Interview: Oh Mercy talk about love
Having recently released their new longplayer, When We Talk About Love, Oh Mercy are hitting the road in August/September. We talk to singer/songwriter Alex Gow to find out more:
Hi Alex and thanks for taking the time out to speak with us at Something You Said. Would you say that your new album When We Talk About Love is a straight evolution from your previous releases or a completely separate beast that doesn’t share much in common with its predecessors?
I would say that it shares things in common in that my personality is present in both of those things. I wouldn’t call it an evolution, an evolution implies some kind of sentiment. I think it is more of a representation of where I was at when I was 24 and I wrote the EP and 26 when I wrote this one. They were different stages of my life and I was kind of responding to what was happening in real time. So I think there are similarities, I wouldn’t use the word evolution, it’s just another part of the representation of me.
How far back do some of those songs stretch back? Is it all relatively all new material or have some of these songs been with you for years and are only now seeing the light of day?
Well there was a period of about three years between this album and the last one. In that period I wrote 45 songs and obviously I ended up picking 12 of those; 44 of those were new and written in that three year period. One was not, it was an old one and that song is called Lady Eucalyptus and that has been around for a while but all the other ones are new.
In choosing just a dozen tracks for 45, is it simply a case of your favourite 12, 12 with the best lyrics or 12 that are radio friendly… where do you draw the line?
Yeah it’s an interesting question. I found that process a bit difficult and employed the help from the people at EMI, the record label people who were putting the album out and my management to assist in that process because there is about three albums in that 45 that made sense somatically and musically and stylistically. I guess the songs that EMI ended up picking out of those 45 were the ones they themselves felt like they had an emotional response to and they were the strongest songs. The songs that ended up there were all fairly personal and autobiographical and they decided that it would make the strongest album. As I said, there is another couple of records with different lyrical content and approach in that lot.
What does this album say about you and the stage of your life that you are in right now?
Well I wrote all of these songs when I was physically separated from family and loved ones. I moved to America for several different reasons and ended up finding myself very isolated in Nashville, Tennessee asking myself the big questions and asking myself how it felt to be so lonely and the songs I was writing were reflections of where I was at emotionally and mentally. There was a lot of self-deprecation going on in these songs and I suppose a lot of vulnerability. In that context my life was vastly separated from family and friends which is what you hear in the songs which was an important stage in my life that I was at.
You played the bulk of the instruments for this recording. Was it a case of getting in touch with your solo roots or more appropriately related to the isolation and loneliness that is expressed lyrically?
Well, maybe it is a little less poetic. The reality of it was that I had 12 days and had to get it done. You could also argue that when I was on my own and dealing with these things in Nashville, I had demos and by the time it came to doing the final product I was very familiar with what needed to be done and had already recorded these parts, so I felt very confident that I could do all these sounds and I kind of wanted of singularity in the sound of the record and I felt that I could achieve that by literally doing everything myself. I wanted my personality and musical identity to be obvious.
As an artist changing emotionally and musically from album to album, do you find it hard or even redundant performing some of your earlier material when the person you are today maybe completely different from the person you were when you first put pen to paper?
Absolutely. I find that with every rehearsal and every show but I know I have to do my best.
Mitchell Froom was your producer on Great Barrier Grief, Burke Reid (of Gerling fame) produced your last album (Deep Heat) and for your new release you worked with Scott Horscroft. Is it a case of different horses for different courses with each producer bringing something unique to each recording or a simple case of time, availability and location that determines who you choice to work with?
Yeah that was the case with Deep Heat and Burke Reid. With Scott it was time and availability. Originally he was my A&R person an EMI so he was the person working with me, I was sending him demos when I was in Nashville and he would be encouraging me to write more and it was great because I could concentrate on that. As it turned out Scott had a studio up in Gosford, the central coast NSW and obviously has been producing records for the last decade until at one point the relationship changed and he did a really great job producing these songs so we hung out together and we did what we needed to do.
