Oh Wonder Break Down Their Break Up Album That Brought Them Back Together
London duo Oh Wonder have built their sound on a strain of alt-pop that stands out for its effortless cool, with its fitting of winsome amorous sentiments to clean, understated productions. Members Anthony West and Josephine Vander Gucht have always come across as a musical couple in their songs, even though they only revealed that they were in a relationship upon the release of their third album, 2020’s “No One Else Can Wear Your Crown.” Much has transpired since then, with the pandemic arresting creative efforts, and their romantic chemistry almost dissolving — but ending with a pleasant twist.
The two documented their road to break up in real time, feeding off the friction and expressing their emotions musically. The result is an “almost” break up album with few parallels, capturing the energies of both individuals involved. Making it more unique yet is the turn of events that found West and Vander Gucht ultimately not only reconciling, but getting married. In this sense, Oh Wonder’s latest release, “22 Break,” is a testament to the power of music. Simultaneously, it confirms the value of drama and chaos in inspiring art, with the band taking on a new edge and exploring unanticipated musical directions, resulting in their most intimate record yet. The new material marks a shift toward raw spontaneity, and takes shape from the charged emotions at play. The songs still ring with the band’s characteristic light, spacious instincts, but also reveal new color and depth, with bouts of passion tempered with abundant saxophone frivolity.
Before they released their 2014 self-titled album, Oh Wonder released one single a month for a year. Given the thematic focus of this new album, however, they have emphasized the full body of work this time, going so far as to release the record with a full-length film accompaniment, capturing their emotional journey in a cohesive, multidisciplinary offering. Shortly after the album’s release, Oh Wonder spoke with Entertainment Voice about their new music, the story behind it and the future ahead.
“22 Break” is Oh Wonder’s most personal album to date. It’s essentially a breakup album, but unique in that it’s a musical collaboration between both of the individuals involved in the relationship, combining the drama and brooding of breakups with the elation of a hopeful ending — one that ultimately found the two of you getting married. Tell us a little about how the trajectory of the album captures your personal experience.
Anthony: I think we found ourselves, like a lot of the world, lost during lockdown with nothing but questions to ask about what we had at the time, which was our partners stuck inside. That was, kind of, the start of the process for us, right?
Josephine: Yeah. I think anybody, when they stop and take time, they ask themselves questions. We are songwriters, so by nature we don’t like burying things, and like addressing things. And last year, we addressed our relationship and asked questions — is it the right thing? What would it look like if we broke up? What is the future like? What happens if Oh Wonder didn’t exist? What would we have left? And I think that was the scariest question to ask, and that’s what prompted a lot of the conversations that then got so emotional, we had to just come in to the studio and use songwriting almost as a mediator, because in a studio, there is no ego. There is only respect and creative honesty and vulnerability. In some kind of weird way, if you’re writing a song, you can say anything you want and it’s not hurtful. It’s just you speaking your truth, and the other one already has to go, “Oh right, you’re saying that. That’s how you feel.” There’s no anger when you’re in the studio. So even though the songs are sad or angry, there isn’t any bitterness or resentment around them because it’s just like that’s how we were feeling. It sounds cheesy as hell, but we’re so grateful that we had music to help us navigate that time.
A song like “Free,” if I’d have said all of those things in real life, that would be a real weird place to inhabit. That song feels like I’m standing in this transparent bubble and Anthony is outside, and if he touches or pushes it the bubble will burst. It’s like you’ve created a world that you’re allowed to just move in. It’s like expressing yourself at your most vulnerable.
The title track, “22 Break,” derives its name from the refrain “It takes two to break a heart.” But this is also your fourth album, and you first teased its release on Instagram with a photo of both of your wrists tattooed with the number “2.” What does “2” and “22” mean to both of you and why did you choose to title the album and title track this way?
Anthony: So “22” has quite a few meanings.
Josephine: This album has eleven songs, and we’re hoping to release another eleven songs in the not-too-distant future, so it’ll be “22 Break” and hopefully “22 Make,” and combined, there’ll be 22 songs — break up and make up.
Anthony: It’s a number that we keep coming back to. It keeps popping up, so it feels very fitting for our world to be around that number now.
