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Mo Kenney is no stranger to doing other people’s songs.
The Dartmouth singer-songwriter boldly seasoned her self-titled debut with a dreamy version of David Bowie’s Five Years. Two years later, she took Telephones by Nova Scotia indie band Mardeen and made it her own with a slightly poppier take bolstered by a wry video populated by department store mannequins.
And now, just over a year after she recorded it, Kenney delves further into the art of interpretation with Covers, an acoustic set of songs she’s loved her whole life and more recent discoveries that prove tailor-made for her warm, pliable voice.
On Thursday night at 9 p.m., Kenney presents the record live from Portland Street’s New Scotland Yard recording studio in a streaming concert presented by Side Door, which in a way brings the whole project full circle.
“When I play a show and people come up after and they want a CD that reflects what they just saw when it’s just me and a guitar, I don’t really have anything that sounds like that,” says Kenney of the record’s origins.
“I was thinking about doing an acoustic record of some of my older songs, but that just didn’t seem very interesting or exciting to me, which is when I decided to do a covers record.”
Covers consists mainly of songs that have cropped up in her live sets over the past few years, which she spent last winter revisiting and rehoning while trying them out on stage during those precious last few live shows before everything was shut down in March.
In a musically ironic twist, two of the rockier tunes on the record — the Kinks’ I’m Not Like Everybody Else and Game of Pricks by Guided By Voices — are defiantly taken in the opposite direction with solo keyboard accompaniment. Her frequent collaborator Joel Plaskett provides the piano on the GBV track, while the Kinks’ protopunk anthem has a menacing organ underneath Kenney’s snarl that implies an impudent curled lip as she sings.
“That’s a fun one to sing, it’s got so much attitude,” laughs Kenney, whose voice was run through a guitar amp with extra delay for an extra layer of garage rock ambiance. “I remember hearing the song for the first time when I was a teenager, it blew my mind.”
Other surprises on the record include Stone Temple Pilots’ slinky Sour Girl, which the singer memorized from her cherished copy of Big Shiny Tunes Vol. 5, and a local offering of Slow Death, from the 2009 album New Problems by Dog Day’s Seth Smith.
Reaching even further back than the Kinks, Kenney also croons the standard You Belong to Me, which she first heard on an old Patsy Cline record.
“I loooove old country music. I sort of grew up around it, my grandparents lived out in West Gore, a really rural area, and the radio was always on in the kitchen playing country music,” she recalls.
“In the last decade, I guess, I’ve really gotten into it and appreciate it a lot more. And that Patsy Cline tune just kills me. It’s so good, and it’s probably my favourite of hers.”
After spending much of the last decade out on the road, playing shows from the U.K. to Australia — which is where she found herself shortly before the pandemic hit — Kenney is looking forward to being in the same room as a live audience again.
While being stuck at home due to COVID-19 hasn’t provided the greatest creative impetus for the songwriter, she’s been working her way toward a new record that will likely take some inspiration from the pared-down sound of Covers.
“I have it in my mind now, and this may change of course, I’m thinking of releasing something a bit more acoustic-sounding. That’s kind of where I’m leaning right now.
“But we’ll see... Joel got me this mandolin that’s basically been glued together that he found in an antique shop. I’ve been using that a lot with my guitar, and that’s been pretty cool.”