Mozart’s Sister is paying her dues

We spoke to Caila Thompson-Hannant about the mental reset required to launch this project in 2011, and how overnight success probably would’ve ruined it.

Mozart’s Sister

And it happened. Caila Thompson-Hannant finally released an LP, Being, on Paper Bag Records.

Her Mozart’s Sister project has been stewing for some time, popping up live everywhere from the Mile End loft scene to the Olympia Theatre, where she opened for The-Dream as part of POP Montreal last year. If you go to a lot of indie rock and synth-pop shows, especially shows in the POP orbit, it would be surprising if you hadn’t seen her play.

Those familiar with defunct local bands Shapes and Sizes and Think About Life know that Hannant can work a melody and sing a lot of other chanteuses out of the building. It’s the synths and beats and seeing her solo (and more recently as a duo) that’s new to Mozart’s Sister. But in my conversation with Hannant last week, she revealed that launching this project required a major mental reset, and feeling it stagnate and struggle (while other local acts ascended) was an unexpected challenge.

Lorraine Carpenter: I’ve seen you twice recently, both times under odd circumstances during the day: Your were a replacement for a no-show at Osheaga, playing at 1 p.m. on Sunday, and your scheduled outdoor show at the FME festival in Rouyn-Noranda got moved into a bar due to rain. I imagine that these aren’t your favourite kinds of shows.
Caila Thompson-Hannant: I like playing shows, period — preferably not at 4 in the morning, though that used to be my favourite type of show. I used to love playing afterhours shows — they’re super fun and you feel like you’re doing something good and bad simultaneously. But there’s an opportunity in every show.

LC: Do you still go to those parties?
CT-H: Not anymore. I don’t have the energy for it. I have two jobs and I work full time on music.

LC: I read that you’re sick. Is getting sick on tour an occupational hazard?
CT-H: Definitely. In our case, we stay up till 2 every night get up at 8 every day. On average we’re driving eight to 10 hours every day, through different weather, different altitudes, different ecosystems. It’s actually insane what you normalize in your life when you’re travelling a lot.

LC: How was your songwriting approach and method with this project different from your work with Shapes and Sizes?
CT-H: It was a mental adjustment. There was just a period where my mind changed and that enabled me to learn how to use a computer and not feel scared of it. I was in a position where I had to absolutely break out of my mental and spiritual place and that enabled me to feel empowered enough to actually try things that I felt were a huge step. It was really just a shock of a few major things happening in my life that pushed me to say, “Fuck it! This is all I have.”

I just had to learn how to use a computer, and once that happened I felt great, like I could do whatever I wanted. That’s how music should always be made, without stakes. Or if stakes are there, you have to use them to push yourself spiritually and mentally as a person.

LC: How about the live show? It must’ve been a completely different experience, especially when you were a one-woman show.
CT-H: Oh certainly. It was the scariest thing I’d ever done in my life. At first I just played with a bass and a loop pedal, and that was it. It was just so vulnerable, so exciting and enlivening. It was completely new; it’s almost like I’d never done music before.

LC: So it feels like this album has been a long time coming.
CT-H: It was a period of about two years of development. We tried [releasing material before, like last year’s Hello EP] but it didn’t really work out with the people who wanted to help. It was kind of a minefield in the beginning, actually. I’m glad it’s over.

LC: How was it a minefield?
CT-H: There was a lot of interest, and when people get excited about brand new stuff, they tend to overindulge, and then you tend to overindulge — it’s counter-productive for artists to get a lot of attention in the beginning. If I knew what I know now, I would just probably ignore a lot of the stuff that I got excited about at the time. Basically, it didn’t really feel right to [release anything] at the time.

It’s easy to think, from an outside perspective, that [music careers] happen really fluidly, and that’s how I thought things were going to happen for this project, but in the end the work is where it all is — the work of writing and playing the shows, not conceptualizing it but doing it. The work part of this whole experience has been a real revelation; that’s where all of the creative juice really is.

The project started off with releasing three songs, and three booking agents and a manager and labels all over the place, and it slowly turned into reality, which is, okay here’s the core team and here’s what we can do now and where we’re going to grow from it.

Playing shows is the best way for me to develop into bigger tours and bigger live shows. I’m really happy with the way things turned out in the end, and that I’m not doing a shit-ton of touring right now because there’s still so much development to do. I like that it’s taking this growth route. For the next album, I’d like to be doing tons of touring, and the live show will be totally different, but right now we’re doing what we can without breaking the bank, or my spirit.

LC: I hear you. I mean some bands fast-track their careers by spending tons of money on publicists and whatnot.
CT-H: It is really about money, unless you’re extremely lucky and very very very charming. If you wanna be giving your band a shot, you need to have $10- to $50-grand to invest in it.

If you get a lot of attention, you can really run with that, as quickly as possible, but then then you’re forced into this position where people are excited about what you were at the very beginning and you don’t have a lot of leeway or smarts or courage to break out of what the hype was about. You end up shooting yourself in the foot. So I’m glad I don’t have things that came to me quickly anymore.

I’m excited about doing what’s real. On this tour we’ve played Edmonton, Regina, Winnipeg, we’re touring with these lovely guys and it’s been really hard and the shows have all been poorly attended. But every day, every show I play, I feel stronger. I get to do what I want. I don’t feel the pressure of having to live up to expectations. All I have to do now is to continue to develop as an artist and a person and follow what feels right.

There’s something about these shows feels so real, even surreal. It takes on this whole other level of artistic practice, playing to an empty room, giving your heart to an empty room — it’s almost like playing to spirits. You come face to face with this universal thing where you’re staring into a void. ■

Mozart’s Sister plays between TR/ST and Dreamboy at POP Montreal’s late-night space, Eglise St. Michel (105 St-Viateur) tonight, Thursday, Sept. 18, 11 p.m., $20

Mozart’s Sister plays again, with the Rural Alberta Advantage, PS I Love You and Grey Lands at Cabaret du Mile End (5240 Parc) on Friday, Sept. 19, 9 p.m., $16/$18