Mo Kenney with Sam Taylor play Backstage at the Green Hotel, Kinross on Tuesday 8th September. Tickets £12. Buy Tickets HERE.
In My Dreams is a stunningly accomplished and exciting follow-up to Mo Kenney’s 2012 much-decorated and universally-acclaimed self-titled debut. Released on New Scotland Records/Pheromone Recordings on September 30, 2014, In My Dreams showcases an artist who has grown in every facet of her craft – as a singer, songwriter, guitarist and performer. The record made 2014 best of lists and has already won a 2015 ECMA for Pop Recording of the Year. In My Dreams will be released in the UK, Ireland Germany in the fall of 2015.
It is rare for a young artist to be able to escape genre classification as smoothly as Mo Kenney. The wide stylistic scope of her first record was embraced, not criticized, as is reflected in the fact that it earned Mo a Canadian Folk Music Award for New/Emerging Artist of the Year an East Coast Music Award for Pop Recording of the Year, and 3 Nova Scotia Music Awards. “The first record is sometimes folk and sometimes pop,” explains Mo. “To have my foot in a couple of different genres and have people recognise that is cool.” The key album track “Sucker” (a CBC Radio favourite) also brought Kenney the prestigious 2013 SOCAN Songwriting Prize, confirmation of her early potential as a fresh and original songwriting talent.
The extremely positive reaction to the Mo Kenney album has led to some great national and international touring opportunities. She has toured Canada with Ron Sexsmith and Joel Plaskett and performed at major festivals in Iceland, England, Australia and across Canada. In early 2014, she toured Great Britain for six weeks with Scottish songstress and good friend Rachel Sermanni, and she heads back across the Atlantic in September for dates in Austria, Germany, and the UK.
As with the debut, In My Dreams is refreshingly varied stylistically. “It is definitely bigger sonically, and I see it as different lyrically too,” says Kenney. The album reunites Mo with her key creative collaborator and musical mentor, Joel Plaskett. The East Coast rock icon produced, played on, and co-wrote some of the material on her debut, and he signed Mo to his New Scotland Records imprint.
He resumes those roles here, to great effect. “There was an extra degree of comfort in working with Joel this time,” Kenney explains. “I’ve toured with him a bunch since the first record and we know each other a lot better now. I was pretty shy around him the first time, partly as I’m a huge fan of his music.”
The two were clearly on the same page in terms of a sonic mandate for In My Dreams. “I knew it would be more of a production in terms of using a band,” says Mo. “I’m playing a lot more with a band live now, so I wasn’t afraid to go in that direction and make it less acoustic-based.”
Even though there’s a full band sound to some of the material on In My Dreams, most of the instrumentation came from Kenney and Plaskett themselves, Mo explains. “Joel did all the drums and bass and he played some of the organ. I did all the electric guitars [Kenney’s ability to shred sets her apart from folkier peers] and I played some Wurlitzer and Rhodes. We’d record different sounds and see what worked. We didn’t go into it knowing exactly how it’d turn out. We may have an idea when we start but a lot of experimenting goes on. It is more fun that way!”
The fact that Joel owns his own recording studio, New Scotland Yard, in Dartmouth, NS, helped enable this spontaneous approach. The Mo Kenney album was recorded in Plaskett’s previous more basic space, and Mo loved working in his new facility. “He has a super hi-fidelity Neve board now, so the difference in the sound quality in the studio was really noticeable,” she says. “It has plenty of analog equipment, and I love the sound of tape.”
This recording method and the prominent use of vintage keyboards has paid real dividends in the warm and rich sound of In My Dreams, one that remains built around Kenney’s emotionally eloquent voice. Mo has never sung better than on In My Dreams, and she knows it. “I definitely think my voice sounds stronger here. I’ve been singing non-stop for the two years in between my records, and I feel more confident with it. I think it has changed a little in terms of tone too, for the better.”
Don’t just take her word for it. Listen to “Untouchable” (featuring a powerhouse vocal performance Neko Case or Adele would be happy to claim) and “Mountains to the Mess” and you won’t dare to disagree. The latter is a concise (2:29) and perfectly constructed gem incorporating a pulsing rhythm, angular and passion-filled guitar work, and inventive vocal harmonies. The rich vocals on the record are all Mo’s own, and they add a real resonance to such other tunes as “Field Song” and “Pretty Things.”
An early version of “I Faked It” was written by Kenney, Gordie Sampson and Willie Stratton at Sampson’s renowned songwriting retreat, The Gordie Sampson Songcamp, and a revised version (featuring input from Plaskett) is the sizzling first cut on In My Dreams. Three other Plaskett-Kenney co-writes (“Untouchable,” “Take Me Outside,” and “In My Dreams”) nestle neatly alongside five solo Kenney compositions and one cover, and the first single, “Telephones.”
That latter song was originally written and recorded by East Coast rockers Mardeen for their 2008 album Read Less Minds, and Joel suggested it to Mo as a possibility for her record. “I fell in love with it immediately,” she says. “I loved the melody and the catchy chorus.” “Telephones” will indeed keep ringing in your head, in a good way, and the song’s sense of humour and lyrical bluntness perfectly fit Kenney’s sensibility.
The original songs on the record showcase Mo’s rare candour and courage as a lyricist. She doesn’t hold back on the page, exploring her emotions with surgical precision, with nary a trace of self-pity. Sample lyrics: “When I said it was forever, I was lying through my teeth” (“I Faked It”).
“I never censor myself when I write,” she explains. “I just write down whatever comes into my head. I think that because I am quite private I used to be a little cryptic to protect myself, but I have been writing a little more honestly lately. This record is definitely honest.”
In My Dreams takes the listener on a memorable emotional rollercoaster ride. The title cut is a gently haunting and moving reflection on an absent lover, while “Wind Will Blow” is another tender meditation on an obsessive love (“you run right through me like a blade”).
The emotional journey ends on an up note with “Dancing”: “you’re the sweetest dream cos’ I don’t have to sleep.” Sweet dreams are indeed made of this enchanting record.