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Southwest Portland based band Mojo Holler evokes an early 20th century style

CONNECTION PHOTO: COREY BUCHANAN - Southwest Portland residents Melinda Hasting (left) and John Baker are two-thirds of the band Mojo Heller.

This story was updated from its original version

The search for musical self-actualization can last decades and the quest for a soulmate may never end.

But when Melinda Hasting and John Baker witnessed a meteor careen toward the earth during their first date along the Willamette River, the duo found both.

"We saw it as a sign and started playing guitar together that night," Hasting says.

Southwest Portland residents Hasting and Baker form two-thirds of the classic Americana band Mojo Holler, along with bassist Eric Shirazi.

The band performs all over the Pacific Northwest, graced the stage at South by Southwest in 2016 and are planning to release a new album this year.

Hasting and Baker grew up in opposite sides of the country and have disparate influences, but Hasting's raspy, soulful vocals and Baker's bluesy lap steel guitar forge a unified, distinct sound that harkens back to the early 20th century.

"I don't know why Missi had to move from Austin to Portland so the Bakers could find their inner Mississippi Fred McDowell," SXSW Co-Founder Louis Black says of Mojo Holler's music. "But she did, and they did."

Hasting grew up in Tennessee and recalls singing gospel music and dreaming of the day when she could turn her hobby into a career.

"As a little girl, I thought: 'I don't want to have any kids,'" she says. "'I just want to grow up and marry a music man. And we'll just make music together.'"

As she grew older, Hasting says she hoped to evoke a pleasant, sweet sound, and lost some of the acerbity in her voice.

"I had been smoothing out who I was for so long in trying to be sweeter and prettier," Hasting says.

But one night, while perfecting a rendition of "Santa Baby" for a digital Christmas card, Baker helped bring the soul back to her voice. Angry at Baker and frustrated with the process, Hasting belted out "Santa Baby" in a much raspier, visceral sound.

"I was like, 'That's it,'" Baker says. "'That's what you need to do.'"

Hasting says she took the advice to heart.

"I was just like, 'I'm going to be myself and this is what is coming from my heart,'" Hasting says. "When that happened, our music took a turn."

Baker grew up in Upland, California but has lived in Portland for the past 25 years. As a teenage rocker, he was infatuated with the sounds of classic rock stalwarts like Led Zeppelin. But in a quest to discover rock and roll's roots, he found the blues. Suddenly, his musical world expanded.

"I became obsessed with the blues, especially early country blues and early recordings of Robert Johnson and the like from the '20s and '30s," Baker says. "There's a real sound and it's a deep, soulful sound and it's rockin' too."

Baker played guitar for several indie rock bands throughout his adulthood and always incorporated a bluesy touch, particularly to his guitar solos.

But with Mojo Holler, Baker is happy to ditch modern inflections in favor of early blues and country music. And like the blues, Mojo Holler's songs are about striving, tragedy and sadness.

"It makes for good songs," Baker says. "I always felt that songs that are sad are always better than songs that are really happy."

And his horizontal, slide-style guitar playing helps bring home the pain.

"When I was into the blues, the slide was heavily part of the blues and there's something that mimics the human's voice in pain, that singing quality," Baker says.

Mojo Holler's previous album, "Where Black Ravens Flew," was released in 2014 and features a mix of songs that both Hasting and Baker wrote independently.

The album helped get them into SXSW, where they played Saturday night's final performance. They were not paid and are still paying off the trip, but relished the experience.

"It was great for us. We got exposure; there's some cache to it," Hasting says.

But their upcoming record is their first foray into joint songwriting. And in the meantime, Baker and Hasting were weeks away from their wedding when they talked with the Connection in early May. But though these are exciting times for the duo, their songs are still melancholy.

"It's usually, one of us writes a song and presents it to the other person and assists the other person in arranging harmonies, and that sort of thing," Hasting says. "You go through it and figure out what sounds good and what works and what doesn't work."

With many live music venues and festivals unable to pay artists, making a living through music can be daunting. And Hasting works a few odd jobs while Baker is a landscaper to pay the bills.

"Musicians really struggle," Hasting says. "I don't know of any musicians in town, even some of the best, who aren't doing all types of things to make a living."

But Hasting and Baker are willing to sacrifice for the music and for each other.

"We try to be real. We try to show people they can live their dreams," Hasting said. "It doesn't mean everyone needs to make music, but you can live your dreams. It just requires an absolute surrender to, 'OK, I'm going to do this and there are going to be side effects to that.'"

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