When Melbourne duo Oh Pep! released their debut album Stadium Cake in 2016, they were quickly tagged “indie-folk,” a catchall phrase for acoustic music tinged with pop production, or just lo-fi folk-rock that’s not widely received. But indie-folk doesn’t feel like the right classification anymore. In fact, no one piecemeal subgenre feels applicable to Oh Pep!’s new record, I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… (released Oct. 26 via ATO), which is at once delicious pop music and bluegrass-adjacent folk. But, at the same time, it transcends both of those classifications. The opening ballad, “25,” is a string-reliant melody reminiscent of a classic Hollywood movie score. “Hurt Nobody” is a a deep-cutting emotional rendering, while album standout “What’s The Deal With David?” is the sonic equivalent of running through a glossily shelved candy store. I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… is everything wonderful about good, crunchy pop music and everything marvelous about mindfully arranged folk compositions.
That’s the beautiful result when two classically trained musicians—in this case, Olivia Hally and Pepita Emmerichs, who met while attending performing arts high school in Melbourne—trick their acoustic instruments into sounding like pop produce. It’s not like Hally and Emerichs woke up one day and decided they were going to become pop music’s folk saviors, but the arrival of their expertly softened sparkle at a time when radio pop is so often besprinkled with hollow edm beats and Chainsmokers collaborations is a welcome dissent from the norm.
“I play fiddle and mandolin, so they’re not really pop instruments, but we put them into that context without a second thought and not treat them like mandolins or fiddles—just treat them like guitars or synths,” Emmerichs says. “They come out with a little different sound, but it’s still pop music.”
There’s undeniable pop at the core of I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You…’s acoustic structures. “What’s The Deal With David?” sparks with scratchy acoustic guitar before completely combusting, like a glitter cannon might. Sparkly pop production takes over as Hally sings, “Electricity runs down your spine.” What started out as a real-life conversation between Hally and Emmerichs about their respective love lives is transformed into a neon-tinted dance number.
Oh Pep!’s sophomore record is darker, too, a slight pivot from their eager, enormously bright debut. While recording their second LP, a stressful task for any artist trying to live up to the pressure of a well-received opening number, Hally and Emmerichs fixated their attention on writing good songs and getting better at being a band. In the end, I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… was a self-actualized record, a 10-song representation of what they’d been striving for since Hally and Emmerichs partnered up a decade ago.
“We have this instrumentation that might look like a folk band, but then in our hearts we’re playing pop music,” says Hally, who plays guitar and writes most of the lyrics. “At the time when we were doing Stadium Cake, that’s what pop music was for us as a band, and now flash forward to this record, we’re kind of further into that. I think it’s just fully embracing what we’ve always wanted to do.”
Listen to Oh Pep!’s 2017 Daytrotter session:
That first encounter a decade ago was happenstance. Emmerichs was walking the halls of their shared high school when she breezed by the guitar-toting Hally, who invited her to hop on stage for a song. Within the first few months of collaborating, Hally and Emmerichs, who bonded over their shared love for songwriters like John Prine and Lucinda Williams, decided they wanted to be in a band. And they wanted to do it for a living.
“We were already studying music, and I think in both of our minds we were always going to be professional musicians,” Emmerichs says. “I remember writing down with Liv [Hally] all these bands that we just really loved and just kind of deciding, ‘Yeah, we just want to play in a band as our jobs.’”
After they graduated and hustled for a few years, booking local gigs and landing on some folk festival bills, Hally and Emmerichs snagged a big break. They met English folk-rocker Billy Bragg at the Folk Alliance International festival in the U.S., upon which time he invited them to play on his stage at Glastonbury. Oh Pep! played the massive U.K. festival following a year of touring Stadium Cake in 2017. There, Hally and Emmerichs joined in on Bragg’s “A New England,” a song they’d bonded over at the band’s genesis.
“I think there was this moment on stage where I was around this person who was so humble and so iconic,” Hally says. “Then it was a very personal moment for the band, because that was one of the first songs that kind of brought us together, and it was like this big full circle moment where we were on stage singing it with him.”
The Stadium Cake touring cycle was an impressionable one for Hally and Emmerichs. It’s no secret tours are tiring, and while Oh Pep! may have wrapped up their first feeling a bit jaded, they funneled any feelings of exhaustion into inspiration for their new record.
“I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… is much more mature and kind of a darker form of pop than what we’ve done in the past,” Emmerichs says. “And, maybe, I think that is reflective in kind of becoming more mature as people during that time on the road.”
Hally and Emmerichs, alongside producer Joel Quartermaine and engineer Marky Wallis, recorded the album in their native Melbourne, which has become something of a musical breeding ground over the past few years (not to mention over the past few decades). Long-reining parties like King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard and Dead Can Dance are from Melbourne, but some of the makers of 2018’s finest indie rock records, like Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever and Camp Cope, also hail from the Australian metropolis.
“We grew up as a band in Melbourne,” Hally says. “We’ve been away a lot the past couple years, but every time I come home I fill my calendar out with gigs I want to see when I get back. I’m such a fan of all the original music that’s happening here and it is so inspiring. So it’s kind of like a refueling station when we get back.”
While they sometimes write songs together, Hally often writes Oh Pep! songs alone and brings them to Emmerichs for dusting up later. Other times, she sits in with other lyricists and friends. “I think that I very much value writing by itself as well,” Hally says. “It’s much more like contemplative.”
Oh Pep! are such big fans of collaborative songwriting they even hosted a writing retreat last year. “I love songwriting so much and I do a lot of it and have been collaborating with Pep [Emmerichs] for so long, and sometimes that means co-writing together and sometimes it doesn’t,” Hally says. “But [the writing retreat] was going on and more people should do it or figure out if it’s for them. I personally get so much inspiration out of the moment when new ideas are being made.”
Folk-pop, mandolin-mashup or indie-dream-bluegrass,—call it what you want—I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… is accessible music you can move to, and that’s just the way Oh Pep! prefer it.
“I have noticed that since the first round of touring with Stadium Cake that people come to shows and dance, which is just such a relief because it’s wonderful to be on stage and then have the audience move to your music,” Hally says. “That’s an incredible feeling, but also it’s like, finally, people are aware that it is pop music and you can dance to it and there’s a bunch of beats there, so I hope it makes people move in that way too.”
I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… is out now on ATO Records. Watch Oh Pep!’s recent Paste studio performance below: