Like many singer-songwriters, Olivia Hally and Pepita Emmerichs are good at pouring their melancholy into their music. But that only hints at what makes the Australian duo, who record as Oh Pep!, so great. They’re even better at transforming mundane experiences into anecdotal gold, as heard on their recent LP I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You…, which features songs about waiting in line for a social security card and distancing yourself from your parents to form your own identity.
“Often when I’ve written a song, the audience hears it, and they’ll tell me how it fits into their lives — and it’s nothing to do with how I’ve written the song,” says Hally, 27, the duo’s primary vocalist and guitarist.
Emmerichs, who plays mandolin and violin, adds that she often finds herself “flabbergasted” by how well Hally can write about universal emotions: “Liv has this incredible ability to transfer something she felt and just let it come out.”
The Melbourne duo met during high school in 2009. Hally was about to sing in a concert when Emmerichs walked by and asked to play fiddle on a song with her. They decided to keep working together, and soon they’d discovered a shared taste for musicians like Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly and a common experience coming from music-loving families. “One of our first phone conversations, we wrote a list of artists we listened to growing up,” Hally recalls. “Billy Bragg was on that list. Years later, we ended up playing Glastonbury with Billy Bragg!”
They also released a series of EPs in the early 2010s before making their full-length debut with Stadium Cake in 2016. That album introduced elements of pop to Oh Pep!’s folk-rock sound, and the new album goes even further down that path, drawing on the glistening melodies of Taylor Swift’s Red and the poetic sensibility of Lucinda Williams.
While it’s not as bright or bouncy as their debut, I Wasn’t Only Thinking About You… shows Hally and Emmerichs in a more mature place, which they attribute to returning home after touring for two years. They chose not to play any of the album’s songs live before they recorded them, adding an extra layer of spontaneity to the sound. Perhaps most drastically, their songwriting process changed. Since their first record, Hally started doing songwriting sessions for other rising Australian artists — though she often ended up keeping the songs she liked best for Oh Pep!
The musicians note that their approach to storytelling is about much more than trauma or pain, which often become inaccurate defining labels for female singer-songwriters. “Often [our songs] focus on painful things, but most of the time it’s just confusing things,” says Hally. “Things that baffle you. You’re not sure if it’s going to be painful or not, but you sit with it for a second and there’s some clarity at the end of it.”
“There’s so much tension from where the words and music marry from song to song,” Emmerichs adds. “There’s a lot of contrast there that keeps it really alive. We just don’t fit in that space of pain or trauma—we move through a lot of stuff.”
The songs on I Wasn’t Only Thinking of You… cover an array of experiences with love, friendship, family and total strangers. “Truths” details the hurdles of growing up and trying to form your own identity; “Your Nail and Your Hammer” recalls Hally’s experience meeting someone at a government bureaucracy office. On “What’s The Deal with David?” Hally explores the electricity of a potential new love interest, which can be felt in the rushing drumbeat. “You were smiling every time the phone rings,” Hally sings, starry-eyed.
Alone, these vignettes might seem mundane, but together they have a comforting effect. “There’s a total catharsis when you look at things through a songwriting lens,” says Hally. “You focus in on a subject, and afterwards you’ve released some kind of emotion.”
Hally and Emmerichs, who launch a new U.S. tour with a March 12th performance at SXSW, say that their songs truly come to life when they perform them onstage. “Liv always says that the meanings of the songs will change depending on what’s happening at that time in your life,” says Emmerichs. Some of their songs, which they’ve performed for years, have transformed in meaning as Hally and Emmerichs have kept growing. “If I sang about the same thing every night, I don’t think I would able to be as convincing as I’m able to be,” says Hally.