‘Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky’: Mo’Ju and Alice Skye on the power of First Nations-led storytelling

The artists talk reclaiming the narrative from Captain Cook ahead of the documentary’s premiere at MIFF 2020

When Mo’Ju and Alice Skye connect with NME, they’re feeling scattered. It’s entirely understandable: Skye, the Wergaia and Wemba Wemba songwriter, is settling into her new home after moving out of a packed Fitzroy share-house mid-lockdown. And Mo’Ju, the Wiradjuri and Bisayan musician, is juggling artist life and parenthood: “I’ve got total baby brain at the moment,” they laugh.

On top of it all, the duo are promoting Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky, a new documentary that retells the tale of Captain Cook’s so-called “discovery” of the east coast of Australia through the voices of First Nations songwriters and knowledge-holders. The film premieres this Sunday (August 16) in a preview screening as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival’s program, and will screen on NITV and SBS Viceland next Thursday (August 20).

Produced by Indigenous storytelling outlet Tamarind Tree Pictures and Roar Film, Looky Looky was helmed by director-writer Steven McGregor and the poet, dancer and writer Steven Oliver. “We can change how we view the past,” Oliver said in a recent address to the nation amid Black Lives Matter protests.

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Alongside the likes of Birdz, Trials, Mau Power and Kev Carmody, Mo’Ju and Skye have created songs that speak to the impact of Cook’s journey on Indigenous peoples, and how the collective perception of our history affects our present. Mo’Ju uses her powerful drawl to sing from the perspective of a medicine woman who foresaw the devastation that invasion would bring, while Skye performs a tender new song in which she sings in language for the first time.

Wearing matching grey hoodies and radiating a strong sense of pride for the project, Mo’Ju and Skye discussed the film with NME from their homes in Victoria. Watch a teaser for Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky and read the interview below.

A brief history of James Cook's arrival on Aboriginal land – Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky

What you should know about Cook's doris in his Endeavour. | 📺 Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky airs next Thursday, 8.30pm

Posted by NITV on Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Steven Oliver says Looky Looky creates a modern songline that embraces themes of first contact, resistance, language and the truth. How did these themes present themselves while you were writing your songs?

Alice Skye: “When I was asked to write a song with all those things in mind, I was unsure about where to begin. But it’s something that consumes quite a big part of my life – it’s not something I haven’t thought about before. I did have a pre-existing song that was unfinished; this opportunity drove me to finish it. I don’t know about you Mo’Ju, but when you get asked to write something for [a project], it’s like: how?”

Mo’Ju: “Yeah. I enjoy the creative challenge of walking into a space where it’s like, ‘Okay, this is the timeframe, and this is the subject matter, and this is what it’s for’. But when it holds so much meaning for you on a personal level and also for your community and ancestors, there’s a real weight of responsibility there, in the telling of these stories. That definitely feels quite daunting and intimidating.

“I liked that we were given a character profile to write from, because I would never appoint myself as a spokesperson for community – I don’t feel like I’ve fully emerged into that role yet. I’m not a cultural representative of anyone other than myself and my own experience and my immediate family. So for me, it was like: If you’re writing from this other voice, you become this conduit where you’re letting that story flow through you; it allows you to tell an ancestral story in a way that, otherwise, I probably wouldn’t feel confident to take on.”

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Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky film Captain Cook Mo'Ju
Mo’Ju in ‘Looky Looky, Here Comes Cooky’. Credit: Press

Alice, I got chills from your song ‘Wurega Djalin’. You mention the title loosely translates to searching and listening to speak your tongue. Mo’Ju, you released ‘Native Tongue’ two years ago now, which speaks to loss of language. In the process of writing your song, Alice, did you feel a sense of recovery?

AS: “Whenever I’m working on writing something, it’s a form of recovery because I usually write about the things that I’m feeling or that I’m trying to understand. We went to the mission that a lot of my family came up through. I was a bit daunted when I heard that they wanted to film there. But it was strangely special to be given that chance and get a form of… I don’t think recovery is the right word. I think that’s a long, long, long process, you know? But it’s a part of [the process], which is why films like this and chances for blackfellas to work together are so special and so important.”

I should have clarified that I mean recovery not so much in terms of healing, but more so as a process of recovering language.

