In The Studio: Oh Wonder
Hot sauce, broken teeth, slashed sofas and more than a few bus woes. We get the lowdown on the making of the duo’s second album ‘Ultralife.’
Is it possible to start calling Oh Wonder a phenomenon? After the release of their self-titled titled album, London duo Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West booked just four gigs to promote the album in the hope that they’d be able to get straight back in the studio. Things didn’t quite go to plan, in a good way. After selling out all the shows in less than a week, they ended up touring the world, playing 162 sets across 112 cities across the globe. Josephine still needs pinching though. She can’t quite get her head around it all: “if you’d told us when we were 15 that in 2017 we’d be releasing a second record, touring the world, doing what we’re doing, I’d have been like ‘yeah, do one’!”
Yet here they are, on the cusp of releasing their second album, ‘Ultralife.’ On the surface, its release seems to be a little bit more “traditional” than their debut’s. For that record, they released a song a month for a year before combining them all into a single collection. This time round they’ve taken a slightly more regular approach to writing and recording. As such, they even call this second LP their “debut album proper” because, as Anthony explains, “the first album didn’t feel like an album, it was a collection of songs we’d made over a year.” “This was conceived as a full album,” Josephine adds. “For me, this is the first album I’ve ever written.”
But this is Oh Wonder we’re talking about here. As Josephine says, they’ve “never approached anything ‘properly’.” “We’ve done everything the wrong way round! I guess we wanted to continue being an ‘improper’ band!” she laughs. So it’s pretty unsurprising that ‘Ultralife’ has had quite an interesting conception. During their manic touring period, they managed to take 30 days out and, of course, they rented an Airbnb in New York. Why? “We’ve always grown up writing music in homes, and it’s really nice to feel like you’re not at work,” Anthony explains. “We want to be able to hear traffic, we want to be able to hear people, we want to be able to take a walk and take in some atmosphere to bounce off.”
They certainly got that with the second-floor Brooklyn apartment. It was noisy, with people often shouting outside, and a bagel shop residing next door. The flat itself had a leaky shower, and the landlord wasn’t too happy about the state that the pair left his place in. “The guy tried to get us to buy him a new sofa at the end of it. He was like, ‘you ripped my sofa!’ And we said ‘we definitely haven’t mate’,” Josephine recalls. Oh Wonder wrecking shit up? Surely not. Turns out it was all a bit of a misunderstanding. “We sat on the sofa, we wrote some songs, we watched a bit of ‘The Office’ and that’s literally all we did! He thought we’d been slashing up his furniture!”
“If we can help people through their day, that’s our job done.”
— Anthony West
Despite having to cope with some ripped furniture, they managed to get about half of the album written, and after managing to finish off the rest of the record they started recording ‘Ultralife’ the day after their tour in December 2016 finished. Renting a (very) small studio in the capital filled with their own “weird instruments” they’d picked up on their travels, the pair were all set to go. But they didn’t realise that as well as having to cope with being near Gatwick, they’d have to battle pretty much an entire fleet of London buses too. “Literally any time of the day, there’s a bus every minute,” Josephine says. It’s kind of hard to fight Transport For London though, so in the end they just kept the sounds of the buses as part of the record. “There’s buses all the way through the album,” Josephine insists. “You probably can’t hear them but they’re there!”
You don’t get too much more real than the distinctive hum of a bus’s engine lingering somewhere in the background. It isn’t just in the atmosphere where ‘Ultralife’ more organic though. The duo have been determined to move away from MIDI samples and laptops and into live instrumentation, embracing the feel they’ve generated at their countless gigs. “The live show really taught us that you get a lot of energy when you put people behind it,” Anthony explains. “Lots of people comment that the live show is intense; there’s people singing, dancing, jumping around, whereas on the record a lot of people say we’re very chilled, late-night listening, relaxing music,” Josephine adds. “We wanted to make a record that met in the middle.” As a result, she says the new album has “just got so much more energy.”
That new sense of vitality teems out of the album’s first single, also its title track. While it still keeps the sense of languid warmth that ran through their debut album, everything seems brighter and bolder, the chorus being the biggest they’ve produced so far. Because of its subject matter about striving to live the best life possible, Josephine says that although they weren’t quite sure how it’d sound at first, “it was always going to be a really big, festival summer anthem.”
