IT’S ONLY NATURAL
In seemingly no time at all, OH MERCY has emerged with album number two and it’s already being touted as one of the year’s finest. ALEXANDER GOW jumps on the phone to BEN PREECE to discuss Great Barrier Grief.
From the get go, it’s apparent that Oh Mercy’s Alexander Gow was going for something a little more timeless and, well, Australian for the outfit’s second record. For a start, it’s titled Great Barrier Grief and the remarkable play on words is impressively topped with Ken Done artwork and a sound that can only be described as coming from the land Down Under.
As Gow explains, this is no accident – when Oh Mercy completed over 18 months of touring off the back of their exceptional debut Privileged Woes that saw the band play almost 200 shows and about 100,000 kilometres of road (including a jaunt alongside Crowded House), he was certain that he needed a thicker sound with fuller instrumentation to make his forthcoming tales of the “young middle-class white boys” to life.
The new phase, however, came with the departure of founding member and co-songwriter Thomas Savage who’d had simply enough of touring. Following a stint at South by South West in 2010, Gow remained in New York for eight weeks, accumulated 30-odd songs and eventually attracted the attention of producer Mitchell Froom, suggested to the band by a mutual friend.
“A few months before the recording of the record, Thomas decided he didn’t want to tour anymore so I had to take on the chief songwriting responsibilities, something I found exciting and a challenge,” Gow explains. “Once in New York, I sub-letted a basement room in a flat in Brooklyn and had the recording set up and I wrote a few new songs, corresponded with Mitchell and worked on arrangements of all the songs. I went through all the demos – a tremendous amount of demos – trying to get my head around how an album might flow dynamically. Once deciding on those songs, we honed in on arrangements. I guess it was a time of pre-production in a lot of ways, I was locked in my little dark room getting excited about making a record.”
As life progresses, lessons are learnt and, for an artist, lessons learnt between a debut and record number two are important ones. You might recognise the flaws your first contained or, in direct contrast, the second might not possess the zest the first had now that more awareness has been raised. For someone who has seemingly not set a foot wrong in his musical career yet, Gow recognises the fact that he simply wants to grow.
“It’s hard to put my finger on it,” he confesses. “I’d like to think I’ve developed as a human being and my understanding of myself and of other people and, therefore, would like to hope that my songwriting has become a little stronger. I wanted to make an album that was more sophisticated and I did want to grow up a little bit which you can’t help doing and, while the clock’s ticking, I am trying to write songs that, I suppose, I’d like to think got a little better. I’d like that to continue developing. I can’t put my finger on anything I’ve necessarily learnt since Privileged Woes, aside from feeding my desires to write songs and get better at writing songs. This time my resources were fundamentally different – I had a recording studio as opposed to a bedroom so they are very different records for that.”
With an execution as effortlessly cool as ever, the sound Oh Mercy make on Great Barrier Grief is so focussed, so Australian and contains such an underlying sexual tension that it could almost be deemed calculated if it were not for the sincerity of Gow as a singer and songwriter.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s calculated, I would say that I am conscious of it and have a pretty good understanding of how to control it but to call it calculated it makes it sound sterile which is not necessarily the case,” he reflects. “I’m only doing what comes natural to me and what I’m interested in is that sexual tension – I love that there’s a nude woman on the front because I love how women look, I adore them. I am writing an album as a young man and I suppose I can only write about what I know and what interests me so that tends to come out naturally. I’ve always respected that in an artist, listening to a Leonard Cohen or someone like that and understanding the way his music affects people. It’s so satisfying to hear him singing about sex and it seems like it’s a fine line to tread without being overt or pretentious or without purveying some sort of bravado or something like that. It’s a tough concept to tackle as a songwriter or an artist and that tightrope is interesting because you can quite easily get it wrong and it’s cringe worthy when it is wrong.
“The thing I am most proud of is that I didn’t let myself be fooled into double tracking instruments – there are no double tracked vocals, which lots of people do because it can be really effective and it sounds fantastic. But I know personally that I hide behind a double track so nothing on this entire record is double tracked, even the acoustic guitars are single tracks which I think is fundamental to the sound and the effect of the album in that there is not much going on. That was hard to do because I’m a human being, I get anxious and you want to make things sound appealing as possible – you want people to like it and are desperate for people to like it but to have the control to leave things as simple as I did is something I am really proud of. I probably lost a few hours sleep over it worrying but I am glad that it got mastered without any intrusions.”
Great Barrier Grief will remain one of the great Australia records for 2011. Already with a pair of radio hits – Stay, Please Stay and Keith St. – the album brims with tracks that proves that real songwriting isn’t dead. Paul Kelly recently name dropped Oh Mercy as one of the bands inspiring him to return to writing songs.
“It’s incredibly surreal to hear that,” Gow admits humbly. “Not only is he one of our great songwriters, he’s one of my favourites. It’s incredible, I don’t necessarily believe him and it’s lovely of him to say – he’s an incredibly talented guy and one I admire immensely. But my reaction is as you’d imagine – surreal and incredibly satisfying. It certainly helps me in my enthusiasm and dedication in writing.”
The release of Great Barrier Grief sees Gow and his touring band out on the road covering the country with a setlist of old and new. While the studio is mostly a solo endeavour for Gow, he looks forward to seeing his touring outfit come together for on-the-road shenanigans.
“They’re my best friends and they understand the decisions I make when making records,” Gow explains. “I talk to them about it and they’re very involved and supportive. They’re proud and happy to be playing music. We’re all really close friends and I think you can see that when we play – they’re cool.”
WHO: Oh Mercy
WHAT: Great Barrier Grief (EMI)
WHERE & WHEN: Neverland Bar, Gold Coast Thursday Mar 31, Alhambra Lounge Friday Apr 1