To shake off tough days with school bullies in her early teens, the artist born Ena Patricia Mori Villa would head to her home in Kanagawa prefecture with Cher blaring in her headphones – then burn through a thumping mix of everything from J-pop and Katy Perry to Queen and Jay-Z.
“Japanese kids can be cruel, so I’d listen to really fast music after school just to kind of pump myself up, make me feel good,” ena mori recalls to NME a few days after releasing the song ‘King Of the Night!’ – a thunderous anthem of self-sufficiency and self-love that hopes to do for listeners what Cher and co. did for her. “All we need is a crown in our heads / All you need is yourself… I’m the king of the night!” she chants over sing-shout harmonies and an electric disco beat. “I wanted to write a song that would speak to my 12-year-old self,” mori says.
‘King Of The Night!’ was the final preview of ‘Don’t Blame The Wild One!’ – the NME 100 alum’s anticipated full-length debut that was released last Friday. The album’s 12 tracks are intricately layered, endlessly danceable and spiked with whimsy and feral energy. But underneath the rich, eclectic soundscape lies what mori says is the most difficult part of the record: “being vulnerable, truly.”
Throughout the LP, the Filipino-Japanese artist trumpets embracing one’s perceived flaws and rough edges, as opposed to “losing part of yourself in order to blend in,” she says. She has an intimate understand of self-erasure. “Growing up I’ve always felt a bit of an outcast because I was mixed-race. I was kind of an awkward kid, I was nerdy and chubby and didn’t really have much friends. So I just found myself kind of adjusting to people so they would like me more,” she says. “I think those experiences of being isolated, even before the pandemic, informed my songwriting.”
Now 23 and based in Manila, ena mori is the eldest of two daughters born and raised south of Tokyo to a Japanese mum and a Filipino dad. She took up piano lessons as early as six years old, hitting competition circuits in and out of Kanagawa while cranking out Chopin and Mozart, then writing her own compositions by the time she turned 10.
“The true wild ones are the silent ones, the underdogs – people who have so much to say but can’t say it yet. I was one of them”
mori initially “felt shy about singing in general” and was “more focused on becoming a pianist than a singer-songwriter,” she says, until she moved to the Philippines. She took up music production in college, and crafting a 3-track EP for her thesis made it clearer to her that a solo project was within her reach. Outside academia, she’d put in work as a live musician, playing keys for ethno-jazz band Dayaw and for a string of artists including Zild and James Reid. All this while making music as ena mori – initially as an indie artist and eventually with Ely Buendia’s label Offshore Music.
She’s put in the hours, and it’s clear on ‘Don’t Blame The Wild One!’ that the once-reluctant solo artist has learned to trust her instincts better. Vocally, ena mori growls and trills, playing up whisper-wail dynamics and impish harmonies – as if deliberately refusing to sing, well, normally. “There are parts in the album where I do sort of sing ‘normally’ but I guess it doesn’t sound normal, which is a problem,” mori says, cracking up laughing. “I think with pop music, we could follow the melodies, but it’s so interesting to me when vocals have character. Every song has an image of what I want it to sound like, and I try my best to recreate it with my voice.”
Besides imagery, it’s big feelings that fuel ‘Don’t Blame The Wild One!’ – and it’s consistent in the smallest details, down to the record’s titles, riddled with capitalisation and exclamation points. “Growing up in a very Asian household, I was always taught that big emotions are overwhelming or not really appreciated. But having emotions is a sign that we’re alive. Having no emotions at all, that sucks because we’re here to feel,” she says. “I think the message I want to consciously convey is to be bold in who you are, and who you are has big emotions, and that’s not a bad thing.”
It’s a mantra that mori aims to practise more than preach. These days she tries to stop feeling guilty about releasing a “happy song” in the thick of pandemic-exacerbated “suffering” – something she was on the fence about back in 2020 when she put out the single ‘Fall Inlove!’. The deceptively buoyant, romcom-ready bop is about the trickier parts of love: forgiving, admitting faults and starting all over. It’s a song that, despite mori’s hesitations, resonated with listeners and is, at the time of writing, her most streamed song on Spotify. She’s included the track on the new record, alongside a slow and wistful “reimagined” version with gravitas that serves as a powerful closing track.
“I strive to be recognised by how I sound. It might be too noisy, or messy, but messy works”
There’s far more to ena mori’s album than love songs. She deliberates on pride and ego (‘A Higher Place’), societal frustrations (‘SOS’), universal hurts (‘Oh Bleeding Hearts?’), and even takes a mirror to her deepest flaws (‘White Room’). And in nearly all her songs, she manages to flip every recitation of personal demons and sticky situations into self-reliant optimism. In ‘White Room’ she begins: “Quitting is my specialty…’cause everything for me is fear / I scream from the white room for somebody else / to see me / to hear me” only to later supply her own pep-talk by slowly building up the chant: “I’ll take the way from my mistakes / and I will make a way, take my time / ‘cause who are we to say that we are not enough!”
Sonically, and with the help of co-producer and constant collaborator Tim Marquez aka timothy Run, the idiosyncrasies in ena mori’s sound never let up: dramatic rippling synths, syncopated disco-flavoured rhythms and a vocal cacophony of joyful melancholy colour the LP. It’s all a testament to mori’s tastes and musical instincts: “I strive to be somebody that could be recognised by how they sound like or how they express themselves. I never want to just adjust to a trend. I guess it goes back to every song having some type of big feeling,” she says. “It might be too noisy, or too messy, but at the end of the day, I’m happy that my vision was realised, and yeah, messy works.”
And in ena mori’s vision, the ‘wild’ in ‘Don’t Blame The Wild One!’ shouldn’t be confused for ‘extroverted’. “People tend to think of the wild one as the leader or someone who does things others can’t. And I don’t like that idea,” mori says frankly.
“I think the true wild ones are the silent ones, the underdogs – people who have so much to say but can’t say it yet or have a hard time being fully themselves because life happens. I was one of them.”
ena mori’s ‘Don’t Blame The Wild One!’ is out now via Offshore Music Philippines