When Toronto musician MorMor was a kid, he went through a phase of being obsessed with “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Like basically every other child on earth whose family owned a car, he imbibed his parents’ music taste. In this case, his mother – University of Toronto English professor Mary Nyquist – informed some of his favourite music when he was about five, via the Magical Mystery Tour album she kept in the car. “My mom was into classical, jazz, and the Beatles,” Mormor told Pitchfork last year. “I was very particular about what was playing in the car, so I’d be like, ‘Can you play ‘Strawberry Fields’ again?’” Beyond that, he also grew up hearing Led Zeppelin, techno and the breathiness of Air through other relatives, before getting into James Blake, Radiohead and Gorillaz on his own.
I open with all of this detail because as a twentysomething solo artist, MorMor seems to have carried on that ‘bit of this, touch of that’ approach, pushing it into his own work. He pulls from so many genres with such ease that it almost pisses me off. He can slide into rich, strummed electric guitar then emotive falsetto then the sudden shoulder-shaking clatter of an 80s drum machine in one live set. Frankly, how dare he? Watching him play his first-ever London show earlier this week, these are just a few thoughts that briefly jostle for space in my mind.
In a sense, MorMor’s an odd proposition. He plays music you could loosely class as ‘indie but make it so emotionally jarring you feel the immediate desire to call your therapist.’ But he eschews the limitations of genre (as so many under-30 musicians do), for reasons that become clear after even a cursory listen of his debut EP, 2018’s Heaven’s Only Wishful. Its title track has picked up millions of YouTube and Spotify streams since its release last February, reportedly boosted by a friend of Daniel Caesar putting in the hours as an unpaid one-man street team of sorts and telling people about the track in late 2017. A new EP is on the way later this year.
Now, though, MorMor’s speaking quietly into the mic onstage, just south of the river in the Elephant & Castle railway arches that house venue Corsica Studios. The room is packed, and just when I feel as though it can’t possibly accommodate another punter with perfectly tousled hair or a subtly branded beanie, a couple more nudge their way into the space’s corridor-like cocoon. He tells us he’s so happy to be playing a sold-out show, on this typically damp day – and absolutely fair play, considering this is his first in the city. Throughout his set, he displays two things: both the attention he pays to nailing his vocal parts and guitar lines, and some of the perils of sequencing such mid-tempo music in a live setting. Mostly, I can’t shake the giddy feeling that ripples along my spine as I watch a young black guy with a guitar take ownership of a sound that might typically be read as ‘too white’ for him. For a kid from Toronto, it shows a certain courage and self-belief that he follows this path rather than the musical route, of rap and rap production, he saw his peers take.
He opens with Heaven’s Only Wishful’s “Find Colour,” clutching the mic with both hands as he practically coos “You said your prayers before falling into despair / There's not anywhere you'd rather hide, hide” over languid, warm guitar. His set’s been going for about a minute. Immediately a straight couple in front of me lean towards one another, relaxing into the familiar ‘lady nestles under man’s armpit, lady wraps arm around man’s waist’ gig stance. MorMor’s songwriting can do that. It embodies a kind of familiarity – you hear ghosts of the Smiths one moment, in his vocal phrasing, then Beach House the next in a cylindrical-sounding lead guitar. And so he makes you want to deeply inhale the bliss of what a love song feels like, even though he’s not strictly singing a happy, lovey-dovey line. When you read interviews he’s given, he never gives that much away, and almost dances around how emotional his songs feel. Speaking to DJ Booth, when the writer nudged MorMor towards how tender his music sounds, he said: “I try to be as honest as possible to my feelings at the moment. That can sometimes be very difficult,” before adding that a lot of his ideas come from “just the way I feel and capturing it”.
In principle, this widens into songs that envelop you like a warm hug. Well, maybe like a warm hug in a room where crackling logs radiate from the fireplace and, inexplicably, a really fat incense stick also burns. It’s a lot. At a certain point, the show begins to drag, only because so much of his past material trots along at a similar tempo. It feels as though he’s lulling us into a trance-like state, with the softened guitar sounds that have picked up such big, young audiences on YouTube, under a vague “bedroom pop” banner. MorMor recalls some of the languor of those acts, like Westerman, Rex Orange County or Yellow Days but can elevate that with unexpected jolts in his songwriting that might point you more towards Dev Hynes or even Tirzah. Artist comparisons are messy, in fairness. Really, he has a knack for shaking emotion into both his guitar and voice (often a near-flawless and breathtaking falsetto).
For the past couple of weeks, debate has raged in the US around rapper Lil Nas X, country music and what place black artists are allowed to occupy in that country’s still racially segregated charts. The takeaway seems to be that when white artists pull from black genres, that’s fine – trace it back all the way from Iggy Azalea to Elvis. The other way? A harder sell (or, as in Lil Nas X’s case, a sort of disqualification that struck his pre-Billy Ray Cyrus single “Old Town Road” off the country chart). So it’s refreshing to see MorMor play this music, which may defy stereotypes people have about what a black Toronto music “should” sound like. He never makes an issue out of his race, and I don’t mean to imply that he’s only interesting because he’s black. But, knowing that he wouldn’t have grown up with scores of influences who both looked and sounded so much like him, it’s a delight to see him express his creativity like this. He gets to exist in those multitudes, and it’s beautiful.
To Complex last year, he hinted at a childhood outsider status. “I always felt different from the other kids at school. I went through a really hard time because I was the kid who always hung out with a wide variety of people. I kept searching for kids like me, but it never happened. In the end it gave me some good perspective.” That perspective is making bigger connections now, from the people who get in touch with him across the world to say they’ve loved his music, to those of us swaying in Corsica Studios while still wearing our coats. If we’ve got the Beatles to thank for this, so be it. But something makes me think MorMor would’ve found his way to music no matter what.
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