There is a sign pinned to the wall of Oh Wonder’s recording studio in south London, a pact of sorts, signed by the band’s two members, Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West, in the winter of 2012.
“We wrote it to say that we’re dependent on one another,” explains Vander Gucht. “That there are things we want to achieve, and we can help each other get there.”
She reads out the sign, a four-line list of the pair’s musical ambitions: “‘We have a publishing deal off the back of writing incredible songs’; ‘We are in-demand songwriters, respected for our art’; ‘We feel that anything is possible and live the yes life’; ‘Music earns us an amazing living and we travel the world thanks to it.’”
That Oh Wonder have achieved all of these ambitions in the space of just two and a half years is testament to their talent and their perseverance, but even they seem a little startled by how much more they have attained: the 20 million plays on Soundcloud, the recording contract with Universal, and now their debut album, a collection of 15 impeccably-crafted songs that explore London and loneliness, love and the need for human relationships.
Vander Gucht was a classically-trained solo performer and West a singer-turned-producer whose lives and careers overlapped for several years — a run of near-encounters and half-conversations at gigs and venues, and vague introductions through musical acquaintances and mutual friends.
It was only when they finally sat down in West’s former studio in north London with a view to producing an EP of Vander Gucht’s solo material that they realized their great musical bond. “We found all our favorite bands were the same bands, all our favorite songs were the same songs,” says West. “It was a day of saying ‘Oh you should listen to this’. And then the other one saying ‘I know that song. That’s one of my favorite songs.’” “It was,” adds Vander Gucht, “really, really odd. I’ve never had that. I’ve never felt that closely aligned with someone, musically speaking, and more widely in terms of how we view the world.”
It was West’s suggestion that they begin writing together — purely for fun at first, as an exercise in songwriting and collaboration while they pursued their other musical projects. The first song they wrote they called “Body Gold” and was, Vander Gucht says “the marker for what the sound of Oh Wonder was: electronic and really R’n’B, which was totally surprising, and totally different to our solo work, but we were really proud of it.”
Still, for 18 months they did nothing with it. West moved to London and released an EP as part of a duo, Vander Gucht was busy writing and recording as Layla. “But we thought it was a waste, just sitting on our computers, festering for another year and a half,” says Vander Gucht. And so they decided to post it on the internet, anonymously.
That day they went to a café in east London, posted the song on Soundcloud and emailed a few of their favorite music blogs about it.
“And so we were in this café,” Vancer Ducht remembers, “and we were looking at the play-count, and I think it said six plays, and then all of a sudden these blogs started posting the song — really lovely write-ups saying ‘Who the hell are these people? They’re about to break the internet.’” They sat in the café and watched the play count climb to 100. A few weeks later it had reached 100,000 plays. Seven months further on and we’re 20 million plays. “It was just really, really bizarre. And odd. And completely accidental,” she says. “We didn’t tell anyone it was us, we didn’t ask people to listen, we didn’t tell our friends, it was so far removed from us. But I genuinely think that the reason so many people connected with it was because it was really sincere.”
It was after the success of “Body Gold” that they came up with the idea of releasing a song a month, for the course of a year. “We approached it as a songwriting project rather than an artist project,” Vander Gucht says. “And so the most important thing of all is the song and we would never release what we consider to be a bad song.”
They had already written two other tracks: “Shark” and “All We Do” — a track Vander Gucht finds most affecting. “Because it’s about playing it safe and not pushing yourself beyond the parameters of normal life,” she says. “It’s about just existing and not wondering or being inquisitive. It’s about how a lot of people sink into the monotony of everyday life. And how it’s a shame, because the world’s there for the taking, and you’ve got to go grab it and have an adventure.”
Their own adventure soon gathered pace. They found they could write quickly, finishing the body of a song in 20 minutes or so and spending more time, they say, on the production. “Writing together is a weird magical thing,” says Vander Gucht. “More than anybody else in the world I trust Ant. Which makes the writing process totally open, totally vulnerable and non-judgmental, and means you can say all of these things openly in a song.”
The things they chose to say all possess a striking tenderness and a tangible passion for life, ranging from exquisite break-up songs “Drive,” “Landslide” and “The Rain” to quiet rallies against materialism, gambling, gentrification and globalization, and, in “Lose It,” a song that serves as a tribute to a night out they once had in Melbourne, where as the sun came up Vander Gucht found herself at a party dancing in her underwear to Destiny’s Child. “I’ve never before felt what I felt at that night,” she says. “I didn’t take any drugs, and I wasn’t even drunk, there was just something heady in the air. It was the first time I’d ever felt untethered from myself.”
Though they vary from piano-led ballads to whip-sharp electronica, what unites all of Oh Wonder’s songs is their extraordinary sense of humanity. “We didn’t realize it at first, but a lot of our songs about relationships and support,” says Vander Gucht. West points to album opener “Livewire,” “which is about needing someone to lift you up, someone who can bring you up from your lowest point, bring you back to life, be the heartbeat you need…” and to “White Blood,” about times in life, in illness or difficulty, when you “really need someone with you”, and to Heart Hope, inspired by watching the area around their home in east London rapidly gentrify, and feeling that for all the shiny new buildings, what people really need is other people, “it’s saying actually all you need is a heart and a soul and to be connected to yourself and to each other.”
“They’re songs about humans, and about people being there in your life,” says Vander Gucht. “People need people. And that’s what this album looks at, from all the different angles: it’s about being grateful for the people in your life, for relationships of all sorts.”
Perhaps most of all, this album is West and Vander Gucht’s tribute to each other, to the partnership they have formed, the places it has taken them and the confidence they have given one another.
Vander Gucht tells a story that perhaps best sums up the depth of the belief they have in one another — the bond, the trust, and the faith they have in their own music: “I used to have lots of jobs,” she says. “I worked in Waterstones, and waiting tables, and Ant was the person who told me to give them up. He told me to call up my boss and say ‘Sorry I can’t work at Waterstones anymore, I’m being a musician.’ He said we’re going to do this. And that was the same day we wrote that sign.”