Despite the name of her most popular song, singer and songwriter Mo Kenney is no “sucker.” Rock musician and producer Joel Plaskett felt the same way a few years back when he dropped by her high school in Halifax to talk music. He listened to some music that Kenney, then in her late teens, had recorded. What he heard left an indelible impression on his psyche, so much so that two years later Plaskett’s manager called Mo (born Morgan Kenney) up out of the blue to let her know that she was recommended for Grammy-winner Gordie Sampson’s song camp in Ingonish.
Carlton Stone, a leader at Sampson’s Song Camp remembers Kenney well. “Watching Mo develop from the first day we met at song camp,” Stone says, “from a shy, timid artist to the confident commanding presence that she is now as a songwriter and a performer—it makes me so proud. It’s incredible as a fan of her music when we first met to now, watching her connect to so many people around the world.”
Kenney has come along way since then, recently winning the 2013 SOCAN Award for best new emerging artist. The last few years have taken Mo around the globe from Iceland’s acclaimed Airwaves Music Festival to several shows in the U.K. In late December and early January, she performed at the Woodford Folk Festival in Australia.
When Halifax Magazine visits her at New Scotland Yard Studio in downtown Dartmouth, Kenney is working on her second album with Plaskett, who produced her eponymous breakout Mo Kenney. He also performed on a few songs. Kenney has been recording her melodic folk-rock sound since early morning but her enthusiasm still shows. Dressed casually in dark denim jeans and a blue t-shirt, she plunks down to chat with me on the black leather couch in the studio with the relaxed confidence of someone who is really finding her groove.
This is her first time working on an album in Plaskett’s new studio space. The studio has a distinctive vibe, which resonates strongly with Kenney. “The first album Joel and I did together was in the Old Scotland Yard studio in a much smaller space,” she explains. “It’s cool to be working on a new record in this space. I have not seen a lot of this equipment before; it was up in a loft. It’s neat seeing it all spread out like this.”
Plaskett works primarily with old analog equipment, which really appeals to Kenney. “The first record with Joel was an awesome experience and it went really well,” Kenney says. “This year’s been crazy with the success of the new record. I did not want to tamper with a good thing so I figured it’s best to stick with Joel and do the second one with him. Keep it on the same page.”
Strong themes are a signature of her songwriting style. She has a reputation for powerful lyrics and impressive arrangements, yet Kenney is looking to stretch out a bit musically on her new record. “It still kind of revolves around my guitar playing and my voice like the first one did. I have that goal in mind for this one, but I think it might be a bit more dreamier; a bit more rock,” Kenney says. “Over the last while I’ve been playing with a three-piece rock band from Halifax who play a ton of gigs around town.”
Akin to her producer Plaskett’s perspective, Kenney likes to mix things up musically. “That’s kind of what I want to do,” Kenney says. “Joel’s career is awesome because he can go into a bar with a band and rock the house, and the next night he can go to a theatre and play acoustic and there really is no set genre. That’s what I am aiming for too.”
Kenney has been strumming since she was 11 but it was not until she stumbled on one of her career icons, late singer/songwriter Elliott Smith. After hearing his music and his fingerpicking style, she knew she had to learn how to play like that. “Elliott is hands-down my favourite songwriter and musician of all time,” Kenney explains. “He is an amazing guitar player. The first time I heard one of his songs I was instantly inspired by it. I have all his CDs and I have everything on vinyl… I had never listened to music that made me feel that way before. He is just so honest.”
Inspiration also comes from within. “I am inspired by my dreams,” Kenney elaborates. “I find that if I have a really vivid dream it will inspire me to write…You can write a song when you have that feeling. I like doing that.” She’s seldom without her iPhone to record and take notes. “Sometimes I get a phrase in my mind or a melody and that will start me wanting to write a song around it,” she explains.
Movies also influence her. “Wes Anderson’s films in particular, not necessarily just the soundtrack,” she says. “If I heard the songs on their own and not in his movies it could have a different affect on me…I’d say him and Elliott Smith are up there for me—top notch! They have created their own worlds with their art. When you listen to Smith you’re put there. When you watch a Wes Anderson movie you’re in that place. Those kinds of things inspire me.”
Kenney has a distinctive wordless vocal style, using her voice like another instrument. “It was kind of a natural thing,” she says, “When you’re writing a song sometimes instinct kicks in and you think ‘this should go here.’ You don’t really know where it comes from. It’s a creative instinct, I guess.”
She loves to collaborate. She honed her craft early on co-writing songs with other Nova Scotian songwriters at Samson’s song camp. “I had never co-written before that,” she recalls. “I spent a week co-writing two songs a day with people I had never met. It was probably one of the best things that had ever happened to me.”
She teamed up with Plaskett for the song “Déjà Vu” from her debut album. “Joel and I were in studio in the midst of recording my record,” she says, “and I had the song ‘In My Lungs’ pretty much written. He said, ‘hey it would be super cool to have the song ‘Déjà Vu’ come off on the heels of that.’ ‘In My Lungs’ ends and ‘Déjà Vu’ starts immediately, like they are one song almost mixed together.”
Kenney’s strong lyricism is especially poignant in her song “Carnivore,” which explores deep isolation. “That song is about a boy I knew in high school that suffered with extreme mental illness,” she explains. “I was his only friend. He disappeared one day after me knowing him for a few years and having these weird encounters with me. I thought he was going to come back someday, then a few years later I was thinking about him, and I realized he is probably not going to come home. It’s been so long. So I sat down to write the song.”
In the song she sings: carnivore’s a gentleman / a mind like the businessmen / he’ll eat you alive / and he’ll spit out your bones. “That line was kind of about how the system had failed him,” she says. “The mental health system is pretty shitty. You go in, you don’t get a lot of help and then you get spit out. You kind of have to fend for yourself. That’s the bottom line.”
Kenney has overcome severe stage fright. “I started to get comfortable but it takes a long long time to get there, especially with the moments in between when you’re not playing,” she says. “You gradually start to know what to say to the audience and get comfortable just being yourself up there. Trusting what you’re going to say. It’s just in the last year and a half that I feel much more comfortable, but I feel like I could still get better at it… I am an entertainer and not just a musician. I like to look people in the eye when I play. It makes me feel connected.”