Unexpected pop stars Oh Wonder are back with 'Ultralife', and things are about to kick off all over again.
Oh Wonder started life with just two people. Coming from two opposing musical worlds, Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West set about recording and releasing music together from their home studio, not expecting anyone to hear it or pay them much attention. Twelve months later, their thirteen singles made up a vast majority of their self-titled debut and the band set out to play their first and last four shows as a live band. Or so they thought.
What followed was a year of touring that saw the duo play shows in 26 countries and ended up with a sold out homecoming at London's Roundhouse and one last trip around North America. In two years, Oh Wonder had grown beyond two people. After that, they returned home, made scrambled eggs on toast with avocado, chili flakes and lime, and wrote a new album.
"Broadly speaking, I guess this one was a lot more personal," starts Josephine. "We had a lot more personal experiences to draw from," continues Anthony. "We'd been on the road for two years, experiencing highs and lows. We were part of a community with fans, and our band and our crew and then had to also deal with the loneliness of being away from family and friends."
There was also the "constant questioning and self-doubt that comes from just, being a human," to contend with. "It's a general, world-wide tendency to over question everything. You feel so alone, and then you just want space. You can feel empowered and free and amazing, then the next day you're so miserable and depressed. Touring exacerbates that 100%. You're playing to 3000 people in a room who scream your name, but you feel so miserable sometimes because this isn't a conversation and I'm just performing. I don't know any of you, not really. That's really odd. Then you have shows where you feel like you're speaking and connecting with all these people." ‘Ultralife' looks to reinforce the conversation. To enhance the connection.
As conflicting as the journey was, Oh Wonder found strength and drive in other people. It's those connections that breath life into their second record. Writing towards a body of work for the first time means it's also the first time they've been sat on music they can't instantly release. "The number of times I've just wanted to send a Dropbox link to a fan saying ‘Here you go, just have it,' because that's what you make music for, you make it for people."
Wanting to capture the instant excitement of playing live, there was no complicated plans or the chance for overthinking. "The main thing is not to feel any pressure, ‘cos I think we would have written a totally different album if we felt the pressure of an audience. We would have overthought things and probably not have released this record for another year." Instead, the sunburst reaction was key. "Music captures a snapshot or a moment. Then you have to pass it on, give it to someone else and make another one." The day the band finished the record, they started rehearsals for the live show.
It's little gestures that define ‘Ultralife'. It's "about finding someone or something that makes you feel ultra, meaning an extraordinary, exciting or uncommon way of living. It's about finding something that pulls out the best of you and pulls out the tiny moments. It's not a massive thing. Amidst all the craziness, and the banality of living, you can find little moments that hype you up and pull you up. It's about finding what those are or who gives you that."
‘Ultralife' opens with the claustrophobic ‘Solo' - "a metaphor for being at a house party surrounded by all these self-absorbed people, and just needing to get out and breathe" - and ends with the stark curtain drop of ‘Waste', an ode to missing home and missing friends. It's because the band realised that "people need people". "That need to be on your own and nourish yourself, that's awesome, but you can't be a one-man band. You have to rely on people. It's important; we work in a pack as humans."
"Self-development is with other people and yourself," adds Anthony.
"Those songs are the bookends, and the album is trying to explore where to find that or how to find that," explains Josephine. "But it's okay that you feel lonely, because everyone does."
"You've got the potential to feel amazing, and you'll feel both. It's inevitable you'll feel horrible and amazing so welcome both of them."
"And acknowledge they're both real."
Adding colour to the landscape, the shadowy plunge of ‘My Friends' was ‘written in floods of tears. It came from a really sad place but we channelled it into something that hopefully helps other people," and ‘Lifetimes', all glitter and grins, is "just a great way to disguise a song about climate change as a big pop song. We're very aware that whatever voice you have, no matter how big or how small, you should try and use it for good. Say something. Contribute something to the world." The album is made up of little gestures, but it knows how world-altering they can be.
The most outlandish track on the album, ‘High On Humans', all robot voices and heart-swelling interaction, came from a bizarre but affirming journey Josephine had across London. From knee-jerk interrupting a conversation between two girls - "What do you mean you don't like Sriracha?" - that led to a twenty-minute conversation about food, to comforting a man who was panicking after knocking his front teeth out that spiralled into a tube-wide sharing of injuries, the evening didn't go any deeper than the surface, but that didn't stop it feeling real. "I was so hyped. In London, you just don't talk to strangers, and anyone that tries to start a conversation on the tube is a weirdo. This was lovely because everyone got involved." ‘Do you have the time? Do you hate your life?" sings the track. "The potential for conversation between those two extremes is endless and infinite." "You can have amazing interactions if you're brave enough to ask," reasons Anthony. "If you lose your fear and throw yourself in at the deep end, it can be really liberating. Or it can be really awkward. It just takes everyone to be a bit more open."
‘Ultralife' dances with escape and twirls in an outfit laden with dreams but there's a grit under the surface. The big moments shimmer like an oasis, but they're forged from the personal and the physical. "Human connection is talking and touching other people, that's what it should be," offers Anthony. "In tiny, tiny ways, chatting to a stranger on a train can brighten up your day," adds Josephine. "One of my favourite songs of all time, Polly Paulusma's ‘She Moves In Secret Ways', basically says you can plan everything to your last day's end, but not all the little things that happened by accident. And that's totally this band. You can have an overarching plan to make music, but it's all the happy little accidents that happen in the interim that make it amazing."
"It's ever-changing," explains Anthony. We never started with a plan; I don't like making plans. It's great to have goals and stuff you want to get out of things but with a plan comes expectations. The way I see this band, everything is a bonus. It's just a big wave, and we're seeing how long we can ride it for."
Taken from the July issue of Dork, out now. Oh Wonder's album 'Ultralife' is out 14th July.