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Mo Kenney

Mo Kenney is no longer Halifax’s best-kept secret.
The 23-year-old singer/songwriter snagged this year’s SOCAN Songwriting Prize for her song Sucker, an elegiac tune about being let down and left behind. “Now you’re just a memory/of everything I’d hoped you’d be,” she sings in a voice beyond her years.
Kenney beat out fellow nominees Maylee Todd, Whitehorse, Purity Ring and the Weather Station featuring Baby Eagle with the simple yet affecting tune, which comes from her Joel Plaskett-produced 2012 self-titled debut. Past winners include Kathleen Edwards, Propagandhi and the Weakerthans.
“I was really excited and surprised to be even put in the running,” she says over the phone. “I was in good company.”
She wrote the prize-winning song when she was 19, newly dumped, living in her first apartment, working two soul-sucking day jobs — one at a dollar store, the other making pizzas at a supermarket — and generally wallowing in a black hole of self-pity (we’ve all been there, girlfriend).
Indeed, it’s a familiar experience, and it’s that truth that makes Sucker so resonant.
“I think it’s the one I’m most proud of,” she says of the song.
Despite her “next big thing” status, Kenney isn’t new to songwriting. She wrote her first tune when she was 13.
“I don’t remember what it was about but I remember it was really horrible,” she says with a laugh. “I think it was probably extremely angsty.”
Her guitar teacher pushed her into singing it at a recital. “I hated it,” she recalls. “I didn’t like being the centre of attention. I didn’t write anything for a long time after that.”
Then, a switch flipped. By the time she turned 15, everything had changed.
“That’s when I started really writing songs. It felt really good.” She can’t pinpoint what was different about songwriting, exactly, but something definitely was. “You don’t have a lot of life experience when you’re 13 — but I guess you don’t when you’re 15, either.
“I guess was thinking about more things and I was more willing to go there,” she says. “I filled three notbooks in a summer. I eventually put words to music. I felt like I unlocked a secret because it felt so natural.”
She began broadening her horizons musically, listening to a steady diet of Sigur Ros, Mars Volta and the late, great Elliott Smith, who ranks among her biggest influences. Her fingerpicking style is reminiscent of his. “I found all of this music through movies — I love movies,” she says, which isn’t a surprising admission, considering the cinematic quality of her songs. She also began experimenting with four-track recording.
“I was fumbling around making weird music because I wasn’t trying to conform to any structure,” she says. “I never figured out how to bounce it, so there was two tracks on one side and two on the other.
“Now, I sit down with a bit more intent. I’m more focused.”
When Kenney was 16, she caught the attention of Plaskett via a school program that enabled young artists to share their demos. A few years later, she was offered a spot at Gordie Sampson’s Songcamp on a recommendation from Plaskett.
“I couldn’t believe he remembered me after all those years.”
Working with the East Coast indie rock hero on her debut album was a thrill for Kenney.
“He’s an awesome producer. He’s so musical. It was my first record and my first time in a studio — there were a lot of firsts — and it was cool working with a producer who’s also a musician.”
In fact, she’ll team up with Plaskett again for her sophomore album, which she hopes to begin recording in November. Although she’s loath to describe her own music, she says the direction she’s headed in is “weird pop.”
“I’m letting myself do whatever. I’m just trying not to think about the fact people will hear it.”