Wasia Project: jazz-pop ballads to make your heart skip a beat

The sibling duo – featuring Heartstopper's Will Gao – and their beautiful, exploratory songs reflect a shared desire to "to keep running away from being put in a box"

When Wasia Project talk about their musical influences, you have absolutely no idea what they’re going to throw into the mix. We all have millions of songs at our fingertips, but the Croydon duo – siblings Will Gao and Olivia Hardy – might just be able to defeat Spotify‘s algorithm. Who could they possibly want to listen to next? It could be Arctic Monkeys or neo-soul queen Olivia Dean, French composer Claude Debussy or Broadway’s Stephen Sondheim, Ella Fitzgerald or Elton John… the playlist keeps growing. It’s thrilling to hear it take shape in real time as the siblings bat reference points back and forth like ping-pong.

Wasia Project (2023), photo by NME
Wasia Project on The Cover of NME. Olivia wears a coat, top, trousers and a scarf by Paul Smith, boots by Hogan, earrings by Balenciaga vintage via 4Element, rings by Hannah Martin, Repossi, Will wears a sweater, coat and trousers by Louis Vuitton, a scarf by Paul Smith, shoes by Christian Louboutin, and rings by Hannah Martin. Credit: Bella Howard for NME

This evening, a few hours after meeting NME at an east London photo studio, they’re off to see ABBA Voyage, the Swedish band’s innovative virtual concert series. “I heard the arena was built specifically for ABBA – that’s amazing,” 18-year-old Hardy enthuses. She and Gao have been striking poses since mid-morning, but after a hearty (and very late) vegan lunch, their energy levels are right back up again. “Their music underscored our childhood,” 20-year-old Gao adds. “We would dance around to, like, ABBA, Queen, Frank Sinatra… And I think we just kind of realised that keeping an open ear is the best way to get influenced by something.”

Combined with their classical background – Gao learned to play the piano as a kid, while Hardy took violin lessons – this “open ear” has made Wasia Project one of the UK’s most curious and distinctive new acts. Their music blends elements of jazz, classical and joyful pop into surprising shapes that feel fresh and familiar at the same time. Their plaintive piano ballad ‘Ur So Pretty’ recently soundtracked a poignant moment between high school boyfriends Nick Nelson (Kit Connor) and Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) on season two of Netflix‘s Heartstopper, which premiered in August. Fans of the show were so entranced that they made supercuts of the couple’s most intimate moments set to Wasia Project’s deeply affecting song.

When season one of the queer coming-of-age series premiered in 2022, it turbocharged Gao’s concurrent acting career, which began with teenage stage roles. In Heartstopper, he plays Tao Xu, a protective friend of Charlie Spring who is also grappling with his feelings for Elle Argent (Yasmin Finney). On the day that we meet, Gao can’t discuss the role – or the show’s upcoming third season – because the SAG-AFTRA Union’s actors’ strike has yet to be called off.

Wasia Project (2023) photo by Bella Howard
Olivia and Will both wear full looks by Kenzo. Olivia wears a headscarf, coat, top, skirt and boots by Kenzo. Will wears a turtleneck, jacket, bottoms, shoes, bag and ring by Kenzo. Credit: Bella Howard for NME

But when NME met Wasia Project in March, Gao spoke about finding a “middle ground” between Heartstopper and the duo’s music. “I’m sure there’ll be a time for them to come together,” he said. Today, he seems pleased with how this has since panned out. “It’s really cool to see people discovering us through the show,” he says. Nodding, Hardy chips in to say they were always confident Heartstopper would sync the song in a “fitting” way. “It’s a very sentimental song and I knew it would be used in a sentimental place in the show, but it was pretty amazing to see the way it was used,” she adds.

Another of Wasia Project’s signature songs, ‘Petals On The Moon’, is just as beguiling: a heady gem that combines wistful melodies with an ELO-esque bounce. Wasia Project clearly pride themselves on being individuals, but it’s this off-kilter pop sensibility that has drawn comparisons to other classically-trained alchemists including L’Rain and Sarah Kinsley. When fellow jazz-pop melder Laufey made a playlist for NME in August, she included the duo’s undulating summer single ‘My Lover Is Sleeping’. “We have a lot of love for what she’s doing – we met her for a drink at our local and talked about so many things,” Gao says. “I’d say there’s a lot of differences between our music and hers, but obviously what we have in common is a grounding in the classical world.”

Gao cites ‘Impossible’, a driving highlight from last year’s debut EP ‘How Can I Pretend?’, as a “breakthrough moment” for the siblings’ musical partnership. “It was originally a ballad written by Olivia, but then we made it really upbeat for the EP,” Gao says. Hardy says that teaming with a new co-producer, Luke Pinell of London’s Suedejazz Collective, also proved formative. “It was a really cool fusion process because it was the first time we’d been in more of a studio space,” she adds.

“It’s really cool to see people discovering us through Heartstopper” – Will Gao

Early Wasia Project singles such as their 2019 debut ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’, which they re-recorded for the EP, were made in a more DIY way on GarageBand. “But with ‘Impossible’, we were like, ‘Let’s add this sound and pull in this reference’,” Hardy says. “Will and I both did backing vocals and played around with a lot more instruments. It felt like we were making something much bigger, and I think the whole EP was a lot like that.”

