Interview: Jackie Mohr of The Mohrs
There seems to be a constant debate about the state of rock music. Will it ever reign again? Is rock radio dead? Is rap really the new rock and roll as Kanye West so confidently stated? Well, The Mohrs are determined to prove that rock still has a heartbeat. The Toronto outfit consisting of Jackie Mohr, Marc Girardin, Greg Markham, and Max Trefler released their debut album, Kings of Nowhere, in February 2015. Yearning to return to a time when hooky riffs and swagger ruled, the record is full of soaring, arena anthems from start to finish.
What began as a small writing project between The Mohrs’ lead singer and guitarist, Jackie Mohr, and renowned Canadian singer, songwriter, and producer, Hawksley Workman, eventually flourished into an album’s worth of songs. It also resulted in Mohr forming a whole new group in the aftermath.
Mohr took a break from band rehearsal to delve deep into the record, revealing the unhealthy relationships that inspired some of the lyrics, and explaining why she wants to stay true to her rock roots.
Laura Antonelli (Songfacts): Hawksley Workman said something interesting when I interviewed him about the type of music you’re making. He mentioned how it takes a little time for that kind of thing to catch on because rock audiences are suspect of female singers for some reason.
Jackie Mohr: [Laughs] For sure.
Songfacts: So what kind of challenges have you faced as a woman in a mostly male dominated rock scene?
Jackie: Yeah, it is a good question. I used to play in and consider myself a member of Vag Halen, which is an all-feminist queer rock band. They are very much all about this issue. But I’ve met such incredible women in this industry since day one. I see them everywhere.
It’s been a bit of a challenge I will say. Just to give you an example, the first time we met up with our radio team and got a response from them hearing the record was like, “Yeah, we love it, but it’s going to be really hard to take a female to rock radio.” Hawksley to this day is like, “I never should have told you that!” I was like, “No, I’m glad you did.” I wasn’t offended by it but I just thought that it was such an old school way of thinking. I just don’t believe in absolutes like that. I don’t think that way so I don’t project that way. I don’t think I’m a female in a man’s world at all. It’s music, and this is something that you do. I connect well with both male and female audiences.
People have asked, “What do you find your crowds mostly of?” It’s crazy at this point. It’s all over the map. It’s young people, it’s older generations, it’s equal male and female. It’s fun for me. I get up there and if I have a bunch of guys standing in front of me, especially rock dudes – beer drinking, weird goatee looking motherfuckers – I love that. I connect with those people and I don’t think that it’s difficult. Maybe that’s easy for me to say because regardless if my voice is good or not, it’s a powerful voice. So I don’t feel intimidated going up there because I know that I can belt it. I know that we do our best to rock. I think that whether you like our music or not, you can appreciate that about us.
Songfacts: Kings of Nowhere started as a writing project between you and Hawksley Workman after you met through the television show, Cover Me Canada. Can you explain how that all happened?
Jackie: I used to play in a band called Living in Red. We were based out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, which is where I’m from. We made it onto Cover Me Canada and Hawksley Workman was one of the producers on the show. During the duration of the time that Living in Red was on the show, we had done two songs with him. I believe they were Avril Lavigne and Feist songs. Both challenging, but they turned out to be two of our best creations on the show. We just worked well together. When I got kicked off the show, he called me and invited me up to his studio to do some writing. We didn’t know that it was going to be an album at the time. It was just going to be a writing session.
Songfacts: You said in an interview that you haven’t written songs the same way since working with Hawksley Workman. How did your approach to songwriting change and how did he influence it?
Jackie: Before I went up there, I had months of preparation so I was doing a lot of writing in anticipation of going up there. I had a lot of ideas. Once I got up there, we ate dinner, had wine, and then we went up to the studio. I was like, “Okay. So, do you want me to show you some ideas?” He was like, “Nah. I just want to start from scratch.” I was like, “Oh, okay, cool.” So that’s what we did.
