“This is the beginning of anything you want…”
Ten years after Valeska Steiner’s and Sonja Glass’ first encounter, sowing the seeds that would later grow into BOY, little has changed. Little, that is, apart from the small matter of tens of thousands of records sold, several years spent travelling the world, and a clutch of glittering awards. To meet them, however, you really wouldn’t know. Though they remain given to pensive moments of deliberation, they continue to finish each other’s sentences with a knowing, infectious chuckle, and, deep down, they’re still the same enthusiastic, charming, funny women they were when they released their debut album, Mutual Friends, in 2011.
There are many remarkable things about this charismatic duo, but the manner in which both women have kept their feet on the ground as their stars have ascended is endearingly refreshing. Their unpretentious but engaging nature is indicative of the music on WE WERE HERE, BOY’s long awaited second album, a short, sharp burst of delightful melodies, perfectly poised craft and mischievous grace. Its sunlit splashes of sweetness, offset by the comforting afterglow of bittersweet melancholy, confirm the tenderness at the heart of songs whose simplicity seems effortless, whether it be the roof-raising anthem that is ‘Fear’, the brittle jangle of ‘Flames’, or the dreamy, dazed ‘Into The Wild’; whether the good-humoured teasing of ‘Hit My Heart’, the wistful ‘Hotel’ or the brooding majesty of ‘We Were Here’. But their modesty is misleading: Steiner and Glass’s easy-going nature belies their determination to write songs that endure, streamlined compositions in which every note is intrinsic to their artistry. It’s this that explains their silence for the whole of 2014. When they finally returned at the end of the previous year from international expeditions to spread word of their music, they resolved to write a record that not only matched, but even eclipsed the ingenuous magic of their debut.
WE WERE HERE finds BOY spreading their wings, exploring new textures and musical approaches while remaining true to their aesthetic.
Having formed two and a half years after their original meeting – once Steiner had left her native Zurich, Switzerland, to move to Hamburg, where Glass grew up – they spent a while finding their voice, driving in Steiner’s mother’s car to low key shows, wherever they could get them, before Groenland Records signed them in 2011. Within twelve months of Mutual Friends’ release, they were headlining Hamburg’s 4,000 capacity Stadtpark, and the next couple of years were spent performing songs like ‘Little Numbers’ and ‘This Is The Beginning’ to entranced audiences across the globe.
Earning praise from the likes of Rolling Stone, The New York Times and Filter, the latter of whom described them as “as bubbly and rosy-cheeked as any playful kid”.
Fans will be relieved to hear that BOY’s fundamental methodology remains intact for WE WERE HERE: Glass writes music which she then passes to Steiner, who works on lyrics and melodies before they refine the resulting songs together, calling upon producer Philipp Steinke for a third perspective to help bring out their best even further. But though the muted guitars that characterised parts of their first album are still present, it’s clear that, as Glass puts it,
“we wanted to develop, to create something which was one step further, but still in our direction.”
Her purchase of a Juno synthesiser provided the impetus for this proposed evolution. “That became my muse,” she recalls. “Otherwise we used almost the same instruments, but somehow made them sound different.”
While most bands might feel the weight of expectation as they faced that ‘difficult second album’, the only pressure that Steiner and Glass experienced was their inherent desire to progress. Their perfectionist streak, and love for small details, ensured that, on several songs, they experimented with different arrangements, and they consequently allowed themselves time “to find out how best to dress the songs,” says Steiner. “The two of us were always working. We weren’t at the studio all the time, but we always wrote, then went to the studio for two or three weeks, then back to writing.” They travelled between Hamburg, Berlin, the German countryside and Italy, but though the album sounds more lavishly produced, the process wasn’t quite as glamorous as that sounds. “We feel very comfortable in small spaces where you can live and cook,” Steiner says, before Glass elaborates: “We take all our equipment with us and just rent a small flat.”
By early 2015, their meticulous approach had paid off. Every bit as delicious as Mutual Friends, WE WERE HERE is an album of renewed depth and sophistication that maintains all the qualities that first made BOY so special, with Glass’ ear for the emotional wrench of a subtle key change and her gift for an uncluttered arrangement suitably complemented by Steiner’s affectingly direct lyrics. It finds the two operating with their trademark sensitivity, addressing the intrusion of a partner’s problems in a relationship on the tumbling rush of ‘Fear’ and the autumnal ‘Flames’ – which, unusually, features lyrics written by Glass – while both the cautious but magnetic optimism of the finely woven ‘Into The Wild’ and ‘Rivers Or Oceans’’ irresistible fragility explore the excitement and anxiety that permeate difficult decisions.
Additionally, on ‘Hit My Heart’ (which finds Phoenix’s Thomas Hedlund on drums, just as he was on a number of tracks on Mutual Friends) they gently mock a contemporary culture of selfies and social networking angst – a world “all covered in exclamation marks” – as they long for “a wave of heat that hits the heart”, the song’s melody skipping breezily through its carefree, plucked strings over a playful rhythm. And even if ‘Hotel’ (the only song written before BOY’s 2014 sojourn) sympathetically imagines the mysterious, isolated lives of those who spend their time travelling – without ever resorting to tired, life on the road clichés – it’s balanced out by the confident swagger of ‘No Sleep For The Dreamer’, which details the thrill of a possibly life-altering first encounter, as well as the joyful celebration of life that is the title track, with its defiant declaration that time can never erode the marks we leave upon each other or the world at large:
“We won’t ever disappear/ We were here/ It was really love”.
Then there’s ‘New York’, whose intricate, sparkling guitar lines provide the ideal, uplifting accompaniment for Steiner’s touching lyric – with its pivotal line, “Anywhere with you could be New York” – about reawakening oneself to the pleasures of one’s immediate surroundings. It’s a poignant illustration of the transformative power of BOY’s imagination, but also of the strong bond that unites Steiner and Glass. Together, despite their achievements and adventures, the two women have remained connected to the world that first inspired them, allowing them to remain in touch with the little things that affect us all, and which they’ve always been so good at identifying and articulating. Even touring, Glass jokes, is like “a big school vacation thing. We still play with the same musicians, and they’re some of our closest friends, plus the crew around us hasn’t changed either.”
All of this ensures that WE WERE HERE not only confirms the reputation that BOY earned with Mutual Friends, but also further underlines their flair for an intimately detailed, precious songcraft that speaks to men and women, of men and women, about singular, yet universal, moments in our lives. Just as the album’s title track speaks of the wonders that existence can offer, and how cherishing life’s memories can keep the past alive, so it could almost be applied to BOY themselves, and the songs that they write. Of course, they’d be far too humble to agree, but nonetheless, as Steiner sings, “Our echoes resonate.”