I’m slightly surprised that Oh Wonder don’t walk backwards into the Brockley cafe where we meet one sunny afternoon. South London’s Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West have not gone about their electronic pop career in the traditional order. First came an album’s worth of songs, posted online, one at a time, on Soundcloud on the first day of every month between September 2014 and September 2015. Then came a debut album, which reached the chart despite almost every song being familiar already to fans. And only then, on September 16 2015 at the ICA, did the pair play their first ever live concert.
“It didn’t make sense from a business perspective,” admits Vander Gucht. “But from a fan perspective, it did. If an artist dropped an album now, you’d probably enjoy it for a few weeks and then move on to something else. But if you’ve been drip fed someone’s music for a whole year, you’re going to really love them, aren’t you? You’ve spent so much time listening to them that you can’t help but part with your money when the time comes.”
Now, very belatedly, the duo are a proper band, with a bassist and a drummer who play live and on their second album, Ultralife, which is coming in June. They still worked to a self-imposed deadline on the new material, writing the first six songs during a month spent in New York in April 2016, and the other six in just a week last September. Having deliberately stayed anonymous when they first posted a song online, this time their faces will be on the album cover. Much of the content is about the change they experienced, going from internet-only nobodies making music in a space at the bottom of Vander Gucht’s parents’ garden, to playing around 160 gigs all over the world in a year.
Talking to them, it seems they’re experiencing a little altitude sickness – living the dream, or the “Ultralife” as they put it in song, but still far from lost in glamour. When we meet they’re about to head to California to resume their touring schedule with an appearance at the high-profile Coachella festival. They’ve got a new lighting set-up, a giant flickering OW, that they’ve had to borrow money to pay for. They joke that after their latest gigs they may need to turn it upside down and try to sell it to the Danish pop star MØ. They tell me about attending a Brit Awards party this year (they weren’t invited to the actual ceremony), accidentally ending up at the same table as Katy Perry and Ellie Goulding, and being too dumbfounded to do anything but stare.
Yet they have earned their place in the same world, whether they believe it or not, with beautiful, soft pop songs sung in their gentle, intertwining voices. Check out the steady piano groove of their new song, Lifetimes – it’s instantly loveable. The masses took to their music the moment the first song appeared online. “The first one, Body Gold, got 100,000 plays in three days. We thought something was wrong with Soundcloud,” says West, 28. Now, the video for the new song Ultralife has had over a million YouTube views in the last two weeks. Today they are experiencing real fame, to an extent, uncomfortable though it makes them.
“We were in Berlin for a gig a while ago and I put a photo on Instagram of the phone in our hotel room,” says West. “A fan recognised it and waited in the lobby for 10 hours for us to come out.” Yikes. “He was a really sweet guy who just wanted to say hello. If we’d known, we could have saved him a whole day of his life.”
It’s interesting that when she started making music, Vander Gucht, 27, says that her ultimate dream was to write a song for Rihanna – not to be Rihanna. “Now that we’re doing it, it’s incredible, but neither of us grew up with a hairbrush in our hand in front of the mirror, dreaming of being that kind of star,” she tells me. Their first Oh Wonder songs were intended as a showcase of their abilities should someone want to hire them as backroom composers.
They’re not ugly people, I can’t help but notice, so it’s admirable that they wanted the focus to be entirely on their music at first. “We didn’t want it to be about us, and performing together had just never crossed our minds, so it was a very innocent thing that we stumbled across, I guess,” says West.
In fact you can see them performing together for the very first time on YouTube, in a video made back in May 2012. West was the singer in a band called Futures, making melodic, polished indie rock. They were signed to the major label Mercury Records but didn’t get as far as releasing an album before parting ways again. Just before they split up for good, they took over a Chiswick recording studio with 18 friends and were filmed performing a stirring new song called Karma Satellite. There’s Vander Gucht in the clip, sitting next to West on an adjacent piano and harmonising with him to create a sound that’s now very familiar. He had been producing her as a solo act called Layla, who wasn’t doing too badly herself. She self-released three EPs and just lost out to Tom Odell in the battle to record the song for the 2014 John Lewis Christmas advert.
“Some days I listen back to our previous stuff and think it’s far better than Oh Wonder,” says Vander Gucht. She was the classical nerd as a child in London, playing violin, piano and oboe, and her music as Layla was a touch more elaborate than what she does now. “But if it had kicked off for me earlier, I’d have been a deer in headlights. I’d have said yes to anything.”
“It’s given us a lot of perspective,” says West of their past disappointments.
These days they live together and write whenever someone has an idea. They try not to give anything away about a personal relationship in public (“People think we’re brother and sister, which suits us just fine,” says Vander Gucht) but their songwriting technique sounds more intimate than most. It’s not one person bringing a half-formed song to the other. They sit together and do everything from scratch, even the lyrics. “It’s basically us sat at a piano shouting words at each other,” says West.
“It’s a blessing and a curse, doing it at home,” adds Vander Gucht. “One person’s going, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea!’ and the other’s trying to watch Netflix.”
It’s working, though. Their music is connecting with a passionate fanbase, which Vander Gucht is finding is a far more satisfying feeling than jetsetting superstardom or landing that Rihanna writing credit. “It’s not just me wanting to be a pop star. Music is an incredible thing. If you can make people feel a little bit better in some capacity – that is now my drive. We’ve met the most remarkable people and heard some amazing stories. You realise that music is the soundtrack to a lot of people’s highs and lows. That’s what makes me think that what we’re doing is valuable.”
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Ultralife is out on June 16 on Island.