Most musicians wear many hats, and Stephen “Mojo” Mougin is no exception. Mojo is best known as a member of the Sam Bush Band and a sought-after instructor. But he is also an award-winning producer and engineer, a label head, mentor, songwriter, band coach, and more. Mojos’ commitment to high standards and dedication to everything he works on have made him an in-demand partner and collaborator for any creative endeavor in the world of acoustic music. He is that rare musician that can help grow a band or artist from developing talent to professional quality performer; and shepherd artistic visions from one end of the creative process to the other. If a new bluegrass band has caught your ear in recent years, or a new song given you goose-bumps, it’s very likely that Mojo had something to do with it.
It makes no difference whether Mojo is behind a mic with a guitar in his hands, or at the mixing desk, making a song come to life. He recognizes that all of his musical pursuits are connected, and that his experience in one area can inform his work in any other. His background as a music educator gives Mojo a deep teaching toolbox that is essential to his work teaching voice, guitar, or mandolin; but also helps him to get the most out of a studio performance. “My skills allow me to demonstrate what I’m after, they’re very much the same.” Like any true educator, Stephens’ goal with all of his students and clients is to help them achieve results beyond what they thought possible.
Always a vocalist, Stephen’s first stringed instrument was guitar, which he began performing on at the age of 6, playing and singing in bluegrass bands around his home in rural Massachusetts. As he grew as a musician, he would often play mandolin as well, if that was what the band he was playing with required. No matter which instrument was in his hands, his strength as a singer set him apart, and kept him busy. His focus on his singing, and voice in general, grew, leading Stephen to study music education with an emphasis on voice at University of Massachusetts Amherst. After graduation, Stephen went to work as a 7th-12th grade school music teacher. He would eventually leave the North East for Nashville, and a touring job singing and playing mandolin in a bluegrass band.
Just a few years later, in 2006, Mojo was invited to go to work for bluegrass and newgrass pioneer, Sam Bush, on guitar and vocals. He’s still in that role alongside the Father of Newgrass 15 years later, appearing at top festivals across the country, including annual stops at the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Festival, and Merlefest. Mojo has continued to grow in his time with Sam, and learns new lessons all the time. He recounts a moment during one of his early shows with the band when he “…crashed and burned, rhythmically” during a solo, and the rest of the group didn’t flinch. It was an object lesson in what it means to be a strong support for your fellow players, to be pulling for one another’s success at every show. It’s a lesson that he has taken to heart, and informs not only his playing, but his teaching, writing, engineering, and production.
In addition to being a member of the Sam Bush Band, Mojo is one half of Nedski & Mojo, a long-running duo with 2018 International Bluegrass Music Association Banjo Player of the Year, Ned Luberecki. Both Stephen and Ned are top players, and masterful clinicians, and they often present workshops and perform as part of an engagement. Ned and Mojo have an unmistakeable musical and personal chemistry, and their musicianship and humor have made them fan favorites. Nedski & Mojos’ workshops and concerts are don’t-miss events.
Onstage, the years Mojo has put in, honing his craft are evident. Offstage, out of the spotlight, Mojo keeps his plate full with a diverse array of musical endeavors. On a given day he might be found producing and engineering new projects, planning releases, shooting top-notch instructional videos, and more. Each facet of his work in music informs all the others, the confluence of diverse experiences helps to make Mojo a “total package” musician, and a powerful creative collaborator.
Before joining the “Sam Band” Mojo was already spending much of his time off the road developing his skills as an engineer and producer. In 2005, he founded Dark Shadow Recording in his home studio; taking the name from his song “Dark Shadow”, recorded by Melonie Cannon. One step at a time, Dark Shadow, run by Stephen and his wife, Jana Mougin, grew from a studio into a full-fledged record label, starting in 2009 with the release of a series of instructional CDs for aspiring harmony singers. In 2010, Dark Shadow released the first album from Nedski & Mojo, Nothing More. Driven by a desire to release great music and to do right by the artists, Dark Shadow began signing new bands, starting with The Rigneys in 2013. In 2014, just one year later, Becky Buller approached Mojo to produce what would be ‘Tween Earth and Sky, and wisely accepted when he offered to release the album as well. That release would earn help to earn Becky the 2015 IBMA Emerging Artist and Songwriter of the Year awards, and the Recorded Event of the Year award for the track “Southern Flavor”. The partnership between Becky and Dark Shadow has continued to be fruitful, with a string of nominations and industry awards. Today, Dark Shadow has an established track record of releasing great music, including Mojos’ own solo record, Ordinary Soul, and albums from Rick Faris, The Rigneys, and Rick Lang.
As a producer, Mojo excels at helping clients make the most of their strengths, and zeroing in on areas for improvement. He takes great pleasure in working with artists to bring their dream projects to life, his “world is our oyster” approach brings options within reach that might not have seemed possible. If a project needs songs, Mojo will often help clients write or finish original material, or reach out to top songwriters for submissions. Should a band have all the songs it needs, but still feels something is missing, he will create arrangements, or coach ensemble performance to sharp point, ensuring that the group is ready to track.
Behind a mixing desk, Mojo draws on his experience as a player to help inform his engineering. He knows how things are supposed to sound, and he has the skills and gear to get there in short order. If you listen to acoustic music, you’ve no doubt heard recordings and mixes that came out of Dark Shadow. Mojos’ outstanding work as an engineer was recognized by the IBMA in 2020, when he was honored with the organization’s award for Sound Engineer of the Year.
Mentorship has been a constant thread running through Mojos’ life and career. Always a teacher, he has given guidance and support to students, bands, engineers, producers, and artists at all levels of the bluegrass world. The many facets of his experience make it possible for Mojo to look at a situation from many angles, and to offer an informed perspective, which he shares freely and honestly. It’s not unusual to see artists he’s worked with nominated for industry awards; in 2016 he was recognized for his contributions with IBMAs’ Momentum award for Mentor of the Year.
Mojo has always worked with players at all levels, and he deeply enjoys helping musicians improve, wherever they may be in their development. Pros who want to brush up on their vocal skills, and young bands preparing to make their first record, have all had successful, gratifying experiences working with him. As a band coach, Stephen has helped a wide variety of groups refine their performance and get to their next level. His writing, arrangements, and skills as a producer and engineer have been essential contributions to many projects. Mojos’ professional insights are highly valuable, and the generosity with which he shares them set him apart. Live, in the studio, or in the rehearsal hall, Mojo elevates every project he works on.