Every idea came to right there on the spot. It was exciting for me. It was different than any way that I’d ever written before. We didn’t think about melodies or lyrics at first – it was just about getting cool guitar parts done and things that sounded “really hot” as he would put it. We never spent any time on anything that wasn’t creative and cool-sounding.
Working with him is a real fast process. You get an idea and it’s like, “Oh, cool!” He gets real excited about it, tracks it, and then you just build, build, and build. As long as the ideas are there, within no time you have this song. We started to then look at melodies and lyrics, which took a lot longer. He’s a wonderful lyricist and he’s a genius with his melodies so that part was the most altering for me. With him, it’s got to be something incredible, so it drove me to new heights and new standards of writing. I think that I’ve adapted those now and there’s no going back [laughs].
Songfacts: The title of the record is also the title of the second-to-last track, “Kings of Nowhere.” Why did you decide to name the album that?
Jackie: That’s a good question that no one has asked before. Thanks! It’s funny because for a long time it was going to be an eponymous album. It was just going to be The Mohrs. We thought that was the way to go. The more time went on, we decided that this album deserved a title. There were a few things that came up, but then we just geared towards picking a track title.
I wouldn’t say that “Kings of Nowhere” is the song on the album that represents the album best. It’s a fun song, which is not really the theme of the album. It was a fun song for us to write and I guess it was a pinnacle point for some of the record. I just thought that it summed us up more than anything else. We wrote the record before the band was put together. After playing with these guys and being on the road, I thought that title started to sound fitting for where we were as a band and in our lives. So it represents us as a unit, but maybe not necessarily the album theme.
Songfacts: The album is 40 minutes long and non-stop high energy rock the entire time.
Jackie: [Lots of laughter] Yup!
Songfacts: I like that you’re laughing.
Jackie: [Laughs] Sorry, I was just thinking about how our live show is similar. It’s non-stop and exhausting, but in the best way possible.
Songfacts: Was this a conscious decision, or did that just end up happening?
Jackie: It just ended up happening. I think a big part of that was working with Hawksley. He likes to never have a dull moment in there – he thinks about melody and always having something ear-catching. I think it was definitely an underlying theme to the record. We always wanted to keep the listener’s attention.
When we started playing live, we all realized that at times, it’s a lot. It’s just a lot of stuff happening at all times. I actually sat all of us down and went, “You know what? Love this record, but maybe on the next one we create a little bit more space” [laughs]. I do think that it’s fun, energetic, and it is non-stop. There’s a lot of hooky stuff going on and I love that kind of stuff.
Songfacts: There seems to be a lyrical theme about unhealthy relationships.
Jackie: [Laughs] Yup!
Songfacts: In songs like “Better,” “Perfectly Sane,” “Erase Her,” and “Wouldn’t Call It Love.” Was this done on purpose or were you just drawing on experiences you were going through at the time?
Jackie: Yeah, it wasn’t done on purpose. The first song that we approached and wrote was “Cassette Tape,” so that had nothing to do with it. The second one was “Lonely One,” which captured this cool, sexy, rock vibe, but those didn’t really have anything to do with it.
Hawksley and I were sitting around. I was telling him about a big past relationship that I had for many years with somebody and how it was terrible. After I finished telling him the story, he was like, “Oh my God! We got a whole record right there.” I was like, “Oh, okay” [laughs].
It just took this dark curve. I was also going through a different relationship at the time. It’s funny, I never wanted to be one of those singers that just sang about relationships, but it’s an approachable theme. It’s something that everybody can relate. There was just a lot of residual anger and feelings that I had towards some of those things. It was a way for me to air that out for sure. I think it was done in a cool way where it wasn’t quite as cookie-cutter and just laying it out for you lyrics-wise, but it’s very much been a theme.
Songfacts: The album starts with the up-tempo fist-pumper, “Better.” Can you explain how that song came to be?