Josephine: And we are in two, and we’re two in work. We’re a duo, and it’s just a reminder that just because you come as a duo for work, it doesn’t mean you automatically come as a pair in your personal life. That takes work. As much as it takes two to break, it takes two to make. It’s about having respect for the culpability of any relationship. If you get complacent, I think that’s misguided. A relationship is two hearts.
You released black and white music videos for “Baby,” “22 Break” and “Don’t Let the Neighbourhood Hear,” which all portray a cohesive vision that was expanded into a 40-minute film and released in tandem with the album. How did you decide to give the whole album a visual treatment, and what inspired you from a cinematic standpoint?
Anthony: When we finished the album, we really wanted it to be heard as exactly that. We wanted people to listen from start to finish. The world is centered around tracks now, not albums. We wanted to do the opposite and make sure that everyone understood what we had been making through the whole medium, and we want the film to reflect that. I think it is a real portrayal of what we tried to make sonically. I think visually, it perfectly reflects what we were feeling. It’s dark, and kind of fucked up and weird, and kind of beautiful all at the same time. It’s like beautiful chaos. We worked with a director that we used many times before, and the whole thing was a challenge for everyone. It was a mad couple of weeks making that thing.
Josephine: Yeah. And it was directly after our wedding, so for us emotionally, it was pretty — pretty fucked up is the only way to explain it (laughs). Committing to someone forever, and having what’s meant to be the best day of your life, full of love, and then the next day, you’re having your face cast in prosthetic plaster because they’re making a creepy mask of you, and then you’ve got to argue with your new husband and tell him to fuck off, and they’re like, “Fantastic, keep rolling!”
Anthony: But we’re really glad that we had that now. The whole record really feels like it’s finished. It’s out there, with as much love as we could give it, and as much of ourselves as we could give it. It’s there.
“Don’t Let the Neighbourhood Hear” has a feeling of controlled chaos that fits with the title, as your impassioned vocals swell and distort, followed by a wailing saxophone that gently winds down. Tell us about how the dynamics and sentiments of this track came together.
Josephine: That song was one of the weird ones that just appeared, and it captured perfectly in its sentiment what we were going through, which is we’re in a soundproof studio at the end of our garden, having screaming matches. And you’re always worried the minute the door opens that anyone will see that actually you’re really struggling. And I think that’s kind of a microcosm of how the world is at the minute — pretend that everything’s fine and crack on. I see vulnerability as a strength and super power, but the world isn’t quite caught up yet. The album is full of urgent honesty, and it does border on anger and resentment and bitterness. A song like “Dinner” as well is just seething with pain. And yet, we wanted to probably counteract it with this luscious saxophone that’s coming in. It really reminds me of George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” You put it on for, like, sexy time, but it’s in this horrendous landscape of shouting, and I think it’s that juxtaposition that was our life for so long. We were really sad, and we’d have to go out for dinner with friends and pretend that everything was fine. And I suppose the music reflects that — just keep going, and it is itself. And that’s how we recorded it. They’re all our original demo vocals. It’s unpolished and pretty raw.
Anthony: It’s about committing to stuff on the way, really. That really informed the sound, all the imperfections. There were loads of imperfections that ultimately led to…
Josephine: Something perfect.
Anthony: Something perfect that we wouldn’t change. Our previous records had become more polished, and this one, the more we did it, the more we decided we could push that side of things, in terms of how honest and raw we could get it. Even though the drums on the record — most of it is a lot of room mics, and it’s single takes, and I wouldn’t go back and change anything. A lot of albums I would listen back to, and I’m like, “Oh, probably I could have explored more with that sound or tweaked that.” With this one, I’m kind of like, “That is the only thing it could have been.”
Josephine: And the first time we sang every song was the best take. We tried to rerecord a couple of them weeks later, and there wasn’t that honesty.
Anthony: Something about when you sing or say something for the first time, it’s true.
