MoZella: Recording An Homage To The Motor City

Jul 29, 2012
Originally published on July 29, 2012 6:12 pm

It wouldn't be hard to confuse Detroit-born singer MoZella's new album, The Brian Holland Sessions, with any one of the classic recordings to have come from the legendary studio known as Hitsville, USA.

That's no coincidence — the record was co-written by someone who spent a lot of time in that studio: Brian Holland of the songwriting trio Holland-Dozier-Holland.

Having penned hits for The Four Tops, The Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes and others, Holland was instrumental in defining the Motown sound.

MoZella, otherwise known as Maureen McDonald, says she was speechless when Holland first invited her to write with him.

"I was walking across Santa Monica Boulevard and I lost my voice," she remembers. "I'm trying to talk to him above traffic — and he was just so nice to me.'"

McDonald says she couldn't have asked for a better mentor.

"I thought, 'What an amazing opportunity to learn from this legend,' " she says. "From the minute we met it was like long-lost souls — just the best of friends, instantly."

McDonald says that camraderie has produced a record that anyone from Detroit can be proud of.

"I want it to sound really old and dirty and kind of janky," she says. "I don't care if radio doesn't play it. I don't care if nobody plays it. I just want to make something that sounds like what my mom grew up on and loved, what she played me, what's in our DNA — for every Detroiter."

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER YOU")

MOZELLA: (Singing) When I woke up, oh, I took a good look at my face...

RAZ: This is a singer who calls herself MoZella. And this song, "Another You," it just sounds instantly familiar, doesn't it? Well, there's a good reason for that. It was co-written by someone who practically wrote the great American songbook.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY I NEED YOUR LOVING")

FOUR TOPS: (Singing) Baby, I need your loving...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "(LOVE IS LIKE A) HEAT WAVE")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Like a heat wave burning in my heart...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS OLD HEART OF MINE")

ISLEY BROTHERS: (Singing) This old heart of mine been broke a thousand times...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW SWEET IT IS TO BE LOVED BY YOU")

MARVIN GAYE: (Singing) How sweet it is to be loved by you...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP! IN THE NAME OF LOVE")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Stop in the name of love...

RAZ: Wow. Can you believe Brian Holland co-wrote all of these songs? Whenever you think of that Motown sound, that was Brian Holland. And now, after a long break from the public eye, he's working with MoZella, born and bred in the Motor City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER YOU")

MOZELLA: (Singing) There'll never be, there'll never be, there'll never be another you. There'll never be, there'll never be, there'll never be another you. And there ain't nothing I can do. When I see you...

RAZ: MoZella's new record is called "The Brian Holland Sessions." Her real name is Maureen McDonald, and she joins me right here in the studio. MoZella, welcome to the program.

MOZELLA: Hi.

RAZ: This song, it's incredible. This is going to make a lot of people listening, happy. It's just - it's so reminiscent of classic Motown, you know? When you went into the studio, did you have that as your mission statement?

MOZELLA: Yes. Absolutely. Basically, my publisher, Jon Platt, said, I have somebody on the phone you need to talk to. He's from your hometown, and he's written a few hits.

RAZ: And you were a singer there.

MOZELLA: And I'm a singer.

RAZ: Yeah.

MOZELLA: And I'm signed with EMI as a writer. And I thought, oh, my God. Who is he going to put me on the phone with? And he said, I want you to talk to Brian Holland. And I was walking across Santa Monica Boulevard, and I lost my voice. And I'm trying to talk to him above traffic, and he was just so nice to me. And he said, we're going to write. And I said, OK. OK. So we went in to write but, you know, I had made a few albums. I was signed to a couple majors.

RAZ: And you were writing for other people.

MOZELLA: I was writing for other people. So when I went in, I was thinking he wanted to just songwrite. And I thought, what an amazing opportunity - to learn from this legend. As a songwriter, I couldn't have picked a better mentor. And so we went in, and from the minute we met, it was like long-lost souls. Just the best of friends, instantly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY SAVE ME")

MOZELLA: (Singing) Baby, save me from this heart of mine. I'm begging you, baby. Ooh, save me from this heart of mine.

