From internet to big stage, Oh Wonder startled by success

Shaun TANDON
Oh Wonder at Coachella in California this month

Soon after the London duo soon to be known as Oh Wonder first recorded a song and posted it on SoundCloud three years ago, the pair emailed the music-sharing site. Something was surely wrong.

"Every other project we've been part of, it was texting all our friends and on Facebook saying, 'Please come and listen to my new song!'" Oh Wonder's Josephine Vander Gucht said about the group's marketing at the time.

This time was different.

"We put the first Oh Wonder tune up anonymously on SoundCloud and within the first three days it was, like, 100,000 plays," she told AFP, still delighted.

There had been no mistake -- the music had found an unexpected global fan base. A new song followed every month, and now Oh Wonder enjoys more than 4.6 million monthly listeners on Spotify.

With a minimalist R&B sound built by piano and drum machines, Oh Wonder is defined by Vander Gucht and Anthony West singing in unison -- her mellifluous, soul-tinged vocals subtly undergirded by his sturdy instrument.

"I think the sound of Oh Wonder is our two voices together... to strip everything else back and let those voices do the talking, as it were," West said alongside Vander Gucht, the pair completing each other sentence's much as if they were making music.

- New album and unexpected tour -

Oh Wonder -- a name the duo chose on a whim -- has embarked on extensive touring, showing visible joy on stage when throngs of fans sway in recognition of their songs.

The pair played the two weekends of Coachella, the premier festival that closed Sunday in the southern California desert, enjoying a key sunset slot.

"Our band was never conceived as a live project at all," Vander Gucht said at the festival.

"So the fact that we have been pulled into this area of playing live is insane and the fact that we're playing Coachella is even more mind-blowing for us."

Now signed to the world's largest record label group Universal, the band releases the album "Ultralife" on June 16. Although technically Oh Wonder's second album, it feels like the first because the self-titled debut album was mostly a collection of earlier songs.

The title track to "Ultralife" reflects the duo's evolution to a fuller band, joined by a bassist and drummer.

Seeking a fresh space to explore their sound, Vander Gucht and West wrote much of the album in an Airbnb-rented apartment in Brooklyn's artist haven of Williamsburg after falling in love with New York.

"It's a non-stop city," West said. "London does sleep at night but New York doesn't, so it gave us a good energy."

- A global reach -

The album offered unexpected freedom for musicians accustomed to singles, Vander Gucht said.

"With an album you can say, oh no, I've got that ballad, I've got that disco-inspired tune, I won't write another one," she said.

"Even if you're in the confined guidelines of the structure of an album, it can actually facilitate some more experimentation, I think," she added.

The two first met when the classically trained Vander Gucht was playing a small gig at a London pub and West, a rock producer, fiddled with the lighting. It took them time to realize they had musical chemistry, a dynamic they still find eerie.

"It's really weird when we write lyrics," Vander Gucht said with a laugh. "We say the same thing. It's a bit creepy, like Drew Barrymore and Hugh Grant in the 'Music and Lyrics' Hollywood movie."

The two credit their breakthrough to the rapid rise of streaming, which gives listeners instant access and makes it easy for fans to share with friends.

Vander Gucht said she is continually amazed by Oh Wonder's global reach.

"We have people saying, 'Please come to Jakarta.' And I say, what? I've never even been to Indonesia!"