Wasia Project’s charm is in their youthful enthusiasm. NME meets sibling duo Will and Olivia Gao at Rough Trade East in Shoreditch, and while the pair roam around the dozens of record racks, they are uninhibited, and act like each new discovery is a revelation. A Milky Bar Kid-esque smile spreads across 20-year-old Will’s face when he finds a copy of Childish Gambino’s funk opus ‘Awaken, My Love!’, before he focuses intently on scouring the second-hand section. Meanwhile, Olivia runs her fingers feverishly through the Taylor Swift stock. The sound is of joy and jazz snaking between the book shelves, while the afternoon sun is refracted by a large disco ball.
For an hour, Rough Trade East becomes their own personal, music-filled wonderland. “I can’t believe we haven’t been here before,” says a wide-eyed Olivia, motioning at her older brother who is standing at the till, kitted out in a striking, paint-splattered Burberry coat, and buying a tote bag and a John Coltrane compilation. The pair, who grew up 12 miles south of east London in Croydon, make pop music imbued with a similar sense of wonder. Their 2022 debut EP ‘How Can I Pretend?’ unfurled around bubbly programmed beats, strings, and chirps, while the staccato piano runs of recent single ‘Petals On The Moon’ mimic the adrenaline rush of running down a street, feeling the heat on the pavement as you sprint towards a feeling.
Sat in the record store’s café, glasses of flavoured lemonade in hand, the duo are taking a break from their beyond-hectic schedules. Beyond studio sessions and rehearsals for live dates, which include an appearance at Latitude Festival in July, Olivia is currently revising for her final A Level exams, while Will is set to fly to Ireland tomorrow to film a new project. Outside of Wasia Project, Will is largely preoccupied with his stature as one of the planet’s brightest new young actors. Last year, he played Tao Xu in the hit LGBTQ+ drama Heartstopper, which enjoyed over 53 million hours of viewing time in its first three weeks on Netflix, and went on to be named NME’s Best TV Show of 2022.
For both Will and Olivia, Wasia Project offers a sort of blissful, off-the-clock freedom where they can pay tribute to the orchestras they grew up playing in. Similar to other young, classically-trained acts like Laufey, L’Rain and Sarah Kinsley, the band are challenging traditional structures by focusing on exploring jazz fusion, melding improvisation with big hooks and pop melodies. “We’re both entering this journey and establishing the sounds we want to create together with the person we trust the most,” says Olivia. “It’s quite magical.”
They are a band with two distinct halves – Will is the analytical one, Olivia more curious and freeform. Yet it’s truly hard to imagine one without the other; throughout our chat, they describe how in the studio, Olivia challenges and unlocks Will’s potential. EP highlight ‘Impossible’ illuminates their individual hallmarks, with Olivia’s voice expanding gorgeously against her brother’s kinetic piano flourishes. A sold-out show at the capital’s Omeara in December provided Wasia Project with an early opportunity to showcase this synergy as they honed their performance skills. “It was our biggest achievement to date,” Will says of the gig. “But really, truly, we’re only just getting started.”
NME: You’ve been making and releasing music together as Wasia Project for a few years, but have only recently started playing live. Why does now feel like the right time to kick things into gear?
Will: “We’re really starting to ramp up the engine. But we’re still in the process of balancing our worlds; I’m currently filming, and Olivia is still at school. Things are definitely accelerating however, and this new era started for us with the live shows that we played last year.”
Olivia: “I’d say that we’re currently at our creative peak, in that we released the first EP and performed it live, which really kicked things off for us. It’s like we’ve got this binder full of ideas all the time; it’s always bouncing and we always feel like we need an outlet to share our creations. Our minds are at a point where they’re feeling really fresh and full of anticipation for what lies ahead for us.”
How does the collaborative process with each other compare to the feeling of performing to an audience?
Olivia: “Because of my perfectionist side, I still cringe at everything I do on stage, but I’m trying to fix that. I think it’s really hard to look at something you’ve worked hard on without seeing it through a critical lens – we’re always wanting to get better at what we do. It’s actually been fun to watch back videos of our performances because everyone in each room was feeling the same euphoria – it’s such a unifying feeling. I just need to learn how to hold onto that.”