We wrote one song, and he said: I want to make an album with you. I said, with me? And he's like, yeah. I want to do it with you. And I said, OK - I can't really say no to this. You know, I'm kind of - was in the mindset of transitioning into just being a writer and just doing, like, commercials - like I'd been doing. And I said, but if we do this, I want to make it sound just like 1965.

RAZ: Oh, wow.

MOZELLA: He said, why do you want to sound like that? That's old. And I said, no. Being from Detroit, and you being from Detroit - no better way to like, make an album. Let's just do it really, like, vintage. And he was like, well, whatever you want to do. You take the lead, I'll follow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY SAVE ME")

MOZELLA: (Singing) I think about you everywhere that I go. What am I missing, why am I needing you so? No way to stop the pain. I'm losing control. Bring your love on back. Never let me go. Baby, why don't you save me?

I just knew I wanted to make that sound. And I've even - I even had people that were like, well, don't you want to add some hip-hop to it, don't you want to add this? And I said, no. I want something really old and dirty, and kind of janky. And they were like, really? And I'm like, yeah. I don't care if radio doesn't play it. I don't care if nobody plays it. I just want to make something that sounds like what my mom grew up on and loved, what she played me, what's in our DNA for every Detroiter. I just want to make an homage to the city that I grew up in. So I didn't listen to anybody.

I had no A&R telling me what to do. I didn't have a record label. I didn't have a budget. I didn't have nobody. And so I said, I don't - well, let's just make music. Let's just enjoy each other's company, and make music. And that's really what we did. We spent more time at IHOP, eating breakfast and singing Nat King Cole songs together, than we did writing this album.

RAZ: It's amazing because you could take this CD, you could put it in the CD player, you could give it to a station and say, here's a lost record from 1965. You know, those - it's like those Instagram. You ever use Instragram on the iPhone?

MOZELLA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

RAZ: And you can get a photograph, and then you can kind of put a filter on it and give it that '70s veneer. And it looks - actually, it's so cool - it looks fresh.

MOZELLA: Yes.

RAZ: That's the way I felt about this record - is that it takes you back, but that sound is so fresh right now.

MOZELLA: I really appreciate that, because I feel like I got a little bit of resistance for wanting to do it so old-sounding - because people were like, well, you know, Duffy and Amy Winehouse, they had this, and they had beats underneath. And I said, I don't want that.

RAZ: And you guys could have made a record of remakes...

MOZELLA: Yeah.

RAZ: ...but you wrote all of the songs together.

MOZELLA: Yeah. We did. Mm-hmm. We would go in, we'd eat our breakfast - we'd share some French toast - and then we would laugh and talk, and sit down at the piano. And we really only probably spent about 20 minutes at the piano. And he would start pounding with his left hand, and you'd hear this sound. You'd be like, oh, my God. Wait, this is this song. I'm like, no, that's not it. And you realize he invented that sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")

MOZELLA: (Singing) Back and forth, stuck in the middle of love and hate, can't solve the riddle. She broke your heart, tore you to pieces, you're all alone, I know what you're needing, boy. It's all right, love takes time. There you are, right in the thick of it, broken up, I know you're sick of it. How come love just make you wanna quit? Build a sand castle to watch the water ruin it. It's all right...

I know my mother, being raised in Detroit in the '60s, when she hears this, she's like, overwhelmed, really overwhelmed. She used to babysit, and call down to the Motown studio just to talk to people there. And they'd put Four Tops on the phone when she was 14, and she'd talk to them, you know.

Or - she remembers hearing "Bernadette" in the - in the hamburger stand, for the first time. And so for my mother, this is really like, a very proud moment. As a Detroiter, it's a proud moment.

RAZ: That is the singer known as MoZella. Her new album is called "The Brian Holland Sessions." You can hear a few tracks at our website, nprmusic.org. MoZella, thank you so much.

MOZELLA: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T LOVE ANYONE BUT YOURSELF")

MOZELLA: (Singing) You don't love anyone but yourself. No, no... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.