26 Mar 2022

The Sampler: Rosalía, Mousey, Eden Ahbez

From The Sampler, 3:30 pm on 26 March 2022

Tony Stamp takes on the experimental pop behemoth that is Spanish pop star Rosalía’s third album, a second helping of emotional indie rock from Christchurch’s Mousey, and a serving of exotica from 1960 by ‘the first of the hippies’, Eden Ahbez.

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MOTOMAMI by Rosalía 


Rosalía Photo: supplied

When I think of experimental musicians, the people who come to mind are Laurie Anderson, or John Cage; Animal Collective or The Dead C. But nowadays the term is increasingly applied to very popular songs. Just this past week I've seen ‘experimental’ used as a descriptor for Canadian star The Weeknd, Britain’s Charli XCX, and from Spain, Rosalía. 

Her new album Motomami sounds to me like someone throwing every idea that comes to mind onto tape, and remembering to make it all catchy. But reading about the music Rosalía makes opens up a world of genres and traditions, and complicates all this experimentation even more.  

She won a Grammy for her last album, and over at that organisation’s website they say Motomami “may be remembered as one of the most ambitious albums of the decade — regardless of genre”.

'Delerio de Grandeza' might be a good example why. It’s actually a cover of Cuban salsero Justo Betancourt, and you can hear samples of his 1968 original throughout, a nice illustration of Rosalía’s penchant for mixing traditional elements with modern ones. To that end she includes a spoken sample by Soula Boy, from the Vistoso Bosses’ track ‘Delirious’. It’s thematically a good match, but more impressive for the way it somehow fits musically. 

Rosalia studied at Barcelona’s Catalonia College of Music, leaving with a degree in flamenco vocal performance. Her first album Los Ángeles was her graduate project. Motomami sees her broadening her range to include styles like champeta from Colombia and dembow from Jamaica, and on the single ‘La Fama’ featuring The Weeknd, the Dominican genre bachata.

That's been controversial. According to journalist Jennifer Mota "[bachata] is a Black, Dominican-made genre that was scorned by society," and "hasn't received proper recognition in mainstream industry places." 

NPR music journalist Stephanie Frenandez wrote that “it's [Rosalia’s] privilege as a white artist that has allowed her global visibility in bachata and reggaeton, two genres whose Black origins carry a history of criminalization and erasure”.

So quite a bit more cultural baggage than your average top 40 hit. 

The album opener is called 'Saoko', which is an African term for movement. But it also includes a bassline referencing the song 'Saoco' by the Puerto Rican rapper Wisin. ‘The word in that spelling refers to a type of Cuban rum. The post-modernity of it all would feel overwhelming, were it not such easily digestible music.

BULERÍAS is named after a specific flamenco rhythm, and matches old and new by mixing the power and precision of Rosalía’s voice with autotune, and shout outs to influences like Lil Kim and M.I.A.

There are a few ballads on the album, and one of them, called ‘Hentai’ (that’s a genre of Japanese sexual illustration and animation, just to complicate things), features Rosalía’s voice largely raw and untouched. Interestingly it features production by The Neptunes, the hugely acclaimed hip hop producers, one of whom is Pharrell Williams, himself a pop star these days.

It’s touches like the clattering percussion that enters in the song’s second half that speak to Rosalía’s fearlessness, and mark this as an experimental album, pop behemoth though it may be. 

Its name represents the record’s two halves - she says MOTO is the “aggressive side of a woman” (it means ‘harder’ in Japanese), and MAMI is “more connected with nature,” (mami means ‘mother’ in Spanish). 

I’m not sure where all the Japanese references come in (there are also songs here called ‘Sakura’, which means cherry blossom, and ‘Chicken Teriyaki’), but I think they’re just part of Rosalía’s global outlook, and cultural omnivorousness. 

The outro to one song features a voice message from her grandmother saying "How complicated is the world that Rosalía has gotten into" and between Motomami’s genre-hopping, pop-culture references, and production styles, that’s an understatement.

My Friends by Mousey


Mousey Photo: supplied

If you’ve ever seen Christchurch musician Mousey play live, you’ll agree she’s the kind of magnetic performer who clearly loves doing it. In fact all that joy may obfuscate the seriousness of her songs.

She was nominated for a Silver Scroll Award for the song ‘Extreme’ Highs’ from her debut Lemon Law, a record focused on feelings of inferiority. This second long-player, called My Friends, was designed to be wholesome and warm, a celebration of friendship, but Mousey (real name Sarena Close), hadn’t counted on these past few years wreaking havoc on everyone. And so as her friend’s stories became more complicated, so did the music. 

