by Amanda Mills

Matt Joe Gow & Kerryn Fields: Hearts Of Gold

by Amanda Mills

Matt Joe Gow & Kerryn Fields: Hearts Of Gold

Melbourne-based musicians Matt Joe Gow and Kerryn Fields are Kiwi country-folk troubadours and storytellers, with careers that have spanned over a decade, and half a dozen albums as solo artists between them. After teaming up two years ago as a live performance duo the pair are about to release a debut album together, and support ‘I Remember You’ with an Australasian tour. Amanda Mills learns the story.

He has built his singer-songwriter career in Australia since the late noughties, but former Dunedinite Matt Joe Gow remains strongly connected to his roots, and considers the city woven into his songs.

“We play shows there now and people like Martin [Phillipps] from The Chills will be at the shows, people that I’ve looked up to since I was in high school. I grew up thinking that you could do this… there was an open-minded mentality to being a musician and to being in a band.”

Kerryn Fields hails from the King Country.

“Te Kuiti’s where my dad is and Tauranga’s where my mum is… it depends on who I’m bragging to when I say where I’m from,” she laughs.

Both come from backgrounds where music was encouraged by their mothers.

“Our kindergarten teacher played the guitar, like my mum,” Fields smiles .”One of my earliest memories was going, that’s exactly what I want to do… I want to play guitar.” Gow has a similar story.

“My mother encouraged me to be musical, and then, through her record collection… I would listen to those records and we would enjoy them together. It was a way that we connected. Later in life, she was always very supportive. So it was a way, and remains a way, that I can feel close to her.”

The pair have been making waves in the Australian alt-country and folk scenes – both have recently won Music Victoria awards for their solo work and were nominated for three country music Awards in NZ for unreleased songs, winning the MLT Songwriting award in 2023 for Gow’s song Whirlwind, their next single. Gow is also a finalist for Best Country Artist at the 2024 Aotearoa Music Awards, just weeks away when we talk.

Their friendship has flourished quickly since meeting at a Melbourne festival. Gow invited Fields to play at a show he was putting on with other musicians in 2021, as performing restrictions were beginning to loosen, though Victoria was still heavily gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Their chemistry at the show was evident to both, and it was a natural progression to team up as they move in similar worlds, musically.

“That moment for us… it was the radio station interview the week before that gig,” Fields recalls. “We came prepared with a song of each other’s that we could guest on, and it was just immediate in the studio… that feeling of playing with a musician for the first time in months, I felt so happy and comfortable,” she smiles.

Both on stage and in person, it’s clear the pair are on the same wavelength and have quickly forged a deep connection.

“I think with the foundation that we have, and the history, where we’re from, where we ended up, and what we went through… that whole plethora of different things coming together has made it very special,” Gow smiles.

The connection was established by the time of their first show together as solo artists, which was also Gow’s first show after his mother passed away.

“We were right by one another and it was like, ‘Ah, this is not music. This is big life stuff.'”

Their ‘I Remember You’ album had its beginnings in Aotearoa’s south, with many of the songs inspired or having an initial spark in Gow’s former home.

“We kicked it off in Ōamaru, but we were staying in Dunedin at Matt’s family home… on our very first tour together and we decided to make this record,” Fields recalls.

“It was a really moving time to be back in Dunedin, and for Matt it was very symbolic, and a lot of that narrative is woven into the record in its very special way. It might not be front and centre, but that home in that place and that story.”

For Gow, some of the album material came from dark and painful moments, where he was “…confronted with those moments and the confusion of trying to continue after that sort of loss.”

Here I’ll Be, was specifically written in the garden and references the influence of the our southern towns and landscape.

“On the last track on the record, you can hear the ferns and the mountains and rivers, and we kind of wove that all into the tracks,” says Fields.

Gow considers Black Sand the album’s centrepiece, a song that came soon after the death of his mother.

“I felt I hadn’t picked up a guitar for a time. As a songwriter I’ve always used that as a cathartic process for me… This being such a momentous and difficult transition, to go from losing the most important person, I knew that it would be forever in that song.”

He sent the initial idea to Fields, who was also writing a song of the same name.

“I’d gone through a very big, big loss myself and was grieving that. I’d been sitting on this concept of black sand and the place where you go when you’re grieving. Especially in NZ, there’s something about that untamed West Coast… it’s a great place to go with grief.”

The lyrics naturally delve into love and loss, and also the idea of home.

“We wanted to reconnect with our roots and where we’re from. We wanted to honour people we’d lost, and the path that we’ve been on.”

