In the days leading up to the release of their fourth full-length studio record, I sat down with UK pop band Oh Wonder to discuss the sounds, emotions, and process behind the making of 22 Break. While being on record saying that this may be the first break-up album in history written and recorded with the person you’re breaking up with, Oh Wonder perfectly makes the listener feel every single emotion that both members were feeling during their creative process. Here’s what members Josephine and Anthony had to say about it:
You both have publicly stated that this may be the first breakup album in history written and recorded with the person you’re breaking up with. At what point did the both of you realize that you were writing a breakup record?
Anthony: I’d say it was like three-quarters of the way in
Josephine: Yeah, it took a long time for us to be like, hold on a minute, these songs are really really sad and about breaking up
A: We didn’t really start being like ‘oh let’s break up and write a breakup album.’ It was very much like the songs kinda told us what was happening
J: We started writing new music and then all these songs came out and that also then prompted loads more questions…so yeah that’s how it went! *laughs* It’s pretty weird.
It’s a really cool concept to explore especially at the tail end of the process – that’s really cool! Was everything written together? Or did both of you bring various pieces into the studio yourselves and put it together that way?
A: I’d say like 90% of it was together. There’s a couple of tracks where Josephine came to write lyrics and melody. Generally, some songs will start with a beat in here (their studio) and then you’d join…like “Rollercoaster” I think started like that.
J: Yeah, normally we write lyrics and we share that process whereas I think on this album when we had our own verses we kinda just wrote our own lyrics I guess? So we still shared all the music and stuff generally but some of the times when we sang some of those songs was the first time the other ones heard that lyric, which was quite a weird process because you’re like ‘oh THAT’S how you’re feeling’.
A: Yeah, it was kinda refreshing though. Instead of having to overthink too much and critique each other’s lyrics and lines you’re kinda just like cool! If that’s what it is!
J: We’re like “if that’s how you feel then that’s cool – record it”
A: And that was kinda the ethic for a lot of the sessions I think. Whatever comes out first is probably gonna be the most genuine.
J: Yeah, hence why it’s a little bit scrappy but in a very honest way I suppose. It’s just the first thing we thought of or the first thing we played.
Super interesting – the level of honesty throughout the record is really intense. Obviously, I don’t know you the way that you two know each other, but the level of honesty throughout the record to someone who’s an outsider to your relationship is really beautiful. Specifically, I’m thinking of lyrics like “Am I not good enough for you?” on Don’t Let the Neighbourhood Hear, and something as simple as “I wish I was free” on Free. So even though you’ve been musically together since 2014, as referenced on the record, were either of you scared to share any of these lyrics with each other?
J: Yeah…Free was a particularly horrible one for me cause you had come up with that guitar riff and then I was like “oh I’ll try to think of you playing that” and I just started singing “I wish I was free.” And then even in that song particularly with the verse lyrics were so specific to us. It talks about New Year’s Eve in 2013 which is kinda when we got together, and it’s like “fast forward to 20, both of us screaming alive at each other, ‘get out of my house’”. And then the last verse was the worst bit of the whole recording process to me because we’d recorded the song and then you (Anthony) were like “Oh we need a third verse.” And I was like oh crap well what do you say now? Like I guess this verse is like where we’re at now, so like we’ve done how we met, and we’d done this year, now it’s like what’s the future look like? And I just remember, like, getting my phone and kinda thinking “Oh I don’t know what to write.” Then I just got on the mic and I just sang that. Which is “I’m nervous to say it, not one to sleep with a stack of regret, but I’m sorry we got here, I wish I’d done more to save us, shoulda killed you with kindness.” I sang that whole verse and I just remember in the corner of my eye you were just watching and hearing it for the first time. We both finished it and started crying.
A: We started to bawl. That was fucking intense.
J: It’s so intense! Like you’d never say that to someone, not out of context of music to say that “I should’ve killed you with kindness”…you’d never say that! You’re wearing the cloak of music and it allows you to say more than I think you would normally.
Even going through songs like the opening track Baby to the very jazz-infused Dinner and throughout the rest of the record, the emotions are so incredibly strong and heavy. Were you aware of how strong the emotions really were during the process? Especially since you mentioned that you both didn’t really know what this project truly was until three-quarters of the way through, were you aware of how emotionally palpable this record is?
A: I don’t think quite on that level. We listen to it now and we’re like “woah” *laughs* I think at the time it was just we were feeling those things so it felt kinda normal – that was our tone at the time I guess.
J: But even “Dinner” I remember we wrote that and you (A) were like “that’s really angry, we can’t put that on the album it’s so angry.” We actually decided not to include it for so long, ’cause it’s so horrible. It’s a nice song but for us it’s unpleasant, and then we were like “well no cause that’s how it is so we have to include it.”
