Like many of us, Seth Nyquist found himself thinking more deeply about the passage of time over the course of the pandemic. The Toronto-born songwriter and producer’s new album Semblance — his full-length debut as MorMor after building considerable momentum on the heels of immaculate, genre-blurring gems like “Heaven’s Only Wishful,” “Whatever Comes to Mind” and “Outside” — traces a path from “Dawn” to “Days End.” The album follows Nyquist on an introspective journey from the dissolution of “a love that wasn’t true” to being at peace with a lifetime of unpredictable tides, as he narrates in spoken word on the gentle closer “Quiet Heart.” Aching but clear-headed, Semblance is a moving portrait of, as Nyquist himself describes it, “what is important to me, knowing that you only have a finite amount of time.”
Where the focal point of Nyquist’s work has previously been his immersive sound design, which strikes a balance between the woozy pop of Kevin Parker and the cozy acoustics of Helado Negro, Semblance’s most striking feature is the clarity of his words. Twisting his voice into marvelous shapes, from the Prince-like upper register on “Far Apart” to the blunt-force affect of “Don’t Cry,” he imbues simple but declarative phrases with the reverie of resolution. “I told you once / I know better than to waste time,” he snaps on the rippling “Seasons Change.” On “Lifeless,” he gently lulls over echoing fingerpicking the tender mantra, “I know broken wings will not fly alone.”
Of course, the production holds up its weight as well. Across the album, Nyquist fills empty space with warm tones and crystalline textures. He regularly backs himself with overdubs and harmonies that convey an overactive internal monologue, competing with subtle but spectral flourishes ranging from swelling orchestral swings (“Better At Letting Go”) to sharp-cornered guitar solos (“Chasing Ghost”). Every sound feels purposeful and potent, giving the album a weighted austerity that recalls the xx’s Coexist, but with a wider dynamic range. From post-punk to soul balladry to Bon Iver-esque space folk, Semblance covers a great deal of sonic territory without ever losing hold on its center.
All this virtuosity on display fits with Nyquist’s reverence for the greats. He draws connections between Etta James, Björk, Frank Sinatra, Portishead and Nirvana across our conversation, citing an intentionality in each of their work he strives to achieve with his own music. But Nyquist has never been particularly interested in emulating his idols; he is focused more simply on surprising himself and getting lost in the present of performance. “I remember distinctly as a child knowing when I’d play something, before I could really articulate it, the feeling of playing a ‘wrong note,’” Nyquist reflects. “I would read the first couple measures and then make up the rest of the piece, and for some reason I thought it was correct. My mom’s friend would always be in awe because it would make sense, but it wasn’t what was in front of me.”
Semblance continues Nyquist’s adventures into the unknown. We caught up with the artist over Zoom as he prepared the album for its long-awaited release into the world, chatting about the challenges he overcame to realize his most moving project yet.
VMP: Tell me a bit about when and where you began recording Semblance.
MorMor: I had come off tour and was putting together this dream situation for the record. I initially was working out the logistics of being able to record in New York, where I like to be, and it figured to be just too costly. So I ended up renting a house in the West End across from Hyde Park and put a studio in the living room. I’ve just been collecting equipment over the years and bought a couple essential things that I needed in addition to what I already had in order to start the process. An engineer from New York who I’ve worked with a bit before came to live with me. On the previous projects I had to engineer myself a lot, and so I was really looking forward to this new arrangement.
Mind you, I was going from a basement to a house and had never experienced that before. At the beginning stages, I guess it was like early January, I was just setting up furniture and the studio. And then my engineer joined me, but it really happened quite quickly where we were affected by the pandemic. It worked out for about a month and then things changed. He went back to check on his family and then couldn’t get back.
The narrative around your last album was that your recording process was already fairly insular. You write and record almost all the parts by yourself. I’m curious, then, how the pandemic may have changed your approach?
It was a gift and a curse, because a lot of the time previously I had done so much myself out of necessity. I would bring people in to replay certain things sometimes, but I’ve always enjoyed producing the records and am very particular when it comes to sound design. Coming to this project I had some help, but those earlier records really prepared me to be able to do it myself. So when things were locked down, it wasn’t like I had a studio booked out and that was canceled on me and we had to halt all recording, or like I didn’t have access to any equipment. I was fortunate enough to kind of have already had that foresight. Just because it does come from that sense of being able to control your circumstances, right? Like, even behind me, I’m in my room and at any given moment I can go do it. I don’t have to rely on someone to open the studio for me.
But on the flip side, there’s a difference between staying home because you want to and being forced to stay home, and not having any type of relationship to the outside world at that time. So it was also really difficult psychologically. And also there was more pressure on me because it’s an album, and there’s some expectations. There were a lot of feelings I had to deal with by myself.
