Oh Wonder Share the Backstories of ‘No One Else Can Wear Your Crown’
London’s Oh Wonder are a band that don’t sound quite like any other. The duo of Josephine Vander Gaucht and Anthony West write piano-based tunes that put an emphasis on songwriting, but fashion them in crisp pop productions, resulting in a sound that bears, at once a vaguely nostalgic richness and a decidedly contemporary, minimal edge. The story of the group’s rise to fame is also one specifically of the moment, as they made a name for themselves largely by posting songs on Soundcloud. The response was massive, and since then the band has released two critically acclaimed records and gone on multiple international tours.
Gaucht’s and West’s 2014 self-title debut made them an international success, and their 2017 followup “”Ultralife” brought them to Abbey Road and beyond. Their latest album, “No One Else Can Wear Your Crown,” is full of alt-pop songs written from clever, novel angles. There is an overarching sentiment, expressed in the title, of confidence and empowerment. Along the way, there are love songs backed by their own stories, a judicious mix of dark and light aesthetics, and an overall irresistible set of tunes. Vander Gaucht spoke with Entertainment Voice about the bands history and influences, and dove into the origins, meanings, and sonics of the songs off their lastest record.
Oh Wonder began by releasing one song each month for a year. It seems like there’s no shortage of novel ways to promote yourself. How do you think this way of releasing music specifically affected the trajectory of your career?
I think it was quite instrumental in getting our music out there, for sure, at the beginning. I think nobody had done it recently. I think there was a band called the Wedding Project that did it years and years and years ago, which we didn’t know. We just were so lucky to tap into this community of listeners on Soundcloud that had such an appetite for new music, and to do it in installments was really lovely, like waiting for the next Friends episode to come on TV (laughs). It’s so awesome to be able to release thirteen singles, and not have to highlight any, like “This is the single.” We just celebrated all of the songs we had been writing.
You play a strain of music with a type of elegant minimalism, and there are few artists that sound much like you. What are some specific sounds and artists that shaped this aesthetic?
I don’t think we necessarily sound like any of our favorite artists, but we both share very similar favorite artists. We grew up listening to people like Carol King and James Taylor and Elton John, the songwriters of that generation before us who were all about the art of the song. And they wrote songs that could be translated at a piano with just the vocals. So I think that’s how Anthony and I start when we’re writing songs. We always make sure that our songs can be played at a piano, and mean something, and make someone feel something.
And in terms of the production side, we listen to Bon Iver and James Blake and Feist, some of our favorite bands, but I wouldn’t say we necessarily sound like any of them (laughs). But we’ve kind of carved out this niche sound for us where it’s piano based, because I play the piano, and then Anthony loves electronic production.
How did you come up with your new album title “No one Else Can Wear Your Crown,” and what does it mean to you?
The title is taken from a song called “Dust,” which opens the record, “When people try to get you down / Remember that I’m here for you / No one Else Can Wear Your Crown / It’s yours, just yours.” We had written the album, and were trying to figure out what to call it. Everybody has this metaphorical crown, which is theirs to wear. They’re the ruler of their own lives. They make the decisions, and they’re in charge. And I think the album is just a response to people in our lives that have been like, “Oh, you’re not good enough to do music.” Like I remember when I was seventeen, this guy, after I played a festival, came up to me, and was like, “You should just give up. Just quit while you’re ahead. You’re never going to make it.” “Hallelujah” is kind of like our response to that, trying to encourage people to just not listen to naysayers, and just crack on in spite of everyone else, I suppose.
“Happy” is about finding happiness in a previous paramour taking a new romantic interest, something that ego and jealousy rarely allow for. How did you even manage this?
Mmm… Yeah, that’s actually specifically written about Anthony’s ex girlfriend. We were in a session, and we were like, “What should we write about?” and he had seen a picture on Instagram, and he was like mourning — in her wedding dress, getting married to her husband. And we were just thinking, “Who is ever pleased for their ex partner?” That’s such a rare feeling, but one that I guess we ultimately aspire to have, that you just wish someone well. So we wrote about that.
My version of it is “I Wish I Never Met You,” more cynical and bitter (laughs). Anthony is clearly a lot more mature than me, but yeah, that was the inspiration for “Happy.”
“I Wish I Never Met You” might be the cheeriest sounding song, which one wouldn’t expect from the title. How did you decide to fit this type of sentiment to this type of tune?
Yeah, it sounds like it’s supposed to be some vicious tune, but I think we wanted to balance the happy, joyful strings with this actually quite dark sentiment. I went through this phase when I was younger when basically all my boyfriends cheated on me, and I just had really bad issues.
“In and Out of Love” comes with a backstory of you both getting into a relationship, and seems to effectively capture the spirit of excitement that comes with new romance. Expand on the backstory and how the song came together.
That’s the song that we wrote in like five minutes, and we just trying to think of a way of writing a love song, and saying something that hadn’t been said before, so that song is basically trying to say, “If I never had met you, I’d still, on some level, be waiting for you, and dating all these people, but they weren’t the one, because I’d still be waiting for you,” kind of thing. If you believe in the concept of the one, I guess that’s our version of trying to find the one.
On “Nebraska” you sing of traveling to Nebraska, Rome, deserts, and swamps, only to ultimately resolve, “Can’t get you out my mind ’cause you’re still home,” quite a romantic idea. Nebraska, out of all places, however seems like an interesting choice for the focus. Why Nebraska?
(Laughs) Well, we’ve been to forty-seven states of America, which we’ve played in, and we have left on the list Alaska, Hawaii, and Nebraska. And Hawaii didn’t seem very good, and Maggie Rogers has taken Alaska, so we went with Nebraska (laughs). So this is our plea to get the good people of Nebraska to invite us for a show.
There are five of your new songs with acoustic versions. What led you to include these, and which acoustic rendition takes the furthest departure from the standard version?
Ooh, I guess we wanted to showcase the songs how we wrote them. A lot of them had been written at a piano. I think the unplugged version of “Hallelujah” which we did with a gospel choir, is probably the one that I’m most proud of. It’s kind of a dream for us to record with a gospel choir, so I’m really proud of that one.
A lot of your songs seem to have fascinating backstories and original messages. Is there another specific one that stands out?
I guess there’s a song called “How It Goes,” which is basically about — it’s kind of strange, but you know how Craig David has that song called “Seven Days?” It’s kind of like that, but for sad people. It’s just acknowledging that some days, you wake up and you’re like, “Brilliant, everything’s going great,” and then, you know, you wake up the next day, and you’re in this pit of despair, or you don’t really know what you’re doing with your life, and then you wake up the next day, and you’re like, “I feel brilliant again.” I guess that song is about the tumultuous nature of being a human, and actually it’s kind of saying that nobody has got it all together all the time. Everybody has highs and lows, and it’s ok.