Earlier this month, MorMor released a live session from inside the white-domed David Dunlap Observatory in Richmond Hill.
Surrounded by colossal telescopes and other equipment, the Toronto singer-songwriter born Seth Nyquist and his two bandmates performed four songs from MorMor’s debut full-length album “Semblance,” which arrived in November.
The backdrop is perfectly apt — much like stargazing, MorMor’s tender croon and unique style of indie pop evokes feelings of awe and introspection, but also an aching sense of loneliness.
“Happiness is like a wave and now it falls aside/ You had seen what shadows came to keep me up at night,” Nyquist sings on “Here It Goes Again,” a breezy track that cloaks its melancholy beneath a cascade of luminous synths.
Such contrasts span across the 11 songs on “Semblance,” a breakup album that swings between devastating lows and hard-won moments of clarity.
“Music operates through my subconscious,” Nyquist told to the Star via video call when asked about his songwriting process.
“Whether I’m freestyling (lyrics) or playing an instrument, it kind of steers me in the direction of what the song should be. Over time, I’ve learned not to shy away from that.”
It’s mid-January, and Nyquist is camped out in a small studio space he has set up at his parents place in Toronto as he prepares to embark on a North American tour, which includes a stop at the Axis Club on Thursday.
Soft-spoken, friendly and dressed in a black Patta hoodie, the 31-year-old explained how he’s been living something of a nomadic lifestyle these last few years, bouncing between Toronto, London and New York.
“Growing up (in Toronto), I was around so many different types of people, and there was this accessibility to other cultures very early on. That meant I was able to find myself at a young age,” he explained. “But I am constantly looking elsewhere for inspiration.”
Indeed, one could easily imagine Nyquist finding success within the burgeoning “Canadian soul” scene alongside Toronto contemporaries like Daniel Caesar, who MorMor toured across Canada with in 2019, or Charlotte Day Wilson.
Instead, he’s continued to carve out his own sound on “Semblance,” dabbling in post-punk (“Don’t Cry”) and glitchy slowcore (“Crawl”) and stretching his falsetto to brave new heights (“Far Apart”).
“I don’t necessarily feel like I ever actually fit into the (Toronto) scene,” he added, saying that while he’s crossed paths with other local artists and their camps, he never belonged to their inner circles. “I’ve always felt like a lone wolf in that journey.”
Nyquist was born in Toronto, and raised in the city’s west end by his adoptive mother, Mary Nyquist. An English professor with Swedish roots, Mary encouraged her son to nurture his creative side, and to follow his passion for music.
He grew up listening to a wide range of music, from the Beatles to Motown to Feist — a blend of influences that would shape his approach to songwriting when he decided to drop out of Toronto Metropolitan University after a semester studying sociology to pursue music instead.
The moniker MorMor, which means “grandmother” in Swedish, is a tribute to his grandmother, with whom he had a close bond as a child.
His first project, titled “Live for Nothing,” came out in 2015. But his breakout arrived three years later with the song “Heaven’s Only Wishful,” a quirky but carefully-crafted earworm that amassed tens of millions of streams on Spotify and YouTube.
MorMor released a second EP in 2019, titled “Some Place Else,” which solidified his standing as not only a compelling singer, but a skilled multi-instrumentalist with a detail-oriented approach to production.
“Whatever Comes To Mind,” a dreamy standout from the project, was nominated for the prestigious SOCAN Songwriting Prize, which recognizes the most creative and artistic work by emerging songwriters in Canada.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, Nyquist scrapped his plans to record his debut LP in New York, instead renting a bunch of gear in Toronto and setting up a studio in the living room of a house near High Park.
“I like less traditional spaces, especially if I’m writing,” he said, citing “Funky Monks” — a 1991 documentary about Red Hot Chili Peppers recording their seminal album “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” with superproducer Rick Rubin at a mansion once owned by Harry Houdini — as an influence for his creative process.
“I really fell in love with the idea of being able to live where I work, and as a ‘bedroom producer’ that felt right,” he explained. “I’m someone who likes to have the opportunity to create whenever I feel like it, rather than stick to a schedule. It worked out when things were shut down, too — we were able to keep recording.”
Nyquist recorded about “80 per cent” of the instrumentation on “Semblance” himself, before recording additional vocals and strings at a leading commercial studio in London, U.K. The result is MorMor’s most cohesive and polished project to date.
But “Semblance” wasn’t supposed to be a breakup album.
During early recording sessions, Nyquist would keep a microphone on as he experimented in the studio. Often, he’d find sections of music to freestyle over, letting the words and melodies flow out from his subconscious. This approach proved premonitory.
“My partner and I hadn’t broken up yet when I was writing (the album), but I was obviously dealing with a lot of feelings about how the relationship was going. The words kind of just came out of me.”
“We had enough/ A lie that we both knew/ We had called this love/ A love that wasn’t true,” he sings on the album’s opener, “Dawn.” “The less I need someone/ The less I hurt somehow.”
“Was I ever enough for you?” he ponders on “Crawl,” a down-tempo ballad punctuated by colourful bursts of distortion — a technique Nyquist said was inspired by the last two records by the legendary slowcore band Low (the song features production from Low producer BJ Burton).
“Hearing back some of those tracks — it was right there in front of me,” he said. “I guess I felt it coming.”
“Semblance” is also an album about depression, an issue Nyquist has never shied away from exploring in his music.
“I’m tired of the days/ They came and went,” he laments on “Don’t Cry,” a propulsive track that Nyquist called his “pandemic song” — it was released alongside an unsettling animated visual, in which a man is shown pacing restlessly alone in his darkened apartment.
“See this sorrow I’m bound to,” he sings faintly on “Lifeless,” the album’s heart-wrenching centrepiece.
Nyquist has always considered songwriting therapeutic, he said. But the challenges of the last few years also revealed to him the limits of using art as self care.
“Music absolutely cannot solve everything,” he explained. The mounting pressure of releasing music “made it difficult to get up and create.”
“I was writing about (mental health), but I wasn’t truly facing a lot of the other aspects of my life that were building up. The break up (was) the straw that broke the camel’s back and I couldn’t really find ways to kind of get from underneath all the things that I had been suppressing.”
“From as far back as I can remember, (writing music) was always something that would get me through. When that slowly became more difficult … I was forced to find other ways. And that takes a long time, if you’re at my age, trying to sort through things alone.”
At the same time, the pandemic pushed Nyquist to make an album that, despite its sombre themes, still contained a clear sense of optimism — and wasn’t a slog to listen to.
“I needed something to be hopeful about, and I didn’t want to double down on the sound on ‘Lifeless,’” he explained. “I wanted to inject some energy both into myself, but then into the listener through the course of a project. I just tried to imagine what coming out of the pandemic might feel like.”
One can hear the fruits of this labour on tracks like “Far Apart,” on which Nyquist serves up a spoken-word verse over punchy drums and a loping bass line before launching into a Prince-like falsetto. Relationships end, but life moves forward.
Today, Nyquist said he has repaired his relationship to music, and is excited to get back on the road.
“Goodbye 2022 — you were one of the most challenging years of my life,” he wrote on Instagram at the end of December. “I’ve made it out the other side and am grateful to still be here with you guys.”
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