Jackie: “Better” started as a small chord progression. By this time our guitar player, Marc Girardin, was up there doing all of the writing of the record with us. A big part of that song was shaped by guitar parts that Hawksley and Marc worked on together. Because we brought Marc up there, I’d been able to just sit back and not play guitar for the first time. The first little bit, Marc wasn’t there, and so I was doing a lot of guitar parts. We’d finish a song and Hawksley would be like, “Okay, cool. What do you got for lyrics and melodies?” I was like, “What? I don’t know. I was just thinking about guitar parts this whole time!” [Laughs] So it was cool to sit back, watch those two riff off of each other, and create this awesome track.
I just got to think about lyrics and melodies. I came up with a verse and the lyrics came easy. That was more geared towards the relationship that I was in at the time. Just feeling like you were in a sick relationship and you knew it, but you just couldn’t let it go. I think that happens a lot. It’s love, or something like it. Hawksley jumped in then and we did the chorus together. It’s turned out to be a bigger track on this record than we ever thought it would be, to be quite honest. It almost didn’t even make the record when we were all done. It wasn’t supposed to be on there.
Songfacts: That’s interesting because it’s one of the singles.
Jackie: I know! It was just such an afterthought to us. It was actually one of the last tracks that we finished that we put on there. I actually haven’t thought about that until just now.
Songfacts: And the album ends with the gun-slinging, hard-hitting song, “Youth,” which is your newest single. Can you describe the process of creating that one?
Jackie: I love to talk about that one. It was a real proud moment for me. I had reservations about putting it at the end of the album, but now I’m glad that it is at the end. It sums it all up for me.
Songfacts: Why didn’t you want to put it at the end?
Jackie: Well, because it’s always been a big player for me on this record. It’s always been one of, if not, my favorite tracks on it. I had hopes for it doing great things. I just worried that maybe it should be somewhere earlier on in the record. You hope people listen to the record the whole way through. But it ended up at the end and I’m glad that it did.
The song started as an idea with just that beginning riff. It was something that I played and Hawksley was like, “That’s hot! That’s hot!” So we tracked it. It’s also one of my favorite songs because the chorus was nothing like you hear now. We had all those verse parts and then we had this synthy, moody, pre-chorus that went into this super-moody chorus. It was light and airy. Just nothing like you hear it now. It was a real direction that Hawksley wanted to push that song. I was just never really feeling it. So we left it alone for a long while. We worked on other things.
One night when I was at home after I had moved to Toronto, I was in my apartment. I can’t fully take credit for any of these songs, but this one I did sit down and work on by myself. I was in my studio at home and I just started writing that chorus part. I just started singing and as soon as I sang that part, I just knew. I was like, “I love this. I love this song. I love where this is going.” That’s actually the whole guitar solo you hear [laughs]. I’ll admit, I was a few glasses of wine in, and I just recorded that solo on the spot – I never thought it would stay. Never in a million years. I didn’t think that there would be a solo in that song. If there was one, it was not going to be that one. But as it turned out, Hawksley loved it, and he was like, “No, it’s so real! We’re keeping it! We’re keeping it!” So I had to go back and re-learn it. I had no idea because I was kind of drunk at the time, to be quite honest. I was a little drunk throughout that whole songwriting process.
It was awesome. I just felt like I struck gold on that one. When I brought it to Hawksley, I think because he was so embedded with the other idea, it took him a while to come around. I showed some pals that song and they were like, “This is huge! This is awesome! It’s such an anthem!” I was like, “I know, right?” [Laughs] Hawksley eventually came around with it and I think that it’s one of his favorite tracks, too.
Songfacts: What inspired it?
