Moorea Masa has been in her studio space at the Falcon Art Community in North Portland for just over a month and she’s been spending a lot of time there lately—meeting fellow artists, assembling musicians for her upcoming EP release of Oh Mother on Sunday, May 31 at Mississippi Studios, and putting the wraps on a very beautiful, very personal, very Oregon video for the title track. All of this is to honor the passing of a dear friend’s mother, and motherly figure to Masa, Marcia Jean Barrentine.
“This whole project has been a piece of art that I’ve created, but also in the process, wanting to honor Marcia, including the video,” Masa explains.
Originally, the song spoke about the month Masa spent in New York City, followed by a couple of weeks in London, which was completed by a move to the mountains in Granda, Spain—a retreat from the concrete and metal jungle to the wild and unpopulated natural world, where she lived in a cave with Flamenco musicians, the birthplace of the song “Oh Mother.” Later, it took on new meaning and depth as a tribute to Barrentine.
“When I started writing it, it was about being in the city and feeling really overwhelmed in my need to go, but in the lyrics ‘always you are there,’ it’s me thinking, ‘Well, in the city, nature’s always with me even if I don’t feel it, but I’m starting to feel a little crazy,’ but once there, once back in nature, I am reminded that it’s always with us and I can always come back to that place. Once Marcia passed away, the lyrics became about her, 'Oh mother, always you are there.'"
Madeleine Johnson, Barrentine’s daughter and Masa’s childhood friend since middle school, is practically a sibling. “I spent all of my time over her house, sharing a twin bed. My father and I spent all our holidays and birthdays with them,” Masa remembers.
Johnson, an actress and filmmaker originally from Portland and currently living in Los Angeles, was consulted and included every step of the way. She and her boyfriend, a cinematographer, Alan Dean (The Phoenix Project, 2015), flew up for a weekend to brainstorm and help create the storyboards that yielded the structure for the video. Dean and Johnson were both integral to the creation and filming of the video, as well as starring in it.
Masa recalls all of the mom things Barrentine did for her. “She helped me get into college by taking me to college fairs. She helped me do research and apply, and once I got into college, she helped me put on two separate fundraisers and apply for financial aid. The list goes on—she even gave us cooking lessons and made us cookbooks before we left.”
She pauses to reflect, “She was just a magical woman. The ultimate goddess who helped everyone and was endlessly giving. She was that to so many people.”
The video for “Oh Mother” is a culmination of the art and music-filled events surrounding the release of the EP. “We talked a lot about it and came up with the idea of doing the music video,” Masa says, “but also having a listening party for the EP where we would build an art installation of her [Johnson's] mother’s birds that she [Barrentine] used to make. They were always hanging in her studio and she would give them away as gifts. They really represented her in my mind.” These paper birds are prominently featured both on the cover art for Oh Mother and are ever-present in the video.
One of Masa’s intentions for the video was to capture some “epically beautiful nature shots.” Johnson is seen leaving the city to spend time in the Oregon landscape before returning to her home, which is a coming back to nature akin to Masa’s own story. She enters her childhood house, the home of her mother, and goes into her mother’s art studio, where she spent a lot of creative time. She sits on the floor of her mother’s studio, surrounded by paper birds on the floor, and she starts making them herself, like a knitter picking up the dropped stitch and continuing on.
And here is where art imitates life.
“While I was busy finishing birds for the installation, [Madeleine and Alan] got to go and be with each other and be with Oregon nature on their own.” Masa, along with close friends and family, brought the listening party and art installation to fruition, crafting upwards of 500 paper birds strung together like white, shimmering curtains, which became part of the stage as well as the set for the final scenes in the video. The evening was preceded by an intimate dinner hosted and prepared by local artist and friend, Bevan Wistar. It was a living memorial and a befitting tribute to Barrentine.
“Marcia organized for political campaigns, she was an artist and always had people over for wine and crafting, so it was a beautiful thing to put together,” Masa explains. It was an intuitive celebration not only of the completion of the EP, but an opportunity for Masa and Johnson to collaborate on the release. “It’s been more than just me,” Masa says softly. “So many people were involved, and I was really mindful of Madeleine because it feels like a bit of her journey. There’s so many layers to it and I can’t be in the way of myself in this project.”
Whether conscious or unconscious, the layers work together as a delicate matrix of artful and sensitive storytelling, and are well represented in the video. There is Masa’s music and her experience: There is the conversation of going from the city back to nature, a conversation between Johnson and her mother, and a conversation between Masa and Johnson—the video is a shared vision and an extension of all of these pieces in the story. Nature scenes from Latourell Falls show columnar basalt formations dropping down like a cathedral pipe organ, and in one scene, Johnson stands on the bridge before Wahkeena Falls—a native Yakima word meaning "most beautiful"—smiling as the water spray washes over her, recalling the lyrics, “Oh mother, wash me in your river.” There are vigils of Saint Mary and a fountain with Mary’s likeness as a subtle reference to the album's artwork. All of the themes on Oh Mother are thoughtfully echoed both visually and sonically, creating a seamless body of artwork among all of the performances.
Since the listening party, Masa’s been concentrating on the formal May 27 CD release for the Oh Mother EP. “I’ve got a string section and all these other musicians that I’m playing with, and once I’m done with that, I’ll ask myself, ‘Okay, what do I now?' I’ve really been thinking about it, and I want to do more events and shows that move people, not just play to play. I want it to be more impactful. For a long time, I’ve been feeling nervous to get up and play the guitar and it took me a while to feel comfortable being a solo musician and leading a band. But I’ve started to feel a flow in my performance and the positive feedback has been really helpful and given me the confidence to put something out there.”