As he tours across Europe and North America, we meet the Toronto songwriter to talk catharsis, alienation, and his latest single, ‘Outside’
“How can I find the sun?”, MorMor sings on his latest single, “Outside”. The song is built on a foundation of bright, breezy, psychedelic instrumentation, but “Outside” has a hint of darkness underneath it, too, something alienated and adrift. “Leaves just fall, lost my way again.” Its video, directed by Duncan Loudon, exemplifies this, all muted tones but for flashes of vibrant petals and eerie faces bathed in red light. In one scene, a small boy hides from bullies, alone in a bathroom. His feet are tucked up and out of sight, concealed from an alley of clowns that skitter across the frame in stark monochrome make-up.
MorMor is the alias of 27-year-old singer, producer, and instrumentalist Seth Nyquist. Born and raised in Toronto by a creative family, his childhood was one of drawing, journaling, and rebellious music-making (Nyquist took pleasure in defying the rules of music theory as he learned to play piano). He grew up listening to the likes of The Beatles and Pink Floyd, and at 18, dropped out of his studies to pursue music full-time. Fast-forward a few years, and songwriting has allowed Nyquist the confidence to face his demons, his lyrics tackling long-suffered issues of abandonment, isolation, and fear.
His 2018 debut EP, Heaven’s Only Wishful, showcased his ear for hazy melodies bolstered by shimmering synth pads and lush guitar (its title track was among our 20 best of 2018). “Pass The Hours”, released towards the end of last year, also demonstrated his vocal range, spanning both close, breathlike intimacy, and soaring, space-filling falsetto. “Outside” and “Pass The Hours” both form part of a new EP, due later this year, and the artwork for both singles – a silky bunch of tulips and a delicate pale pink rose – echoes that same wistful softness he captures in his music.
MorMor is currently on a 20-date tour of Europe and North America following a sold-out show at London’s Corsica Studios earlier this week. We spoke to the singer on a crisp Toronto spring morning about songwriting as catharsis, rejecting music theory, and facing an abject sense of alienation.
How would you describe MorMor to somebody that hasn’t heard your music before?
MorMor: I suppose I would call it pop, for the melody – but I’d just prefer to play it to them.
Your artist name, MorMor, comes from the name you used to call your grandmother. How did she influence the way you navigate the world?
MorMor: My grandmother was so important to me. She lived in the States her entire life, so I would see her about once a year. Even though I didn’t see her often, we formed an unspoken bond. I felt she always understood me in a way no one else did. Besides the sentimentality, when I was young, I loved the sound of her name, the spelling, the lettering – aesthetically, it feels good to me.
How else do you think your family has impacted you creatively?
MorMor: First and foremost, my mum’s a teacher. Growing up, it was just the two of us and my sister. She was always encouraging me to go practice art, whether it was music or drawing. She’d hang my work on the walls of her office. That said, my relationship to music and art has always been highly personal, and what my mum and I do is quite different, so I’m grateful she helped me nurture my own creativity and allowed me to express myself in different ways.
Can you tell me about your formative discovery of music?
MorMor: My aunt visited recently, and she told me that when I was a baby, I would stop to listen whenever there was music in the room. I would visibly focus. I’ve always had a deep connection to music, it’s like meditation for me. Growing up, my discovery was at my own pace. If people recommended music to me, I might make a note of it, but I’d stay in my own world. I listened to Pink Floyd, The Beatles, I appreciated whole bodies of work. I’d disappear down a rabbit hole, sometimes I’d listen to a record for a full year before I felt the need to move onto something else.
Is there a record you heard, or a show that you saw, that was instrumental in your decision to pursue music?
MorMor: There wasn’t a specific moment. I listened to music for the feeling. When I was 18 or 19, I felt it was the only thing I could do. I rejected performative music for a lot of my life. I didn’t like the intention of being suggested for a lead at school, or getting on stage. I preferred the background. Jimi Hendrix is the reason I picked up a guitar, so there is that influence. Then my aunt was a huge Janis Joplin fan, and I listened to a lot of Thom Yorke and Joni Mitchell. I explored at my own pace, and I never felt the need to emulate another artist.
You rebelled against the structural and theoretical elements of music making when you were younger. Have you now reached a stage where you’ve learned that while some rules may be broken, others are there to guide you?
MorMor: Back then, it was all theory – what to do, what not to do. In listening, I’ve gained understanding of the rules, and of course they’ve rubbed off on me, but I try to approach music in a receptive way. I don’t think about anything other than the feeling. In fact, I try to ignore the rules, despite the inherent guidelines.
“When I was a baby, I would stop to listen whenever there was music in the room. I would visibly focus” – MorMor
What inspires you lyrically? Is your music informed by your experience of Toronto?
MorMor: I pull from my own reality. Social realism. There’s certainly some degree to which I’m inspired by the alienation I might face in my own city and my own day-to-day.
Let’s talk about “Outside”, and the feelings the video evokes of loneliness, of not fitting in and of being bullied.
MorMor: I saw a video of Obongjayar’s, directed by Duncan (Loudon) that I really liked, and so we started talking. I wanted to tackle issues of childhood trauma and how those traumas can linger, that sometimes you don’t know where the feelings stem from. “Outside” also explores alienation, depression, a feeling of not belonging. That’s what “Outside” means to me, but I also wanted to leave it open, for people to connect with in their own way. We sent images back and forth, and one of them was a clown with makeup on, so we ran with that idea. I only finished the track about a month ago, so we were exchanging words and pictures to evoke the feeling of the music before the music even existed. I flew to London, did the shoot, and flew out the next day – it was an intense weekend.
What’s been your most rewarding moment to date?
MorMor: Spending time at Electric Lady Studios, or hanging out with Mica Levi.
Tell me about music that heals you.
MorMor: Can’s Tago Mago, Dark Side Of The Moon, Ian Curtis’s lyrics. There’s a way those artists express themselves, they create music that’s beautiful and enjoyable, and music that is honest. Nowadays I feel like songs are just commercials; back then, there wasn’t the feeling you were being sold an idea as you listened. Of course there’s contemporary music of the same nature, but it’s not necessarily pushed in the same way.
Is songwriting a remedial process for you?
MorMor: Totally. At this point, I’m more comfortable speaking through a song format. My new project deals with things that have been lingering in my life that, to date, I hadn’t faced. Similar to the themes of “Outside”, I am learning as I create.
Do you feel you’ve developed, personally and creatively, since Heaven’s Only Wishful?
MorMor: Immensely. I’ve seen more of the world, I have the opportunity to create, to deal with myself, my anxiety is dimming. Sonically and lyrically I’m always learning, I’ve improved to the best of my ability between one project and the next.
Finally, you’ve said that when people hear your music, you hope it will inspire them to create. In the same vein, what inspires you?