The buzz around young Nova Scotia native Mo Kenney has been building over the last couple of years. Look for that to turn into a deafening (but tuneful) roar with the eagerly awaited September 25 release of her self-titled debut album. Mo Kenney comes out on the prestigious Toronto label Pheromone Recordings in partnership with Joel Plaskett's imprint, New Scotland Records.
East Coast rock and roll hero Plaskett isn't just involved on the label side, he produced and played on the album, as well as contributing a couple of co-writes. Working around his busy schedule, Joel and Mo began their collaboration in April 2011. Plaskett's studio Scotland Yard is a humble setting in which he weaves real musical magic. "He does all the recording onto tape and uses analog gear," notes Kenney. “I just love the warmth of that sound.” This aural intimacy is the perfect frame for Mo Kenney's perceptive and oft-witty compositions, and a voice capable of both gentle subtlety and soul-stirring power.
The album is the happy outcome of a true tandem operation. “Joel and I are the only musicians playing on the album,” says Mo. “He definitely influenced the production. Joel is such a hard worker and he really knows his stuff.” Plaskett may still be best known as a prolific and popular JUNO-winning rock and roll veteran, but his bonafides as a producer are now well-established. Such acclaimed artists as Two Hours Traffic, Sarah Slean, and Steve Poltz have all made good use of his studio skills.
The pair also co-wrote two songs that are highlights of a record devoid of lowlights. Slowly building to a guitar-fuelled crescendo, “Scene of the Crime” is a killer tune that finds Kenney singing with the emotive power of a Cat Power or Lucinda Williams. The frisky “Déjà vu” could be described as a positive break-up song (“gonna take a train wreck, bounce it like a bad cheque”).
A nice twist of fate lies behind the duo's collaboration. Plaskett first became aware of Mo's potential as a songwriter back when she was just 15. “I was doing some recording at a school in Halifax that had a little studio setup and was recording bands,” Kenney recalls. “They had Joel come in and listen to songs. Some years later, his manager, Sheri Jones, was looking for artists for the first year of The Gordie Sampson Songcamp. “Joel remembered me and on my 20th birthday, Sheri called me and invited me to come to the song camp. That is when this all started. I didn't really have anything going on in the industry before then, so that was the best birthday present I could have had.” Respected industry veteran Jones has now added Kenney to a management roster that includes such stellar artists as Sampson, Plaskett, David Myles, and Kim Stockwood.
She may be just 22, but Mo Kenney is far from being a novice songwriter. She began writing in her early teens, and by the age of 14, she'd already done some recording at a small studio in Bedford, Nova Scotia. Her musical tastes have undergone a transition over the past decade. Mo laughingly recalls a rock and roll phase as she entered her teens. “I was totally into Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Ozzy, all the classic rock stuff. When I started guitar I was really into the electric and I remember coffee houses at high school where I'd go onstage with my electric and just rip solos.” She also had a band in high school that she describes as “rather rock and roll, but a bit folky, too.”
A turning point in her musical evolution came when she taught herself the finger-picking style on acoustic guitar. “Elliott Smith is one of my favourite songwriters and I wanted to learn to finger-pick since that’s how he played,” she explains. “It took a while, but I have my own style now. Learning how to do something different on my guitar definitely gave me confidence and a fresh new start with songwriting.”
Now, her writing almost exclusively begins on her beloved Hensel parlour guitar. “I'll come up with a guitar part I like, then the melody happens, then the words. The only song I've written where the lyrics came first is 'Carnivore.'”
Another creative catalyst was provided by Mo's discovery of adventurous alternative rock. “At age 15, I came across Wes Anderson films like The Royal Tanenbaums. They all had amazing soundtracks that opened up a whole new world of music I never knew existed before. I was completely blown away by artists like The Shins, Elliott Smith, Beirut, and Sigur Rós. I totally fell in love with it and wanted to make different music too.”
An example of Kenney's own musical adventurousness is her use of wordless vocals, an approach that adds real emotional heft to a song like “I Can't Talk.” “I like using my voice as another instrument, and that is something that has always been in my songwriting,” she says.
Having influences and inspirations drawn from classic and alt-rock artists rather than the traditional singer/songwriter pantheon helps account for the bracing freshness of Mo Kenney's style. Fitting her sound into a neat box is an exercise in futility, though, if pressed, Mo can settle for “pop music with a folky twist. It is pop-y as they're often short and catchy little songs. I wanted to stay away from the typical singer/songwriter thing and do something a little different. These songs are like a collection of the music I have been carrying around since I was about 15. Many of the songs were written when I was younger, so the album is a weird mix.” More wonderful than weird, we say.
A couple of the songs on Mo Kenney have already generated excitement. The opening track, “Eden” is a concise wee gem (2:17) that has spawned an evocative music video. The clip won the 10 x 10 video contest at the Atlantic Film Festival and screened at the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival and Park City Film Music Festival in Utah, among others. The only non-original on Mo Kenney is “Five Years,” a David Bowie song given a thrilling makeover here and already a hit in live shows. “Ziggy Stardust was in a bunch of old vinyl records my dad gave me,” Mo recalls. “I discovered it when I moved into my first apartment in Halifax at age 19, and I just played that song over and over. When I do it live, there's always a few people in the crowd who recognize and love it.”
For an artist who confesses to once having had crippling stage fright, Mo has developed a warm ease as a performer. She has appeared at such festivals as ECMA, Stan Rogers Festival, NXNE, Evolve, and Nova Scotia Music Week, as well as notable East Coast venues The Carleton and The Company House. She is excited at the prospect of opening shows for Joel Plaskett just prior to the release of her record, and an appearance at the famed Iceland Airwaves Festival in Reykjavik.
Mo Kenney has already garnered serious respect from her singer/songwriter peers. The list of those loudly singing her praises includes Ron Sexsmith, Brad Roberts (Crash Test Dummies), Gordie Sampson, and Steve Poltz. "To hear those comments from musicians you look up to is so nice," Mo says.
The release of this stunningly accomplished debut album is definitely a momentous occasion.