Mo Kenney’s Just Getting Started and That’s Great News for Music Fans
When I call Mo Kenney, the reception isn’t very good. Her cell phone keeps cutting in and out, and it’s hard to hold a steady conversation. This, it turns out, is in part because she’s not at home in Halifax where these things aren’t a problem. She’s in Lake Echo, Nova Scotia, instead. Just a little bit to the north, that town is home to the beautiful singer/songwriter Jenn Grant and her extremely talented producer and husband Daniel Ledwell. Kenney is there “recording some gang vocals” for a mutual friend.
Halifax isn’t a big city, and it’s possessed of a tight knit and friendly musical community. It’s no surprise to find Kenney at Ledwell’s studio even though she’s been working out of Joel Plaskett’s well regarded New Scotland Yard for her own albums. On Canada’s east coast, everybody just kind of gets along and works together. Ledwell, as it turns out, keeps a landline at the house, so the disjointed cell phone problem is quickly solved.
Musicians, like superheroes, always have an origin story. It goes with the territory: a bit of myth-making never really hurt anyone’s career. Kenney’s has been told many times, so I’ll just repeat a rough outline here:
She started playing her Uncle’s guitar sometime around when she was 11. When she was 14, she spent a summer grounded (“I was a pretty bad kid” she deadpans, in a tone that suggests specifics aren’t going to follow) and started keeping a journal. Those two things combined to lead to songwriting, and a chance encounter at school with Plaskett. A couple of years, later Plasket recommended Kenney attend Gordie Sampson’s Songcamp and the rest, as the saying goes, is history — albeit fairly recent history.
Kenney’s first album was released in 2012 to widespread acclaim. It’s lead single Sucker had a quirky rhythm that saw it quickly gain a tonne of radio play and became a back-to-school season anthem of sorts. A year later it was awarded the SOCAN songwriting award for 2013, a fact that Kenney talks about with typical modesty. “Even being chosen to be among that group of nominees” was an honour, she says, referring to a nominee list that included Whitehorse’s Luke Doucette and Melissa McLelland — a duo whose combined years of experience in the business may be more than Kenney’s been alive, let alone how long she’s been writing and performing music.
Kenney spent a good chunk of the next year touring (“I love being on the road” she says, frankly) and the summer of 2013 saw her popping up at music festivals across Canada. It didn’t seem to matter what genre the festival was targeting: the Vancouver Folk Festival, the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Prince Edward Island Blues Festival have all booked her at various times. Kenney laughs about this a bit saying that she’s “definitely not a Jazz musician,” but she doesn’t seem too worried about it. Everybody knows that good music has never been defined by a label anyway. “A lot of people put me in the Folk category,” she says. “Maybe people just see me with an acoustic guitar.”
If Kenney does fit into the folk tradition, it’s not in the quiet, waify tradition that many people think of when they think of folksingers like Joni Mitchell standing onstage, strumming a guitar, softly crooning “Both Sides Now,” or Sarah McLachlan sitting at a piano, singing gentle songs about motherhood. Kenney laughs when I ask her about this and agrees, describing her emotional intensity as “more aggressive.” This is borne out in the lyrical content of her latest album, 2014’s In My Dreams. Passages like the end of “I Faked It,” where she sings, “and you and I are through / the only thing I wanna do / is point the gun at you” are descended more from the tradition of Patti Smith than the serene folk scene. Maybe that acoustic guitar serves as a bit of a disguise.
If it is, it’s a good one and a key part of the sound that Kenney has developed in her short but productive career. Both albums she’s released so far were produced by Plaskett, though the second emerged from his much more modern, fully equipped New Scotland Yard studio in Halifax. The first, as Kenney puts it, was recorded in a “garage shack” that served as Old Scotland Yard.
On first listen, it feels like the new studio had an effect on Kenney’s sound but it certainly hasn’t been a bad one. Production values are a little higher but the album still retains the kind of natural, off-the-floor feeling at heart that makes singer-songwriters shine on record.
Kenney describes her live show — she tours as a “power trio” with a bassist and a drummer — as “getting progressively heavier.” After an admission that she still likes to play solo and acoustic she says with a laugh that she tries to “rip it up at the end.”
Kenney’s toured extensively over the last couple of years, and recently returned from her first European tour that saw her playing both solo and opening slots in Germany, London, and the Waves Vienna festival to name a few. When she talks about festivals, her affection for them is obvious. As it turns out, she likes them for many of the same reasons that fans do: the workshops and song circles that “you get put into with people who you might not normally be exposed to.” It’s a sure bet that that kid of musical exploration is going to find its way into future albums.
As a touring act, Kenney’s had some great opening slots: Australia’s Kim Churchill invited her along for part of his Canadian tour and one of Canada’s finest songwriters Ron Sexsmith had her opening for the Eastern slots of his 2014 tour. As I talk to her, she’s getting ready to head out on the road opening for Plaskett. The tour starts with a few gigs in their home region of the Maritimes before winging about 5,000 kilometers west to Victoria, BC and then heading back east. All told she’ll be on the road for most of May and into the beginning of June.
No matter how good the album is, it’s always better to hear music live. One area that Kenney hasn’t toured yet is the United States. Following a fairly typical pattern for a Canadian musician, she’s been busily building out an audience here first. While there are no firm plans yet, it’s something she’s looking to do. Given her East Coast home, I’d keep an eye peeled if you’re in the Boston area. It’s close to home, and there’s a healthy community of musicians that move back and forth between that city.
I fumbled over one of the last questions I asked Kenney, because I know the point of the question but not how to ask it without it sounding like it’s the stupidest question in the world — it’s a question that matters, but I wish it didn’t. How, I asked, does Kenney feel about being a woman fronting a band in a business that remains almost completely dominated by dudes with guitars. Slice it however you want, but the reality is that you can’t look at the music industry without realizing that it always has been and remains dominated by those dudes.
Unfazed, she paused for a minute and says that she feels good about being a female lead guitar player — about not being on the side or at the back of the stage, but at the front of it. “A lot of women, “ she goes on, “come up and say ‘I haven’t picked up my guitar in a while.’” She lets the thought trail off, but the implication is clear. “More women should learn.”
At 25, Kenney is young and she’s just getting started. She’s already made some notable waves but it may be that her most significant one stems from the perception that she isn’t a conventional “girl with a guitar.” It may be that that “more aggressive” lyrical source of hers inspires more musicians to write what they feel. Every song, Kenney says, has to “come from an honest place inside.” If Mo Kenney convinces just one young musician to sing from her heart with just a little bit more anger and honesty, it will help the tradition continue.
The best news for the rest of us — the fans, the audience — is that Kenney is young but she’s just getting started. We’ve got a long time ahead of us to listen, and there’s a lot of music still to come form the Maritimer. Catch her now when you can still sit close to the stage and pause for a chat after the show because those years won’t last long. You just can’t lose with this one.
Mo Kenney’s most recent album In My Dreams can be ordered from Maple Music or iTunes. Links are on her web site. There’s also a vinyl release available, but it may be hard to find so you’re best to attend a live show to grab that. Kenney’s tour schedule is on her web site, where you can also sign up for her mailing list to make sure you know about that hopefully soon to be announced U.S. date in a city near you.