Q&A: mars hojilla talks Mission Creek, indie music and importance of representation

Mission Creek Festival: mars hojilla

Apr. 8, 3:15 p.m., Trumpet Blossom Cafe, included with pass

mars hojilla — Photo by Paras Bassuk

Between biomedical engineering classes at the University of Iowa, Myles Evangelista has made time for his first Mission Creek Festival. Performing under the name mars hojilla—the title of Evangelista’s recent musical project—the alt-rock artist spoke with Little Village about learning to read out of spite, falling in love with music, and what performing at MCF means to him.

mars hojilla plays at 3:15 p.m. on Saturday, April 8 at the Trumpet Blossom Cafe during the final day of Mission Creek.

Can you tell me about how you started mars hojilla?

Hojilla is actually my middle name. It’s Filipino tradition for the kids to be granted their mother’s maiden name as the middle name. So that’s a part of my heritage that I’m really, very proud to center.

I started making music when I was in high school. I had an indie-rock band with some of my friends when I was a junior in high school. I’m initially from Peoria, in central Illinois, so that [band] kind of resolved when we all moved to college. As recently as this past year, June of 2022, I started playing solo music… under the name mars hojilla.

What about indie-rock music captured your interest?

Another very important part of Filipino culture, I would say, is the at-home karaoke machine. It was a way that my parents were able to keep my older sister and I entertained for multiple hours on end growing up and also just really fostered my love for music at an early age.

A story my mom likes to tell is that I actually learned how to read out of spite. This karaoke machine displays the lyrics on the screen and it kind of scores you on how well you matched the words’ sound. I kept scoring lower than my older sister because I didn’t know how to read yet.

A lot of the songs that I was singing growing up on the karaoke machine were my parents’ type of music, the ’70s and ’80s pop: Elton John, ABBA and bands like Queen and Journey.

As I grew up, I started writing my own lyrics … just based off of my personal experiences. They’re very rooted in storytelling and I just set it to a style that I was familiar with which was that kind of pop. Before I started writing I didn’t really consider what the theme was, I just wanted to focus on making music where I like how it sounds.

Are you hoping to put an album together? What are you aspiring to and in terms of your musical trajectory?

I would like to start recording soon. I guess the only major roadblock is that I’m still a full-time student at university here.

It’d be great to have a single or even an EP out by the end of this year, maybe even by the end of this summer if I’m being optimistic.

Even before Mission Creek Festival, you played at Refocus Film Festival. How did that happen?

By then I had played my first solo set in Iowa City just a couple of weeks before at Trumpet Blossom Cafe.

I had been keeping up with FilmScene for a while and they had posted something on their social media about taking applications for local artists. They left that category kind of broad as far as what musicians or what genre they were looking for, but I just was really working on trying to get my name out and to the Iowa City scene. So I went ahead and I applied and they said, “We would love to give you a spot.”

Was Mission Creek a similar story where you sent in an application?

I figured I would just apply and see what happened.

About a month after I submitted my application I got word back from Elly Hofmaier, who was a talent buyer for their local showcase, saying that they looked into what I do. Despite [the fact] I don’t have anything released yet, I had done for SCOPE Productions a very stripped down—just my voice and guitar—performance of one of my songs for the student org YouTube channel.

Elly found that video through my application process and she said that what they did find on me was very compelling and they will be happy to give me an opportunity to play on a bigger stage.

What’s exciting to you about being able to play on a stage like that?

When I first got booked, I was like, “Oh, this is like, a big fest, I feel like I need to step up my game.” So before getting accepted into Mission Creek, I hadn’t really entertained the idea of being backed with an ensemble. … From experience with having a band in high school, it was really hard to coordinate everyone’s schedules.

But I think with Mission Creek Fest, there’s the potential for a lot of people to see me and I was like, “I have to step it up.” So I’ll be playing all of my solo songs with a bassist and drummer who are both friends I knew prior to Mission Creek.

For people who maybe haven’t heard you play before, how would you describe your sound?

I draw a lot of my stripped down voice and guitar style from the artists NoSo, who SCOPE actually brought to the homecoming concert this past October, they were the opening act.

I listen to a lot of emo-folk adjacent artists, so the Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus types, kinda mixed with pop-punk DJ vocals, because when I got to middle school and high school I was really into My Chemical Romance and Neck Deep’s style and I feel like that translates into the way that I write and sing as well.

When I first started playing solo I compared my stuff to acoustic versions of pop punk songs that don’t exist yet.

Is there anything else you want to add for people reading this?

Going along with feeling the need to be represented in the music scene, on top of being like a non-white indie musician—and I alluded to in the SCOPE video as well—I’m also a transgender man. It’s a rare thing in the music industry in general, but especially in that indie-rock scene to find a musician who is both non-white and genderqueer.

I look up to a lot of musicians, but looking for musicians I can relate to, it’s kind of slim pickings, which is why I draw such heavy inspiration from NoSo, who is Korean American and also nonbinary.

It just means a lot to be able to see somebody who was more like me play on a big stage. So I kind of carry that with me. As long as I’m playing at Mission Creek, I hope that other folks can share in my excitement.