Ena Mori makes vibrant pop music that cuts to the feeling

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Ena Mori talks about her latest single “FALL INLOVE!”, the application of her classical training to her current practice, and the power of pop. Photo courtesy of ENA MORI

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Ena Mori’s “FALL INLOVE!” is the type of music you put on repeat without noticing that it’s been playing for hours. Blame it on its effervescent tune. An irresistible invitation to bust out a tiny (I imagine Haim-esque) choreography suitable for a TikTok video.

Its lyrics are appealing too. “FALL INLOVE!” tackles a precarious period of a relationship. It’s a ubiquitous theme in pop that often results in songs consumed with sadness or bitterness. But instead of being wistful, the character Mori writes on “FALL INLOVE!” takes action and seeks forgiveness. “Why don’t we just have a little nice dinner? / We can maybe talk and see if we could start this over,” she sings.

“I love writing serious topics with a catchy fun melody,” Mori says.

Mori, who is nominated alongside Rina Sawayama and Rich Brian for the Asian Songwriter Award at this year’s Golden Indie Music Awards, is a rising force transforming the sound of Philippine pop music. The classically trained singer-songwriter is adept at making ravishing synth-laden music that instantly hooks the listener. This is evident even in the first three singles — her thesis songs for her music production degree at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde — that introduced her to the public in 2018.

Currently back with her family in Japan during the quarantine, Mori continues to explore the boundaries (or the lack of it) of pop music, while working part-time at a clothing shop. We caught up with her over email and discussed the conception of her latest single, how her classical training has shaped her current practice, and the artists she’s been listening to.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

I think dedication and originality are the most important. I have to work hard to get to know my sound and to level it up.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

I tell myself every time I release a single to “proceed.” Hahaha! I feel like I always get caught up with my insecurities—the ultimate enemy to my productivity. The word “proceed” reminds me to let go of my creation and focus on the next big thing.

And how does that relate to your latest single?

I think by the word "proceed" I can be more open with new ideas. The mindset of not looking back makes me productive, and for sure it is reflected in my latest single as well.

Can you tell me more about the conception of “FALL INLOVE!”?

The song “FALL INLOVE!” was inspired by the ugly side of a relationship, which is pride and ego. I was very interested in the fact that when you are in a relationship with someone, you learn so many things about you that you don’t see by yourself. I love writing serious topics with a catchy fun melody, and this instantly became one of the feel-good songs for me.

Production-wise, my producer Timothy Run and I took time to make it as interesting as possible. Emil Dela Rosa mixed and mastered the track through Zoom meetings. It was so much fun!

The music video is fun too. What's the story behind it?

I was having a hard time conceptualizing the music video. I was also thinking about the logistics. Should I shoot in a studio? Who should I hire to shoot it? But during the quarantine, I got inspired by how creative people were at home. They were baking banana bread or even making a home theater, just finding alternative solutions for their desires. That made me think of a DIY music video. I directed and shot the video on my phone with help of my little sister and Daniel Aguilar, who edited and polished the video. I’m also glad that I asked Zild to be a part of the music video. I think his being there really gave character to the video.

When people introduce you, they usually mention your classical background and juxtapose it to what you do now, which is pop. I remember an interview where you talked about your interest in pop. You said pop is cool. And I agree with you on that.

I believe pop music is the easiest and the fastest way for people to digest and understand the artist’s story. But pop should not be taken for granted because of its accessibility or how easy it seems to make one. Popular music would never exist without the influences of classical, jazz, soul, rock n’ roll, and other musical genres. I truly believe that they make pop music richer.

I think we can also see how pop can convey emotions without losing the nuances of human emotions. I think you also have this kind of sensibility in your music. On “FALL INLOVE!” for example, I like how the lyrics go from “I still hate you” to “I’m sorry” in a matter of seconds.

As much as music is the core of a song, lyrics and words are tools to connect the audiences with a different approach, and I am a big fan of storytelling. A lot of people have different styles in telling their stories.

Who are the people you look up to when it comes to songwriting?

Lorde inspires me lyrically. I also look up to artists like Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens, and Lana Del Rey when it comes to lyrics.

Can you tell me more about your songwriting process?

Ninety percent of the time, I start with the melody. I need to find the melody I like to get an inspiration for the lyrics itself. I think the difficult part is to think of what to write about. Whenever I find an interesting line, I keep it in what I call a BS (Brain Squeezing) book and I come back to the notes once I have a melody. Sometimes, during recording sessions, I get really interesting ideas that I didn’t think of while I was writing.

Going back to your classical training, I kind of remember Caroline Polachek. While she's been playing synth since she was a kid, she also dabbled in opera. And before Chairlift released “Moth,” she returned to her opera training to prepare her voice for the record. Do you also find yourself returning to your classical training when making your music?

Having classical knowledge is so useful! I didn’t know that until I started my project. Classical music is the basis of the music now. There is nothing wrong with not learning classical music, but I highly recommend learning or even just listening to classical pieces.

For “FALL INLOVE!,” for example, I think the most obvious influence of my classical training is in the chorus where I used first inversion of the fifth. That is a common chord in a classical piece and, by changing the inversion, it creates space and a different approach to the melody. HAHA. I'm quite a nerd for chords especially inversions.

Do you look back at your past work? Why or why not?

I don’t. I feel like I’m too excited for the next project by the time I release a song. Also, I hate going through a mental spiral of questioning if what I did was okay. (Laughs)

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

I am a true believer of having a mentor. Having a mentor is great, not just for developing your skills, but your inspiration as well. I think having someone to look up to who’s directly teaching and coaching you will boost your inspiration even more.

What skills do you wish you had?

Probably write in Tagalog. (Laughs) And maybe I wish I could play the guitar well…even without practicing haha!

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

I think I am constantly battling my insecurities, and they are my biggest enemy. The comparisons and the pressure to belong have made so much impact on my creation. I'm doing my best to appreciate my work more by focusing on the purpose instead of the outcome.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

One thing I want people to understand is that we are professionals. Not just musicians, but artists in general get such low credit from people. I hope more people perceive music as a profession, not just a hobby.

How has the pandemic and the quarantine affected your work?

Live performances are a big part of what I do, and not being able to do that makes me sad. But I’m now using the time I have to refocus on my art and educating myself with other music.

In what ways have you had to adapt to the situation, work-wise?

I think shifting the mindset from “I don’t have many opportunities and I’m wasting time” to “I should try new things so I won't waste time" is a big change. There’s always a chance for something in every situation. Finding it is the key to fulfillment.

How safe do you feel about going back to work as usual?

As much as I’d like to go back to what is deemed normal again and be on the road, I'm still cautious with the virus.

How is this pandemic changing how you approach your work? What kind of changes do you think are essential to ensure the work that you do can thrive, while still protecting the people who do it?

Since I am very isolated, I am forced to be independent, which I am finding to be a good thing. I am studying new things like other instruments and production. I think the key to be productive is to think that you are unstoppable. As long as you put your mind and passion into something, you can do anything.

What have you been listening to lately?

I’ve been listening to a lot of post-punk and early ’90s music. I think the early ’90s with the new age, post-punk movement resonates with the reality today. There’s so much anger and frustration but also hope for a brighter future. To be more specific, I'm currently listening to Talking Heads, Cocteau Twins, Bjork, etc.