While Black Sand is emotionally central, No Trace may be the darker heart. A song of loss, No Trace has an extraordinary video directed by Fields that was shot at Pencarrow lighthouse in Wellington over three days. She literally dreamt up the idea for the video. “I had a dream about a lighthouse! I woke up in the morning and frantically googled lighthouses… I found Pencarrow.”

Investigating further, she discovered the story of lighthouse keeper George Bennett who lived there with his family. George drowned in 1855 with no trace of his body found, and his wife Mary became the first (and only) female lighthouse keeper in Aotearoa. The video is based on their story, and everything fell into place seamlessly – they were given keys to the lighthouse and arrived to film the video. Then Wellington’s notoriously changeable weather stepped in.

“That wasn’t easy,” Gow says, recalling the storm that came through. “We didn’t know the extent because we were in the lighthouse.”

The top of the lighthouse as it turns out. The video received NZ On Air funding, which the pair say they feel honoured by.

“This whole project was about pride of where we’re from. And so to take a real piece of history was just such a privilege.”

The song is a showcase for Field’s extraordinary voice, with Gow unusually taking the lead guitarist role.

“I felt that Kerryn’s voice would be the best vehicle for the song, and an opportunity for me to play guitar, and speak through that.”

The album speaks to the full spectrum of love and loss.

“We start with Your Heart Of Gold, and we finish with Here I’ll Be, this deeply spiritual song that is so intertwined into our country,” Fields explains. “There are songs that speak to that darker side, a harder side of love, where you’ve let go of your loss and you have to sit with it in a really hard way. Then there’s Prairie Song, which is a light hearted love song.”

Another lighter highlight is Love Ya Like I Can, a track with a syncopated rhythm which provided an opportunity to work with blusier elements. Gow had the song’s riff sitting unused for a while before Fields heard it and suggested some additions and the song came together. Playing the album tracks live before recording helped crystallise it.

“We knew that if we were going to record this album, and were going to do it in the way that we wanted to, then these songs had to be road tested,” Fields reasons. “We really wanted this record to have the mana and spirit, and connection to our whakapapa. We toured the absolute shit out of NZ last year, probably 35 or 40 dates!”

There’s been positive response to their singles in Australia and more locally they have a song appearing on the next series of TV’s The Brokenwood Mysteries. Choosing not to engage a publicist the pair have created a “hobby record label” for this project – aware they each have an established fanbase that this duo work could risk disrupting.

“We literally both come off massively successful records, and they both won Music Victoria awards… to then come from that and go, ‘Right, let’s just do a duo record,’ I guess some would see that as a bit risky,” Gow muses.

“A few people were like, “You don’t need each other, you’re basically on a roll as solo artists,” Fields agrees, adding, “We’re not doing it to play a game, we’re not hustling to win.”

The album was recorded in Melbourne at Andrew Pollack’s newly built recording facility called Woodshed Studios, on Bundure country in Eltham, Victoria.

“Had we not had the support from Andrew, hands down this record wouldn’t exist,” Fields admits. “We have no money to make a record in a year – it was an absolute community effort.”

Gow’s longtime friend and engineer Chris Elliott engineered and the experience was made easier as everyone involved was an experienced performer. ‘I Remember You’ differs from their solo work aurally in using a different sonic palette and recording the sound live, with acoustic instrumentation – double bass, mandolin, fiddle, lap steel, acoustic guitars and piano. As co-producer (with Andrew Pollack), Gow discussed with Fields what they wanted to achieve.

“I remember thinking the record is very honest and authentic, and we wanted to try and express that as genuinely as we could. That restriction was a challenge that I really enjoyed. There are two vocalists, and so we were singing in the room and I thought… ‘We’ll go with no process reverb,’ Gow recalls. “In the same way that artists did in the ’50s and ’60s. So when you hear my voice or Kerryn’s voice on this record, you can hear the room mics picking up that sound.”

There were hard decisions to be made around recording musicians too, given each have bandmates they’ve worked and toured with, Gow admits, though he enjoyed the co-producer role.

“We had to be really strategic about that and go pick our players! Switching the hat from songwriter and musician, then producer – it was a really fun experience. I’ve been playing music for so long, but having these people trust me to produce this body of work, it’s something I took very seriously.”

‘I Remember You’ captures the spirit of a debut album, with the energy in the performances and feeling around the recording.

“I think there was a confidence in this being its own unique project,” says Gow. “Because of that confidence this had its own distinct sound and… energy.”

Fields notes it also speaks to their solo work.

“That’s why we kept our names as well. We didn’t come up with a band name for lots of reasons. It really is a collaboration. In every song, and everything we do, we really lean on each other’s strengths. And we come together in such a powerful way that those things don’t exist in our solo projects, other things do.”

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