Alex Gow wanted his latest single to be sung by John Farnham. The former Oh Mercy frontman pitched the song for a new ‘Whispering Jack’ album, trying his best to emulate the singer’s broadstroke Australiana – even comparing a lover to “ANZAC Day, Grand Final eve” – but to his disappointment, never heard back.
“Can you hear him singing it?” Gow earnestly asks NME over the phone. “My words have always been too idiosyncratic. My publishers have an impossible task trying to sell my music to ads.”
Gow’s failed Farnsy anthem instead became something more faithful to his own idiosyncratic lyricism – and formed the basis of a brand-new project. On the resulting track ‘Time & Date NY’, he fixates on a long-distance relationship where he finds his partner “[falling] in love with yourself again, as a spider bit you on the a-h-h-r-s-e”.
The lyrical quirk might not be new to fans of Oh Mercy, but the sounds certainly are: a throbbing disco beat, Bootsy Collins bass and a hushed voice. It’s like the dance revival that swept the 2020 charts (think Dua Lipa and Jessie Ware), if the pop stars were stuck in a Collingwood bedroom with a midi keyboard.
“I’m just trying to carve out a little bit of satisfaction and purpose in my life at a time where it’s difficult to find elsewhere”
In the middle of last year, Gow became Perfect Moment, ditching Oh Mercy – an ambiguously solo/band venture that ran 15 years, five albums and an ARIA award (one he coincidentally beat John Farnham out for) – with all the fanfare of a vague Facebook post.
He dropped an eponymous EP, but sparse interviews and no live shows foiled a proper introduction to the veteran troubadour’s fresh nom de plume. But this Friday, the debut Perfect Moment album ‘Kangourou’ will flesh out Gow’s new narrative.
The songwriter’s aesthetic previously chimed with the pastel suits and linen shirts his Australian indie pop forebears The Triffids and The Go Betweens wore. The mainstream industry’s introduction to Gow – his acceptance for Best Adult Contemporary Album at the 2015 ARIAs – was a good a distillation of his personality as any: as he walked on stage, Gow interrupted the presenters to introduce himself personally off-mic, noting he had not met them before.
‘Kangourou’ reinvents Gow (whose former project is named after a Bob Dylan album) as a kitsch bedroom producer sifting through the wreckage of a romance for the quotables. Asked what changed between Oh Mercy’s 2018 album ‘Cafe Oblivion’ and Perfect Moment, Gow only says, “I’m just trying to carve out a little bit of satisfaction and purpose in my life at a time where it’s difficult to find elsewhere.”
But he is clear about one thing.
“It’s important to me to let the record show that a shift from Oh Mercy to Perfect Moment wasn’t a calculated move,” Gow says. “If you were just to read a headline – and this headline would be more or less accurate – ‘the indie-folk indie pop songwriter goes electronic’ or something like that – but um, that implies a cash grab.”
“With ‘Deep Heat’, I lost and alienated an enormous amount of my fanbase. But I gained a sense of autonomy and agency, so well worth it”
Oh Mercy began as the teenage musical project of school friends Gow and Thomas Savage, debuting with triple j Unearthed on 2009’s ‘Privileged Woes’. The pair would soon split, and it became more Gow’s brainchild alone, but the quippy soft rock template stuck. Soon, Gow began to resent his public image.
“I started to get lumped in with a particular brand of Australian songwriting which I didn’t feel represented me. I didn’t want to be seen as just a Sunday session acoustic guitar dickhead, I felt a bit more creative than that,” he told the Herald Sun in 2018.
The riposte to those pigeonholing him was 2012’s ‘Deep Heat’, a shit-hot mix of R&B and white boy funk with nude Brazilian carnival dancers on the cover. Gow would never return to the same sound again, but it laid the foundation for the experimentation of ‘Kangourou’ almost 10 years later.
“I lost and alienated an enormous amount of my fanbase. But I gained a sense of autonomy and agency, so well worth it,” Gow laughs now.
‘Deep Heat’ and ‘Kangourou’, Gow says, “are both all about the drums, bass and the vocal, with everything else as decoration to the groove. ‘Kangourou’, though, felt like a gentle, thoughtful process rather than the maniacal existential crisis that was ‘Deep Heat’.”
Gow wrote the new record on acoustic guitar and piano before transmuting it into bedroom disco, largely by himself. He used a boilerplate “Dance Kit” in the recording software Pro Tools to create many of the sounds, even using the same thumping disco beat on the entire record, albeit with changes in tempo.
“People are too fearful to use the standard drum package because they assume those sounds are a bit ubiquitous and therefore to be avoided. But they’ve done such a great job of avoiding them, they’ve rarely been used before,” Gow explains.
“It’s an audacious move, and something that makes me grin. And when I’m making music, if I’m not making myself kind of grin a little, I feel like I’m not doing a good job.”
The grinning production marries well with the songwriter’s jocular one-liners: “Everyone is talking about your Rembrandt hands” (‘Infinite Attraction’), “I’m a nocturnal odysseus” (‘A Beautiful Fluke’). Doing yoga in the middle of Australia’s worst ever fire season? That’s a ‘Bushfire Ballet’.
“Lyrically, I’m covering the breakdown of an important relationship. Although that is somewhat clouded, if not completely eclipsed, by the presentation of the music and the production,” Gow concedes. “I’ve always been really interested in that interesting marriage of early dance production and songwriting because it creates this third thing that is neither traditional songwriting nor dance music.”
Another audacious move is the album’s cover. ‘Kangourou’ bears Australian modernist painter Albert Tucker’s Apocalyptic Horse – a striking image of a gaunt stallion carcass, inspired by fellow modernist Sidney Nolan’s photographs of the drought he released while living in London. It speaks abstractly to the fractured relationship Gow and many local artists traditionally have with Australia, spending much of their recording life overseas in what they perceive to be “culturally richer” places.
“It’s like after a relationship breaks down and you can finally understand the problems you weren’t aware of at the time, but you also gain an appreciation of the mundane moments and the mediocrity of it all,” Gow explains.
“Because [Australia is] so fuckin’ far away from everything… when you open a book written by an American or European writer, we’re reaching. On this record, I’m luxuriating in the reach.”
Ultimately, distance makes Gow’s heart grow fonder. On ‘Who But You’, he sings “Don’t move to Sydney / Don’t leave to LA / I know you’ve always been a beach girl / But St Kilda is OK” – more lyrics worthy of John Farnham. And who knows, the ‘Whispering Jack’ near-miss might inspire Gow to shoot off a few more lines like that.
“Maybe I’ll make [ad] sync-ready music. Call it ‘Everything But The Kitsch-en Sink’. It’s not great, but it’s a start.”
Perfect Moment’s ‘Kangourou’ is out October 8 via Endless Recordings