Three of the vibrant colours splashed across Alexander Gow's shirt are represented on the fruit platter in front of him. Endearingly, the Oh Mercy frontman confesses of being fruit-deficient, as if needing to justify his order's disparity from my Yirgacheffe latte. Despite being tucked away in an unsuspecting laneway, the cafe in which we meet on this warm mid-week afternoon is brimming with customers from all walks of life. Oddly enough, Grant Hackett is sitting a few tables away and accompanied shortly by several photographers; one of whom apologises for backing into my chair in his scurried enthusiasm. Fortunately, I refrain from making any segues between the champion swimmer and Oh Mercy's recently released sophomore album, Great Barrier Grief .
Gow's gentle and amiable nature mirrors the affecting sensitivity of Oh Mercy's music. The insightful singer-songwriter ends up neglecting/offering a generous portion of his fruit platter, often pausing to articulate his thoughts with sincerity and consideration.
Those who have witnessed Oh Mercy live recently would have noticed the absence of guitarist/co-songwriter Thomas Savage and his replacement, Simon Okely (formerly of The Preytells). Okely moved to Melbourne about a year ago to join Gow, bassist Eliza Lam and drummer Rohan Sforcina. The reasons for the lineup change lie in the band's hectic touring schedule and more importantly, Savage's desire to focus on writing music for Kins. Hence, it was no great surprise to Gow when Savage advised him of the decision six months prior to the recording of Great Barrier Grief.
"He was still happy to play guitar throughout the [second] record with me," Gow informs, "which is lucky for me, because he's an exceptional guitar player. Kins is his baby or his creation, so I'm just glad that he's working on something that he's 100% into, the way Oh Mercy means to me."
A transformative moment in Gow's life occurred when the singer-songwriter befriended The Panics prior to the recording of their 2009 debut album Privileged Woes; not only would The Panics' drummer, Myles Wootton, end up producing Oh Mercy's debut record but the quintet drew Gow into their inspirations and expansive musical knowledge.
"I suppose up until that point, I was just another person that liked Dylan," Gow explains. "I wanted to write songs like he did, but I didn't feel that singer-songwriter label suited me in any way. In hindsight, it's something that's synonymous with being an awkward teenager. Finding out about all these groups... The Triffids, The Go-Betweens, The Panics... that were interested in the same music as me, like Dylan and The Velvet Underground, who had a great understanding of emotions and their cultural identity as Australians and made music that was so unique, I knew that these bands would be my ticket to making music that I would be proud of. It sounds clichéd, but it changed my life and it changed the way that I look at music."
Recently Paul Kelly, another hero of Gow's, named Oh Mercy as a band that inspires him to write. "I consider him as my favourite songwriter and musician, so it's surreal," Gow asserts. "I try not to really think about it. I can't explain how happy it makes me feel. I think what it does more than anything is it gives me confidence in terms of writing music, knowing that I'm finally on the right path and what I'm doing is okay."
The writing process for Great Barrier Grief began the day Privileged Woes was completed and mastered. Funding was easier this time around as the band had picked up two significant music prizes for Privileged Woes: the $10,000 Qantas Spirit of Youth Award and the $15,000 Red Bull Award In Recognition of Outstanding Potential. It was enough to encourage Gow to contact his producer of choice, Mitchell Froom (Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello, Crowded House, Randy Newman), who - upon hearing Oh Mercy's demos - agreed to produce their second album. Working in Froom's home studio in Santa Monica couldn't have been a more divergent experience to the recording process of Privileged Woes, which was produced in Wootton's bedroom.
"Having a recording studio in the 'States with real instruments and musicians to indulge in, it allowed me to represent each individual sound with as much detail or restraint as I wanted, which, in turn, suited the kind of album that I wanted to make," Gow relates. "I wanted to make an album with very minimal arrangements and instrumentation - I think from an audio perspective, each individual sound can hold their own and being in a professional studio with professional engineers allowed us to do that.
"I met Mitchell one night about six weeks before recording and we talked about the instruments that we wanted. The first thing that I said was that I wanted a marimba, flute and congas and he said he hadn't heard anyone talk like that in a long time," Gow grins.
"At first, he was a little bit confused, but then I followed it up with a reference CD and he got it straight away. We both admire the '60s pop and r 'n' b music, where instruments like the marimba and congas are played. On the first day of recording, Mitchell had something in a corner of the room under a cloak and he ripped it off and it was this marimba that he bought, and he thanked me for giving him an excuse to buy one. It was this beautiful old $150 marimba... it was just nice playing real instruments as opposed to what we had to make do with the first one."
