Mozart’s Sister


Text by Claire Bargout, pix by Claire Milbrath

Caila Thompson-Hannant enters my Buick smelling of Hermès and smiling like an old friend. We’ve met a couple times, always in the thick fog of a Montreal afterparty, screaming introductions. We are little more than strangers, but I’ve spent months dancing around my apartment and singing along to her solo project, Mozart’s Sister. With her feverish hooks and boldly girlcore lyrics, Caila makes the kind of music that demands a fan-girlish response.

We’re meeting up to talk about her forthcoming album, Being. As the name suggests, the album is largely about identity, introspection and isolation. Caila has called it “a fracture…a wave of light and dark” and tells me that “it was mostly about being an individual and being conflicted.” She describes the catalyst of the project as a period of personal disillusionment involving a break up from both a boyfriend and a band. “Everything around me had [dissolved], and I just felt like the world was totally open. I was desiring and everything was so beautiful. It was manic.” This sense of solitude and self-evaluation filters through the speaker in Caila’s songs: “I took myself for a ride, but I didn’t know me and me would get so tight…I couldn’t feel myself till I was alone…I’m a lone wolf.”

Caila is as confident as her music would suggest. Effortlessly charismatic, she speaks candidly about the turbulent emotional landscape of her life at the time of writing Being. We drive to the old part of town and sit by the canal. It’s a fitting place to talk about an album rooted in negotiating conflicted identity. Once a utilitarian hub of trade and transportation, the old port is now a decorative novelty for tourists and deluded romantics (like myself) who are willing to pay five dollars an hour for parking.

As an artist who received considerable attention before the release of her debut EP, I’m curious about how Caila approached the writing of her first full album. “It was sort of a strange period,” she says, “because I’d really only written a few songs, and was getting all this attention but was still at the beginnings of developing the project.” She talks in depth about the more messy elements of her creative process, which she describes as “a bit of a minefield” that often consists of self-doubt, experimentation and re-evaluation.

“I still feel an urge to be really successful and I think a lot of artists do. But at the same time, that urge is an ego-based urge. It’s not really where the nectar lies in creation. The real nectar of creation is feeling this sense of your form disappearing. It’s like a disappearing of your ego itself in a way. At least it is for me. It is a feeling of tapping into something that isn’t you, it’s just something you’re participating in.” I ask her if she thinks her music is egoless. “No, I consider it to be ego-driven. But an ego that is questioning and self-reflexive. Or at least trying to be.”

I ask about the recording process, particularly the time she spent in London recording at the 4AD studio. “It was really great. It was really hard because I felt like I wasn’t at the place to be under the microscope like that. We were at this big 4AD/Rough Trade complex. Clearly my manager wanted me to be the next Grimes and I sensed that. Well, it was more then just a sense. She asked me if I wanted to be a ‘big thing’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to be huge, sure. But what does that even mean?’ It was really fun and really hard. In the end, I didn’t finish there. I came back and finished here. It was a long process of feeling things out.”

It’s not only refreshing, but also very cool to hear Caila speak without censor about this topic. From the very beginnings of Mozart’s Sister, media outlets have touted Caila as a Grimes protégéé despite the fact that in interviews with these very publications she has asserted, “I know I’m going to have to cope with a lot of comparisons but to me it’s so narrow-minded because [we’re] so different.” While the sonic identities of Caila and her fellow Montreal musician are quite different, they do share a philosophy regarding external interference from outside producers. Claire Boucher’s brilliantly on-point tumblr manifesto comes to mind, particularly when she declares, “I’m tired of the weird insistence that I need a band or I need to work with outside producers (and I’m eternally grateful to the people who don’t do this).” Caila has similarly stated, “I am a producer now. People see me as a singer, but I spend way more time on production than I would on singing or even writing now.”

Throughout our conversation, I am constantly reminded of why Mozart’s Sister is such an important nom de guerre for not only Caila’s music, but also her process. The name speaks to a complex history of the marginalization and enforced domestication of female artists. I think of Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic and obviously, of Virginia Woolf’s Room of One’s Own, which—with the rise of bedroom recording— seems to have evolved into a bedroom of one’s own.


Maybe we’re finally seeing a growth of contemporary female artists like Caila Thompson-Hannant, Claire Boucher, Molly Nilsson, Julia Holter, and the upsettingly small handful of other female musicians who opt to self-produce. These figures are bridging the historical gap between women artists and technology in a way that has really only been preceded by the rarest of breeds. I’m thinking of people like Kate Bush, who has been producing her own music since her 1982 album The Dreaming, and has frequently had to stand up against false depictions of herself as “some weirdo recluse” who is “not very mentally stable” simply because she shies away from the limelight (something expected of so many female musicians) and instead strives for the kind of private lifestyle that would earn any male musician the title of elusive genius.

Again, we return to Gilbert and Gubar’s madwoman: to seize total authority over creative authorship is to isolate oneself as a monster. At least, in theory. Through Caila’s self-contained musical process and the sonic landscape of Mozart’s Sister—at once a private diary entry and a public declaration—we see how this isolation can instead afford a freedom to produce. As we conclude our conversation, I offer to drive Caila to a bus-stop. She decides to take the subway on her own.