Oh Wonder’s debut album marks both an end and a beginning
The East London duo have released a new single every month for a year. Now they’re taking their atmospheric pop around the world.
On the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings, Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht were sat on the 108 bus, making their daily commute from the apartment they share in Bow to their studio in Greenwich. At 11.30am, the driver pulled over to the side of the road unannounced, turned off the engine, and sat for 60 seconds in quiet contemplation.
No-one knew if the man was mourning lost colleagues, friends, or simply choosing to honour the memory of a painful time in our collective history. When the minute’s silence was up, he restarted the engine without explanation and resumed the bus’s journey. “One minute in the whole 24 hours and it was the most poignant moment of the day,” says Vander Gucht.
It’s small but significant moments such as these which have provided much of the inspiration for Oh Wonder. For the last 12 months, West and Vander Gucht have been writing and recording a single every month which is then published online. The first day of September marks the culmination of the project when the final track will be released, followed three days later by a self-titled album comprising all 13 singles.
It’s an unconventional approach; a departure from the typical routine of writing and touring, building up a fanbase with live performances in anticipation of a debut album. But while Oh Wonder is yet to perform live, total plays on SoundCloud are soon set to top 17 million.
West and Vander Gucht describe the project as being about love, London and the beauty of small moments – and the ease with which they can be overlooked in the maelstrom of life in East London. “It’s very easy to lose a sense of yourself,” says Vander Gucht. But it’s also about the importance of seeing these moments as part of a bigger picture. A couple in both the songwriting and romantic sense, their relationship has clearly played a part in shaping the album’s direction. “We keep getting told people are getting lonelier and depression is on the rise,” Vander Gucht continues. “With this album, we really wanted to explore the idea of the importance of human relationships and a support network – and love and courage and fearlessness and hope. The importance of being there for someone.”
The album is in turn both melancholic and hopeful. Tracks such as All We Do explore what it’s like to lose sight of this big picture, with the refrain: “All we do is hide away, all we do is chase the day,” while Livewire emphasises the importance of interpersonal relationships – whether it be expressed through enduring love or a smile from a stranger in the street. Musically, sparse piano melodies mingle with electronic beats while the duo’s vocals take precedence – the relationship between the two reinforcing the album’s core message.
West and Vander Gucht know all too well the feeling of becoming lost in their work. The pressure of creating a debut album combined with the need to publish a new song every month has seen the two holed up in their Greenwich studio for up to 12 hours a day, writing, producing and honing their sound. “We look up and it’s 1am,” says West. But they make time for reflection, with mornings spent taking runs in Victoria Park or wandering the streets of East London, seeking inspiration for the next track.
While the album is firmly rooted in this corner of London, the idea for the project came in March 2013 while on a trip to Amsterdam. Both West and Vander Gucht had been working on separate musical projects and decided to take a five-day break at an Airbnb apartment with a piano on the outskirts of the city. Vander Gucht recalls they would “spend eight hours a day writing songs, then go out in the evenings and wander the streets”. The idea to work together, to release a single every month, to create an album as a duo, came on that trip.
It’s somewhat ironic that a few days spent completely free, wandering the streets of a foreign city, provided the inspiration for a project that would tie the couple down to a strict routine for an entire year. Motivation came from their spiralling fanbase, which would return to replay their tracks daily, the plays mounting up into the hundreds, thousands, then millions. “It felt like the project had an energy outside us,” says West.
“We can’t even fathom that many people listening to us on a daily basis. That gave us an amazing energy to make the song the next month. It felt like the whole time we were keeping up with a project that took on its own life form, which was a joy because it feels like you don’t have to energise yourself, it’s energising you.”
Now, that journey has come to an end. But a new chapter is soon to begin. After 12 months inside the studio, West and Vander Gucht will soon be travelling the world, playing live shows across the UK, the US, Europe and Australia.
The tour will no doubt provide a chance to reflect on the experiences of the last 12 months. But, also, the inspiration for the next stage of their journey. “You can be someone else when you’re somewhere else and have these experiences that you can’t necessarily have when you’re at home,” says West. “You go somewhere else and you can be anything.”
Oh Wonder is out on 4 September