Jackie: I had a long relationship with a man for almost six years. He was quite a bit older than me. It’s a bold thing to say, “I wasted my youth on you.” There are parts of that that I think are understandable, but that’s a lofty statement. I don’t have any regrets and I learned a lot from that relationship. If anything, that’s what you do with relationships: you walk away with experience. You learn and you grow, and that’s exactly what I did. I think that being angry for spending so much of my younger days on an unhealthy relationship weighed on me heavily into young adulthood. Until I sat down and wrote that song with Hawksley, I don’t even think I realized I had that feeling towards that relationship.
Songfacts: “Perfectly Sane” is about a toxic love or lust. What was the process like writing that song?
Jackie: Yeah, that’s funny because I guess “Better” is like that and “Perfectly Sane,” too. When I think about “Perfectly Sane” now, I think that it’s about me more than anybody else. I started looking at the lyrics and the way that they came out. I was seeing somebody at the time and I just wasn’t getting anything out of it. You start to give everything to somebody and it depletes you. You start to feel like less of you and I could see that happening. Especially that chorus, when I reflect on me at that time and how unstable I was in all of it. Like, “What would a perfectly sane person do? Wouldn’t be caught dead with you” – I think I’m referring to myself, to be quite honest, which was an interesting thing for me to realize after reflecting.
But that song was written near the end of the record. It started with that verse part. It was just a weird, eerie verse. I sat back and worked on the lyrics. The chorus was actually a Hawksley Workman moment through and through. Hawksley and Marc sat down and wrote the guitar parts for that.
It had this big sound. We had the verse in place and we were just listening to that chorus over and over again on loop. Marc’s so cool and so intricate with his chords in the way that he uses higher frets. There was this beautiful sound to this chorus, but we were stumped on it for awhile. Hawksley all of a sudden came out with [singing], “What would a perfectly sane person do?” It was just magic. We were like, “Oh my God! That’s huge!” So we tracked it. Later on, I remember coming up with that underlying vocal harmony part [singing], “Ah huh ah huh” – that sweet kind of thing – and it just came together. It became this beautiful, big chorus out of this weird, eerie verse that we weren’t sure if it made sense to even keep. But I think it works well and it’s an interesting song. It was a big moment for us, too. It was one of the last songs that we wrote.
Songfacts: “Cassette Tape” has a nostalgic vibe and is lyrically clever. Who came up with the idea for that one?
Jackie: Well, thanks, first off. It was funny. It was the first song we sat down to write. We were brainstorming about what to do. It’s also a favorite of mine in the sense to know the way that Hawksley’s mind works and to know the way I was feeling when I came up there. I think he envisioned me to be more of a pop star than I turned out to be. He’s geeked about it now, but in the early days, it was like, “Wait, no! You’re going to be a Pink: a pop-rock princess thing.” So when we sat down to write that song, it was fun, poppy, and cheeky.
He had this idea. He was like, “Well, I’ve had this idea for a long time. I was actually going to use it for one of my records, but it’s this idea of making this cassette tape for somebody. You go through all these bands.” I thought it was really cool. It was a scary moment for me because he sat there with his face in his palms just staring at me waiting for me to come up with something cool on the guitar. So I was just sitting there and went through a bunch of ideas on the spot. I was just playing and I was like [laughing], “Oh my God! What am I doing?” I played that riff and it just happened. We just built off of it. He loved it so we tracked it.
It was an easy song and came together well. He was a big help with the chorus progression and writing the lyrics for it was so much fun. We kept thinking about cool bands that we both could relate to because we’re from such different generations. I would throw out bands and he would throw out bands, and it’d be like, “Wait, no, what? I would never listen to them” [laughs]. So finding bands that were mutually interesting to us was fun. It was also a lot of fun to write the backing vocals for it. There’s just a lot going on and there are a lot of cool melodies. It’s one of the songs on the album that is most heavily packed with hooks non-stop. It was a good starting-off point for sure.
Songfacts: “Won’t Be Going Home” has blunt and somewhat harsh lyrics.
Jackie: [Laughs] It’s true.
Songfacts: What’s the story behind that song?
