Mohi Allen (and co-writers) won the 2023 APRA Maioha Award in October, the smooth-voiced neo soul artist pipping the Tuari Brothers and good friend Jordyn With A Why for the trophy. Later that month, Mohi released his debut album ‘Elements of Aroha’, and just days later Jordyn released Set…Go, a laid back slice of romantic RnB the two had co-written, also at the 2022 Reo Māori SongHubs event. Richard Thorne talked with Aotearoa’s fast rising, Peaky Blinders cap-wearing new soul star about his break out year.
A family tangi meant that Mohi Allen couldn’t make the 2023 APRA Silver Scroll Awards, and missed the chance of accepting the APRA Maioha Award for his intimate waiata Me Pēhea Rā, co-written with Hēmi Kelly and Amy Boroevich, and produced by Noema Te Hau III.
“You don’t have to do a lot with Mohi because he brings everything, and you just have to capture it the best you can and help enable him,” Te Hau said on the night.
Alongside being winner of the Maioha Award, Mohi was also a Top 20 finalist for the Silver Scroll Award itself with Te Atarau, another reo Māori waiata. Late in October, Mohi dropped his debut album, a soulful consciously bilingual collection of songs framed around the theme of love and titled ‘Moments of Aroha’. Billed ‘a Māori neo soul pop funk masterpiece’, the album seems an inevitable winner in the 2024 awards season.
2023 was, in summary, the year that Mohi Allen announced himself as a top flight Kiwi songwriter and mellifluous soulful singer, in both Māori and English.
Self-managed and still very much in development as an artist, the 27-year old’s recent timeline of achievements is impressive. Little more than two years ago, in late 2021, Mohi released his debut single E Kii, a grooving swing jazz number he describes as “sort of a Māori jazz type of track”. A year later, in November 2022, came ‘Moments’ his bilingual 8-track EP debut, in which four gentle soul/RnB waiata are separately presented in both languages.
Twelve months later, he is back with another significant release, his debut album titled ‘Elements of Aroha’, this time a genuine neo-soul bilingual long player of eight different waiata, one of which has already won him the Maioha Award.
Industry recognition of his trajectory also saw Mohi performing at Auckland’s Going Global showcase, Big Sound in Brisbane and the first Sydney-based SXSW festival. And then there are the collabs and co-writes, like Yahyah‘s fun pop track and video I Like You, and the recently released Jordyn With A Why/Mohi single Set…Go. Mohi Allen is a creative machine.
Sharing some of his story with NZ Musician on the release of E Kii back in 2021, Mohi said the toe-tapping swing-era track was chosen as a single because of its unique reo, jazz and soul fusion.
“I feel like it’s a new vibe of Māori music that hasn’t been totally explored yet.”
Nathaniel Howe and Pere Wihongi, producers/ mentors/ presenters of Māori Television‘s Waiata Nation show had asked him to be one of eight new generation artists to develop a waiata and video for the show’s second series. Composed with Wihongi and others, E Kii was created as the project track, becoming his first released song.
‘Episode 7: Mohi – E Kii
Mohi Allen (Ngāpuhi) balances a smooth soulful voice with unique swag and style. Even though the singer/songwriter hasn’t hit the big time yet, it is only a matter of time. Thanks to Mohi, Waiata Nation II releases what could be the ‘jazziest’ reo Māori song there has ever been.’
Damn straight, Mohi seemed to inhabit the swing jazz style perfectly and says it’s an awesome song to perform, but he hasn’t revisited the genre since.
“I think E Kii was like an experimental phase for me. So growing up in the church I was always sort of really attached to gospel, jazz type music, and kapa haka as well. But I guess over the last few years I’ve just been interacting with other artists, other collaborators, and also listening to a whole lot of different types of music. And so it somewhat shifted to gospel soul, and now it’s gone to neo soul. That’s where I’m sitting, and where I’m really enjoying my music at the moment.”
Reference to the reo Māori SongHubs songwriting/production camp staged by APRA at Roundhead Studios in September 2022 peppers our conversation. His Maioha Award-winning Me Pēhea Rā was a co-write from then, and here Mohi points to it as one of the things that started him down the neo-soul lane.
“That was a real catalyst for me thinking about, ‘Okay, how can I shift my sound, or how can I write music in a different way? And so that’s where the neo soul vibe come about, and I sort of stuck with it. I feel like it suits my voice.
“I’m a little bit of, like, a laid back singer. When I was recording my first EP with Dan Martin, he was always like, ‘Sing on the beat, sing on the beat’, and I was always a little bit behind! But then when neo-soul come about it was a real natural sound, and I thought that maybe I should adopt this for a while,” he laughs.
