With unusual chord patterns, sophisticated lyrics, and a rare maturity for a youthful songwriter, Mo Kenney’s been one to watch for the past couple of years. The Halifax singer has had several high-profile slots to get tongues wagging, from all the right showcases, to opening shows for such names as Ron Sexsmith and Gordie Sampson. Plus, she boasts top management, and the patronage of Joel Plaskett, who has spent lots of time producing her debut album. It’s plenty of oomph behind a 22-year old.
There’s also been a significant amount of nurturing, with nothing rushed in getting her first album out. While most singer-songwriters are happy to slide out the first ten songs they write, and learn about the tricks of the trade as they make that first disc, Kenney’s been allowed to develop before the big debut. That’s arrived now, as the self-titled album is out, and she tours the country opening Plaskett’s latest packed-house swing through Upper Canada, as a Special Guest.
So there’s strategy and stewardship behind Kenney, but only the end result matters. The wait for the disc has made me doubly curious, and of course, doubly critical, being a journalist and all, as our ilk love to discover rather than wait. And, I remember when I did first see her, a couple of years ago playing to just a few, and being quite impressed with her, just armed with acoustic. I have to fight the initial inclination to be disappointed when I’m not blown away.
Thing is, Kenney’s not that type of writer, not the kind to rock your socks and drop your jaw. Instead, she’s arresting in her intimacy, disarming in her individuality. She doesn’t sound like other women, not the fine fellow writers of the East Coast, nor the matron Canadian of all with an acoustic, early Joni. These are songs straight from her, a kind of free-flowing observational style of life moments, with plain language but deep meaning. Her individual lines can hit like a surprise left-hook: “You gave me a look that I could taste”, in Sucker, for instance. At some points, she seems to embrace her youth, like in the child-like lines of Eden, “busy busy go go go”, but elsewhere there’s a older cynic at work: “I have changed my mind/I think that life is boring”, from The Great Escape.
With Plaskett hands-on, and the only other musician here, it’s no surprise his presence is felt strongly. There are hints all over of his signature sounds, but that’s what happens when you have a performer as a producer and collaborator. They co-wrote three of the tracks, and really anytime the instrumentation goes beyond her acoustic, it’s Plaskett we’re hearing. The poppy Deja Vu could come from one of his discs, and it is one of the very best on the disc. But when she’s pretty much alone, just her and guitar, the results are equally strong. It will be interesting to see where she goes in the future, what she’ll sound like with a band or what she’ll choose to become. I have the feeling this won’t be the best album of her career, and it’s a very good one.