Jackie: That was a Marc creation – just quirky, fun, guitar playing. After we decided we would do something a little heavier, there was a lot of talk of doing a Cars type of sound. I always loved that opening little lick that Marc does over the chords that he uses. The song was just quirky from day one. It was just fun. It sounded weird.
When we started writing lyrics for it [pauses, hums lyrics], I don’t know. That day in the studio is a blur to me to be honest. I think that was a day where we had written a lot of heavy songs so we were like, “Let’s just have some fun.” I remember after we finished it, we went in for dinner, and I said to Marc, “That was a lot of fun but I don’t think we’ll ever use that on the record. I don’t think I could ever straight-faced sing these lyrics.”
It’s crazy to me. I’m not the type of person that thinks that way. We kind of thought, “Ah, the kids will love it. Maybe they’ll love it? It’s easy to sing along to. It’s kind of fun.” I’m like, “Yeah, but it’s just so bitchy!” [Laughs] It’s just so far from anything that I thought we’d write but it is cool, too. I love the song. The guitar parts I love and I love The Cars sound of it. I love how heavy it can sound, and live it’s actually turned out to be one of the heavier songs that we play, surprising enough.
We love the ending of the song. There’s this repetitive part that happens that people just get sucked into. Later on when we were deciding whether or not to put it on the record, I added the words “she said, he said” in the choruses, and for some reason that made it better for me because I wasn’t necessarily singing from my perspective. It was more like an observation of somebody at a club. That put my mind at ease because I just couldn’t sing that.
Songfacts: Your vocals are intense and really high on “Lonely One” in the chorus. What was the songwriting process for that tune?
Jackie: It was the second one that we worked on – we had just finished writing “Cassette Tape,” which was a lot of fun. We were having fun writing together, but we didn’t know what was going to happen beyond that. I think Hawksley came up with that verse guitar part, which was sexy and cool. He had a lot to do with the whole vibe of that song and the lyrics.
I had spoken to him after “Cassette Tape.” I was a little worried because that was the first song that we wrote out of the gate and it was really poppy. I had a fear of going in that direction with him because I knew it wasn’t what I wanted, so I had a talk with him. I was like, “I need to write something heavier.” It was a conversation that continued throughout the whole process of the album.
But we stumbled across that verse and he came up with that part. He started some of the lyrics and it was just sex, drugs, and rock and roll – just painting that whole picture. It came chorus time, and we broke for dinner. We went back into the studio, I went back into the vocal booth, and that was probably the biggest thing that happened on the record. We were a few wines in and I guess I was feeling a little loosey-goosey. He put me in the studio and I’m like, “I don’t know what to sing over it! I don’t know what to do!” The verse was all done and there was nothing. There was just a chord progression. I was standing in the studio and he was like, “Just try stuff!” So I tried a few things. We kept the tape rolling and all of a sudden I just sang that chorus: those high notes, the whole falsetto part, everything that came after it, and those lyrics.
In fact, what I did that night in the studio is actually what we kept. We tried to go back and re-record those vocals many times, but it just never sounded the same. It never sounded as honest, true, and real. So we ended up just keeping them even though I’m mumbling the shit out of them. I was like, “Can we do this? It’s like I’m mumbling them!” He was like, “Nah, we got to keep it!” As soon as he stopped the tape, he didn’t talk for a while. I was like [nervously], “What? What? What?” and he was like [shocked], “That was incredible!” It sounds weird to say, I’m not trying to be arrogant about it, but I think I just blew his mind in that moment. I just remember being so excited because I was like, “I just blew Hawksley Workman’s mind! This is going to work out! He’s going to want to write with me!” It was just this real proud moment for me. He couldn’t stop talking about it the whole night and then the next day. It really got us excited to do this record together.
He’s an amazing writer. A way stronger writer than me and that lent a lot to this record, but, I have these “moments” as he puts it. It’s these incredible, weird moments that he just loves. I think that’s what he got off of Cover Me Canada. That was one of those moments.