Josephine: And sometimes, it was the first time that the other one had heard that lyric, even — which is also terrifying though because you sing it and just look over, and there’d be so many times when both of us would just be welling up and crying. Imagine having an argument with someone, but whatever you’re saying (laughs), gets immortalized in either lyrics or in stone, and you can reread it back. It’s kind of like rereading back a transcript of your argument, and when you put it like that, it’s so weird because you’re just saying things from the heart. You’re not really thinking about it, and when you read it back, you’re like “Oh man, I felt like that. That’s really dark.”
Anthony: (Laughs) But we’re fine now. It’s all good.
“Kicking the Doors Down” stands out as a song that expresses a change of heart. Considering that the album follows your own personal narrative, shed light on this track as a pivotal moment, and how its placement in the overall story made its way into the music.
Anthony: Yeah, that was a real turning point. Instrumentation-wise, it suddenly feels light, doesn’t it?
Josephine: Yeah, it’s really stripped back. But all the lyrics, there’s not one lyric the same. Even the choruses are exchanged. It just takes you from that first chorus, when you’re in love, and you’re enamored with someone, and then the second verse, the lyric is “Somehow you’ve grown into an island.” And I think that’s literally you thinking you’re self-sufficient, and don’t need to rely on anyone else. You’re just there in a moat around you and not letting anyone in. And that’s not a very pleasant place to be in. And then, there’s hope in the end of it, and we wanted to use “Kicking the Doors Down” because you can see that from one side as a really angry sentiment of “I’m just going to slam doors in your face.” There’s anger and physicality there. Or you could see it as —
Anthony: Let’s do this together.
Josephine: Let’s do this together, and let’s hold hands and break down another door.
Anthony: Yeah, it really feels like that’s where the light starts coming into the record.
Josephine: When you see the same thing from two different sides, and one is negative, but you can also see the same thing in a different light, and it’s beautiful and empowering and powerful.
You’ve spoken of how your final pre-pandemic concert left a void that expressed itself in the magnification of latent anxieties. This makes its way into your new music, with songs like “Rollercoaster Baby,” letting out a whirlwind of emotion and a cool composure simultaneously. Expand on the impact the pandemic had on both of you individually, as a couple and as a band?
Anthony: I think, for us, we’ve never really stood still and stopped in our tracks, and the pandemic, for us, was doing literally that. We were in the middle of a show and we got told to go home. So we suddenly started getting a lot of perspective and therefore a lot of question marks.
Josephine: Yeah, and the pandemic was different for everybody, right? And let’s face it, we’re in a super privileged position, and we got to continue to write songs and make music throughout, and we feel so lucky to at least have had that. But there is a grief there, and I think it speaks to how powerful art is, and how important art is, and creation. For us, it sounds really like wallowing, (laughs) but there was a loss. We’d spent a year and a half making a record. We’d spent two months psychologically preparing to tour it. And touring is weird, so you have to kind of get into a headspace. And then you’re pumping your body physically with adrenaline and that kind of feeling of like “Oh, I have purpose and meaning.” I think most artists would say that they feel defined by their work, and it’s so tied up in their identity and how they navigate the world, and for that just to be pulled — nobody wants to make a song that’s never heard. The intention isn’t fulfilled. We’d hyped ourselves up to present this body of work and been denied the opportunity. We’d go to our storage unit where all our touring stuff was, and all these boxes full of t-shirts with world tour dates that have never happened.
Anthony: But it was also one of those things that we couldn’t talk about, outside of each other, because actually everything is great.
Josephine: Everything is fine. We had our health. But then, it was like you’re battling this, but really silently, and you can only take it out on each other, really — which is kind of how our life goes. We have these mad experiences, and also, you can’t really share the highs with anyone because everyone’s like, “What the fuck do you mean you played Madison Square Garden or headlined the forest in Indonesia?” It’s so unrelatable to our friends, so we just don’t talk about our music ever.
Anthony: Musically, if we hadn’t had that break in time, I don’t think we would have made this record, soundwise, because we had that chance to remove ourselves from the music industry. No one had heard any of these songs until we submitted our masters, so it gave us a chance to experiment and express ourselves in a way that we hadn’t known was there, maybe, or hadn’t had the time or space to do it before.
The album concludes with “Twenty Fourteen,” titled after the year you two got together. The song appears to have been written in the throes of romantic struggles, with lyrics like “I’m about to crack,” but it resolves with a coda in which Anthony sings, “I’ll never break, since twenty-fourteen.” Tell us the meaning behind this one and why it was chosen as the final track on the album?