In listening to your beautiful single If You Come Around Tonight it made me wonder how do you find the transition as a songwriter to performer, when the songs you write about are a private and personal experience that is crafted in a place of solitude… to then performing these tender moments in a live setting in front of hundreds/thousands of people?
I’m finding it to be really difficult, even rehearsing it has been difficult. These songs are very personal, I am attempting to distance myself from the reality of the lyrical content. I think that is going to be the only way I can deal with it. I just have to trick myself into forgetting the relevance of the words otherwise I think it would be too much of an emotional burden.
The subject-matter you write is largely derived from your own personal experiences, how do you work with rest of the band in trying to get them to musically convey your emotions?
Well my band are pretty understanding that this is an important record for me personally and I think there is a level of respect they have for me and for the music, which helps. It’s not that their egos are enormous and they can’t convey the emotions I want to. Basically I had given them the album and said ‘feel free to add a bit of personality’. They are incredible musicians so it’s never been a problem and I am really impressed. It sounds different as I mentioned earlier on account of me playing all the instruments but at the live shows where there is six of us sometimes with all those individual musical personalities contributing, it sounds very different and I am really excited by that.
Paul Kelly is a big influence of yours and some of that Australiana shines through in your lyrics as well as your imagery (such as the track Lady Eucalyptus and the video Iron Cross). Did you find that you learnt more about Australia by being away from it during your time in the states than when you were living in Melbourne?
Yeah I think so. I learnt more about myself and learnt a lot being away. Being psychically removed gave me literally a different perspective to think about the country I have spent 27 years in and the people that have made me the person I am. It’s an interesting thing, when you are involved and are in the thick of it you tend to take it for granted, I know I probably did and I am not just talking about the beauty of Australia, I suppose I am talking more about emotionally when it comes to relationships. Being separated, being in Nashville, it seems like an unlikely place to make an Australiana record but I was feeling lonely and I was listening to The Triffids records, The Go-Betweens and Paul Kelly. I was thinking about home and therefore I wrote about it but I don’t think I would have done that if I was living in my parents’ spare room.
When you tour, you tend to have a pretty jam-packed schedule. Do you find touring to be inspirational whereby it helps you write and create more material or are you so focused on the task at hand that writing and creating new material takes a back seat?
It depends on my frame of mind and my health at the time. Lots of it is just waiting at airports, staying at crappy hotels and jamming six people into a four seater vehicle, that sort of thing. Sometimes if I am feeling the right way that can be inspiring and other times it is just something that needs to be endured. I haven’t done serious touring in about three years so I am really excited to get back on the road and I have lots of friends all around the country I look forward to seeing and I suspect that I will find it beneficial this time round.
What does music give you that nothing else does?
I am hesitant to say that nothing else does this, a great painting can move me in this way too, but I just think that when I listen to a really beautiful recording, a great song can take you to a place where nothing else can. I was thinking about this the other day… ‘why am I making music?’ and I guess it is because you can make something beautiful. Something that beautiful has a life of its own and is better than sitting in front of the heater when it’s cold or pushing trolleys at Safeway or whatever it is. When something is that beautiful, it is really obvious and is inspiring. It makes your brain go fuzzy and looking at a great painting can do the same and if I can tap into that, it is what keeps me going.
What does the rest of 2015 have in store for you?
I look forward to writing some music, I haven’t done too much of that this year after writing 45 and writing the record and giving myself a break. I am ready to start writing again and looking forward to the album tour.
If you’re in Australia, you can catch Oh Mercy on tour at the following venues…
Saturday, 22nd August – Howler, Melbourne
Friday, 28th August – Oxford Art Factory, Sydney
Saturday 29th August – Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle
Friday 4th September – Woolly Mammoth, Brisbane
Saturday 5th September – Darwin Railway, Darwin
Friday 18th September – Mojos, Fremantle
Saturday 19th September – Rosemount, Perth
Interview by Courtney Dabb.