For O & The Mo the imminent Covid restrictions forced their hand, altering their plans, lifestyle and the music they wrote along the way. The band’s core of Alvin Bartley and Olivia Gallagher created their debut album, the dreamy ‘In Transit’, from Nelson over the lockdown winter months of 2020, working remotely with their Wellington bandmates. Ben Mollison caught up with Liv (the O) and Alvin (the Mo) ahead of the album release.
Combining elements of lo-fi and indie rock, O & The Mo is a project formed in Wellington that combines the talents of Alvin Barley (guitar, vocals), Liv Gallagher (vocals, synth, guitar, glockenspiel), drummer Josh Brown and Hugo Olsen-Smith on bass.
A partnership which began over a mutual love of music from Sixto Rodriguez and Kamasi Washington, to local artists like Connan Mockasin and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, the group has been together for two years. Alvin and Liv are the principal songwriters, originally bringing their individual offerings to the group, before discovering chemistry as collaborative co-writers.
“When we started Alvin would come to me with a full song and then I tried to put stuff over it, and it just didn’t really work as well,” says Liv. They now take a joint approach that typically starts with minimal guitar riffs, figuring out vocal melodies and gradually adding layers.
“I guess once we are confident with a verse/chorus, we present it to the band and we give quite a lot of responsibility to them on nailing the drums and the bass,” continues Alvin. “Often we’ll have an idea, but they compose their parts.”
The band’s progression has been gradual. In 2019 the group released two singles – Flying Man and Supermarket Kings. The first indeed feels like a trip through the clouds, with woozy, chorus-heavy guitar and echoing vocals. Its follow-up was more a ‘light-hearted attack’ on modern consumerism according to Liv.
“I guess we’d done as many shows as I thought we could with two singles and we always listened to albums, so we figured it was time for us to give making a whole, complete body of work, give that a shot,” Alvin explains, Liv backing him up in saying they’ve both always valued full-length albums.
“Singles are a great way to sort of get started and release stuff when you’re still finding your feet as a songwriter. But I think [there’s a] challenge and also excitement of releasing something that tells a longer story and is meant to be enjoyed in its entirety, rather than just a song that comes on shuffle. Sort of an experience, curating an experience.”
With six songs ready to be recorded, O & The Mo were on the cusp of creating an album and considering a move from their Wellington base when Covid-19 hit and plans changed.
Scheduled March shows with Dunedin band Juno Is were canned, leaving Liv and Alvin to make some quick decisions.
“It was like the weekend before lockdown happened,” recalls Alvin. “Because those shows were cancelled we had a bit of time just to go away and think about what was going on with Covid-19. We thought it would be safer to not be in the city while there was a global pandemic going on, and so we pretty much just packed up our flat in 24 hours and boosted down to the South Island.”
Three months isolation at a family-owned property in Kaiteriteri, near Nelson, opened out ahead of them. The time was used to work on more material for the album. Liv had been studying and living in Wellington for six years, while Alvin was born and bred there. The songs became a means to track their time in the city; the busy, often conflicting tasks of working, studying and creating music, and the drastic changes of their new beachside setting.
“The album’s called ‘In Transit’, so it really speaks to the idea that we are kind of on hold and waiting to see what happens, and at the same time using that for reflection on how the journey has been so far with music and with ourselves,” explains Liv.
The pair recorded demos to send for Hugo and Josh to layer over drums and bass.
Meetups post-lockdown allowed time to record and retrack further drum takes, while Hugo recorded all of his bass parts from home. They laid out the six songs they had, finding spaces to fill in the rest of their ongoing story of being ‘In Transit’. The pair shifted to an earth-built house with clay walls which acted as a makeshift studio where they recorded the majority of the album.
With gear loaned by sound engineer Dale Cotton, they worked on the album’s recording and production – an area in which both of them were still learning.
The sounds of Delaware Bay in Nelson and the natural acoustics of the clay house acted as a backdrop to the album.
“We wanted to capture the sound of the space we were recording in. Like on the final track Goodnight, that was recorded with a beautiful ribbon microphone on a night where we had the fire going and it was raining. Alvin recorded quite a bit of guitar outside so there’s all like sounds of flies and birds.”
From those who have listened to their new music so far, ‘homely’ and ‘nostalgic’ seem to be recurring feelings it conjures up.
“I think we imagine this as a record that you would listen to at home so I think it has kind of a homely and warm feel,” says Alvin. “There are quite a lot of ambient recordings in there, whether it be outside noise or inside noise – rain, fire…”
Two further singles – Pistachio Moon and Overtired – were produced collaboratively with Dale Cotton then mixed by him, the rest of the album mixed by Connor Jaine of Mako Road. Aside from these contributions the songs were written, produced, and arranged through extensive experimentation by Alvin and Liv.
Their new environment proved ideal to listen intently to the recordings and envisage the sound they were looking for. Nelson will remain their base while travel remains off the table.
“I think it’s been such an interesting time to really appreciate how lucky we are and how many amazing spots there are around the country – especially rural areas that don’t often get heaps of music. A goal for us is to take our sound to those communities and play all sorts of gigs, create some intimate performances and experiences for people with music,” finishes Liv.