Why is it important for you to meld the classical music of your upbringing with pop and jazz sounds?
Olivia: “Growing up, my school was very intensive when it came to classical music; it’s like a self-contained world that doesn’t really merge with any other genres. I think that what we’re doing is part of a niche subculture, and what people like about it is that it’s a true hybrid of sounds – we’re taking jazz and classical and putting it through a pop lens. We wouldn’t call ourselves jazz artists, but we can be inspired by what those trained musicians do and offer our own perspective.”
What is it about working together that makes you feel empowered?
Olivia: “In the studio, there’s almost like another dimension of communication between us. We’re certainly a lot more cooperative than when we were younger! We grew up under the same roof and shared the same music taste, so we know each other so well and can be brutally honest with each other. We don’t ever waste time as we’re comfortable enough to tell each other when an idea is shit. It’s refreshing to do something creative together, and the music that we make is very unique to our sibling relationship.”
Will: “We’ve also learned that working as Wasia Project doesn’t have to define who we are as siblings. As brother and sister, there’s so much honestly between us across all areas of our lives: creatively, personally and in our live setup. There’s also a balancing act that we’re always working on; Olivia is much more of a perfectionist than I am, while I’ve got lots of crazy and random ideas that I’m willing to throw out at any given moment. It’s like the yin and yang meet in the middle. She keeps me focused, and stops me from screaming into a mic constantly!”
What does working on music offer you away from your respective studies and busy shooting schedules?
Will: “Every time I enter the studio, it feels like a breath of fresh air – especially when I’m in the middle of shooting. It is like my moment of tranquility, as working on set can get so intense and often very overwhelming for me. After a certain extent of honouring other people’s creativity, it feels like a haven. I’m about to go away and work for three weeks, and the first thing I’ll do when I come back is spend a month writing music. That’s the plan – I’m not going to do acting or anything else.”
“The music that we make is very unique to our sibling relationship” – Olivia Gao
In the future, would you like to see your music included in Heartstopper, or is it important for you to keep those two worlds separate?
Will: “I think there’s a middle ground. We’d love to work with composers or music supervisors in the future, and find a way to marry both projects. But for now, however, I feel like it’s good for me to keep them in separate worlds as I’m having a fun time balancing the two. I’m sure there’ll be a time for them to come together. Importantly, Wasia Project will always be there for us to come back to and take down different avenues.”
Will, you mentioned earlier that sometimes shooting can get “intense”. As you are currently working on season two of Heartstopper, what has that experience been like emotionally?
Will: “Obviously there was such a crazy and unprecedented reaction to the show, and towards [the cast] as both people and actors, too. It’s been much more intense for me, purely because I have had double the amount of shooting days than before. But it seems so unique from anything I’ve ever done: it’s like a different world, but in the same universe.”
Have you ever put any pressure on yourselves to be seen as role models?
Will: “[With Heartstopper], a lot of people were looking up to me as a person, rather than the character. I’m still 19 and figuring things out, and I don’t know what all my views are yet, so it’s definitely been a shock, but I understand how to cope with it now. That’s why I’m grateful that Wasia Project is going to be blessed with a more gradual way to grow.”
Olivia: “I’ve always thought about this, especially as I’ve long followed Billie Eilish. I guess, as young artists, it’s scary because you change in so many ways every year. It’s sort of terrifying to think that you could be in the public eye while you’re still learning things about yourself. But Billie has kept her own journey to herself, and I think a lot of artists are afraid to do that.”
As your lives continue to change rapidly, how do you imagine it’ll shape the music you make in the future?
Olivia: “It’s strange because we have 14 songs that have been produced, but are currently unreleased. Each release feels like a different era for us as we start to share music from that backlog – and our personal lives continue to unravel – but the one thing that feels consistent is the songwriting, it’s so raw. I’m really excited about the new sounds we’re exploring now; there’s even some dreamy, R&B-style sounds.”
Will: “You’ll know we’re in our real experimental phase when we’ve got a full orchestra with us, a choir delivering backing vocals, Olivia belting… I reckon we could make a full-on rock opera! I joke, but the producers we’re working with now allow us to treat the studio like a playground – we’re taking our sound to places we never expected.”
Wasia Project’s new single ‘Petals On The Moon’ is out now via AWAL