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Oh wonder

As That Woman, Josephine Vander West is stepping into her own

27 June 2024, 12:00

Laying the past to rest and graduating girlhood, Oh Wonder singer and songwriter Josephine Vander West continues to strengthen and expand her creative scope as That Woman.

“I genuinely don't mind if I never put this record out,” smiles Josephine Vander West from her home in South London. “I have loved making it and needed to make it and feel like I've now finally become a woman, which is why I guess this name is apt. I’ve finally put my younger self to bed and allowed myself to flourish and move on.”

Originally making music in her teens as Jose Vanders, she then performed under the moniker LAYLA, before a writing session with now-husband Anthony West led to the quick escalation of collaborative project Oh Wonder and rapid success. “It came out of absolutely nowhere,” laughs Vander West. “It was probably eight years I'd been writing songs and putting them on the internet. It felt like I'd done five-hundred gigs and slept on enough floors, but then all of a sudden we put a song out and it was just different. I knew it was strange and unusual and insanely lucky. It's the strangest thing to finally get real validation.”

For the past decade, Oh Wonder have been writing, recording and touring together enjoying global success and a comfortable career. Announcing her new solo project That Woman, Vander West is picking up the thread she accidentally dropped ten years ago. Rather than a fresh start, it feels like a continuation. “That's exactly it, that’s what it feels like to me,” she says. “I never made a record as a solo artist and it was something that I always wanted to do and needed to do. Before Oh Wonder started I was in the process of writing a solo album. I'm glad we pursued Oh Wonder and had a great time. It's only now, this last year, that I’ve finally had the headspace and the time to write the album.”


When the pandemic hit in 2020, Oh Wonder were ready to embark on a world tour in support of their third album, No One Else Can Wear Your Crown. “It was just awful,” she says. “We were just sat at home very miserable and thought, let's just open a coffee shop, because that's what sane people do in a pandemic.”

Together with Anthony she opened the coffee shop Nola in Peckham, which also functions as a community space that supports young artists. They wrote and recorded two more Oh Wonder albums, and finally built Highwater, their own recording studios in South London. “I've realised I'm someone that clearly just desperately craves external validation. I've put this on myself, or maybe my parents put it on me, but I just need to be doing things all the time and being better and making more and doing more and expanding and progressing,” says Vander West. “There's no sense of me that just goes, this is enough, I am adequate. Which is kind of the sad side of this coin.”

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It’s this theme of expectation and the many pressures that come with being a cis woman that echo through her solo debut Find Joy. For Vander West, the writing was cathartic, unpacking lingering experiences and working through her own self-perception. “A lot of the open-ended threads that I left in my early twenties and a lot of the things that happened to me were left unprocessed. If I’m somebody that uses music to process things that happened to me, make sense of them and overcome them, I never got the chance to do that,” she says.

Across the album, Vander West pushes her own songwriting, expanding on personal narratives with stark imagery, playing with conventional pop structures and delving into darker sonic territory. Tracks like “Free To Be” are loaded with stream-of-consciousness reckoning while recent single “Change” is defiant with a hint of Self Esteem’s RnB tapestry delivery and empowering sentiment.


For Vander West, so many of the struggles within the record’s narratives come from balancing inherent learnings with the context of positive, modern aspirations - being in your mid-thirties surrounded by messages of independence but still not quite free. “I remember being fifteen and doing the Special K diet and eating cereal. I wasn't fat or overweight or anything, but it was just this universally acknowledged thing that to be smaller was better,” she says. “Now we're in this beautiful brave new world where you can be whatever the hell you want. I've not grown up in that and it's really weird to try and embrace that because it's shifting my mindset. You think that no one gives a shit, but then they're like, talk to me about your ovaries…”

Alongside her That Woman project, Vander West just announced ‘That Girl,’ in an Instagram post showing her, well, showing. On new single “I Was Aching” she tackles the subject of inter-generational trauma, processing how a lack of self-esteem can impact future familial relationships. A dynamic and dizzying swirl of strings, all arranged by Vander West, the track flirts between dark Billie Eilish synths and light moments of harmony that shine with a touch of Imogen Heap. “I don't believe you can love someone fully unless you love yourself,” she says. “The most loving people have so much love and empathy and compassion for themselves. Because they're topped up, they're able to give so openly and so freely. You never get out of that yearning. It's actually quite a dark song.”

Working with Anthony, who co-produced the record, it was important to Vander West that her sound be distinct and diverse from her work as Oh Wonder. “I'm a creative person. I'm trying to stretch out and see what I can touch. It was really freeing making this record, just to be able to go, there's no pre-existing idea of what That Woman is so we can just sonically do what we want,” she says. “I think I've very intentionally tried to not make it sound like Oh Wonder. I'm not a musician, I hope, that has just pigeonholed herself into being able to write Oh Wonder songs. It's very important to me that this album doesn't sound like that, because there's loads of stuff we can do and enjoy doing.”

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Complete with immediate artwork that pits Vander West against herself, the question of just how much stuff she can do holds true as a central theme on Find Joy. From her music to producing and writing for new artists, to her cafe and studio space, the search for contentment continues. “Why do we have to keep ragging ourselves and building all these things? Why can't we just enjoy life?” she asks with a smile. “You're doing all these things to bring joy, but then they're not enough because you're then doing more of them and you're trying to replicate them.”

Despite her protests, it’s unlikely That Woman’s journey will end here, that she’ll hang up her work ethic and chill out. “We love a day that starts with nothing and ends with something,” she says. “It doesn't even have to be good or bad, you just made something and that’s the best feeling ever.”

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