Oh Wonder UltralifeJosephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West are Oh Wonder; we asked them about the alt-(lolly)pop goodness of breakout album Ultralife.

You’ve said you initially released songs on SoundCloud with the intention of pitching them to other artists. How did you navigate out of the old approach (that you were going to let your babies go to someone else) and into the new (keeping the babies)?

The first album began as a writing project so our own personal lives aren’t really reflected back in any of those first 15 songs. We wrote Ultralife however, in the midst of a mammoth touring schedule, which was simultaneously incredible and difficult. Touring is a bizarre, one-of-a-kind experience; you get the depression, and you get the adrenaline – you are living both extremes of humanness. And so listening back to Ultralife, we can see us internalising both elements, and battling with the need for independence vs the need for our family and friends back home. So in that way our songwriting is a lot more personal.

 

What was the studio space in Josephine’s mum’s garden like? It sounds pretty idyllic, but maybe there were spiders.

It was actually pretty sweet! We were hidden from the outside world by this huge willow tree. There were a lot of planes overhead though, and we once saw a man in the garden trying to rob the house when we were working in the early hours, so that wasn’t as idyllic. You win some and you lose some.

 

Do all songs begin their lives on the piano, or do you ever begin with beats?

All the songs start at the piano. We are big believers in the importance of being able to strip a song back and play it with just chords and a melody. The best songs can be peeled back to their core and still translate emotionally. It’s very easy to disguise an average song in glittery production.

 

The piano chords during the verses of Lifetimes remind me of Elton John’s Bennie And The Jets – is he a pianist you guys have ever deliberately thought of as an influence?

Elton John is one of our biggest influences! We both grew up on his songs and went to his live concerts as kids, and he was a huge inspiration for the way Josephine learned contemporary piano. In fact, throughout every recording process Anthony always instructs Josephine to “play less like Elton.” Elton’s style is all about the travelling and the movement and the beautiful little piano melodies that weave their way around the vocal melody. Josephine is in love with Elton’s style, whereas Anthony recognises the occasional need for simple, static chords. It wasn’t until a fan pointed out the Bennie influence that we even noticed that though. That just seeped in unknowingly.

 

You most often sing in unison on the same note (instead of harmonies), which is an unusual thing! Did you plan it to be a distinctive quality about your music, or did it just unfold that way?

It just happened that way! But we have since realised it is a distinguishing feature of our music – you can put any kind of production under our dual vocals and it still sounds like us. It’s a liberating anchor to work with. We really took advantage of it on this new album, as the consistency of the dual vocals meant we could experiment with different musical styles and production ideas.

Where did you find the robotic voices for High On Humans?

We used an online human voice generator! We listened through to about 100 different accents saying “I’m getting high on humans”. That was a weird day in the studio.

 

The term ‘ultralife’ pops up on Heavy, as well as the album’s title track of course. Is it something you’d heard elsewhere, or an original phrase you guys came up with?

We came up with it! We’ve since discovered it’s a brand of battery (!) but it popped out whilst we were writing Heavy and we fell in love with it as a concept so then went on to write the song Ultralife.

 

Did you both arrange the beautiful strings on My Friends?

Josephine grew up playing classical violin so she arranges and scores all the strings for our music. One of the highlights for the first album was recording the strings for ‘Drive’ and ‘Livewire’ in Studio 2 at Abbey Road. That was a pretty special moment. Strings carry all the heartache and magic.

 

There’s some warping of your voices, in the background, on gorgeous closer Waste. Is the phrase “elf-like words” in this song or did I imagine it to match that little creature melody?

You have imagined that! There are no concrete lyrics; it’s Anthony losing his mind in the studio. We wanted to play around with our voices a little bit, and Waste was the perfect opportunity to do that. It has so much space.

Ultralife is out July 14 via EMI.

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