Sarena Close, writes the kind of songs that feel instantly familiar. She seems to be a student of songwriting, and most of these tracks had me trying to think what they reminded me of, but I think the truth is that she just hits a certain nostalgic sweet spot.

That track ‘Wait For Me’ has chirpy guitars and an amiably loping beat, but its lyrics continue the streak of self-doubt that hung over her debut. She compares herself to a little girl and a bag of sand, and when she asks over and over if someone will wait for her, it seems to frame her friendship as a nuisance.

The opening title track is appropriately intimate, with Lukas Mayo’s acoustic guitar doubling Mousey’s vocal melody as she acknowledges her friends’ support.

“Whether we’re laughing or just talking/ you halve the load I’m hauling” is a beautiful line, and that song is full of comparable ones that are plain spoken but profound.

On ‘One Dollar Wednesdays’ she pens a love song to her husband of seven years, with charming, rose-tinted lyrics about Video Ezy and Adam Sandler movies.

The album’s cover art is a hand drawn illustration of Mousey and friends as children, and there’s definitely a thread of fading innocence running through it. In amongst all this millennial energy I was startled by a lyric in that last song about owning a house.

She clearly has a great deal of control over her voice, and I like that she’s not afraid to use it imprecisely if the song calls for it. On a track like ‘Rachel’ it’s all precision though, alternating notes between falsetto and her head voice over a somber piano ballad that feels like a gothic ‘Rainbow Connection’.

This is a diverse album -  a real effort seems to have been made to differentiate each track at the songwriting stage. It was co-produced by Ben Edwards, who’s one of the best to do it in this country, but the album’s biggest strength is Sarena Close’s sense of storytelling - through chord changes, the tone of her voice, and her incisive lyrics, she understands the assignment of each song.

‘Rachel’ deals with a specific kind of tricky friendship, summed up in the line ‘the same kind of magnets can’t touch for too long’, and it’s only on the closing track ‘Stormy Boy’ that she gets slightly more ambiguous, addressing someone as "brother, sister, dog and wife".

It’s also the album’s musical highpoint, featuring a spine-tingling falsetto verse that only happens once before she’s off to the next thing. It highlights all this album's strengths, raw and emotional one minute, and the next, quite friendly.

Eden’s Island by Eden Ahbez

Eden Ahbez

Eden Ahbez Photo: supplied

In 1948 the song ‘Nature’s Boy’, performed by the King Cole Trio, spent eight weeks at the top of the US charts. It’s a track that preaches love and understanding, sentiments which weren’t that common in the late ‘40s, between the end of a world war and the start of a cold one. 

But the man who wrote the song wasn’t typical. He was vegetarian, slept outdoors, and claimed to live on three dollars per week. He had long hair and wore robes. Eighteen years later, he would record his only solo LP, and at the time, no one really cared. But Eden Ahbez’s legend kept growing, and in hindsight he’s become known as ‘the first of the hippies’.

The lyric in ‘Nature Boy’ describes its character as "strange and enchanted", and likewise Eden Ahbez’s one solo record, Eden’s Island, carries the subheading “the music of an enchanted isle”. It’s a concept album of sorts - largely instrumental, but what singing and speaking there is describes the kind of island utopia you might expect. 

Musically its combination of flute, bongos and vibraphone was uncommon, marking it as part of the burgeoning ‘exotica’ sound. When Ahbez performed live he would play bongos and wood flute - that last one is a big part of this album’s character.

In 1941, Eden Ahbez played piano in a raw food restaurant in Los Angeles. Its owners adhered to a philosophy called ‘life reform’, that opposed private property and practiced vegetarianism.

Seven years later after ‘Nature Boy’ had been a hit and earned him plenty of royalties, he continued to live outdoors. Famously he camped under the Hollywood sign for a while.

He was a successful songwriter, penning tunes for the likes of Eartha Kitt and Sam Cooke, and in 1960, on Eden’s Island, included spoken word alongside the exotica, full of his theories on life.

On its release it only sold around 100 copies, but its influence remains to this day, as does the legacy of Eden Ahbez: over the years photos have emerged of him with Frank Sinatra, he was friends with Donovan and was there when Brian WIlson started recording Smile.

Philosophically, he thought a return to nature and community was the way forward for our species. Musically, his addition of spoken word to exotica was innovative, as well as his use of sound effects, which he used to help create the illusion of an island paradise.