Dressed in an amber-colored velvet sweatsuit, singer Ena Mori is two songs into her set at Nike and Manila Community Radio’s Join Forces event in Poblacion, Makati. Opening with the song “DBTWO!,” she starts off with an explosive keyboard number that ends with head banging and wild tambourine-waving courtesy of herself and her drummer Cairo.
In between songs, she walks to the front of the stage to deliver a spiel about growing up and fitting in. She surveys the crowd — the majority of whom were decked out in limited release sneakers, saying: “I was a loser. Who else was a loser here?” Silence from the audience. Unfazed, she continues: “Oh nevermind, you guys don’t look like losers. You all look cool.” She takes her place behind the keyboard, launching into the first line of “King of the Night,” a song “inspired by her early teen experience as an outcast.”
“I was like, ‘wow the crowd is so cool,’” Mori tells me a week later, after I say I watched her performance that night. “Sobrang funny,” she says, laughing before repeating the spiel for me. “That was the first time I wore a sweatsuit. I thought, ‘this is so weird!’”
In the Ena Mori universe, weird is good. Weird, as they say, is what got her the gig, and as out of place as she was at the event, as an artist, she’s grateful for all invitations to perform.
Signed under Offshore Music Philippines (a label co-founded by Ely Buendia), the 23-year-old musician has been hustling for the greater part of the pandemic. After releasing her self-titled EP under the label in 2019, the lockdown had her quarantining at her family home in Japan, “collecting and writing” the material that would eventually go into her debut album.
Since beginning her album rollout early in 2022, she’s been booked and busy with an album tour, performing at gigs and brand events, and even releasing her own vinyl LP. In January, music publication NME included her in the NME 100, a list that names “essential emerging artists for 2022.” In March, she performed her single “VIVID” on the Wish 107.5 Bus, with a video that’s garnered over 376,000 views since it was posted and earned her a nomination at the radio station’s year-end awards show. Her latest (and possibly biggest) achievement as an artist so far? A spot on the SXSW 2023 lineup alongside over 191 artists, including South Korean musical collective Balming Tiger and Japanese punk rock band Otoboke Beaver.
Being authentic through pop
Despite her penchant for the weird, Mori still chooses to plant her feet firmly in the pop genre. It’s a conscious decision to reach more people, but in a way that still showcases who she is as an artist.
“Of course I love every genre, but pop is the quickest way that I could tap into somebody with music,” she says. “Also it's kind of like my goal that it's as sophisticated and as authentic as possible on my own end.”
Her debut album, “DON'T BLAME THE WILD ONE!” is, as its all caps stylization suggests, loud. Filled with anthems for the losers and the outsiders of the world, the album falls under a very dance-centric sub-genre of pop, the type filled with loaded synths and inversions, varying percussion styles, and extended vocal runs.
Lyrically, the 12-tracks are packed with emotions and vulnerability masked by sophisticated production, following in the footsteps of women in pop who’ve dared to explore the limits of the genre.
This maximalist approach to music, says Mori, may have something to do with her background as a classical pianist. Her early years as a musician were mostly spent bent over a keyboard, subconsciously yearning for creative freedom that she couldn’t get from the classic pieces she was practicing for hours on end. Growing up in a suburb near Tokyo (“near the beach!”), much of her childhood was spent trying to fit in.
In a press statement for “King of the Night,” Mori wrote that she was bullied at school as a “mixed race and overweight” kid. Hoping not to “stick out like a sore thumb,” she learned to adjust to the comfort level of other people in the same way that she was playing her classical piano pieces how the composers intended (“It's a beautiful genre. It's just that you have so much respect for the artist that you don't wanna mess it up”).
When it was time to go to college in the Philippines, she chose to pursue music production because of its flexible nature. “I didn't really know what I liked and even thinking about what I want to do, it almost felt like it's so constricting,” she says. It was then that she began listening to more avant garde artists for inspiration to carve her own musical path. Eventually, she realized that she just wanted to continuously challenge herself and be open to new things — a principle that she lives by to this day.
A maximalist creative direction
The maximalism manifests too in her album visuals and music videos, which despite looking very produced are also very DIY to a certain extent. I ask her about branding, and the idea of really creating a look for herself as an artist, but she says that most of her work doesn’t involve extensive planning.
“I always root for that freedom or that kind of bold ideas that [are] a little bit out of the box,” she says. Referencing the cover shoot that we had just wrapped up, she adds, “Whenever we shoot anything, I like to be open-minded for a lot of things. Like today. It was cool.”
While she does have a mood board or an image of what she wants in her head, a lot of the final products come from collaboration with the people that she works with.
Case in point is the backstory behind the squid photo featured in the album art for her vinyl. It was done during the album photoshoot in April this year, with an all-star team composed of hairstylist Mycke Arcano, makeup artist Slo Lopez, designer Sassa Jimenez, and photographer/creative director Telle Ramos. During one of the meetings, Jimenez said she had a squid lying around, and they ended up placing it on Mori’s head for the shot, which turned into the single art for “SOS.”
The DIY quality is more obvious in her earlier music videos edited by Daniel Aguilar, like in the endearing home movie-style “FALL INLOVE!” that has Mori donning several costumes, and performing choreographed moves in her backyard in Japan, and the experimental videoke-inspired “TALK! TALK!” that was shot on an iPhone and features puppets that she made and filmed herself in her bedroom.
