Toro Magazine Interviews Mo

Toro Magazine Interviews Mo

Mo Kenney stares from the cover of her debut album with a Mona Lisa smile — an ambiguous expression that suggests many different feelings. The same elusiveness extends to her music, which is isn’t really folk, as her numerous acoustic performances would suggest. It isn’t really rock, either, retaining an intimacy even when filled out by a full band. While her demeanour is plain-spoken Kenney’s first, self-titled album — recorded with the help of Canadian indie rock hero Joel Plaskett — offers a rich array of moods.

In anticipation of her upcoming Toronto performance, we spoke to the Halifax songwriter about being compared to other artists, choosing a cover photo, and her one-time obsession with Danish pop group Aqua.

After listening to your album for a few days, I started to feel a sense of familiarity with you, though we haven’t spoken until now. Does that ever happen to you?

Yeah, that totally makes sense. I’ve experienced that sometimes with records. I’m glad you did — it’s definitely a compliment. The first artist that pops into my head is Elliot Smith. When I listen to his music I feel like I kinda know him, or I could know him, even though he’s not alive. I feel like he’s my little “secret” — like when you have a strong connection to music it can feel like you’re the only one who knows about it, or are the only one that gets it, even though I know that’s not true (for Smith).

Or maybe the more you like something, the harder it is to articulate to other people.

Yes. I feel that way with his music.

Was that discovery a watershed moment for you, in terms of what you listened to?

Mmhmm. I was about 14 when I heard “Needle in the Hay” in The Royal Tenenbaums. I remember watching the scene it plays in — I’d never heard anything like it before. I couldn’t believe it. I went online to find everything I could about him. It was a gateway to good music for me.

Have you ever covered it?

Nope. I will never cover that song. I do play his song “Between the Bars” sometimes.

You’re 22 years old — I’m 26 and I can remember only a few years where there was a limitation as to how much I could know about an artist beyond their music. Sometimes I miss that.

[Laughs] When I was a little kid I remember I was obsessed with Aqua. I don’t know why I loved them so much. I’d flip through their tapes, looking them over, weirded out and intrigued at the same time. I didn’t even have TV (beyond) three channels. I had to put the pieces together in my own imagination. So that’s my experience with that — as soon as I got a little older I had the internet.

In my prep, I found a podcast that played a song of yours, and the host said that you’d been in the Canadian music scene “for almost 10 years.” That didn’t sound right. You haven’t been performing since you were 12, have you?

No, that’s weird. I’ve been writing since then but not performing. I only started that when I turned 20.

Have you gotten used to performing for strangers?

Definitely. The more I do it, the more I enjoy it. I love it.

Every new performer has to go through the ringer of “They sound like this or that more established artist.” Have any comparisons struck you as odd?

Usually, I get comparisons based on my voice. I remember after a show someone told me I sound like Norah Jones.

Your stuff could be classified as folk-pop or singer-songwriter music, but on record, it’s pretty rock ‘n’ roll. Did that come from taking intimate, acoustic tunes into the studio space?

I’ve always been a fan of rock ‘n’ roll. When I first started playing guitar, I immediately went electric. I did all sorts of solos. I only started doing the solo / acoustic thing when I turned 20. I do like that, still, but I like keeping things high energy.

Your album cover photo is striking. Was it a candid shot?

There were tons and tons of pictures to shoot from. I got together with the photographer, Cherakee Stoddard, a bunch of times. It took so long [to select]!

I can only imagine the amount of time that would take. How does one decide what image of themselves best represents their art?

I know! It’s weird. I had to take in a lot of different opinions from people before I settled. But I think it’s important to have a picture of yourself on your first record, at least.

“Eden” is the oldest song on the album. Is that why it was placed first on the tracklist?

Not really, it just kind of felt right. It’s a good song to open with.

It appears to be about that feeling, what English majors call pathetic fallacy, where the weather or nature, seems to have a certain mood. Am I totally off?

That makes sense. I feel like that a lot and it has influenced my writing. When I wrote it, I was pretty carefree and happy, and that influenced it.

What are you most proud of having done (or written) in your career so far?

I’m really proud of the album. I’d been waiting for years to give the songs life in the studio. I’ve always been proud of them. It’s just really, really nice that people seem to be digging it. Before it came out I worked at a dollar store, so I’m happy things are going well right now, that all my efforts aren’t for nothing.

Mo Kenney will perform at The Rivoli in Toronto February 13.

by Jesse Skinner, Toro Magazine