Anthony: I think the delivery of it is overall positive. You could probably read all those lyrics and be like, “Woah this is dark,” but somehow, with the kind of composition we ended up using, it feels overall positive even though it’s kind of dark and weird. There’s a lot of hope in the sound of even the way Josephine played the piano on it. It’s so defiant and strong. I listen back to it now, and I’m like, “Fuck, this is a real display of strength.” Especially after a song like “Kicking the Doors Down,” which is like a discovery of positivity, that song is like, “No, this is now. Let’s build, build, build on this.”
Josephine: Also, lyrically, the pre-chorus is “Opposites attract / What the hell is that?” because I think it’s really easy in a relationship to go to all the literature and the psychotherapy, like “Are we compatible?” and “What’s your love language?” — but I think it all ultimately comes down to do you love this person?
Even though this is poisonous, and we’ve been bitten by some sort of venomous snake of unlove, or hate I suppose, actually, deep, deep, deep, deep down, we’re meant to be together, so it’s like a fuck you to everything that’s trying to go against us. Let’s just crack on, and I think we’re going to make it.
Anthony: Yeah, I feel like if someone’s going for a run, they could run through walls with that song.
Oh Wonder is embarking on a world tour Spring of 2022. What are you most looking forward to about getting back on the road and performing in-person for your fans?
Anthony: Man, exactly that. Just that feeling, the inexplicable bit that we can’t explain to each other.
Josephine: If you’re connecting to strangers in a way is all that it is, really. You’re fine, you’re in a new city, you’re going to a cool place for lunch, you’re getting a poke bowl —
Anthony: It all builds up to this thing, and then you’re like, “Oh my god, what was that? How do I do it again? Oh, we’re doing it tomorrow. Great.”
Josephine: (Laughs) You’re basically turning up to an empty room and then letting a thousand people that you’ve never met before in, and then you’re all having the same communal experience.
You recently opened your own cafe, Nola, in the Peckham district of London. Share a little about your vision behind the coffee and brunch spot, and whether you have any plans to expand it. Possibly across the pond?
Anthony: Oh, that would be nice.
Josephine: That would be the dream.
Anthony: We obviously kind of got a little lost at the start of lockdown, and Josephine and I tend to need things to do (laughs). It’s always been probably a bigger dream of mine, but Josephine has always been very supportive of it. We travel around the world, visiting many amazing coffee shops, and I’ve taken notes along the way and realized that it’s not that hard to open a great shop if you have the values in the right order. And our values were that it needs to be an amazing place where people feel welcome, essentially. The best shops we always ended up in are always where we just feel welcome.
Josephine: Someone’s happy to see you.
Anthony: Happy to see you. Gives you navigation somewhere else cool, and they’re happy to share another cafe with you around the corner, something like that.
Josephine: Anthony is a madman. He designed the whole thing. We’ve got slamming coffee on the machine, and a real amazing bunch of staff who are all kind of creative — ceramicists, graphic designers, actors, fashion designers, all sorts of people who were in a pickle during Covid and had lost their jobs like us, and we kind of empowered lots of people from our neighborhood, and gave them jobs. And it’s a way to still have that collective consciousness that we have at shows that we were talking about. It feels really similar — like working in a coffee shop (laughs). You’re like, “I’m part of something that’s bigger than just me.” It takes a wealth of people to take an order — to report, to source the coffee, to roast the coffee, to dial it in, to design the bags, and then pour the latte up. Whatever it is, you’re a cog in the machine, making a collective of people feel good, and I think there’s so much joy in that. So that was our way of being able to feel that, without having to leave London.
Hell yeah, plans for a second one. We’ve just got to do a world tour and make another album, and then we’re definitely going to do number two.
Any other plans on the horizon that you would like to share?
Anthony: Musically, there’s definitely some stuff coming out. There’s more tour dates to be announced, and we come to the US in April.
Josephine: And at some point, I don’t know when, we’re going to take a honeymoon.
“22 Break” released Oct. 8 on Apple Music.