They’ve come a long way from writing songs in their home studio at South-East London – Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West unknowingly began their alt-pop musical career in 2014 as Oh Wonder by writing and releasing songs monthly through Soundcloud. Originally intended as a portfolio of their songwriting, they were shocked when their first recorded song Body Gold hit 100,000 plays across the span of three days. The soothing harmonious electronic beats, occasional tinkling of the piano, and vocals of both Josephine and Anthony captured the attention of a niche audience.
Now, the duo are geared up for their second album Ultralife world tour, their first stop in Asia being a sold-out show at The Bee, Publika. Marie Claire spoke to Oh Wonder about Ultralife, re-imagining tracks, and mindlessly binge-watching TV.
First of all, congratulations on the recent release of Ultralife!
What is the main difference between your self-titled debut album Oh Wonder and Ultralife?
Anthony West: I’d say it has a different energy. The first album is very chill, more reflective musically. Since we’ve been touring a lot, we realised we wanted to inject more energy into our lyrics, and the songs mean more to us.
Josephine Vander Gucht: The songs are a lot more personal. They’re about touring and our experiences – more personal but musically varied.
What was the smallest crowd you’ve played for – and what was the largest?
AW: Before we played our first ever gig, we played two secret gigs in England to test the equipment and to test ourselves. Maybe 20 people?
JVG: Yeah, it wasn’t an Oh Wonder show, we just kind of turned up to a pub, I guess? A bar. And the biggest show was probably a festival…
AW: Boston Calling?
JVG: Mexico. It was 15,000 people, it was pretty nuts.
How do you feel about that?
JVG: It’s insane.
AW: It’s a strange feeling, people coming to watch your band, let alone that many people.
Oh Wonder performing at The Metro Theatre, Sydney; photo by Theresa Pham
There’s this lovely video on your Youtube channel – where you asked fans around the world to send in their High On Human stories. And I think it’s so meaningful and important that you’re doing this – fan interaction, talking to strangers ABOUT talking to strangers. Tell me a bit more about the project – how many days did it take for you to call everyone, and how did the idea for these fan interactions come about?
JVG: It was inspired by the song High On Humans which we wrote about talking to strangers. I had this really cool experience back home in London on a train – I started chatting to strangers about hot sauce for like 20 minutes, which was really amazing. I was so hyped on humans and strangers that we then wrote this song. Then I wondered if other people in the world have similar stories, and it turns out thousands of people did! So we asked people to submit a little summary of their stories…
AW: We expected maybe 50 or 100 stories but there were thousands.
How did you even manage to filter through everything?
JVG: I know. We read through all of them – and the ones we were really struck by, we FaceTimed / Skyped / called them. We chatted for five to six hours to different people. We just spent a day talking to fans.
AW: It was so cool. It was so energising.
JVG: And then spent twice as long trying to edit it into a video [laughs].
AW: It was all done in one day, through all the different time zones.
How hard has it been separating personal life from professional life? How do you balance the fine line between fame and friends?
AW: It’s very hard. That’s the biggest challenge, I think, about playing in a band. Don’t you think?
JVG: Yeah you don’t really get time to have a personal life.
AW: It’s a very grey area.
JVG: We’re on tour all the time, and even when we’re at home, we’re working. It’s more important than ever that we try to carve out time for ourselves and for our friends and family at home. That’s really difficult. We’re pretty much on tour now till Christmas – we get a week off at Christmas – but I’m so excited for that week, I’m just gonna squeeze and celebrate every inch of my family.
AW: It makes you appreciate the time you do have with the people you love.
What’s your favourite part about touring?
JVG: Oh, so much. The food…
AW: Mine is coffee. I get to visit loads of different coffee places.
Which place has been your favourite so far?
AW: This morning in Kuala Lumpur, was one of the best coffees I’ve ever had. At VCR.
JVG: He said it’s the best coffee he’s ever had – and he’s had one in every city.
AW: It was amazing, it was really good. We’re going back tomorrow.
JVG: [laughs] Yeah, he’s gonna take me. Oh, and also getting to meet our fans and playing the show. The best part of touring is playing the show – the one hour you’re on stage with loads of people in a room singing songs, that’s incredible. That’s the best feeling.
AW: It makes it all worth it, all the flying and all the travelling.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
JVG: We typically chill out an hour before the show. We’ll warm our voices up, drink some hot tea. Right before the show – we have a drummer and bassist who plays with us – the three of the boys gather around my head, and they all kiss my head at the same time.
What? Like a good luck charm?
JVG: I’m the lucky egg. We call it ‘kissing the egg’. So right before we go on, they go ‘we’ve got to kiss the egg!’ They all kind of come around and kiss my head at the same time, and if it’s a timed kiss – if they all kiss my head at the same moment – it means that we’re going to have a good show.
Oh Wonder performing at The Bee, Publika; photo by All is Amazing
I like how you’ve time and time again you’ve said ‘ultralife’ isn’t just about finding someone / a person – it’s also finding something that gives you that pull to live your life to the fullest. What gives you ultralife?
JVG: So much. For me, at the moment it’s people. It’s my friends and family, because I miss them. But also… food. It just makes you feel good. A good book gives me ultralife.
AW: A good album. Good music makes you feel incredible.
You also did a series called Abbey Road Piano sessions on Youtube. I really enjoyed Ultralife, it was a totally different take compared to the original. Do you read comments?
JVG: We do, yeah! We try to read a lot of them.
Do you have any plans to release similar piano versions of the tracks from Ultralife?
AW: Maybe. We’re trying to work it out.
JVG: We’re trying to find time, but we’d like to do re-imagined versions of the other songs on the album – whether that’s with an orchestra, or whether it’s with a jazz band. For us, those songs – how they sound now wasn’t necessarily how they sound when they were written. When we write songs, it’s piano and vocals, kind of like Abbey Road Piano sessions – but you can take the song in a million different ways. We love that challenge. We’ll try to definitely do more of that.
What would Oh Wonder be like without Anthony / Josephine?
AW: That would be weird, wouldn’t it?
JVG: It would be terrible!
AW: There would only be one voice, to start with.
JVG: It would be like ‘Oh’. Instead of ‘Oh Wonder’.
AW: We definitely balance each other out, personality wise and performance wise.
JVG: We bring totally different things to the project. I don’t think either of us would be making music. We definitely wouldn’t be in Malaysia playing this show.
AW: We would be making music, but maybe we wouldn’t be as successful.
Favourite track from the album?
Do you google yourselves?
JVG: Sometimes when you type in ‘Oh Wonder’, you get funny things that you don’t expect…
If you could collaborate with anyone – dead or alive, who would you pick?
AW: I’d say Frank Ocean.
JVG: Yup. No, I’ll say… Chile Gonzalez.
Name a TV show you mindlessly binge watch.
JVG: Oh – Grey’s Anatomy.
AW: I mindlessly binge watch Josephine watching Grey’s Anatomy.
Who’s the better dancer? Before and after whiskey.
JVG: Ooooh… ‘before’ is me, ‘after’ is Anthony. For sure.
AW: Yeah, you’re a good pre-drink dancer.
JVG: I can sober dance! You’re just like, you need a few drinks in you.
AW: [gestures to shoulders/arms] I’m too… long. A few whiskeys and I change.
JVG: It’s incredible.
Oh Wonder’s new album Ultralife is out now, available for purchase or streaming here.