Mozart's Sister's intricate synthpop world

The Montreal artist's new album has DIY pop moments to rival Grimes. She tells us why sex is one of her main drives

Music Q+A
Mozart's Sister

Caila Thompson-Hannant is Mozart’s Sister, a formerly troubled soul with two hands on adulthood’s steering wheel. But last week, while prepping last plans for her debut album, the Montreal electropop stalwart freaked. It hit her that Being’s attendant tour would require weeks on the road, which meant a swift goodbye to beloved house-cat Bailey. Distraught, the songwriter bundled up the feline and shipped him in a box to Victoria with whispers of a life of opulence. “It was really sad,” she admits, in tones of cautious recovery. “I was at the cargo airport trying to hold it together, crying. But he's retiring on the West Coast, which is pretty sweet. I'd like to get him back. In future we'll be able to travel together, in our own helicopter.”

Sometimes heartbreak pays off, right? Luckily the addictive record in question, which merits greatness to rival Grimes’ Visions, is a high watermark in the Montreal tradition of beat-down bedroom dwellers making upbeat body music. Thompson-Hannant’s smart, bluntly personal style, which emerged after semi-successful stints in indie bands like Shapes And Sizes and Miracle Fortress, is the mark of a master songwriter. After years winning kudos as a captivating solo artist - her live shows are wild, all-dancing affairs populated by local luminaries like Grimes and Ought - she finally retreated to a tiny apartment deprived of natural light, where on an old Macbook with a cracked copy of Ableton she laid down the resplendent LP. “Within every being, there's a complexity of experiences and a diversity of feelings,” she explains of the record, released on Asthmatic Kitty. “I guess that’s what it’s about – it’s an attempted everythingness.”

On Being, which is a sort of dance record, it’s interesting to hear lyrics like, “The best part of going out is coming home alone” (“Lone Wolf”). There’s something appealing about that clash of euphoria and introversion. A lot of people need their dance music tempered with an inner displacement.

Caila Thompson-Hannant: That's my ultimate goal really, to make happy, euphoric songs that have cutting and sometimes uncomfortable lyrics about sadness. Happy songs are some of the most difficult to write. They're fighting against a certain gravity of sadness that's very prevalent in music. Music is cathartic, expressive. We’re expressing discomfort, or desire for things we don't quite have. Sometimes a happy song with happy lyrics is a difficult thing to swallow – you have to get to a surreal, or hyper-real place to absorb it. We can all partake in Celine Dion at karaoke, but there is a conceptual extension that's required, for me at least, to really absorb a plain, straight-up happy song with happy lyrics. There's a weird dissonance.

It’s true of the lyrics themselves, too. When your subjects dart between sexual and existential tension, it somehow feels completely natural.

Caila Thompson-Hannant: I wanted to find a way to encompass or give a home to all the different characters within me, to foster my own diversity. And it's hard, because you want things to be understandable and relatable to people – there has to be continuity – but all feelings are a complex combination of so many different things. And that again is reflected in the music and lyrics, the complex relationship of positives and negatives. I'm trying to convey something in the most honest way.

Other Montreal artists like Sean Nicholas Savage, Braids and Blue Hawaii have all written stark, sexually explicit songs, which doesn’t often happen in alternative music – there’s a lot of evasion. How do you feel about the taboo of discussing sex and sexuality?

Caila Thompson-Hannant: Well, sex is one of the few things that really drives me in life. I think it’s one of the edges of philosophical conversation. It's a point where people can identify themselves as one thing outside of sex, and then be totally different in the realm of sex. It has a power to break down a lot of the systems that we structure for ourselves, in civilisation and society, and art too.

“We're all supposed to be living out perfectly fulfilled, enriched, successful lives, and there's all these steps you have to take to get it, it's just absurd.” – Mozart's Sister

What makes it such a unique tool?

