was home in Panama, but one track he just played on the beach. It’s this kind of thing, it’s wherever people are.

What do you use? Logic, Ableton, something else?

MOOR MOTHER: I use anything [laughs]. I don’t have no loyalty to any particular thing. Sometimes I’ll do something in Logic, sometimes it gets recorded because I’ll want to use a technique in another program. Real simple. Real simple.

Just whatever makes the sound that you need to make?

MOOR MOTHER: Yeah [laughs].

Jason Moran’s on this record! How did you two connect?

MOOR MOTHER: Well, you know, I’m pretty… in my mind, and some people’s minds, I’m out here on the jazz circuit lighting a fire with my band Irreversible Entanglements. So when it comes to jazz cats, we know each other. We come together, we see each other play, we respect each other, we understand what each other has given and also how they inspire within the jazz community. So that was a no-brainer, to hit up the great Jason Moran. And I know he’s — I know what he does, you know? It’s not like… I’m not reaching out to people…well, at first I didn’t know Justmadnice so much, but we worked together so well, that that was an easy friendship, and they live in Philadelphia and we’ve worked, we’ve been to different spots in the country performing live improv together. But most of the people I already know and have met in real life. Or shared a bill with.

Jason has a lot bigger ears than I think people realize. He had a band with Mary Halvorson, which I would never have predicted as a combination.

MOOR MOTHER: I’m not surprised. He’s a scholar, he’s a historian. I would put nothing past who he would work with and the avenues and things that he goes into.

When I saw the first single was called “Woody Shaw,” I was really excited, because he’s someone I love who I kind of have to preach to people about — he’s not a name that’s recognized the way he should be. What does his work mean to you?

MOOR MOTHER: Aw, man, that would be my trumpet player, Aquilles Navarro, put me on to Woody Shaw. I mean, it’s a collective story, you know? It’s about what so many of these jazz musicians have went through and innovated and given, you know, to what we know. And this is kind of like — just an offering of sweetness to the pioneers, to the people that their energies came to sit with me as I’m processing this and putting this intention forward, and Woody Shaw was just so futuristic. One of the first names that came to sit with me, as I decided to do this project. There’d be a lot of these kind of characters, these people that would push me or make it really easy — to move with ease with the poem, with the song, you know. So yeah.

You made that video with the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra — was that part of a larger thing? Is there a future project coming?

MOOR MOTHER: Yeah, we’ll do a show and collaborate in the future. I don’t kind of meet people, what do you call it… I don’t meet people as disposable or something like this. If you meet me, and we have a kinship, oh, you know [laughs], no need to worry, you know what I mean? I’ve got you in my web. I’m sticky.

There’s another track on here that’s dedicated to Amina Claudine Myers, and she’s like Jason in that she’s so deeply entwined with jazz history and the roots of the music.

MOOR MOTHER: Are you kidding me? Amina Claudine Myers is everything to me. I had the opportunity to honor her at the Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh with Nicole Mitchell and Jason Moran, and I was able to write a poem for her and read it. So I wanted to incorporate that. She’s my all-time shining star. She’s my sun. I write her emails, she’s so sweet, you know. And the track’s called “So Sweet,” and it’s about this song she’s got, “Jump In The Sugar Bowl.” It’s fun — “Jump, jump, jump in the sugar bowl” — so I took a bit of that, and then I took a bit of her history and wrote about a crush. And then — not a crush of mine, but like the story of the jump in the sugar bowl, just thinking about Amina.

And then I also was thinking about Nipsey Hussle, actually. I didn’t know much of his work, which is unfortunate, until he had passed away, or like right before he passed away. And just thinking about this kind of Crips and Bloods thing, and this street territory amongst the sweetness. That’s one of the ones where I kept my vocal singing on it with Justmadnice and just felt comfortable, because Justmadnice is so easy, and just holds my voice with such care. So yeah, we’ll be out on the road together, definitely, when I tour next year, ’cause I have plans to tour with a band as Moor Mother. I’m really excited to bring these kind of voices alongside mine and honor so many people daily, known and not known, you know?

There’s a new Irreversible Entanglements single. Was that done specifically for Sub Pop, or was it an outtake from the last album sessions?

