Mo Kenney’s career has been on a steady simmer in Canada for the last couple of years and more. Across the Atlantic, they are somewhat ahead of us in getting to know the Nova Scotia native, but hopefully all of that is about to change as Middle Of Nowhere Records releases her debut self titled album into the UK market. We’ve already had a couple of glimpses, notably as the support act for the Rachel Sermanni tour, which included a gig at London’s Union Chapel, where she was very well received. There are encouraging signs therefore that although we might be a little late on a rapidly developing story, it won’t take us long to get up to speed with Mo and on the strength of this debut, the sooner the better.
She’s still almost a month away from her 24th birthday, but can boast a considerable clutch of nominations and awards. Whilst it’s tempting to say they love an award in Canada, much as they do in the USA, I say that with a degree of respect and a little tinge of envy. Few countries invest so much in music in general as being a valuable cultural asset and besides they don’t hand theses things out on a rota and it’s to Mo’s credit that she’s picking up such recognition. Mo seems to have won roughly half of a dozen or more awards for which she has been nominated in the last couple of years.
It’s not just awards though and Mo has received some valuable support and endorsement from amongst her peers. A notable champion is Ron Sexsmith, who knows a thing or two about songwriting. She’s toured with Ron a couple of times and has been excited to get the opportunity to learn first hand from something of a master. When she played London there was evidence of that and her performance grew in strength, from what was probably understandably a slightly nervy beginning. As the set progressed and Mo’s songs were received with genuine enthusiasm, her delivery became more confident and the banter started to flow, revealing a clever, dry wit.
It’s also worth noting Joel Plaskett’s name, he’s something of a Canadian music icon with a staggering career that spans 20 years that takes in countless albums, a shed full of awards and contributions to film and TV soundtracks. He first came across Mo Kenney when she was 17 and still in school, but already had some track record of making music and composing. It seems Mo started when she was just 14 and had something of an obsession with classic rockers like Zeppelin and Floyd and a penchant for the electric guitar.
Joel clearly recognised a burgeoning talent and somewhere down the line, also introduced Mo to a songwriters workshop run by Gordie Sampson, another local music man who has gone on to make a big name for himself in Nashville. Finally Joel is also the producer of Mo’s debut and the only other musician involved on the album. Interestingly everything is recorded to tape and Joel is a passionate and extremely knowledgeable musicologist. They just seem to have hit it off to the point where three of the songs came together in the studio and Joel shares a writer’s credit.
The opener, Eden, offers the first clues as to what has got everyone so excited. It’s not particularly complex or wordy, but has an instantly memorable tune and a nagging little guitar figure that snares you straight away. Mo sings, “For the second time, everything is working in my mind, all the puzzle pieces are in line.” It’s a somewhat oblique opening, but immediately poses questions like, why the second time? When was the first? It just seems like such a loaded rhyme. Mo’s voice is soft and gentle, almost a whisper, calm or calming even and unaffected by frippery or affectation and in its own way quite gorgeous. Adding a little gentle percussion, some interestingly dreamy effects and a little vocal layering, the song somehow belies its brief passage and sounds special without making a spectacle of itself.
Things darken a notch or three for Sucker, one of her award winners, which as I understand it is something of a break up song, with the realisation for Mo that she’d been dumped. Mo’s voice takes on a stronger slightly bitter character over another insistent guitar line, this time with bass and drums added. There are some interesting almost ethereal vocal layers and some nice tweaks to the mix that build on the sonic footprint of the opener.
In fact there are neat and clever touches throughout although the gear shift in the middle of The Great Escape is something of a surprise as it suddenly rocks out with a blistering guitar lick. But then that also resonates through I Can’t Talk, with some strange, almost discordant interjections from a heavily treated electric guitar and then into Scene Of The Crime, which starts with the same heady harmonic overload and develops into a powerful piece as Mo’s voice once again gains a little edge. All of these songs work with just Mo a microphone and an acoustic guitar, yet for this CD she’s more than willing to push at the prescribed limits of the singer songwriter and in that respect Joel proves an ideal partner.
The last of those is the first for which Joel earns a co-write credit and after Happy Song, which doesn’t seem to live up to its tile despite it’s breezy finger picked style, come the other two, In My Lungs and Déjà Vu. These are obviously the most recent songs to make the cut and Mo has admitted that the overall, the songs come from various stages in her life. If they share anything, it’s a developing poetic form, although Scene Of The Crime and Déjà Vu also seem to be about failed or troubled relationships. Whilst In My Lungs is a little more opaque, lines like, “Without holding up a mirror I can see your other face, you look just as disappointed as the ones that you’ve replaced,” something darker still.
The segue from In My Lungs to Déjà Vu is clever and also indicative of the production ideas Joel and Mo have cooked up. The first ends with layered and dislocated voice repeating, “Dance around this dark desire, closer, closer to the fire,” almost like a nursery rhyme over reverb drenched guitar chords. At the appropriate moment it suddenly lifts off with, “Fire in the sky, that’s not the sun better not stare too long,” the opening lines of the latter. Déjà Vu is also a complete change of mood and the upbeat chorus is an instant sing-a-long highlight of the album.
Naturally the feel changes again, with the only cover on the album and David Bowie’s Five Years. It’s given a storming treatment that walks a fine line between reverential and just a little weird. It’s an interesting choice and somehow seems all the more pertinent given the looming climate crisis and it’s easy to understand how Mo picked it out from a crate full of records she got from her dad.
Carnivore, which closes the album is another atmospheric and intriguing little number. It’s mostly just Mo and her finger style acoustic guitar, but there’s a change up, or should that be down and once more a layering of voices, almost on the periphery as she sings, “Bye-bye black sheep, so long stranger, hello heartache, you’re in danger.”
Having seen Mo a couple of times, she is an engaging story teller with a great voice and I know that all of these songs work in classic singer songwriter mode with just her voice and guitar. Working with Joel Plaskett, however, has encouraged Mo to build on the basics and probably take a few risks. The result is an album that has its own very unique sound, it’s clever without ever sounding like its trying to be, creating interesting sonic textures that enhance rather than detract form Mo’s winning songs. It’s also clear from her latest clutch of songs that her songwriting is developing at pace. Whilst that offers a prospect of more Mo for the future, this debut sets a very high bench mark and it’s way past time the rest of us caught up with what Canadians seem to know already Mo Kenney is a star in the making.
Review by: Simon Holland
Mo Kenney is released 12 May via Middle Of Nowhere Recordings
Order via: Amazon