Singing “Hallelujah”: Oh Wonder Dive into Their Stirring Spiritual Release

Oh Wonder © Olga De La Iglesia
Oh Wonder discuss their visceral, spiritually uplifting new song “Hallelujah,” experiencing the emotional spectrum, staying true to the music, and being real, raw, and in the moment!
Stream: “Hallelujah” – Oh Wonder


How do we measure the weight of a word: In syllables or letter count? No; rather, we measure a word’s weight by its meaning: The emotions and images it conjures up through its mere utterance. The power of language comes from its underlying meaning, and few words weigh as much, or make as strong an impact, as “hallelujah.”

The Hebrew word praising god has passed through generation to generation for thousands of years, moving from collective chants in synagogues and churches to choruses in major stadiums and arenas, and back again. Though religious in etymology, hallelujah has taken on a spirituality of its own over the past century, in large part thanks to Leonard Cohen’s ubiquitous song. Yet well before him and for long after him, the term “Hallelujah” was and will remain a staple of cultural identity around the world.

Hallelujah carries in its four syllables a lifetime of memories and meaning, hence when a young band like Oh Wonder sings a song of “Hallelujah,” we hear not only what they’ve put into their own music, but also all that came before them: Scores of singers and songwriters, playwrights and pastors who brought this word to life.

Hallelujah - Oh Wonder

Hallelujah – Oh Wonder

I heard it on the radio
On my way back home
That I’m gonna be someone
I guess it was a song they wrote
Saying don’t go slow
‘Cause you’re gonna be someone
They were singing hallelujah
Halle-hallelujah
I heard it on the radio
On my way back home

Released September 6 via Republic Records, “Hallelujah” is an inspiring personal anthem worthy of its name. The lead single off Oh Wonder’s forthcoming third studio album arrives over two years after the band’s second album Ultralife. Following a world tour in which the duo played the biggest stages of their lives, Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West took the year off their busy tour schedule to just live, learn, and just “be.”

“For the first time in our lives there was no deadline, and it felt so liberating,” the pair recently told Atwood Magazine. “Creativity needs space; we needed space to resume our normal routine so we could write from a place of being “normal”… being happy and sad, feeling nothing and everything, fighting and loving, questioning everything.”

Immersing themselves in life’s natural ebb and flow, Oh Wonder found a new plateau from which to bear their souls.

A poignant, intimate journey through insecurity toward self-assurance, “Hallelujah” builds up from a brooding whisper and out into a vibrant roar. Oh Wonder undergo a personal reckoning as they step away from the spotlight, only to recognize where they’ve gone and how far they’ve come.

They sing together in signature fashion:

Somedays I don’t think my momma
thinks I’m good enough to be a superstar
But one day I will show her
I’m a diamond in the rough,
I’ll be a superstar
‘Cause there’s a crown
Covered in glitter and gold
I’m gonna wear it, whether you like it or not
Yeah, there’s a crown
Covered in glitter and gold
I’m gonna wear it, whether you like it or not
And I’ll be singing
Halle-halle-halle-halle-halle-hallelujah
Halle-hallelujah
Whether you like it or not
Yeah, I’ll be singing
Halle-halle-halle-halle-halle-hallelujah
Halle-hallelujah
Whether you like it or not

Speaking of the song’s inspiration, Oh Wonder explain, “We realised that we’d pushed beyond not only our own expectations, but also the expectations given to us by our teachers, parents, the music industry and sometimes even strangers, who told us as teenagers that we wouldn’t “make it“.

It felt really good to sit back and realise that the only opinion that matters is the one you have of yourself.

While it may have come out of personal experience and reflection, “Hallelujah” is not Oh Wonder singing just about themselves. Sung from the standpoint of someone slowly realizing and then owning their self-worth, “Hallelujah” inspires listeners to believe in themselves and own their own narratives. “’Cause there’s a crown covered in glitter and gold,” Oh Wonder sing exuberantly, capturing an image so often associated with royalty and success. “I’m gonna wear it, whether you like it or not.”