AS: “For me, singing in language, it’s the first time I’ve done it with this song.”

M: “That’s so cool. I didn’t know that. I love that. I feel like every little tiny thing is part of a process of reclamation, you know? And it’s so empowering in a way. I’m watching my mum learning to speak Wiradjuri now at 60, and I see how powerful that is for her. She feels so connected through language; it’s so important. And just having a newborn child, [I’m] realising my priorities have shifted. It’s important to me that I hand that on.

“Maybe in ‘Tongue’ I named it, and now I can start this journey of being like, ‘Okay, from here on out, I’m working to reclaim that so I can pass this knowledge on’. That feels really powerful.”

Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky film Captain Cook Alice Skye
Alice Skye in ‘Looky Looky, Here Comes Cooky’. Credit: Press

Was this both of your first times working on a film project?

M: “I’ve contributed to soundtracks before, and I’ve written original scores for small things. In other situations, you’re scoring something that already exists, and you’re embellishing a narrative that’s already [written]. Whereas with this, it felt like you’re contributing to the narrative, you’re part of the storytelling.”

What about you, Alice?

AS: “I was nervous. I’m nervous with anything that I’ve never done before, because I’m a Leo and I love things that I already know I’m good at, and I just wasn’t sure if I could do this. [laughs] But yeah, obviously I’m a huge Steven Oliver fan. He’s deadly.”

Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky film Captain Cook Steven Oliver
Steven Oliver in ‘Looky Looky, Here Comes Cooky’. Credit: Press

Do you think working on this film influenced the way you’ll approach songwriting in the future?

AS: “The way I was taught to think about Captain Cook in school, I always felt [it] was wrong, but I never felt like it was safe for me to say otherwise because he was [seen as] this great explorer and there were no conversations on what that meant for mob. For me, getting to be a part of something where we’re the ones driving the narrative, I think that’s changed something in my brain.” [laughs]

M: “I think [the documentary] helped solidify a working relationship with someone like Trials. We’ve goofed around and played dice and drunk beers or whatever, and [Trials is] someone that I’ve always had a good rapport with, in a friendly way, but we hadn’t ever sat in a studio together – it just peels back a whole other layer to that relationship.

“Since then, we did ‘Can’t Buy My Soul’, the Uncle Kev Carmody tribute. Also, I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this, but we have been working on another collaborative thing with Birdz. I think it steamrolls when you really click with someone.”

Do you both have any releases coming out soon?

M: “I’ve got a single coming out the day after the film, on Friday the 21st. I wrote this single in New York in July last year, and it was really funny. I went there to be part of APRA SongHubs. The day I arrived, I got a text message from a friend saying, ‘Come to the pub, we’re hanging out with Briggs and Trials’. We ended up hanging out all night. At 1 am I got a text message from Briggs going, ‘Wanna [perform] with us tomorrow in Central Park?’ The rehearsal was like us 20 minutes beforehand, backstage in a dressing room…”

AS: “I love this.”

M: “… just going through it once, maybe twice. [Mo’Ju imitates DJ scratching]. He was like, ‘I don’t have the turntables here, but this is what I’m going to do. Let’s just get up there and wing it’. I think that’s one moment where I really connected with Trials. So, I’m putting out this single that I wrote it the day after I performed with A.B. Original in New York. It felt pretty boss being on stage with A.B Original in the birthplace of hip-hop – that was pretty mind-blowing.”

AS: “The ‘Can’t Buy My Soul’ record with Kev Carmody, I also recorded a song as a part of that. It comes out this Friday. And I’m supposed to release an album soon. It’s happening.”

M: “Everyone I know was meant to write or record or release an album in 2020.” [Skye and Mo’Ju laugh].

AS: “Remember having huge plans for 2020? We’ve had a few singles out, and there might be another one in another month or so. I have my own workspace now.”

M: “You do?”

AS: “Yeah!”

M: “Sick.”

AS: “I’m pumped.”

M: “We’ll have to do a Zoom writing session.”

AS: “Yes! Also, are we wearing the same outfit?”

M: “Yeah, pretty much.” [laughs]

Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky will be available to stream via the Melbourne International Film Festival website for five hours from 7pm this Sunday, August 16. It premieres on SBS Viceland and NITV on Thursday, August 20 at 8.30pm.

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