The new wave of OPM
Speaking with her about the intricacies of the record, it’s evident that Mori is just fascinated with the concept of sound-making itself. And this is where she gets technical. “I guess before pa, I was really inspired and kind of passionate about vocals and how you can kind of [adjust] your vocals in different timbres,” she explains, a follow-up to what she’s previously said about inversions in a previous CNN Philippines Life interview.
She adds: “When you're a keyboardist, the making sound part is already limited because you can only do the volume but you can't really adjust the pitch unless you have a pitch band and all of that. For guitars and strings, you can kind of adjust the pitch, but not the keyboard.”
Mori loves geeking out about music, a trait she shares with her boyfriend and producer, Tim Marquez (a.k.a. Timothy Run, drummer and songwriter of One Click Straight). The two met when they were classmates in college and have been creative collaborators ever since. Marquez produced all of the tracks off of “WILD ONE!” through a process that had the two transferring files back and forth between the Philippines and Japan.
“We’re always clicking when it comes to ideas,” she says of their dynamic. “Whenever I explain, he gets what [I want to do], and he sometimes adds his own kind of flair to it and it sometimes really works.”
I bring up a video I saw of the two of them on stage at Zild’s “Medisina” album launch. Zild was also their music production batchmate in school, along with the band members of Of Mercury.
In the video, Zild calls his friends to the stage, many of whom also make cameos in his “Isang Anghel” music video. The mood is jovial, the mosh pit energized. When Zild tells the crowd to join him in singing “Ayoko munang mamatay,” they all scream the words together, with Mori and the rest of the crew jumping up and down on stage. Watching the crowd’s response, you get a sense of appreciation for the younger artists making the rounds in the local scene.
“I used to think I was cool, but then I saw these kids live, and I don’t feel cool anymore,” says Audry Dionisio, member of all-girl band General Luna, who also happens to be Offshore Music’s VP for Marketing and A&R about the “multiverse” that Mori, Marquez, and Zild are a part of.
Performing at live shows
“I feel like a lot of kids right now kind of look for comfort through something,” says Mori when asked about the energy she sees at gigs these days. “They're looking for something, because I guess there are a lot of aspects in life that they feel so empty.”
All of the songs on “WILD ONE!” are of course meant to be performed live. “In my point of view, if I can't sing it [live], the song is undone,” she says.
I tell her this makes sense, given that a greater part of the album was written while she was stuck in quarantine. “I guess, subconsciously I wanted to go out and I missed rave music and I missed people dancing to music,” she says. During that time, she recalls she “listened to a lot of weird stuff” for inspiration, which ranged from Eurodance and electronic music to post-punk and female-driven pop.
Songwriting for her is like journaling, while performing is another way to process her emotions. “When you have something in your mind and you write it down, you kind of feel like, ‘Ahh ok somebody's listening.’ Like the notebook is listening to you and you kind of feel lighter. Whenever I make it into a song, suddenly that personal feeling transfers over to the song and it kind of helps me in a way, gives me that barrier.”
Performing at gigs also helps her grow and find herself an artist. “You know, on the road, I discover things about myself, always,” she says.
Mori brings up her song “White Room” as an example. During her live sets, she encourages the crowd to sing the lyric “Who are we to say that we are not enough?” back at her. “It's really personal and I guess in the back of my head, it gives me self-awareness by singing it so it helps naman more than having to [be] tormented by my emotions,” she adds.
And for the most part, audiences respond enthusiastically. Last September, she was invited to perform at the Gampeki Music Festival in Japan after an organizer read an interview she did with a Japanese indie magazine. ”Surprisingly people knew me! They knew my songs as well.” And when she went on her album tour that took her to seven stops around Metro Manila, as well as La Union, Baguio, and Pampanga, she witnessed different generations jamming to her sets and singing her lyrics back. “Sometimes they sing it better than me,” she says, partly joking.
The next step
Now that the year is winding down, Mori is planning to begin preparations for her stint at SXSW. Offshore sent in the application secretly, so the announcement came as a surprise to her. “I'm really amazed at the fact that I have this opportunity to showcase myself in a different environment,” she says.
But of course, being an artist in the Philippines, there are realities that one has to face. Apart from going hard on the gigs at weekends, she also teaches Japanese online. “I guess a lot of people, our goal is to be full-time musicians, but not everybody can afford it.” She lists all the part-time jobs she did throughout her quarantine, which took her from apparel work to being a barista.
I ask Mori if she thinks the Filipino audience is ready for the type of music she’s making. She replies by telling me about her mom, who she says is not musical at all (“She's super basic — I'm sorry, mom”). Looking at it from her mom’s perspective, she realized that not everyone puts music as their main focus everyday. “Every time I talk about music with her, it kind of frustrates me, but I always ask myself, ‘Why do I get frustrated?’” she says. “It's not always about the listener not listening, but we have to understand din as an artist that [there are] different functions of music.”
It is there that I realize that Mori has a grasp of the industry in a way that most artists who make big claims of going global do not. She doesn’t expect everyone to like her music, but it would be a good bonus if more people did.
In the same nonchalant tone, she says that while she doesn’t actively aspire for her music to make big changes, it wouldn’t hurt to become a “bridge” between music that’s more accessible and not quite as accessible.
“I just hope that one person will kind of feel something, and that's really my goal. I hope that my music will give another kind of perspective in the industry or maybe something to push forward the music scene,” she says.
Photos by JL JAVIER
Styling by YANA KALAW
Hair & makeup by IDA SIASOCO
Creative direction by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA and DON JAUCIAN
Floral arrangements and set design by PIERRE CAPATI
Cover design by THE PUBLIC SCHOOL MANILA
Produced by GABY GLORIA