Oh Mercy’s When We Talk About Love tour that brings the band to Mojos on Friday, September 18, and the Rosemount Hotel on Saturday, September 19.
Oh Mercy’s Alexander Gow had been especially prolific in recent years, releasing the band’s second album, Great Barrier Grief, in 2011, and it’s follow-up, Deep Heat, only a year later.
However the band’s recently released fourth album, When We Talk About Love, came about via a much longer gestation period, with far more songs written for consideration from at home in Melbourne to New York, Portland and Nashville. Gow stretched himself as a writer and an individual on what has turned out to be a revealing and heartfelt release.
By BOB GORDON
In doing pre-release interviews you’re kind of forced to make sense of intangible things. Does the process provide a structure or context of life events for you?
Yeah, I’ve had to return to the album regularly. There was probably a period of three months where I didn’t listen to it, but since I’ve started doing interviews I’ve had to return to it to make sense of it, and be able to digest it so that I’ll be able to talk to music journalists in a coherent kind of way. And it’s nice to have to listen to it in that kind of way, because I’m picking up on aspects of it that I hadn’t in the past.
I made the album in 12 days, but having said that, I wrote it in 12 months. I’ve had a lot of time to think about the kind of record it was going to be and the way that I wanted to write the songs, but when I was recording the album I had no time to second guess anything. So, to be being forced to listen to the finished product has been pretty rewarding.
The last two albums came out pretty much within a year of each other, which is pretty close isn’t it?
It was pretty close, it was probably about 18 months, yeah.
And this is probably approaching just under three years. So what sort of difference has that amount of time made? Or has it not made any difference?
Well, I think just a more practical way, I wanted to write more songs. I wanted a larger pool of songs to select from this time, and that took longer. Previously I’ve written 12 songs and picked 10, basically. This time around I wrote just under 50 and selected 12, and to be able to have that kind of output I needed time to do it and the space to do it, and the space that I selected was that of isolation, more specifically in Nashville, Tennessee, and Portland, Oregon.
What songs made themselves known to you at first?
Well, to me, actually, when it came the time to select the songs for the record I was pretty nervous and anxious about the process because looking back on it now, my previous record was called Deep Heat and I think I have a Deep Heat and a half in those 45 odd songs. And I had the desperate romantic songs, desperate comma romantic, you know, and desperately romantic as well, I guess. I had that record, then I just had some bizarre songs that I couldn’t put my finger on, and with the help of the guys at EMI, they encouraged me to go and record the songs that moved them, songs where there was a really obvious emotive core and a sense of vulnerability in the writing. And that’s just the record that they thought was the strongest one of the lot, and as I said I was pretty confused to be honest, so any sort of guidance with the song selection was welcomed at that point and that’s the record we ended up making.
What was Portland like as a city to be creative in?
It was beautiful. If nothing else Portland is just very, very beautiful and easy. I actually didn’t end up getting much work done there which is why I ended up moving. It was a quality of life that was so good and so affordable. But I suppose if I was to talk about the momentum of Portland, there was a real lack of that, everything was so beautiful and charming and easy but I didn’t really feel encouraged to be creative, and that’s just me. I felt that once I got out of there and started to put myself in more challenging situations I started to get more work done.
Then you went to Nashville, where there’s music in the air; everyone I speak to who records or has done writing there can’t get over it. What was it like being able to write and demo in these cities and then come back home? Can you see how it may have broadened or allowed some more obtuse angles into what you were doing?
It probably didn’t influence the kind of song that I wrote, but it did encourage me to write in the first instance. In Nashville, a city with such momentum in it when it comes to music – and I really mean that I felt like I was stuck in the path of some kind of implied momentum – and that stems from the fact that you can go out at night and see some of the world’s greatest musicians at their instrument performing at any bar, any place and any time. You go to parties with young, hip, beautiful people, and then they put Townes Van Zandt song on and not some EDM song that I’m not going to like, that was really encouraging and inspiring.