Great Barrier Grief abounds in Gow's evocative songwriting - defined by sensitivity, honesty, charm and wit - and his desire to draw out the richness in simplicity while revealing the universality of human complexities. It presents as a more fluid album than Privileged Woes due to its embedded theme of relational fragility, which moves beautifully between deep longing, wonder, guilt, weakness and respect. Gleaming guitars and marimba adorn the chugging rhythms of Stay, Please Stay while congas and jazz infusions embolden the rhythmic splendour of On The Run; Gow's dark wit is most palpable in Let Me Go; warmth permeates the flute-accompanying Hold Out Your Hand, whereas Blue Lagoon - arguably the album's most beautiful achievement - intertwines stirring emotiveness with a dreamy disposition.
For Gow, the title of their sophomore album, Great Barrier Grief, conjures the bittersweet aesthetic of Oh Mercy by infusing the sentiments of melancholy and pride, while serving as a broad statement on the album's central theme - the complexities of relationships - as well as alluding to the band's distinctly Australian sound.
The cover art for Great Barrier Grief was created by one of Australia's greatest painters, Ken Done - an artist that Gow believed would capture the boldness of his vision. "When I was in LA, I fell in love with their murals and I loved how vibrant and bold they were," Gow relates. "I thought that the more abstract, the more charming they were. Considering our first album cover was black and white, I wanted something that was visually quite different ... although if you compare the two albums, the pose and the shape of the female figure are quite similar. Once again, I was cheeky enough to go to the source for everything that I needed for the record. And luckily, he agreed to do it.
"He invited me up to his studio and his entire family sat on the couch opposite me... it was like a job interview to be adopted or something," Gow recalls with amusement, "but they all had very big friendly smiles on their faces. We spoke about art and literature... I always wanted a nude for the second album and I told him that... and after the interview we struck up some mutual respect quite quickly. I think I caught him on a good day. I try to block out any sense of wide-eyed awe because you can't think with that hanging over you. It's like with Mitchell - I wouldn't have had any work done. I knew that I had to show him what kind of a person I was."
Although Gow adores '60s records in which beautiful women grace the covers but have nothing to do with the actual recordings, would it be fair to say that his emphasis on placing women on Oh Mercy's album covers holds deeper meaning than that? "For sure - it does," Gow affirms. "I put woman on the platform that she deserves. I've always thought that even the band name is synonymous with that idea of 'good grief' - which, when you think about the words 'good grief', grief is an incredibly descriptive word and when a simple word like good is juxtaposed, it seems crazy but it works," he muses.
"For me, it represents that incredible power that woman has over me and over men. And it's something that needs to be celebrated and has been celebrated; Leonard Cohen celebrated it and countless artists have celebrated it. Even when reading Greek and Roman mythology, ancient poets did the same and it's just something that always spoke directly to me."
Gow asserts that he writes about what he knows - the beauty within the fragility and instability of relationships. "Understanding people in the way that they relate to each other is an ongoing process that will never stop until your mind decays and you no longer feel physically able to understand things anymore," Gow conveys. "I think it's important to respect and understand the integrity of what you're creating. Relationships are such complex, fragile and wonderful things - it's like 'good luck trying to capture that in a song', but the challenge has always interested me, and people that I admire like Paul Kelly have done it so well, and with such integrity and respect. I think you just have to really care about what you're doing and hopefully that will translate to the audience.
"I think even the amateur music listener can tell if the artist doesn't respect themselves as a musician, so I think the most important thing is to have pride and respect for yourself and what you're doing," Gow ascertains. "You can write about things as silly as whatever you like but you can always tell that there's some underlying pride or something... it's incredibly important to have an understanding and respect for what you're writing about." Indeed, Great Barrier Grief ascertains this driving belief.
As we walk out of the cafe, wincing from the sunlight, there's also a glint in Gow's eye. In the evening, Gow will perform The Triffids' Wide Open Road with Robert McComb at The Tote's SLAM Rally anniversary gig. The life of a singer-songwriter ... stirred and driven, Gow is carving his own unique pathway.
OH MERCY launch their brand new album Great Barrier Grief with a run of shows, including PUSH OVER 2011 at The Abbotsford Convent this Sunday March 13, along with Children Collide, Deez Nuts, Break Even, Dream On, Dreamer and heaps more - tickets and info from thepush.com.au. They then have their run of club shows, at Karova Lounge in Ballarat on Thursday April 7 (tickets from oztix.com.au) and then a triumphant hometown show at The Corner Hotel on Friday April 8 - tickets from The Corner box office, 9427 9198 and cornerhotel.com.
Great Barrier Grief is out now through EMI.