Songfacts: What inspired the song?
Jackie: [Long pause] I don’t know. I guess just wanting to do something rock and roll. In my last band I was never really playing the music that I wanted. When we wrote “Cassette Tape,” I thought that it was a lot of fun. I thought that it was a great song. To be honest, I remember saying this many times, but I wanted Hawksley to sell it. I wanted him to do something else with it. I didn’t want to sing it. “Lonely One” was just about doing something sexy and rock ‘n’ roll. It was an easy song to write. I think it was one of the easiest ones that came together on the record.
Songfacts: What song took the longest to write?
Jackie: Well, probably “Youth” just because breaking away from that original chorus took a lot of time. Re-working my chorus into that sort of arrangement took a long time.
A lot of the music came together easily, but sitting there thinking of melodies, especially with a guy like Hawksley Workman, it’s time consuming because not just anything will do. I remember so many times looping choruses for two hours and then taking an ear break. Going back in and just listening to it, blasting it over and over and over until something sparked. It was a new thing for me. I had never put that much time into anything that I’d written. I do now and I think about it that way now, but I didn’t at the time, so every song took time.
Songfacts: Is there a song that you’re most proud of on the album?
Jackie: I would say “Youth” and “Lonely One” are proud ones for me. I’m sure Marc and the rest of the guys would have different ones. It started out as Marc and mine’s thing but everybody got involved in the end. But those would be my two and one that we didn’t talk about yet, which was a proud moment for me is “Empty on the Inside.” Although it’s a ballad and we don’t play it all that often, Marc and I wrote that together in the studio all by ourselves one night really late into the night. Hawksley went into the studio the next day and was like, “What is this? What is this ‘Empty on the Inside?’ It’s an incredible title!” He listened to it and just fell in love with it. He was like, “You guys!” We didn’t do much to it outside of then. It was just a song that Marc and I wrote together. I think that it was the only one that we worked on just ourselves. I love that song, too, because Hawksley Workman is the one singing on it. A lot of people think that it’s me, but he’s doing all the backup vocals on that song.
Songfacts: That’s interesting. The lyrics are quite personal in that song, so what were you drawing on for that one?
Jackie: That was Marc’s tale right there. He was going through a breakup. He moved cities and he was ending a relationship at the time. We were sitting around the studio talking about it. I remember he looked at me – again, wine was involved – but he was like [drunkenly], “How do you just say that you’re, like, empty on the inside?” I was like, “Like that! You just say that!” We just started writing it then and I was like [excitedly], “That’s awesome! That’s amazing!” Everything just stemmed from there and he came up with a lot of those lyrics. It’s very much a Marc song for sure.
Songfacts: Looking to the future, you’ve said that the plan for the second record is to go out West to work with Steve Bays from Hot Hot Heat. What else can you reveal about that?
Jackie: Well, yeah, it’s funny. Someone else asked me and I was like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.” It has been talked about but nothing has been locked in yet. Obviously Steve is a pal of ours. He works closely with Hawksley. We shot a video with him and Hawksley for “Perfectly Sane.” He’s just awesome. I think since day one we’ve been talking about writing with him – it’s something that’s very much a plan in our minds. It’s just about getting the time together to do it.
We’re planning on travelling out West in the summer to work with some of the talented people out there. Steve Bays is one of them. Ryan Dahle is another if he’s got the time. It’s been talked about but trying to get those two in a moment of not being incredibly busy is difficult. We’re going to do it, though. Even Parker [Bossley], who plays bass for Mounties but has his own band Gay Nineties, I’m just such a big fan of that guy. I think writing with him would be great. And writing with Hawksley – he’s definitely going to be a writer on this next record, too. I think that it’s important to keep this consistency within the first two records. There will be more co-writers on it and there will be stuff probably just from the band, but Hawksley’s going to be a part of it. I’m hoping and we’ve discussed it.