To me, there’s a really evident arc to the record. As I listened to the record for the first time, it felt like “Rollercoaster Baby” was a real turning point in the story that you both are telling. Is this one of the tracks that would’ve come towards the end of the writing process?
A: I think it was one of the later ones. Yeah, we were feeling a little bit brighter.
J: Yeah and we put it at that position because that’s when you flip over a vinyl. It’s the first track on Side B of the vinyl. But you’re right it’s a turning point because “Dinner” is so bitter and resentful and like “fuck you!” Then you turn it over and you’re like “oh okay what are we doing now!”
A: Yeah it picks up the pace. It was probably one of the last songs we wrote.
J: It did come a bit later didn’t it. The last song we wrote was “Kicking the Doors Down”, that’s the most hopeful song I think. Yeah, a lot of the early ones were written earlier for sure.
Well moving along to that song then, Kicking the Doors Down. To me, that’s undoubtedly the most beautiful song I’ve heard all year. It feels like the climax of the record to me, and while listening to it I felt like I was listening to you both fall back in love with each other. It’s a truly beautiful moment on the record. This being the last song you wrote makes it even more beautiful.
J: Aw thank you!
A: It was the last song wasn’t it?
J: Yeah, and I think it also represents a lot on the album. Every single lyric in that is different, we don’t repeat the chorus [as] you do in every other song. But you’re using Kicking the Doors Down as an expression that goes two ways. To me, it represents how you can see everything from two sides, and how you can interpret things differently. With the idea of “Kicking the Doors Down” you can be angry and be fucking slamming a door or yelling “get out” or whatever, OR you can see it as the two of you strongly breaking new ground and moving forward and knocking down the barriers that are holding you back. It was a lovely moment where we were like “Oh you CAN look at stuff in a new light and in two ways.” You can see stuff that was previously angry or aggressive or violent as beautiful really.
Thank you so much for that song – it’s extremely special. The final words on the album are sung by you Anthony, and from what I hear you say “I think we’re gonna make an album, never break since 2014.” Is that true?
A: Oh! It’s “and I will never break.” BUT, I like that!
J: We should’ve done that on the album! That’s way better.
A: I like it BUT that song will lead into something else which will come soon.
Personally, for me, music has always been my vice during emotionally tough times. You both used music as a method to really channel your feelings and really let everything out on this record. Like you said, you didn’t really realize you were writing a breakup album until three-quarters of the way through the process, but how cathartic was the recording process especially towards the end?
A: Yeah, you could say that it narrated what we were going through but I think it eventually cured what we were going through.
J: It’s sort of like therapy. Like when you go to a therapy session some days you go and you talk and you come out going “WOW I didn’t know I was feeling like that!” A lot of it can be really painful, but it’s only when you finish and you look back in hindsight that you see that it was healing. Cause some days, in my experiences with therapy, you can also come home drained and think “why have I just paid some stranger to make me feel like this?” But actually in the long run it is healing, and as you say some people write diary entries or focus on music. However, you vent is so important to exercise. You can exercise your feelings and emotions and ultimately heal. I think it brought us closer really…being that honest.
A: Yeah I think so. There were things that needed to be said but we could only say them with music.
As the supposed inaugural group to write a breakup record with the person you’re breaking up with, is this something that you’d recommend to other groups?
J: *Laughs* Yeah definitely! I mean someone also pointed out that it also happened to Fleetwood Mac which I forgot about. There were four of them though.
A: There were four of them and I think they were all sleeping together so it’s slightly different. Like a quad-breakup.
J: Yes BUT I would say it’s similar to how group therapy works. It’s really communication, that’s all this is. It’s communication and however, that takes its form. For us, it has to be in songwriting.
A: I’m sure there are two expressionist painters out there who would paint their way out. *Laughs* It’s just our way of doing it.
J: I’d recommend it cause we’re here now and we’re good.
Amazing! My final question is short – how would the two of you describe this record?
J: I would describe it as probably the most honest and authentic and vulnerable piece of art I will ever make in my lifetime. A record that I didn’t even know I could make.
A: Yeah…also a record that I don’t know how we made. When we listened back to it we were like “do you remember doing that?” We had no idea.
J: It was all a blur. We couldn’t tell you how it happened, which is gonna be troubling when people ask us how we made specific sounds because we literally don’t know. It all just came.
A: They’ll just think someone else made it! *Laughs* Yeah, the most authentic thing we’ve done. And it’s probably the closest you’ll ever feel to being inside our relationship.
J: Yeah! *Laughs*
22 Break is out now on all available platforms.