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First Play: Mo Kenney, The Details

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Holly Gordon

“I know you’ll try/ to take the bigger side/ but a cat’s not a cake.” As the first track on Mo Kenney’s new album, “Cat’s Not a Cake” is a 35-second acknowledgment of an inevitable break-up (and subsequent cat custody), with Kenney’s strumming keeping her resigned voice company. It fittingly sets the tone for what’s to come on The Details.

“It’s dark but it also has the sense of humour that is kind of a trend throughout the whole record,” Kenney said, after a soundcheck at the Old Confidence Lodge in Riverport, N.S. “So I thought maybe just being like, ‘Hey this record’s sad, but it’s also kind of funny [laughs]. This is what it is, right at the beginning.'”

The second track, “On the Roof,” launches into two-and-a-half minutes of Kenney’s new material: a driving, plugged-in track that’ll burn down whatever’s in her path.

The Details is the Halifax-based artist’s first concept record, and her third full-length following 2014’s Juno-nominated In my Dreams. It’s also her first co-production, working alongside Joel Plaskett in studio. Yet there are more striking ways in which this record is different for Kenney: The Details is louder — “before [acoustic guitar] I played in bands and stuff all the time, and usually I exclusively played electric guitar. So I’ve just been sort of leaning back toward that avenue” — and it’s deeply personal.

“I’ve struggled with depression since I was a teenager,” says Kenney. “I was diagnosed with severe depression when I was 15. I started going to therapy, and I was in therapy a ton and had a really hard time in high school — I actually dropped out of high school when I was 18. I was drinking a lot. I’ve had a lot of problems with alcohol; I drank all the time when I was a teenager to cope with all that stuff, and that’s a coping mechanism that’s kind of followed me throughout my whole life.”

But writing this new record coincided with Kenney’s return to therapy, which she says “totally changed [her] life.”

“I think I was ready to go back and actually talk about things. I quit drinking and I had this amazing clarity that I had never experienced before. So the record’s kind of like — I had started writing it when I was still in a tough spot, and then it just gradually gets a little bit more optimistic. And I was thinking about all that, after I started feeling better, I was like, ‘How am I gonna finish this really dark, depressing record now that I feel so much better?’ But, it ended up, that was sort of the concept: it starts out in a pretty dismal place, and then by the end of the record, you feel pretty OK about what’s happening.”

Midway through The Details you can hear that softening, turning from dismal to a nearly hopeful plateau (“I don’t know what I am/ I don’t know what to be yet,” Kenney sings on “Out the Window”). The next song, “If You’re Not Dead,” is a jangly, cheeky turn, with Kenney repeating “If you’re not dead/ then get out of my bed” for the chorus. It’s maybe not as mean as it is an acknowledgment that, by the eighth track, Kenney at least knows what she doesn’t want.

The Details will be released on Sept. 29, and you can pre-order it here. Check out on Oct. 4 for a full studio session with Kenney and her band.