Caila Thompson-Hannant: It's something you can't always control. You can interact with your own sexuality, your desires, your interpretation of your sexual being - but it's not something that you can use your mind to fit yourself into. And that's part of what I'm curious about with mental health stuff as well. Controlling is not a good way to get into a happy place, mentally. You have to submit. Like, submission is... yeah, I'm pretty into submission too. I mean, not necessarily sexually (laughs), but the idea of it. I do think we have to submit to our sexual selves in a lot of ways, and I like that.

Which social structures have become too controlled?

Caila Thompson-Hannant: Capitalism! We're all supposed to be living out perfectly fulfilled, enriched, successful lives, and there's all these steps you have to take to get it, it's just absurd. Hyper-control. I mean, look at the way we make food. That's the most extreme, hand-on-the-throat control of nature, of our desire to grow as a species. It's kind of endless.

A lot of Arbutus artists are very evangelical about your music – were you ever tempted to sign to the label?

Caila Thompson-Hannant: I guess my views have gone back and forth with that, but at this point I would really appreciate working with a local label like Arbutus because you have support and collaborators right there in your hometown. They're constantly progressing and working really hard, and that's great. At first Arbutus was really interested in signing me, before I'd really done anything – but then they actually didn't wanna sign the record by the time it was finished. That boat had sailed. But we still have a good relationship, and they're supporters and vice-versa.

Was it just a scheduling issue, on their part?

Caila Thompson-Hannant: I don't really know, honestly. There's a lot of politics involved, which also really rubs me the wrong way. But that's the fucking industry, man. People do things for strange reasons, and the industry changes every five minutes. So I'm not sure why exactly they passed on it – I think they just didn't like it enough. And just the fact I hadn't signed with them right away I think was a bit of a turn off. It's honestly just that – that's what negotiating with industry is. Half-personal, half-professional, and you're never really sure what's going on. You’re trying to be as straightforward as possible, but not give away too much. It's weird stuff.

“I'm always in a close relationship with fear, it gives you a lot of lessons” – Mozart's Sister

What are you getting at with the song “Enjoy”?

Caila Thompson-Hannant: It's like, 'Enjoy this freak show that I am right now.' That's how I felt. That was one of the last songs that I wrote, and it was in a period of self-doubt. I'd sent things around to people on the team and it was this mixed response, and people weren't quite sure. So I wrote this song to let out this dark, cartoony, creepy freak person in me that's a little shithead. And being like, ‘Well fine, here, do you like this: (creepy freak person noise)’? It was about enjoying being a brat, but also a self-possessed brat who's gonna do whatever she wants, and you're gonna have to deal with it for a little bit. 

There's some really plainly spoken stuff on the record that's a little bit heartbreaking. “Turn round and round, staring at the washing.”

Caila Thompson-Hannant: A lot of what I'm talking about is a sense of inertia, or desiring to grow beyond your fears. I'm always in a close relationship with fear - it gives you a lot of lessons. But a lot of those types of lyrics are this type of stuckness. And bursting your way out of it through energy and movement. That's where the upbeatness comes in.

Another lyric is "Most of my friends are medicated just like me – not to worry."

Caila Thompson-Hannant: I'm not medicated anymore but I definitely have been. It’s such a crazy commonplace thing for people to be taking antidepressants, especially sensitive people, who I seem to spend a lot of time around. That lyric to me was trying to “out” medication. To out the idea of genuine mental instability and not treating it with this sort of, 'Oh I can just deal with it on my own.' I wanted to say, 'I'm on antidepressants, that's right!' And when I was more open about that, people felt so relieved when they had the same problems, and were coming to talk to me about it. That's where I got the sense of, It's okay it's okay. You do what works and you just keep trying. There's no wrong and right. You should be white-knuckling this shit, and getting through life with a positive attitude. Sometimes you need a little bit of help and it's okay.

Spread the love and vote for Dazed to win a Lovie award for...
Best Writing - Editorial,
Internet Video: Animation,
Internet Video: Music & Entertainment

More Music