Singer Mo Kenney's Latest Album Will Fulfill All of Your Emo Listening Needs
Out singer/songwriter, Mo Kenney, talks about her sophomore album, angsty high school inspiration, and the ultimate dream team of musicians.
Canadian singer-songwriter Mo Kenney’s introspective songs feature lyrics, sung in a husky alto, that oscillate between bittersweet and cruel—apologetic and ruthless—paired with playful melodies.
The now 25-year-old musician, who identifies as part of the LGBTQ community, first picked up a guitar at age 11, and caught the ear of nationally adored musician Joel Plaskett while she was still in school. Plaskett went on to collaborate with Kenney and produce her first and second albums. Her sophomore album, In My Dreams, was released in 2014 in Canada, and recently in the United States. Here’s what Kenney had to say about her songwriting process, her influences, and what she’s working on now.
PRIDE: I’ve seen you talk about Elliott Smith as a big influence in several interviews. I was the biggest angsty baby ever in high school, and I think his music got me through it. I know he’s an influence in terms of fingerpicking on guitar and creating these memorable melodies, but how do you view the cathartic or confessional power of songwriting in your own work?
Mo Kenney: Well, I was the same as you in high school. Super angsty. I think that’s why I related to Elliott Smith so much. He’s kind of the first artist I ever heard that made me really want to write music, because I hadn’t heard something as confessional as his music before—something that I could relate to so much. It was really incredible how much it helped me. I try to write honestly like he did, so that other people can relate to my music in the same way that I related to his.
PRIDE: What is your songwriting process like?
MK: I don’t really know when I’m going to be able to write a good song, but I usually try to write something every day. A lot of the time, I don’t really like it, and don’t think I’m ever going to use it. And then sometimes I’ll get big bursts of creativity where I write a ton of music in a week and I really like it all. I never really know when that’s going to happen. I write a lot of music parts on guitar or piano—I’ll come up with a melody idea or something—but I find the words are something that I get stuck on. Most of the time music and melody is pretty easy for me, but I have to really be in the right headspace to come up with lyrics that suit the music.
PRIDE: Do you pull from your own life? Like, moments where something terrible happens and you think, ‘Well, okay, more fodder for the music.’
MK: [laughs] Yeah, I think so. Sometimes I don’t even realize that I’m writing about an event until I reflect on it later. Like, ‘Oh, yeah, that makes sense that I wrote that because this happened.’ But I find that when I’m in something, I have wait and reflect on it later to write something.
PRIDE: Are there any specific experiences that come to mind?
MK: Well, I’ve written a lot about relationships. I think In My Dreams has a bit of a theme about that, because at the time I was writing it I was going through a lot of—there was a lot of relationship drama in my life that’s reflected in that record.
PRIDE: You have a couple of really awesome covers—'Telephones' by Mardeen on In My Dreams, and 'Five Years' by David Bowie on your first album. What draws you to covering a song?
MK: The Bowie cover that ended up on my first record is my favorite Bowie song, and that’s the first song of his I heard that turned me into a fan of his music. I was listening to it a bunch when I was writing the first record, so it just kind of made sense to put it on. I think the lyrical content makes sense with the rest of the album too. And then ‘Telephones’ by Mardeen also just popped up at the right time. I wasn’t thinking of doing a cover, but I heard that song and it made sense with the rest of the record. It’s so catchy and awesome, and I feel like not enough people have heard it.
PRIDE: Are you writing now?
MK: Yeah, I’m working on a new record right now.
PRIDE: Oh, wow. You’re prolific.
MK: [laughs] I try to be.
PRIDE: What are you trying now that you haven’t before?
MK: With this record so far, I’ve been writing a lot about myself, which is not really different from other records. But I’ve been reflecting on myself. I had kind of a weird summer last year. I started therapy, and I hadn’t been in it for about seven or eight years. And that sort of changed my life a little bit last July. Before that things were kind of a mess. So, it’s going to be weird. I was writing all this stuff when I wasn’t feeling very well, and then I started feeling better, so there are a lot of dark songs about myself, and then this new stuff that I’ve been writing lately has been more optimistic. I think it’s just about that. Sometimes I worry that I make it too personal. I worry sometimes that other people won’t be able to relate to it. But I think that they will. I hope so anyway.
PRIDE: Have you had a most surreal or rewarding experience on tour?
MK: I had the opportunity to play a bunch of symphony shows with Joel Plaskett. We played with Symphony Nova Scotia, which as always been a dream of mine. I’m actually doing a show with them in October, which is going to be amazing. I’d never played with a symphony before.
PRIDE: What was the feeling of playing with a symphony like versus your average show?
MK: Well, when you’re playing with a symphony there’s the conductor and everything. You’re playing the music, and it feels sort of like a wave. You’re keeping the tempo, and the conductor is going by the tempo you set, and then it gets to the symphony, so it’s kind of a little delayed. Say if I missed a bar or something in a song—it would totally screw them up, as opposed to reading sheet music or something. It’s a little bit more—actually [laughs] it’s a lot more stressful. Because if you fuck it up, the whole thing gets screwed up.
PRIDE: But you thrived on that pressure?
MK: Yeah, we had a couple of practice runs with them so I felt confident by the time I got on stage. But it was pretty nerve-wracking still. It’s such a big sound, and to hear my songs done in a different way like that, with a whole symphony playing them, it was amazing.
PRIDE: Who are you dream collaborators?
MK: Uh, I think they’re all dead.
PRIDE: Okay, so if you could bring three musicians back from the dead for an afternoon, who would it be, and what would you do or ask them?
MK: Definitely Elliott Smith. And David Bowie. And Jeff Buckley. I’d bring the three of them back to life. So, am I like, eating dinner with them or something, and asking questions? Can I do anything I want with them?
PRIDE: Yeah, they’re back from the dead, so you can do anything.
MK: Okay, maybe I’d go to a theme park with them. Do something weird. Maybe I’d go to Six Flags with them. And I’d ask them about their careers I think.
PRIDE: I’m just picturing Elliott Smith, David Bowie, and Jeff Buckley on a roller coaster right now…
MK: Yeah, it’d be hilarious.