Discovery: Oh Wonder

By
Photography James Ryang

Published September 3, 2015

OH WONDER IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, AUGUST 2015. PHOTOS: JAMES RYANG. STYLING: MAC HUELSTER. HAIR: LISA-RAQUEL AT SEE MANAGEMENT USING BUMBLE AND BUMBLE. MAKEUP: MARK EDIO AT SEE MANAGEMENT USING NARS COSMETICS. PHOTO ASSISTANT: RUBY JUN. SPECIAL THANKS: OPEN AIR MODERN.

At the beginning of every month for the past year, South East London-based duo Oh Wonder released one song via their Soundcloud. Through this method Anthony and Josephine (whose surnames remain unknown) garnered millions of plays, topped HypeMachine charts, and captured the interest of Republic Records, the label with which they’re now signed. Two days ago, they released “Heart Hope” and tomorrow marks the release of their self-titled debut album—an official compilation of the past year’s catalogue plus a few unreleased tracks.

The intimate 15 tracks explore possibilities that lie beneath and beyond everyday, relatable experiences, including everything from gambling addictions and New Year’s resolutions, to riding the metro and being dumped. The two harmonize soothing vocals atop calming backing tracks with bass- and key-based production in the same minimal vein as The xx and James Blake. On a track like “All We Do,” Josephine and Anthony sing, “All we do is chase the day / All we do is play it safe / All we do is live inside a cage…I’ve been upside down / I don’t want to be the right way round,” expressing the desires to find nuances within the mundane.

Although some duos contradict each other and build from those creative differences, when we meet Anthony and Josephine in midtown Manhattan, their pure chemistry becomes clear, as they finish each other’s sentences and often say the same exact thing at the same time. And we aren’t the only ones to notice: When they met through a mutual friend, Josephine remembers, “It was the first time I ever sat back and thought someone was a mirror of me. Our outlook on life, our interests, the songs we listen to, and what we like to do to wind down and be creative is identical.” Anthony immediately continues, saying, “You normally have to compromise a little bit when you’re writing. There was none of that. We were just bouncing off each other as if we were in a mirror, talking at yourself.”

NAMES: Josephine and Anthony

BASED: South East London

GROWING UP: Josephine: I grew up in London. London was amazing in terms of being able to go to shows as a kid; I went to shows all the time. I used to queue really, really early and go see my favorite bands after school. The first concert I went to see I was like 13, or 14. I went to see a band called Hard-Fi. I had never been in a mosh pit  and wore sandals to this gig. [laughs] Like, “This is going to be so much fun!” and then everyone started going crazy. I was really freaked out. But I just thought it was so cool, to be able to perform for that many people, to curate a space where it’s just you as an artist and a room of people and you’re all in the moment.

Anthony: I grew up very differently to Josephine. I was born on this tiny island called the Isle of Man. It’s in between England and Ireland, not really part of the U.K. It takes half an hour to drive from end to the other, grew up there for nine years. I always lived by the sea there, and then I moved to Canada for a year and lived by the sea. Then I moved to England, and my village was the furthest point away from the sea in England, so I had to cut all ties with seeing the ocean. I grew up in the countryside.

FROM A YOUNG AGE: Josephine: I had piano, singing, and violin lessons from the age of five, so I was always in the orchestras, and I played all the hymns in assembly in my primary school. Whenever the music teacher was away, I would sneak on the piano and play. I loved, not necessarily singing, but certainly performing from a really young age. When I was about 14, 15, I was playing predominantly classical music, and then found people like Norah Jones and Vanessa Carlton. When that “Thousand Miles” tune came out it was like, “Oh my God, I want to play that!” I was sitting there like, “These phenomenal women are writing their own songs, they’re singing their own songs, they’re playing piano on their own songs—this is really cool.” That was my first introduction to that idea of being self-sufficient and writing all your own music and singing your own music, rather than playing someone else’s. That was the turning point for me, when I was like “This could be really fun to write songs and sing them.”

Anthony: For me it was my uncle, who is a bluegrass musician. He lives in Kansas now, and he used to come over and tour Europe when I was a kid, so I would see him once a year. He used to come over in the summer and teach me guitar. At the time I didn’t have a guitar—I was probably about 10 or so—but he kept coming over and I kept being really interested. Then one day he sat me down and was like, “You could probably do this, if you wanted,” and gave me one of his guitars. After that, he came back and gave me another lesson. I saw the life that he had: he was touring, and he’s got kids but they’d come over there and he’d tour with his wife, literally like a family on the road. I saw that it was possible, and an awesome lifestyle. If you can be disciplined, he taught me that you can do music and make it a career.

ONE SONG, ONE MONTH: Josephine: This whole project we wanted to start as a way to create a show reel, like a portfolio of songs, because we wanted to be songwriters first and foremost. So, we thought why not set ourselves a deadline? As a creative person, it’s important to have structure, and goals, and deadlines because you don’t get that [from other people]. Someone just goes, “Make an album at some point.” People wait years, put it off, and procrastinate, so if we set ourselves this really concrete deadline that we have to stick to, that will ensure that, after a year, we’ve got our catalog of songs. [It’s] pretty much a way of disciplining ourselves.

THEMATIC EXPLORATIONS: Josephine: I think the things that unite all the songs are human relationships and the importance of love and being there for people. London, like New York and big cities, is so fast paced that you have so little time to stop, sit, reflect, and realize you’re sitting next to someone on the tube. You don’t talk to people on the tube, and that’s really sad, because we’re all people. There would be amazing cities if everyone did connect with each other on something higher than just making money, which is really important obviously—people need to make money—but there’s stuff that’s more important. Basically, what we’re trying to explore in the album.

Anthony: “Heart Hope” definitely encapsulates all of that. We all need a little heart hope—something deeper than everyday life.

MORE THAN MUSIC: Josephine: We watch a lot of movies, don’t we? We just finished The Jinx. It’s HBO, about Robert Durst, the creepy guy who looks like Uncle Fester and killed people. We love crime documentaries, which is really weird and dark. [laughs]

Anthony: We just shot a music video, and the main inspiration was True Romance, which is such an awesome film.

Josephine: We watched it the night before we shot the video. The director, for weeks, was like “It’s going to be really inspired by True Romance,” and when I watched it I was like, “Oh my god, this is so warped and weird. I can’t believe we’re shooting a video inspired by this.” And we eat a lot; that’s our main hobby.

PLAYING LIVE: Josephine: Our live show will have us and a bassist and a drummer. Our music is really minimal and sparse, which we didn’t actually realize until we started working it out for a live show, so we’ve infused a bit of musicality into it. Anthony’s going to play the guitar on a lot of the tunes that don’t usually have guitar parts. We’ve incorporated lots of little opportunities to have a little jam.

FIRST JOB, FIRST BROOKLYN GIG: Josephine: It’s really weird [that our first American show will be at Rough Trade in Brooklyn], because I used to work at Rough Trade, the very first one, Rough Trade East [in London]. I was the Sunday girl when I was 18. I used to stack records and watch all the in-stores—bands coming in, just always watching them and being like “One day I really hope I’ll be playing an in-store!” Now I’m not even playing an in-store; it’s a full two gigs in Rough Trade New York. It’s cool how it’s come full circle. It’s going to be really odd—really, really odd—but we’re so excited.

FOR MORE ON OH WONDER AND TO PRE-ORDER THE ALBUM, VISIT THE DUO’S WEBSITE