What does the concept of a debut mean to someone like yourself, who has been writing and recording for a while, and has already released a couple EPs?
It definitely means a lot. Especially when you’re doing a lot of the lifting for it — like, you’re playing, writing lyrics, producing, sitting with the mixes, etc. — each song can take a lot of energy out of you. So when I think of the “debut,” I do see it as more of a commitment. It was something that I’ve never done before.
And, honestly, it is very rewarding in the sense that I kind of got it out of the way. Not to degrade the music, but more so I see it like climbing a mountain and getting to the top and achieving that goal. There’s something that changes within you when you do that. So as far as that separation, Semblance is a complete body of work with no shortcuts, and I feel I made a lot of music after that because I knew that I could get through that process.
How do you feel your sound has evolved on Semblance relative to Some Place Else or Heaven’s Only Wishful?
The most distinct difference is that I am dealing with themes like romantic feelings in ways that I kind of shied away from in the previous projects. It’s equally introspective, but there were more obscurities and abstractions in my past work. I was more willing to tie things together that fit a feeling or mood, but it didn’t necessarily have to be this complete narrative. I think the music and the mood would put you in a place spiritually, but with this style of writing it is more like, this is what happened, you know? I really was trying to deal with more direct writing. I wanted to explore new ground to keep it interesting for myself. I just saw it as a series of challenges that I had to believe would lead me to somewhere new.
In what ways did you surprise yourself on the album? Did parts of you come out that you were shocked to see?
“Days End” really shocked me, and “Better At Letting Go” for the same reason, in my directness in confronting romantic relationships. I truly had never done that. And I think what’s surprising is a lot of the songs were written before I actually split up with my partner at that time. So it was almost like these feelings were subconscious, that I knew this thing was coming to an end. I think in retrospect it really surprised me in how much I just felt was coming, and I was able to have this premonition. Because I'm writing so much from — almost channeling from — a subconscious place, sometimes lyrics pop out and it’s really revealing, not just for this record, but I think with “Outside,” too, that would happen a lot. Some of those lyrics came out the first time I ever sang the melody. And I remember feeling like it was really jarring and difficult to deal with. I tried to change that lyric a lot and it just… nothing else felt authentic. So that’s kind of how that came to be. And I think there are moments that, in terms of progression, I realized because I wrote that and dealt with those feelings, I was able to do “Days End,” you know?
There are some songs also that didn’t make the record that I will probably release at some point, but are just really vulnerable in that way where it was awkward to record. Like, I recorded a lot of the vocals in London, I was singing them in front of people and it was really… like, my engineer literally cried.
I know journalists can run wild with a theme that then carries from review to review, but there was this impression that you broke out almost accidentally, and were almost uninterested in the attention that came with having musical fame. Tell me if that feels right or wrong, but I’m curious how you are feeling about it now that it’s been a little bit of time since your last release. You’re putting out your debut and getting back into the music media machine. How is it being out in front of people again?
It’s a good question, and your assessment is absolutely true. The “Heaven’s Only Wishful” video I’d made got passed around without me really knowing. And based on my personality, I think at that time there was a lot of friction because… obviously, like, I wanted to make music and present it in the way that I wanted to, but when certain things actually happen it can be a bit nerve-wracking. Because I don’t think I am really someone who seeks attention. Even as a kid, I would sing just for myself. Music was something that would get me through. I wasn’t really a performance artist, you know? I could easily just be in my room playing music.
But, actually, one of the only positive elements of the pandemic was that I was so shut in and insular that I’ve actually become much more comfortable and social. Like, even interviews, I was so shy and so distrusting of people in the music industry when they would come towards me. Or even people in my own community sometimes. And some of it is valid, but for the most part I think my perspective slightly changed in the sense that I’m still as aware, but I’m a little less guarded. Someone actually has to do something for me to react and be closed off rather than already having that approach from the jump.
As you’ve had more exposure, are there forms of collaboration you’d be interested in for future projects? People you’d like to work with?
I'm working on a secret thing now with a couple people. But other than that, I don’t know. That was a question I used to get, even outside of interviews, and I didn’t ever really have a direct response. Because I think it’s so in the moment. It’s almost like I admire people too much or something. I would say that — maybe like Thom Yorke. But then to actually do it would be a cool experience, but might not be the thing that works, you know?
I gravitate maybe more so towards being a producer as a potential thing. But I’m waiting for that. I think that’s something I want to do when I’m a little bit older. Right now I’m so immersed. I’m really involved in all of the aspects. I’m not one of those people who is a great multitasker. So I feel like when I do something, I really wanna do it to the fullest. But it is something I really hope to do in the next little while.
Pranav Trewn is a general enthusiast and enthusiastic generalist, as well as a music writer from California who splits his time between recording Run The Jewels covers with his best friend and striving to become a regular at his local sandwich shop.