The name Oh Wonder might give it away, but there’s something refreshingly earnest about the East London twosome that has trickled into the music world’s subconscious over the past year. Well, “trickled” might be an understatement; Oh Wonder has amassed nearly 18 million streams since they started, just over a year ago, releasing one song a month on Soundcloud. Now, at the end of 13 viral songs, they’re collecting them all—plus a couple extras—on a self-titled debut album, and setting out on a much-anticipated tour of the US and Europe.
When we meet in New York, Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West are precisely how you would hope they would be: humble, eager, and somewhat in disbelief about the whole affair—particularly because their music is something of an antithesis to the beat-heavy, substance-light EDM tracks that tend to live fast and die young on the Internet, forgotten in the graveyards of music bloggers’ “picks of the day.” While some have classified Oh Wonder as EDM, Josephine takes exception to that. “I didn’t even know what EDM stood for until someone said we were on an EDM blog. I was like, what’s EDM? Electric Dance Music. I said, but you can’t dance to our music, we’re not EDM!”
It’s true; dancing would not be most people’s first inclination upon hearing Oh Wonder, whose lush ethereal vocals drive the often-melancholy melodies, with lyrics pulling from experiences of estrangement and quests for connection. Loneliness, they say, is the refrain one hears most when looking at the album as a whole.
“It’s human tendency to feel lonely,” Josephine says, “Everybody feels lonely. A lot of people are depressed; I think it’s pretty much just a human thing. I don’t necessarily think that it’s specific to big cities, but I do think it’s particularly prevalent in big cities where you can get lost really easily and lose a sense of what you are trying to achieve. It can be a really scary knowing that if you don’t like doing your job someone else will come sit in your seat and do it for you. You have to be constantly on the ball. This record kind of examines that loneliness, and tries to provide a little bit of comfort, I think, for those people who are feeling isolated or fearful, or just very overwhelmed.”
Anthony says their time in London gave them a deeply personal perspective on this experience. “We have both been very lonely in London. My first year in London, I stayed in a flat in East London and worked from home, and I realized I couldn’t work at home. I wouldn’t speak to people for days.”
They both agree that social media is a big factor in the phenomenon. “A lot of the time people use it as a bit of a boasting platform,” Anthony says, “I feel like people try to promote what they’re doing. And while they’re doing that, that’s great for them. But this guy over here, he’s not feeling good about himself, and he sees all of these people doing amazing things and how is he going to feel? He’s going to sink even lower.”
Josephine confides that even as their fame has gained velocity and changed their lives in ways that most people would inarguably be envious of, her feelings about social media haven’t changed. “It’s awful. Everyone is always having a better burger than you! When I spend just minutes on Facebook, I feel so bad about myself. And yet we all continue to use it.”
Still, it seems as if they’ve both found something of a respite in each other. “Honestly,” Josephine says, “Anthony is the only person I’ve written with where I think what we came out with was a better song than what I could have done on my own.”
The duo say their inspirations were similar when they started making music, and perhaps unsurprisingly, their first musical loves were icons of lyric poetry. “We both grew up in families that listened to James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Elton John,” says Anthony.
“So actually nothing similar to the music that we are writing,” Josephine says, laughing. “It’s really weird because our first reviews from blogs and stuff said we sounded like people we had genuinely never heard of. People say we sound like The xx and I’ve never listened to The xx. I listened to them and was like, “Oh okay I see that.”
How then, you might ask, could a musical act produce a viral set of songs in a genre they know nothing about?
“We just sort of tried it!” Anthony says. “I have a song pack on my computer. Made a beat for Body Gold. The next track, let’s try that again.”
We’re all pretty happy they did.