by Kat Parsons

Mo Etc: Underwater With Slade

by Kat Parsons

Mo Etc: Underwater With Slade

Late in 2022 Wellington-based artist Mo Etc (Moana Ete) released a stunning new single Underwater and an equally impressive music video, made with support from NZ On Air. It’s the first follow up to her 2021 album ‘Oceanbed’ and Ete found time to chat with Kat Parsons about the track.

“The healing aspect of it surely,” she contemplates. “I think also the thing that I cherished is that it will live beyond me. It will still kind of exist long after, and I love the idea that great, great-grandchildren will be like; ‘Oh, that’s my great great grandmother, and this is what the world was like.’ I think it’s a really cool way to leave a legacy or to put a stamp on the world saying this is who I was and this is how I saw the world. Sort of like a zoomed-out perspective.”

Tethered to both Māori (mother) and Samoan (father) heritage Ete grew up in a bustling household full of kapa haka and church hymns. She was surrounded by music and spent her young years developing a creative flare and drive for the arts.

“I think it’s just all those hours of sitting at a piano and creating sounds and tinkering as a kid,” she reminisces. “You don’t think of it as significant but in retrospect, wow, that was special. I was a kid in a very busy household where the adults were very busy, so I was left alone a lot. I had siblings but they were interested in playing outside, doing kid things, and video games. But for me, it was that time alone, and I decided to use that time alone to play guitar and piano and sing.”

That early discipline has led her to a creative artistic journey. You may remember her previous group project A Girl Named Mo, but the multi-disciplinary artist has had her hands in a multitude of baskets over the years. She won Best Female Vocalist in the 2006 Smokefree Rockquest, graduated from Toi Whakaari in 2010, and has since worked in theatre, film, and television. She is artistic director of her own production company, Ohokomo, and is now a self-managed artist under the pseudonym Mo Etc. She drew on her multi-talented skill set in self-directing and acting in the beautifully shot music video for Underwater.

Written by Ete, and produced by former A Girl Named Mo bandmate Slade Butler, the track is both striking and soothing. A mix of electronic and RnB, Ete’s unique, vibrato-filled vocals place the lyrical content at the forefront of the song is track. She describes her writing process as very singular and preferably private.

“I find it really hard to write with other people in the room when it’s about me, for something that I have to then sing. If it’s for someone else I love to work with other people. For my own things, for the most part it’s super personal. So Slade would make his thing and I would do my thing and then we would bring it together and then not really talk about it. A good balance of not getting too personal, because I’d get strangely shy about it.”

“The song is about meeting people who kind of navigate the stresses of life so beautifully and with so much grace,” she smiles. “I think there are so many people who are completely snowed under and feeling a lot of pressure and a lot of weight – that feeling like being underwater. But being brave enough to still be generous, positive, and hopeful about the future.

“I think it’s just not feeling alone. The first verse lyrics are: ‘…find yourself muffling a cry for help, like TV screen static, like nose to nose traffic, that feeling when there’s nowhere to go, and you have nothing to show’. I just want people to know that that’s not special or an anomaly. It’s very common, and we don’t have to feel that we’re alone in that.

“The goal is to get to a place where I feel really comfortable to talk about it and normalise talking about mental health,” she adds. “Some people are doing it brilliantly and I love it when they talk openly about mental health. I think that I have that too, and it’s something that I need to manage every day and it’s normal.”

Filmed around her marae, Te Waipounamu, Ngāti Wheke, Ngai Tahu, 30 minutes outside Christchurch, the alluring music video was self-directed. She tells the story of ‘girl meets boy’ but with a unique and fresh outlook on the classic plot line.

“I think it’s always kind of easy to attach things to a romantic relationship story-wise. I knew I wanted to work with the actor who’s in the music video, Matthias [Luafutu]. He was just awesome. I think when you watch it’s about just being free to love who you love and free to connect with who you connect with in the moment. We don’t have to hold on to these ideas of; ‘I’ve found the one and now I’m gonna be with him forever’. That feeling of being freed for being able to love someone. For the context of the music video that’s what Underwater means; that you don’t have to worry about anything. You don’t have to worry about planning for the future because you love someone now. It’s more like you meet these people in these super special moments and then part again.

“Christchurch is where the director of photography Kerepeti Paraone was, and his company is a collective called Kororātahi Creative. His partner is my first cousin and so she jumped on and did wardrobe and a bit of producing and a bit of show running and a bit of driving,” Ete chuckles. “It was a big whanau effort. My niece is in it!”

She likes to work her video and film projects up from a mood board.

“So I’ll cut together videos from YouTube. It’ll be about light or the pace of the editing to get an idea. I think we just tried to match that as best as we could. The mood board that I’d cut; I think we’ve got images from an Audi commercial,” Ete reveals with a laugh. “A girl who travels the world and then comes back home and gets in her family’s Audi – those super emotional, uplifting commercials.

“It was four days of running around trying to capture it and one day with Matthias, our actor. There was intimacy involved in the shooting, so I had a director of intimacy [Rose Kirkup] work on this, and they were awesome. It’s straight-up choreography. I mean, they stepped in and they were like, ‘So you can position yourself like this, and then you can position yourself like this. You can ask each other if it’s okay to put each other’s hands there.’ It’s super choreographed, which I really appreciate. That’s very standard in the industry now and I’m grateful for that.”

Using references from the 1991 film Hook, where Peter Pan (played by Robin Williams) is underwater with the mermaids, Ete creates a mesmerising transition from black and white to vibrant colour as she and Luafutu’s characters surface from the water.

“I think that transition is to me like what it feels like when you meet someone who just gets it,” says Ete. “You really can just be yourself. You kind of operate in a black-and-white world, and then you meet special people who see you in 360, full colour, and accept and celebrate you still.”

The busy creative is looking forward to sharing her latest project in late February/early March next year.

“I’ve got a shoot next Monday for the first single off an EP, and we’re just going full cinematic,” she gushes. “Because that’s my day job – filming, producing. I don’t know why I was so resistant in trying to keep the two separate for so long. I couldn’t quite see how my music and my work would overlap, but with a video like Underwater they do naturally.”

It’s easily understandable that Ete would have had to overcome some significant challenges in her career in the arts industry.

“There have been so many challenges and I think for me the biggest one is being fully independent and managing myself; which I also see as a total bonus. Understanding of business and looking at yourself as an entrepreneur, it’s kind of ‘ick’. This feeling of accepting that you do want to be paid for your work. Willing to put myself forward as a small business. I’m rehearsing and delivering a product that I believe is worthy of being paid well for, and understanding that has made me work a lot harder.

“The awesome thing that also has come out of the challenge is that I recognise there are a lot of us who prioritise our creative freedom and who are self-managing so amazingly well. I can talk to them and lean on them about things that I’m unsure of. It does feel lonely at times and I think ‘comparison’ is also a challenge I need to get over. I need to check in with myself all the time. ‘Why am I so sad today, or why is someone else’s brilliant news getting me down?’ Something that helps me get through that is also understanding that other people are looking at me and thinking the same.”

And what is the artist most grateful for; Ete was ready with her answer almost immediately.

“Creative freedom, always,” she smiles. “Living in a country where I get to express myself freely, and that what I want to express is accepted and celebrated as well. Yeah, I’m always grateful for that. I don’t think we should ever take it for granted. At any second it could be taken from us.”