Last Tuesday, Oh Wonder stopped by Union Transfer on their first american tour. Not only did we attend the show, Street got to sit down with the masterminds behind the music—Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West—to pick their minds on the music industry, sponges and staying true to yourself and your passions.
The attractive—yes, we said it—London–based duo have been trailblazers since their inception, straying from a conventional approach to music. They started releasing their music in September 2014 as an unknown band. They released one single on SoundCloud each month. The risky move paid off: they quickly became extremely popular (currently with 123K followers on SoundCloud) and soon released the collection of songs as their debut album. Now they’re on a world tour for the next year. Their music has no genre (see below) but features a moving bass, dream–like vocals and emotive lyrics that easily resonate and captivate their listeners. We highly recommend you follow them on SoundCloud and Instagram...or just follow them in person. To each their own.
Before the concert, I had a conversation with a friend on how the band would recreate their electronic–style music onstage. It’s rare, with more and more music being created electronically, to have instruments onstage at a live show. Take an EDM concert—a DJ stands solo on a vast stage, feeding pounding music into the ears of eager concert–goers, in constant anticipation of the “drop.” This wasn’t the case for Oh Wonder. Onstage, the band supplemented their vocals with keyboard, guitars and a drum set. Music was recreated and re–imagined rather than replayed, making for a more intimate and impressive performance. You could physically feel the bass hit you from the speakers on stage, pulsating so strongly that your eyesight would blur. You watched the guitar riffs, the drum solos. It brought the listeners a pure form of live performance, where one didn’t initially expect this from a seemingly electronic band.
Brian Shabto ‘17 (Wharton), a fellow concert–goer: “Something that struck me was how they mixed live music with electronic sounds so seamlessly. I think they all had drum pads, but they played them live, which made it more genuine than performers that just play over electronic recordings. The whole thing was very genuine. It felt like we were just watching them make music together rather than put on a show.”
And it wasn’t just the music that was genuine. Our personal favorite moment occurred before one of their songs, All We Do, when Josephine gave us a monologue on the importance of staying true to yourself. “It’s cool to be weird...it’s cool to be cool,” she prophesized. The crowd responded with inspired chants of appreciation. The concert was engaging, the music was good and the artists were full of genuine skill. #tresbien.
Not only does Oh Wonder create great music, they’re FUNNY, GUYS. Plus, they have pretty great insight on staying true to your music. Check out our conversation with Anthony and Josephine just hours before their big show in Philly.
Street: What genre do you label yourself as?
Anthony West: We have no idea what genre we are. What we hope is that good songwriting is at the core of our music—as for labeling it, that's up to the listener!
Street: How do you feel releasing your music for free?
Josephine Vander Gucht: Artists should obviously be paid for their music; that's an undeniable fact. However, in our case, sharing our album for free on SoundCloud was a great way to spread our music and build a fan base who contributes to our art in other ways, like coming to shows, for example. It's important to us that music—both live and recorded—is accessible and affordable for both the consumer and the artist.
Street: If you could do anything on stage and get away with it, what would it be?
JVG: Well this is really gross, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but every night, I get really, gassy.
AW: *gestures to his chest* This gassy.
JVG: Burpy. I’ve had to learn to deal with it.
AW: Fizzy water... makes you burp.
JVG: We’ve developed this skill of singing and burping.
AW: Oh, it's a skill.
JVG: As you breathe, you kind of go "ehh" to the side
AW: We’re probably one of the smelliest live bands.
Street: Well, we'll be looking out for that on stage. How has working in the music industry been for you?
AW: We’ve been pretty lucky. We’ve been playing music for 10 to 12 years, so we’ve had shitty managers and horrible labels in the past. I feel like my past has taken all the crap. Plus, we surround ourselves with good people.
JVG: The music industry’s perfect for when you know what you want. When people have horror stories is when artists lose sight of what they’ve intended to do. We’re very much control freaks—we do everything ourselves. We use our label and team to facilitate our decision. As long as you can hold on to that, the music industry is amazing. It’s about trusting them with your idea, rather than them shaping you. We’ve said no to more things than we’ve said yes to.
Street: Is there any musician you feel you emulate in your music?
JVG: The people we listen to, we don’t sound like!
AW: Yeah, people say we’re electronic, and we don’t listen to electronic music.
JVG: The initial comparisons are the XX and James Blake. Sometimes I put on James Blake but we never listen to the XX. We both grew up listening to Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Cat Stevens. They’ve really inspired us to focus on good lyrics that mean something—great chords, good melodies. We try and emulate that.
AW: Yeah, that’s what we aspire to be.
Street: We noticed most of your music is in unison, not harmony. Why that choice?
AW: We started the whole project as songwriters. We were never going to perform; we were completely anonymous. We were going to pitch our music to other musicians so any person could sing our songs, and we thought the best way to do it was if we both sang it in unison, which would mean a girl or a boy could sing it. We pitched it as a unisex song. Then, our managers told us we sound really good together, so we thought, “Okay. Let’s try another one.” It was purely just us experimenting. It's weird people say it sounds like one voice—which I think it does.
Street: First word that pops into your head when I say the next word: Sponge.
JVG: I knew you were going to say Bob.
AW: Well what would you say?
JVG: I’d say… Bob.
AW: Yeah. we’re humans. We’re all wired the same.
JVG: *pauses* Yeah. I’m still saying Bob. I can’t think of anything else.
AW: Definitely Sponge Bob. I saw a guy with a thigh tattoo of Sponge Bob.
Street: How long does it take you to write a song?
AW: Less than 20 minutes.
Street (incredulously): WHAT?
AW: Yeah, our first song took four minutes. We just kind of sung it through.
JVG: In the sense that, say you're drawing a flower. You'd have the outline of a flower in three minutes. Then, you'd spend three hours coloring it in, but, you’d have the framework of the flower really quickly. So within 20 minutes, we have the form of the song. Then maybe another couple of hours going over it making sure it works.
JVG: I’ll just play a chord, and Anthony will be like, “Nope,” and I’ll play another, and he’ll be like, “Yep.”
AW: It’s like a cheesy movie.
JVG: Like that Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore movie.
Street: Music & Lyrics.
AW: OHHH that film. When we say we're songwriters to people, I think of that film, and then I don’t want to tell people I'm a songwriter.
JVG: I think of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers...
Street: We know many people that take more than a month to create their music.
AW: That’s being too scared to show anyone.
JVG: That’s being a perfectionist.
Street: What’s the best thing you’re wearing right now?
JVG: Don’t look at me right now. Someone should have told me we were taking pictures.
AW: My boots.
JVG (after some thought): At this exact moment? My pants. My mum bought me these pants for Christmas and they're a size too big, so they're huge on me.
AW: Mums are great at buying pants.
Street: I have to ask, there are a lot of questions online asking if you guys are...together.
JVG: There are.
Street: So are you?
JVG: It's irrelevant! We don’t like to talk about it. As soon as you start talking about stuff like that, it becomes less about the music. Even if we were dating, which I'm not saying we are, I still wouldn’t want to talk about this stuff. I wouldn’t even talk about my friends and family and other relationships. It’s about separating it.
AW: We don’t ever want to be celebrities.
JVG: People look for proof.
Street: Is there anything we should be looking out for in the future?
AW: We’re coming back to America in the summer!
There you have it. The band that took a risk, gained popularity and yet has stayed true to their original visions. Make sure to check out Oh Wonder this summer in the states. We recommend looking into 'Livewire' and 'Body Gold' on the album.