“Hallelujah” reaches its highest highs in a spirited, radiant chorus where the word itself becomes the chanted refrain – elegant and simple, yet storied and rich with history: “Halle-halle-halle-halle-halle-hallelujah, halle-hallelujah…

Oh Wonder © 2017

Oh Wonder is Josephine Vander Gucht and Anthony West

Instantly memorable and profoundly stirring, “Hallelujah” might be Oh Wonder’s best work yet, marrying their penchant for effervescent revelry with their passion for deeply cathartic outpourings. 

In addition to the song, Oh Wonder also released a breathtaking one-shot music video for “Hallelujah.” Directed by Gregory Ohrel and assembled with a small army, the colorful visual offers a touching look into Oh Wonder’s mindset as they take that step back and embrace their lives, head-on. Vander Gucht and West are all smiles as they prance through the English countryside; meanwhile, a crew of 155 dancers show off striking visual constrasts, sweeping movements, and excellent crowdsurfer support. They go so far as to swap between black-and-white garb to full-on colors half-way through the video, lighting up the eyes just as Oh Wonder do the ears.

Perhaps one of the most self-aware acts to grace the world’s stages in recent years, Oh Wonder have been diving deep into emotional introspection and vulnerability from their start (read about their song “Livewire” here). Having recently celebrated the five-year anniversary of their first single and the four-year anniversary of their self-titled debut album, it’s only fitting that their return to music would come not only now, but also in such a thoughtful format.

Whether “Hallelujah” truly eclipses the band’s previous work is largely a matter of personal preference; certainly songs like “Lose It” from their debut and “Ultralife” from their second album resonate at a comparable level of glitz and glamour, dazzling in a way that sparks a fire inside. Then there are the forlorn ballads and dramatic heart-on-sleeve renderings like “Drive,” “Landslide,” and “My Friends,” where Oh Wonder give audiences a vessel for emotional relief and revival. No single Oh Wonder song does it all, but every Oh Wonder song comes from, and speaks to the heart.

And while we have sung “Hallelujah” so many times in the past, Oh Wonder lend this word a special, empowering weight that propels us to shout it from the rooftops.

Oh Wonder spoke to Atwood Magazine about “Hallelujah” and their upcoming third album, experiencing the emotional spectrum, staying true to the music, and being real, raw, and in the moment.

Stream: “Hallelujah” – Oh Wonder

SINGING “HALLELUJAH” WITH OH WONDER

Atwood Magazine: Josephine and Anthony, it’s wonderful to hear new music from you after so much time! What inspired you to return to the fore with this song in particular? In other words, what is the personal significance of releasing a song about internal, and not external, validation?

Oh Wonder: Thanks so much! ‘Hallelujah’ was the only song that we could have ever released to kick off this album. It summarizes so well what we’ve been processing over the one year break we’ve had from touring. There was a moment when we were at home watching a YouTube clip of us playing Lollapalooza festival in Brazil. There were thousands of people, we looked so content, confident and self-assured on stage. It made no sense from our kitchen in South East London. How had we done that?! And then we realised that we’d pushed beyond not only our own expectations, but also the expectations given to us by our teachers, parents, the music industry and sometimes even strangers, who told us as teenagers that we wouldn’t “make it”.  It felt really good to sit back and realise that the only opinion that matters is the one you have of yourself.

Could you have made a song like “Hallelujah” five years ago?

Oh Wonder: Definitely not; we’d have been too scared to write a song like that. The lyrics are so vulnerable and personal, and its defiance of the conventional structure of a pop song would have felt too different from the music we were making 5 years ago. It feels like a natural progression though, and we fully back the song’s sentiment.

You made Oh Wonder over the course of a year in each other’s houses, and Ultralife over a summer and fall between Brooklyn and London. Where did “Halleluljah” come from? What is its story?