The duo’s new single ‘Remember When’ sounds like another hefty step forward. Perfectly timed for pensive November nights, it’s a reflective ballad that lays Hardy’s folk-tinged vocals over gorgeously mournful piano chords, then swells into something lusher with strings. The duo’s classical roots are definitely in the mix, but so too is their fondness for timeless jazz melodies.

“It’s a big song for me because it meant a lot when I was writing it,” Gao says. “I was really down about the pandemic and lockdown and I didn’t realise how much I missed school, my friends and just being able to chat with people. And that made me think about the passage of time.” The duo first cut ‘Remember When’ in 2021 as an unreleased demo, but when they revisited it this summer, they reworked the lyrics and fully rebuilt the production.

Will Gao of Wasia Project (2023) Photo by Bella Howard
Will Gao of Wasia Project. Credit: Bella Howard for NME

When Gao describes this process as “challenging”, Hardy quickly grabs the conversational baton. It feels like a tiny glimpse into the way their thoughts might coincide in the studio. “It was really challenging,” she says. “We had new sounds available to us, but funnily enough that made us want to use less. Or maybe use each element minimally and find the right mix.”

Hardy says that in a way, things were simpler when Wasia Project had to “stick to only piano and voice because that was all we could master”. Now, their heightened production skills give them so many more options. “It’s about unpeeling layers and choosing which layers to keep in because there’s not a right answer,” she says. “There’s something that feels right in the end, and I think that’s the point we reached.”

Even in its more challenging moments, this willingness to evolve and experiment is Wasia Project’s lifeblood. “Reinventing ourselves and doing what we want and feel like, that’s what drives us,” Hardy says. “We’re so excited about the limitless possibilities of what we can create, especially together, and so excited about where our sound is gonna go next.”

“Reinventing ourselves is what drives us” – Olivia Hardy

Music didn’t always feel quite so energising for Gao and Hardy. They were brought up in Croydon, a suburb of south London, by parents who encouraged them to “absorb culture” wherever possible. Their British dad had briefly worked as an actor and their Chinese mum, who moved to the UK in her twenties, really valued the siblings’ music lessons. “She was always like, ‘You’re gonna like this in the future, trust me,” Hardy says with an affectionate eye roll.

But at first, Hardy found learning the violin arduous. “It involved a lot of repetition, which was difficult for me because I’m very anti-monotony and always searching for new things,” she says. Gao felt equally restricted by his piano lessons until he turned “12 or 13” and realised he was skilled enough to deviate from the sheet music in front of him. “Something clicked and I was like, ‘Hold on. When you learn the notes and the techniques, there’s this whole other world where you get to make it up for yourself,’” he says. “That was the start of me discovering songwriting.”

After Hardy had a similar epiphany, the siblings gradually gravitated towards making music together. Gao says they shared their first few singles “just for fun and our friends” with no expectations. According to Hardy, Wasia Project really began to take shape “because it fed a lot of creative hunger” in both of them. “It was all about stepping back and looking at something you’ve created, then picking at it to improve your skills,” she says.

Olivia Hardy of Wasia Project (2023) photo by Bella Howard
Olivia Hardy of Wasia Project. Credit: Bella Howard for NME

They only played their first gig in 2021. “It was at The Beehive pub in Bromley-By-Bow and around 30 people came to watch us – all of them friends,” Gao recalls with a laugh. But around a year later, when they played to a larger crowd at The Fiddler in Kilburn, they noticed a real change in their audience. “It was just after the release of our EP and the place was packed with people singing our music,” Hardy says. “It was the first gig where we didn’t know the majority of people personally. It really felt like a community for our music was building.”

Since then, Wasia Project have continued to hone their live chops. When they performed at Latitude Festival in July, they were worried about their 1pm time slot, but walked out to what Hardy calls a “beautiful tent full of people”. She clearly relished the learning curve. “It’s very different to performing for a venue full of your fans,” Hardy says. “It’s another technique to be learned, I guess – it’s about winning people over, but also making them feel welcome.”

Building their live reputation is now a priority for Wasia Project. Next February, they will embark on their first full UK headline tour; all seven dates have already sold out – a sure sign their community of fans is growing fast. They also want to focus on making what Hardy calls “an extended body of work”. Since she finished her A-levels this summer, she has more time to pour into music. “It’s been fun doing singles – especially while Liv was still at school and I was doing other things,” Gao says, alluding modestly to his acting career. “But when I picture Wasia Project, I see our songs fitting into two-year brackets. We’re just coming to the end of a bracket, but I see our next brackets as being [filled with] albums.”

At this point, they throw in another, absolutely pivotal influence – Kamaal Williams, the visionary artist-producer who mixes jazz, hip-hop, R&B and EDM into a shape-shifting style he calls ‘Wu funk’. “Everyone tries to put you in a box,” Gao says. “And that’s something I used to be frustrated by, but now I’m kind of at peace with it. You know, it’s a great challenge to blur the lines and keep running away from being put in a box. Kamaal Williams is doing that and so are we. But we’re not doing it in an active way; it’s just inherent to us.” The only possible response? Long may Wasia Project keep ‘the box’ at bay.

Wasia Project’s new single ‘Remember When’ is out now via LAOLAO Records/AWAL

Listen to Wasia Project’s exclusive playlist to accompany The Cover below on Spotify and here on Apple Music

Writer: Nick Levine
Photography: Bella Howard
Stylist: Anastasia Busch
Fashion Assistant: Tele Awo
Label: LAOLAO Records/AWAL

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