Having got into writing music and even performing in his last high school years, his energy shifted to learning and getting a degree. Mohi had put music aside for several years while studying Māori and media studies at the University of Auckland.
“I think the blessing of the Covid lockdown was it made me jump back into what I’m doing now. I feel that straight off after E Kii there was an eagerness within myself to be like, ‘I need to get all in on this’, and that led me to the EP coming out.
“When I met Dan, who produced E Kii, that was my first taste of really doing studio time, and creating music as a solo artist. And so post E Kii, I hit Dan up again, and was like, ‘Hey, I really want to release all this music but I don’t know how I can get it out there, or create an album. Would you be keen to collaborate, cos you’re my guy y’know?’
“He was keen to support me. I put a whole lot of my own money into the project, and slowly but surely we created this EP over the year. So that’s where it all sort of started.”
Hardly ‘slowly’ by most local artists’ standards – there are still Covid lockdown recording projects coming to light now – while Mohi has since delivered another project even more complex in intent than ‘Moments’ his media attention-getting dual-version EP released late in 2022.
“I think the big thing that I learned from creating ‘Moments’ was the power of collaboration. So like, collaborating with Dan and collaborating with other artists, you’re always going to create something at another level, because all those different artists have their own different perspectives and their own worlds. And if you’re willing and you’re open you can create something magical.
“With that first EP that was a real thing for me, to really trust in the process, trust in the collaboration, and just be open to the songs moving and shaping, and try other things.”
A second key learning Mohi identifies from the success of his EP was to believe wholeheartedly in himself, his skills to write and create.
“Just sort of being confident in myself and in my abilities, and taking that into creation processes. I think in ‘Moments’ I was still in the space where I wasn’t even sure if I was an artist, if I was doing anything, if I was actually creating things that could take me places?
“So when ‘Elements of Aroha’ come about, and it was a real challenge actually to create bilingual waiata, like create Māori and English intertwining for each song, how tricky that was, but also the belief I had in creating and the stories that I wanted to take into these particular waiata. They come about, and they were so organic because of that self confidence I think.
“This new album has really opened doors, but I really put it down to that first EP.”
Unusually, ‘Elements Of Aroha’ was produced by a handful of recognised Tāmaki Makaurau producers, each given responsibility for one or more of the freshly composed songs on the album. Another difference he notes about the album project is that it was supported by Te Māngai Pāho.
“This particular funding initiative was quite new, but it was one where you had a year to create and release the album,” Mohi explains. “Those sort of deadlines made sure that I was creating on time, and producing and putting it out into the world, so that’s why it’s been such a quick turnaround! But also that process has been quite cool because once you know the deadlines you could lock things in and be ready to go.”
In planning for his debut album, Mohi started from an idea of having aroha as the overarching theme, the kaupapa that he was going to take into all the tracks.
“I thought, ‘Okay, how can I approach this, create different waiaita that link to ‘aroha’ but have their own flavour. And with that time frame as well. I thought I would see if those guys were free and try to work with each of them. The funding from TMP was awesome, it went straight into the album. Other than that, I do everything on my own. I’m a self-managed artist, but I do have a lot of support from people with connects who are willing to support me and my music, which is really cool.”
He’d met producers Choicevaughan (Joel Tashkoff) and Noema Te Hau at the Reo SongHubs the previous year and kept in contact. Dan Martin was of course involved, as was artist/producer Rory Noble who was responsible for the latte-smooth bilingual single Coffee Spot, released in September 2023.
“It was a really cool collaboration type album. I’ve known Rory for a little while, and always wanted to work with him. All of the visuals were produced by Taine Noble, Rory’s younger brother.”
With a brains trust of that calibre working with him, Mohi says the album organically shaped itself. He happily writes in Māori and English depending on the kaupapa or theme of the work, but says at the moment writing in Māori is more comfortable.
“Approaching this album I would like write a mind map and put up different key words or key points, like; I wanna talk about love for people, love for land, and I wanna talk about our connection to the moon, all these different things, and then we’d just pick and choose and then try to write to a particular theme. And then how did that work? How did that not work?”
Produced by Noema Te Hau, Kārerarea was one of the first completed and became central to the collection.
“That particular waiata was written about a love story between two ancestors Ueoneone and Reitū, and I’ve always wanted to write a waiata about this love story. I feel that one in particular is a really key waiata.
“Track five is an interlude, a rui or poem. I know they were a big thing back in the days, but not so much now, and I really wanted to make an interlude that would make people think. This one is called Aroha – He Rui, and it pretty much talks about this idea of love. Where does it come from? How do we perceive it today? In just like a spoken word form. I just wanted to really create something that tied in all the waiata. Within one minute 40 seconds or something it encompasses like the whole idea of this album. So that track as well is a real special one.”