Oh Wonder: We spent a month in LA writing loads of songs with some brilliant songwriters, but only came home with one song and two choruses that we loved. I think that trip really empowered us with our writing. We returned home to a newly-built recording studio at the end of our garden and a beautiful piano in our house, and we were so overwhelmed with gratitude that so many songs poured out of us at home. Most of those songs have made the album, and ‘Hallelujah’ was one that we wrote at the piano in half an hour, and then ran into the studio to lay down a demo. It was such a fluid and easy process working from home. Feel something, write it down, record it. In fact 90% of the vocals from this new album are the demo vocals. We tried to re-record them but we just couldn’t tap into the same emotion. For us, the songs therefore feel super raw and “in the moment”.

This is probably antithetical to the song’s message, but have you felt at all nervous of releasing a song with such ubiquitous a name as “Hallelujah”? I can imagine it to be a daunting, perhaps bold undertaking.

Oh Wonder: Haha, yeah. We didn’t really realise what a word it was until we played the song to other people and they were like, wow that’s a big word to use in a song. Songwriting is funny sometimes; you don’t fully conceive what you’re writing until you’ve written it, at which point it’s so normalized and obvious that anyone interjecting with sentiments of “wait but are you religious now?” seem very strangely placed!

Now that you’ve had a few years to breathe (and to let the music breathe), do any lessons stand out from the making of Ultralife? What, if anything, did you take away from those sessions and consciously act on in the making of “Hallelujah” and other new content?

Oh Wonder: Our main focus for writing this album was to take our time, not rush and enjoy the process. We timed our studio build to coincide with the end of our touring schedule, and then gave ourselves an indefinite period of time to make an album. For the first time in our lives there was no deadline, and it felt so liberating. Creativity needs space; we needed space to resume our normal routine so we could write from a place of being “normal”… being happy and sad, feeling nothing and everything, fighting and loving, questioning everything. Touring doesn’t really allow you to experience all the facets of an emotional spectrum, as you have to bottle them every night and walk out onto stage and look like you’re having the time of your life.

In our first-ever interview, you told me that it’s all about “the meaning” - that you were focused on the songs. Is it hard to keep that focus? How have you maintained that mission over your life as a band?

Oh Wonder: I think we lost that focus during our second album. We became totally preoccupied with touring, and the admin and politics that comes with being in a band. We were being creative 10% of the time. Over the last year we have reminded ourselves that the most important part of being in a band is the music. And for this album, we truly believe we have written the best songs we can make at this point in our lives. We didn’t start with an overarching plan; we started by finishing the music.

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:: 2017 FEATURE ::

Lastly, I absolutely admire the love you two show for one another in the “Hallelujah” visual. What were your visions for this single-camera project; what messages, if any, do you hope your audience takes from this accompanying video?

Oh Wonder: We are so hyped about the video! The concept was dreamed up by the amazing Gregory Ohrel; when we read the script we were like, “Hell yeah we wanna crowd surf on people for 3 minutes!” We hope that the video emits hope, cleansing, euphoria, power… all the themes of the song ‘Hallelujah’. We trained really hard for the video, and had days of rehearsals – being carried by loads of people is the biggest ab workout ever! And trying to hold yourself up whilst singing and looking comfortable and happy (after a 12 hour day of shooting the same thing on loop trying to get a perfect take) was such a feat.

We hope that the video emits hope, cleansing, euphoria, power… all the themes of the song ‘Hallelujah’.

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:: stream/purchase “Hallelujah” here ::
Stream: “Hallelujah” – Oh Wonder

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Hallelujah - Oh Wonder

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Mitch Mosk

Mitch is the Editor-in-Chief of Atwood Magazine and a 2014 graduate from Tufts University, where he pursued his passions of music and psychology. He currently works at Universal Music Group in New York City. In his off hours, Mitch may be found songwriting, wandering about one of New York's many neighborhoods, or writing an article on your next favorite artist for Atwood. Mitch's words of wisdom to fellow musicians and music lovers are thus: Keep your eyes open and never stop exploring. No matter where you go, what you do or who you are with, you can always learn something new and inspire something amazing. Say hi here: mitch[at]atwoodmagazine[dot]com