Oh Wonder Explain The Meaning Of ‘Ultralife’ At Boston Calling

By Rami Abou-Sabe

Over the weekend, we caught up with internet sensations Oh Wonder at Boston Calling. The U.K. indie pop duo played a succulent 50-minute set in the blazing sun Saturday afternoon (May 27), under the only clear skies of the weekend.

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Beginning in September of 2014, the pair wrote, recorded, and released one song every month culminating in the September 2015 full-length Oh Wonder. One week later, the formerly unknown band kicked off their touring career with sold out shows in Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris.

Their self-titled debut peaked at #80 on the Billboard 200, but it’s their online success that is truly staggering. The SoundCloud darlings have racked up hundreds of millions of views across streaming platforms like Spotify and YouTube, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Fresh off the release of “Ultralife,” their catchiest single yet, Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West are poised to take the airwaves by storm.

Read on for our full conversation with Josephine of Oh Wonder.

It’s been a pretty quick rise for Oh Wonder, and it’s rare for a band to have such a strong following before you even play a show. How did that happen?

I don’t know! If I knew I would be a millionaire! I’d just have a formula that I would apply to everyone. But I don’t know, I think for people watching it feels like a very quick rise. But for us, we’ve been making music for 10 years, so we’ve played thousands of shows even before Oh Wonder. So many EPs and albums, that I guess it’s a combo of things…

It’s a combo of our experience in starting the project Oh Wonder and knowing exactly what we wanted to achieve from it. We have no qualms about saying no to things, which I think is quite a difficult thing to do when you’re a new artist. You just want to soak up everything and say yes to everything. And we were like, “Nope! We’re not playing shows for a year. We just don’t want to do it.”

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It’s also a combination of perseverance, hard work, luck – hugely luck – timing… the fact that SoundCloud was such a prevalent thing for people when we launched. And then we kinda came at the birth of Spotify, so we’re riding the streaming wave, which is really fortunate for us.

The way you release your songs has always been a bit unusual. From the staggered release schedule of your first album to the multiple versions of your newest single, “Ultralife.” I just heard the Abbey Road Piano Sessions version of “Ultralife,” and it’s a totally different take on the song! So what exactly is the ultralife to you?

For us, the song “Ultralife” is about finding something, or someone, that makes you feel ultra. But the reason we wanted to do those Abbey Road Piano Sessions is that first and foremost, Anthony and I are songwriters, and we’re avid believers in the importance of being able to take a song and play it at the piano, and it still means something to someone. To us, that’s the definition of a good song.

So “Ultralife”… Obviously, it’s jazzier, it’s got a different time signature, it’s in a different key… But it would have been conceived at a piano just the two of us. If you go on my phone there are demos of every single song, but it’s just us sitting at a piano. Because the best songs in the world, our favorite songs in the world, you can take any… Even the massive pop songs of today, you can strip them back and play them at a piano and they’re beautiful still.

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So we just wanted to experiment, because when you have a song like that that’s so stripped back, it’s fascinating as a producer to be able to take that song into any number of infinite realms of sound. You can have that massive summer pop production like the “Ultralife” single does, or you can just add some strings and leave it really raw and bare. It’s so fascinating that there’s an infinite number of ways it can go, and we’re so fascinated by that.

Now there are actually three versions with the acoustic edition too.

And there are another 17 coming guys! [laughs] No, no… We’re just experimenting. It’s a cool thing for us to be able to do.

And when it comes to performing the single, do you think you might do the piano version live?

For sure! We mix it up at shows. For this new run that we’re doing at the moment, we’ve added a breath of life into the old songs. We’ve written another bit in “Dazzle” and we’ve got some extra bits here and there, but we’ll definitely continue to mix it up.

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I have this dream… I haven’t told anyone this yet, you’re the first person… I’ve got this dream to score our album for a mini orchestra. I’d love to do it! We’re trying to work that out. So there will be another version of everything!

Can you imagine? What a privilege! Orchestras just get me weak at the knees. We’re big believers in classical music influencing and inspiring pop music. The two come hand in hand to us.

So you’re getting ready to play to a pretty big crowd here at Boston Calling, will it be any different than the rest of your shows on tour?

At festivals, we’re playing to an audience that doesn’t really know who we are or all of our songs. So there’s an element of, “Please listen to us and like us!” You’re trying to really over-perform, which is amazing because you can then be experimental with your performance.

And smaller shows, club shows where you’re intimate and sweaty, you can see everyone’s faces are unbelievable for that entire reason, but it’s privilege to be able to perform on a massive stage in the sun at Harvard Uni! It doesn’t get any better.

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