So the song craft is still, well, I was going to say a currency, which I guess is kind of interesting in a couple of ways, songwriting is still legitimately a currency in Nashville with such a large industry, but it’s still also a currency socially and in a creative sense. To be there really encouraged me to hone in on songcraft and to be able to put it on a pedestal as something that’s a really wonderful thing to spend time on. I was really grateful for that.
Well, you’re an accomplished writer and musician obviously, but I guess when you go somewhere like that you’ve really got to back yourself and believe in yourself, some people could be pretty overwhelmed.
Sure, I think you can be overwhelmed in Antarctica if you had an internet connection, you know? But you’re right, there’s something about Nashville where you’ve got the people who are the best musicians in the world, and you’ve just got to back yourself. I’m a pretty ambitious person, I knew that I wasn’t making country music, that I was accessing a vocabulary that probably wasn’t native to Nashville, it helped to consider myself as a bit of an outsider – still interested in writing songs but not in the school of songwriting that everyone else was in.
That probably helps me to back myself and to not compare myself too often, too readily, to other musicians. I was one of very few Australians in town and I was still listening to my favourite Australian bands when I was over there and just trying to write half as good of a song as they have. Like Augie March, and Perth bands like The Panics and The Triffids, and getting an inspiration from that which I can’t say anyone else in Nashville was doing at the time. So I didn’t fall into the competitive nature of the town because I wasn’t really playing their game which I think ended up being really useful.
Speaking of The Triffids, I recall when you toured here in support of Great Barrier Grief tour and you got to meet the band’s Alsy (McDonald) and Jill (Birt) at Mojo’s. You ended up singing at one of their shows when they did the tribute to David McComb as one of the guest vocalists…
Yeah! So the Triffids ended up doing this tour with Mick Harvey and Rob Snarski from the Black Eyed Susans and Chad’s Tree, and we did a national tour and played out in South side of Perth and I think it was the Red Hill Auditorium, and The Church headlined and Ed Kuepper played and I was lucky enough to be one of the singers. As you said it went from one day being introduced to Jill and Alsy at a gig in Freo to being onstage singing literally in my favourite band and looking over my shoulder and seeing Martin Casey and Alsy and Rob, and Rob McComb who I was already friends with from Melbourne. I can’t even describe how wonderful it was, it gives me chills thinking about it. I’m really fortunate that that’s as good as it’s going to get and I’m pretty pleased with that.
It’s been noted how this is your most personal work and least self-conscious; what do you think it takes to get to that point where the self-conscious part is absent or at least minimised?
I think there’s a beauty, in a sense, of abandonment when I felt like I was trapped in these really difficult situations where I was on my own in American. Some monumental hurdles were thrown in my path and I had to deal with them as best I could, and by the time you start with stuff like that you start writing in the way that you feel things is not a challenge anymore; it’s not anything to think about really, it’s just what I had to do out of self respect. At the end of the day there are things that are far more terrifying in life than writing a song about how you feel.
I spent a lot of time thinking about who I was and the decisions that I’d made and I had to write about it. I think that I was fortunate to be able to look at my life that way and I’d encourage other people to.
Then you could also argue that no matter what kind of words I wrote in this record it would’ve been criticised and pulled apart by those who cared to criticise and pull them apart. So with that in mind you may as well really bloody go for it and write something that’s important to you and have them criticise it rather than write vapid crap that you don’t really care about because that would be much worse.
Are there any songs that you’re particularly looking forward to – breaking them out and playing them on tour?
I think that Without You, the opening song on the album, is a really good representation of the songwriting to come on the rest of the album and also, in more specific audio and arrangement senses, it’s a really good representation of the album as a whole. Basically, just an acoustic guitar, some bass and drums barely existing in the song – it’s all about the words, and when I start singing the violins kick in with an interesting melody and then I start singing again and I drop back out. The whole song just kind of goes like that, and that’s fairly representative to the rest of the record and one that I’ve really enjoyed playing in rehearsal.
There’s also a couple of other songs, there isn’t a large band arrangement where there’s no drums etc, and the strings, I have a viola playing, Tracy Dowling, in my band now, which really brings to life that musicianship and that aspect of the songs. So those more bare arrangements really come to life and I’ve enjoyed rehearsing them as well.