by Ava Muir
On The Details, Mo Kenney is as honest as she’s ever been. The Nova Scotian’s third record, vividly documents the ebb and flow of mental illness, relationships and addiction. Just as rapidly as The Details finds Kenney declining, it picks her back up and dusts her off, enveloping both songwriter and listener in hope. Behind Kenney’s candid lyrics lies power, humour and sharp wit. “I think that being super blunt is kind of funny,” she says about her lyrical style. The Details’ opening track “Cat’s Not a Cake” serves as a perfect kickoff to the emotional journey – both devastatingly frank and undeniably clever. “When we breakup, we’ll have to split him in half,” Kenney croons, as if the failing couple could share their pet like he was dessert. It’s brash, relatable and over in less than 40 seconds. Straight to the point in true Kenney fashion.
Co-producing the intimate record alongside longtime friend and collaborator Joel Plaskett came naturally. “I was really proud of the work that I had done on this record, all of the songs that I brought to him and he really helped bring them to life in the best way possible,” Kenney says fondly. “That’s what he always does, I find. I love working with him and he’s a good friend of mine now which is really crazy because I was a huge fan of his when I was a teenager. To have him as a mentor when it comes to music has been extremely, extremely helpful.”
As Kenney and I chat over the phone one Thursday evening, we easily find common ground in our respective battles with mental illness and our conversation regarding the struggle of battling against yourself develops with ease.
You started writing The Details when you were going through a really hard time. Can you tell me about what your life was like at the time that you began writing The Details?
I’ve struggled with depression my whole life and I had a really bad few years when I was a teenager and went to therapy and got it under control. I stopped going to therapy when I was, like, 17 or 18 and just started getting really depressed again. In 2015, I noticed that it was getting kind of shitty and hard to deal with and it was affecting my life. I had a hard time. I was sort of just trying to grin and bear it but I decided to go back to therapy in the summer of 2015 and it totally helped me a bunch. I wish I had gone earlier.
I struggle with depression and anxiety myself and am looking to get into therapy. Is it something that you would recommend?
Oh man, I recommend it. It’s so great. It gives you so much more insight into what’s going on with you and getting to talk to somebody and getting it explained is really helpful. It makes it seem a lot less daunting. You feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel when you go talk to somebody. That’s my experience, anyway.
I think it’s important to have someone that you can talk to who’s an outside party.
Exactly. Someone who isn’t biased. Sometimes you don’t want to be as honest about what’s going on in your life with your friends and family. It’s easier to talk to a stranger really openly and honest about my life because they don’t really care – I’m not going to hang out with them or anything. It’s nice.
Did the writing of this album start naturally while you were struggling or was it after you started going back to therapy and were feeling a bit clearer in your head?
I was writing while this was happening. A lot of the songs I was writing during this shitty period of time and just trying to navigate everything. I’ve always written from a really personal place and it’s just natural for me to write about what I’m experiencing and that just happened to be what I was experiencing at the time. There was a bunch of stuff that I wrote after therapy. Post-therapy and pre-therapy songs.
You’ve described the album as a progression where it gets more optimistic towards the end and I totally noticed that while listening to it – it sounds like you’re getting back on your feet.
For sure. I don’t know if this has been your experience with depression but it kind of comes and goes and it’ll probably come and go for my whole life. It’s sort of just a wave that you have to ride and the record kind of captures that. It has the happy ending, coming out the other side at the end of the record.
It’s so important to be able to tell people that therapy was the light at the end of the tunnel for you and that it does help and it is important to consider if you’re really struggling.
Definitely. I think people are a little bit afraid of therapy for some reason. I feel like there’s this weird stigma around therapy where people feel like if they go to therapy then there must be something really wrong with them, you know what I mean? It just makes your life a little bit easier so why wouldn’t you go?
When I’m riding that wave, there’s not much that I want to do. I don’t want to get out of bed or go out anywhere but it’s nice to have an incentive like therapy to have every week to make yourself get up and go do something productive.
Oh definitely. When I was feeling really, really down, that was so helpful for me. I would have a bad week but at least I knew that at the end of the week I had this therapy session that would probably make me feel a little bit better.
Was writing a consistent source of therapy for you, as well or did it prove to cause more stress and anxiety?
It definitely has its negative sides. For this record, all the material came pretty easily just because I had so much going on and once I kind of had a vision for the record and what the concept was going to be, it made it a lot easier to fill in the blanks and figure out what else I needed to write to make it interesting. I’ve definitely experienced that before though, where I’m like “oh shit, I should be writing all the time. I need to write a new record!” and feeling anxious about that but I try not to do that to myself. You don’t want to make that good thing a source of anxiety.
Aside from therapy, what other coping mechanisms have you developed over the years to maintain and care for your mental health?
Well unfortunately, drinking has been kind of a horrible coping mechanism for me. I love to drink so I really had to reel that in. I actually took a six-month break from booze after I went back to therapy. It was really tough but it made everything so much clearer. My head had never felt that kind of clarity before. Having a clear mind made all the problems so much easier to deal with but it was definitely tough. I had been using booze as a crutch since as far back as I can remember so to take that away and deal with everything instead of avoiding dealing with everything was really something I’d never done before.
Are there any other skills that you implement in your daily life to keep things good?
I was just thinking about this today – I’m doing way more things that I didn’t normally do before. I’ve taken up woodworking. I have a friend and he and I do some woodworking stuff in his shed once a week. We call it woodworking club. It’s been super fun and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do but for some reason, I had just never done it and I was like “hey, why am I not doing this? Just fucking go for it” so I have been and it’s been amazing. I’ve also been cooking a ton. I’ve been taking on huge meals and trying to cook a bunch and that’s been really fucking awesome. I didn’t realize how much I liked cooking. I actually just bought a nice camera – I really like taking photos so I’ve been taking more photos.
You have so many good things that you’ve picked up!
I know, right?! I just realized it today that I’ve been doing new things all the time and that’s also really helpful. It makes me excited about my life. I just feel like learning new skills is really good too. It makes you feel good about yourself.