We speak to Oh Wonder about their new album Ultralife...
Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht hadn't been working as electropop duo Oh Wonder for very long when they began to make a serious name for themselves online. The way they worked was to write, record and release a song on the first of every month for a year on Soundcloud, songs that became so popular they were eventually compiled together for their self-titled debut album, which went on to sell over 500,000 copies.
Now a fully functioning band with touring commitments and a contract with Island Records, that was never going to be possible a second time, so instead, they retreated to their home studio in South London and crafted Ultralife, a more personal, more thoughtful and vibrant collection of songs.
We spoke to West and Gucht about how their new LP, which is out today and available to purchase on the right-hand side of the page, came together...
How did you want Ultralife to move on from what you did on your debut album?
"Our debut album was written, produced and released on a track-by-track basis. Whilst this was creatively fulfilling, each song was made in an independent vacuum, without any perspective or context. With Ultralife we were therefore really excited to conceive and create a body of work and wanted it to have a strong narrative arc and explore a wider variety of musical styles."
"We were also super inspired by playing so many festivals last summer, and tried to channel the vibrancy and energy that comes with playing to a field full of people in the sun; much of the new record features live takes with our bassist and drummer."
Has the way you write songs changed since your early days, or is it the same process most of the time?
"The writing process for each album was pretty similar in that we wrote all the songs at a piano and conceived the chords, melodies and lyrics before we sat in front of a computer. However whilst writing Ultralife, we were a lot more open to different sources of inspiration, and wrote songs based on one word, like ‘Ultralife’, a sound from our Prophet synth or personal experiences, which wasn’t as prevalent in the first album’s writing process."
You self-produced the album, did you ever consider getting in an outside producer?
"Never. After writing this record we felt like we still had so much to give as producers. We wanted to experiment with new sounds and test out the new analogue synths we had acquired from our travels. It’s important and fulfilling to do as much as you can yourself if you have the headspace and energy. Although if and when we hit a creative roadblock, collaboration might become interesting."
Tell us about the buses, they seem to feature quite a lot on the album?
"Ha! Well, our home studio is right on the corner of a busy intersection in South East London, and it’s also on a night bus route. Which means that whenever we recorded vocals, even in the middle of the night, it would be noisy. The opening of the album has Brooklyn street noise, police sirens and buses, as a little ode to the public transport that invaded our recording space."
What kind of album is this lyrically? Is there a common theme running through it?
"Ultralife is a lot more personal than our first album Oh Wonder. After releasing the first record we toured relentlessly around the world, which was simultaneously incredible and difficult. Touring is a bizarre, one-of-a-kind experience; it’s a mindset that you have to inhabit. You are away from your family, friends, home comforts and routine. Things like enjoying a nice shower and making breakfast become difficult or impossible, as you’re showering in a dark venue most of the time and eating whatever is on offer in the local vicinity."
How does that come across on the album?
"These sound like small complaints, but when you’re living on a bus for seven weeks, you crave being able to open your fridge and make yourself some scrambled eggs! That said, you then go from those moments of loneliness and longing to performing your songs on stage to thousands of people screaming your name.You get the depression and difficulty, and you get the adrenaline and exhilaration. You are living the extremes of humanness. And Ultralife for us is about understanding the need for both, and also the importance and value of finding someone of something that pulls you out of each and grounds you; something that makes you feel ULTRA."
Which song on the album took the longest to get right?
"'Lifetimes' took us the longest time a song has ever taken! The verse chords are from an unused song we wrote in New York called ‘Monolove’. Then we added in Anthony’s rap section when we back in England, wrote the chorus and then somehow glued them all together. And then even when it came to the production we were really struggling for a while. We experimented with so many musical styles, then we went to see Drake and it all became clear. We just needed time away from the track and to immerse ourselves in something completely different to understand what the song needed."
And which came together most quickly?
"‘Waste’ is very similar to the actual writing demo in terms of the vibe. We were writing in New York in a rented apartment and that day we’d bought a Prophet keyboard. It was really late, and we were just messing around with sounds and hit on that synth sound you hear on the track. And we just started singing. The final album version has much of the same vibe and feel as that original scratch writing demo. It wrote itself."
When did you settle on the title of Ultralife?
"That came right at the end actually. It was a word that we lived with for a while, ever since we wrote ‘Heavy’ in New York back in April 2016 and used the lyric ‘ultralife just you and me’. Ultralife sums up what the record is about for us, and how we’ve been feeling about our musical journey since we started releasing songs. Oh Wonder to us feels like some sort of ultralife. Most days, we just feel like we’re dreaming."
Were there any other titles in contention?
"We really wanted to call the album ‘Mono’, meaning one or alone, because the record explores that need for freedom and independence, but ultimately recognises that we all need people in our lives. However, America apparently recognises mono as a disease so we avoided it! In hindsight, it would have been quite a depressing title for the album we ended up making."
What are your plans to take the album out live?
"We’ve started our summer of European festivals, then we’re heading out to Asia and Australia in July before our official Ultralife World Tour in September when we’re hitting up 55 cities across America, Canada, UK and Europe. We’re so excited!"