Then she reveals the twist in the tale: “none of the other songs on the record sound like ‘Ultralife’!” Instead, they’ve decided to push the boundaries far beyond what they’ve done in the past, as Anthony says: “the sound and the textures, we wanted to make sure they were all different. With the first record, because of the way it was written and recorded, they all kind of sounded quite similar.” So as well as some typically warming piano-centred tunes, they’ve also been inspired by French disco, and rock.
“We’ve done everything the wrong way round!”
— Josephine Vander Gucht
Their latest track ‘Lifetimes’ is a hip-hop flavoured number, inspired by seeing Drake live. It even has Anthony doing a spot of rapping or, as he puts it, doing a “pathetic white-boy rap.” He’s being very harsh on himself. It’s also a track centred on climate change, and the pair think they invented a new word in the process of writing it: “climaphobe.” “Is it a word?” Anthony asks. Josephine is straight on to Google. Apparently “climacophobia” is the fear of climbing, but there’s no such thing as a “climaphobe.” Yet.
While ‘Lifetimes’ expands their usual narrative focus – and the English language with it - Anthony explains that “we never write to a brief, we just write from experience.” Josephine gets really enthused talking about the curious incidents that led to writing one of the biggest, most bombastic songs on the album, ‘High On Humans.’ Making her way back from Heathrow one day, she realised two girls in front of her were talking avidly about food (as you do). When it came round to the topic of hot sauce, Josephine couldn’t help but get involved. “I just butted in and was like, ‘I love sriracha!’ We just chatted about hot sauce for 20 minutes, and I don’t even know their names!” she laughs. “I was so hype after talking to these strangers, it’s not something you normally do in London. You’re supposed to ignore everyone and look really grumpy.”
The unusual encounters that night didn’t end there. Getting the tube, she met a drunk man covered in blood having knocked his teeth out. Ouch. Josephine experienced a similar crisis with her own teeth after taking a nasty trip a couple of years ago, so was eager to give advice. “I ran up to him and said ‘I can’t help but notice that you’ve lost your front teeth, you must have knocked them out’!” She made it clear that she wasn’t being funny, and just wanted to help. After that, the whole train carriage erupted into conversation, each passenger relating their own funny tales of accidental injury. Walking home, Josephine immediately started making voice memos. “I got back and called Anthony and was like ‘Anthony, I’ve got a song! It’s called ‘High On Humans’! And he was just like, ‘you’re a weirdo’.” Charming! Undeterred by his reaction, the next day Josephine sat Anthony down in the studio and was determined to write a song about her experiences. A melody was conceived, ‘High On Humans’ was born.
Not all of the album is as euphoric or celebratory, though. Instead, the pair have found themselves pondering more about the real nature of human connection, our sometimes shallow take on relationships in the modern age and our tendency towards self-doubt in their songs. “People will sit on their own on a Friday night with Netflix or whatever and then think to themselves, ‘why don’t I have any friends?’ ‘Why am I alone?’ I know I do, you just need people,” Josephine muses. “Conversely, you get periods where you’re so liberated and happy within yourself that you want freedom, independence and want to be alone for a bit.”
Despite living an extremely fruitful life on the surface, that internal conflict hasn’t escaped Josephine and Anthony. “It’s a weird cyclical thing that you’re constantly questioning yourself and doubting yourself, and I think that touring exacerbated that because you’re miles away from everyone you love for extended periods of time and you miss them and you want people,” she says. As such, there’s a loose narrative arc to the new record that encompasses these two extremes. Opener ‘Solo’ kicks things off at a house party that you can’t wait to get away from, while closer ‘Waste’ states that “it’s a waste to be so alone.”
Rather than being contradictory though, it’s simply a comment on the strange way the human mind works, hopefully giving some comfort to fans that they’re not alone in harbouring these seemingly inconsistent emotions. “For me it’s a reassurance to listeners that you’re not bizarre, or weird, or unusual for constantly doubting yourself, or constantly craving people or independence,” Josephine says. “Whatever friendship, independence and freedom means to you, you should celebrate that and not fear, not worry.”
‘Ultralife’ is therefore set to be a record not just about Oh Wonder living their best possible life, but about the highs and lows of the human experience, exposing common yet under-discussed issues that we all share. “If we can help people through their day,” Anthony says, “that’s our job done.”
‘Ultralife’ is out on 16th June via Island Records.
Photos: Mike Lee Thomas
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