With a voice that belies his tender years, Oh Mercy frontman and chief songwriter Alex Gow continues to defy expectations with each of his releases. At only 28-years-old, Mr Gow is on the cusp of delivering his highly anticipated fourth album, When We Talk About Love. A potent cocktail of Go-Betweens guitar pop, Whitlams-esque lyrical earnestness and lush, ‘70s instrumentation, it amplifies Mr Gow’s already formidable back catalogue. Having spent much of his recent life as a traveling troubadour, with extended writing stints in Nashville, Portland and New York City, Mr Gow returned to Australia to record his latest LP with legendary producer, Scott Horscroft.
Mr Gow has been on something of a personal mission to advance Australiana in all its forms across his recordings. His second album, the aptly titled Great Barrier Grief, featured ARIA-nominated artwork by cultural institution, Ken Done. He sings in a decidedly local accent. When We Talk About Love may be inspired by Raymond Carver novels, but nonetheless features a paean to ‘Lady Eucalyptus’. Mr Gow’s love of country and extraordinary talent has not gone unnoticed, having won both EG and AMP Awards for Outstanding Potential, as well as garnering four ARIA nomination, most recently for the superbly sensual Deep Heat.
If there was ever a time for Mr Gow’s star to fully ascend, it’s right now. But perhaps the most endearing quality he has as a writer and performer is his seemingly infinite drive towards creating more beautiful, engaging music. This is something that marches on regardless of sales or accolades, and it’s pushed Mr Gow to craft one of the most endearing albums of the year.
How has the group evolved since the last album?
I had a pretty consistent touring band for a long time, and the rhythm section of that band recorded with me on my third album, Deep Heat. After time away, on my own, after touring Deep Heat, I decided to put a new live band together. I recorded all the instruments on the album myself, except the strings, It felt like a good time to change things up. I have a viola player, Ceci, playing with me now, and that’s a real treat.
What changes do you think are identifiable in the Oh Mercy sound?
Well, all the albums have been different from one another. The last album, the third [Deep Heat] was musically bombastic, perhaps “colourful”. Bass- and drum-driven with a lyric sitting on top. My new one, When We Talk About Love, is a beautiful-sounding album. At least that’s what I intended to create. Maybe more than other albums it highlights my love of sixties-era pop music, Bacharach and such, with the notable addition of strings. I’ve never had strings before. Strings are a privilege. And bloody beautiful.
You mentioned in the press notes artists like Burt Bacharach, Leonard Cohen, The Triffids… how do these types of disparate touch points come together how did they influence the writing of When We Talk About Love?
Hmm, that’s maybe a tough one to answer. Because really, it’s a ridiculous statement on my behalf. But yes, those three artists are my favourites. I’m drawn to Leonard Cohen for his words: he is good at writing them. I attempted to write good words. Bacharach for his chords and strings, major and minor sevenths chords, which I used in the way he does; when they come in they really take over, and then the singer takes over and they retreat. As for The Triffids: they create simple, expansive and evocative music with an emphasis on the lyric, and I attempted to do that too. Arguably all three artists make romantic music.
Speaking of, why is the theme of love so central to the album?
I was in love and battling to maintain a loving relationship at the time. It was all-consuming and I was writing [at the time], therefore it made its way, well and truly, into the songs I was working on.
So it’s very much a personal record.
Yep, it’s really personal. God damn pathetic at times too. Like in the song ‘Let Me Be Him’. That was born out of a line from Leonard Cohen’s ‘I’m Your Man’. The line is, And if you want another kind of love, I’ll wear a mask for you. I was desperate, thinking, Jesus, if she could teach me to be this new person she loves, someone else, I’ll wear his mask, I’ll walk and talk like he does, anything, for a kiss and a wrestle.
You’ve said that you write the album in isolation – what’s your composition process?
When writing I benefit most from being on my own and having the time set aside to do so. If I am feeling healthy, jogging and reading, and have had a couple of lattes, I’ll usually get something done. If I’m finding it hard to get a start, I’ll often learn someone else’s song; that loosens me up.
I also noted that you wrote many more songs than are included – how do you go about selecting which tracks make the cut, and which don’t?
That’s right, I wrote and demo’d approximately 50 tracks. It was a difficult process. There was probably a ‘Deep Heat and a half’ in there, but I didn’t want to make the same album twice. At least not consecutively. The songs that felt the strongest were the personal ones. They were also the songs that seemed to encourage an emotion response from A&R at [Oh Mercy’s music label] EMI. I found the whole process pretty difficult. There are songs that didn’t make the album that I wish did, but luckily they’re not going anywhere. I have them recorded, they exist on my hard drive. They’ll be heard at some point, in some capacity.
How do you enjoy touring and all that goes with the release of an album, like self promotion?
Self promotion is often painful. I can’t say I enjoy it. But I guess it’s not that bad. Yes, I want to encourage people to take a listen to what I’ve made. I’m comfortable saying that I think it’s a beautiful album and some of the words are interesting. I think I’m writing better than I ever have, but of course I would think that. Jesus, I’m only 27, you would hope I’m writing better than I was. I worked really bloody hard on this one, so promote it I will.
Music production and distribution have so rapidly changed in recent years, and yet you still produce things like a vinyl. Are you a stickler for tradition, or do you straddle the old with the new?
Sure, I find romance in the tradition of making “albums”. I love listening to full albums, as the good ones can be heard as real works of art. Pressing vinyl, I love that, too. You get to print the artwork larger than a CD; that’s me sold right there. Plus it encourages a more active listen, which is the way I generally like to consume music.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
Something creative, I assume. I’m no good at painting, so we could rule that out. Or maybe I’d be a nurse like my mum.
Alex Gow was photographed by Rudolf Zverina on 12 May 2015 in Paddington, Australia.
Oh Mercy’s When We Talk About Love is out now via EMI Music.