MOOR MOTHER: We were on tour in Chicago, and I love getting in the studio, and I’m like “Hey, guys, let’s go, we’re gonna get into the studio. I found it, and we have an off day,” and we went in and just recorded. It was unfortunate, we didn’t have our trumpet player, Aquilles Navarro, he was in Panama, so we later sent it to him and he put some overdubs on it and that’s it. And then we had an opportunity with Sub Pop to release a single and we said, “Let’s take two tracks from the Chicago session.” So there’s more tracks from the session — we just picked two. It was a fun session.

That group’s voice has evolved significantly over the three albums. Where is it going next, do you think?

MOOR MOTHER: Oh my goodness. We’re gonna go so hard on our next record, it’s absolutely like — I can’t even take it. It’s pandemonium. Okay? It’s like, oh my goodness. The next record’s gonna be so rich. We have so much music that we want to share with the world, it’s nuts. People are not gonna be able to even guess what we’re gonna put out next. And that’s how it is. No prerequisite, we’re gonna keep moving, but yeah, this next album, oh my goodness.

You’re on tour in Europe now, and you’re teaching in California as well. How has the increasing embrace of your art, and all the professional opportunities that that’s brought, impacting your capacity for activism? How are you staying involved on the ground in Philadelphia?

MOOR MOTHER: Because I travel so much, I’m not able to stay on any ground. But my work speaks for itself. You know? Any performance, any poem, any songs, like, I’m in so many bands, the message gets out there. And the message is fresh and it’s poignant and it’s recognized and it’s seen by other artists, by the audience. I make people really look into themselves and question, so my voice is always gonna be this anchor of love and positivity. And history, and future, always. I just got finished — we just did a huge installation, my collective Black Quantum Futurism, at Documenta 15. We did a performance, we got all kinds of our work in the subway all around the city. So we do these kind of large-scale installation practices everywhere we go. To me it’s not some compartmentalized structures of life; it is life. This is how we move.

How do you feel you’re evolving as a writer? I always wonder when I talk to other writers, can you feel yourself getting better? I feel like I can sometimes. I can read old shit from 20 years ago, and I can tell it’s me, but I wouldn’t say things the same way now. Do you have that impression of your own work?

MOOR MOTHER: It’s kinda hard to say, because I work a bit ahead of the industry system. So you know, the time that I get to put out what I’m writing right now is already gonna be two years from now. So it gets a bit frustrating in that kind of way. Because like I said, I already got my next album done, and then I’m working on the next album after that, so I still have to wait and so it kinda confuses and blurs things, the way that I work, but I’m going to take a break, try to catch up with myself [laughs] and just write and write and write, but I want to take the time and do that, just finishing up all this work that I’ve completed. But one thing — I don’t have my writing on a timeline, so I’ll use anything. I’ll use something from 1999. I don’t have any problems with that. If it works, it works.

I feel like you’re perceived in different ways by different communities. The jazz community thinks of you one way, the Pitchfork readership thiks of you as something else, people who’ve only heard 700 Bliss or your record with billy woods may think of you some other way, the fine art world thinks of you as one of them… do you feel like there’s a way to unify your various artistic aspects, or does it not worry you?

MOOR MOTHER: It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen. I love to unite. It’s always been something that I’ve done. I love to bring communities together. When I was a young kid, I liked punk rock, but I was also a popular kid. You know? So in the popular group, punk rock was, no one was listening to that. No one was hanging with the kids with the spiked hair and whatever clothes, but I was, and it was always this divide. But by the end of the semester, I was able to bring the interests together, and we all liked to get together and party and have fun. So it doesn’t matter what kind of side you were on, once we realized our commonalities, everything worked. So the cool kids were like, “Oh, my god, you’re so cool,” this kind of thing that naturally happened — it wasn’t like I was someone to take credit for it. It was just, “Hey, they do this too. Oh, word? Oh…”

And so that’s what you’re doing in the art world now?

MOOR MOTHER: I mean, I’m just saying, I have a talent for that. You know, I’m just [too] busy to do anything, to be honest, right now. So I’m working to get to a place where I’m gonna slow down a little bit and start connecting dots.