The most enduring artists don’t just make songs: they invite you into an entire world. That’s the mission in a nutshell of Wasia Project, aka London-based siblings Will Gao (20) and Olivia Hardy (17), whose intoxicatingly honest alt-pop has generated an entire ecosystem of like-minded fans with deep connections to the band’s scalpel-sharp take on adolescent growing pains. “Our fanbase is very young as well, and they’re growing with us,” says Olivia, “We’re so in touch with [our audience] because of social media, which helps us create a place of belonging where you’re not alone.”
That ethos has made Wasia Project one of the UK’s most exciting new pop acts. The band has an online audience of over almost 200K, eight million Spotify streams, and, in 2022, the duo’s music was streamed in 179 nations around the world. You’d be forgiven for not knowing that many countries existed. But their massive reach is a corollary of their pan-global approach to pop.
Will and Olivia’s music dynamically melds styles and influences that cut across genre lines — and even entire hemispheres of musical tradition. In their songs, hushed bedroom DIY combines with classical nous, and spiky disco melds with freewheeling jazz, in a merging that’s underpinned by the duo’s deep knowledge of both Western and East Asian Classical styles.
Wasia Project kicked off 2023 with “Petals on the Moon,” a multifaceted slice of indie pop perfection with an air-punch of a chorus that’s so addictive it should come with a warning. As well as the monster hook, there’s a sly depth to Olivia’s vocals as she sings “I can’t help but feel I’ll always be so blue” that lends the song the emotional heft of a young Joni Mitchell or Rickie Lee Jones. The same emotional nuance coursed through the band’s 2022-released debut EP. Titled how can i pretend?, the four-song project’s songs could pull you from the brink of tears to unabashed euphoria in the space of seconds. “You can’t stay high all the time,” says Olivia. “Without the moments of feeling down, you can’t have the wonderful ones.”
The siblings grew up in Croydon, south London, with childhoods that were underscored by music. “Every night we would just dance,” says Will. “It was like 18 years of a nightclub — but the music would play all day.” They were raised by a Beijing-born mum and British dad who had, as Olivis puts it, the “wackiest” taste, and whose CD collection included musical theatre soundtracks, ABBA, Queen, Frank Sinatra, ELO, and jazz, as well as Western Classical and music from China and Japan. Both learned instruments from a very young age, with Will opting for classical piano, and Olivia learning violin with the Japanese technique of Suzuki, which focuses on learning to play by ear rather than sheet music.
While at primary school, Will joined an acclaimed local choral group. “When my voice was higher, I was in the Trinity Boys Choir,” he says. “I ended up doing lots of opera on quite big stages, like Glyndebourne in the UK. It sparked my love of performance, but there are also these spine-tingling moments on stage in opera that sparked my love of catharsis in general.” Olivia was less enchanted with the genre. “I never got into it,” she says flatly. “I was a firm hater!” But the siblings did share a love of Stephen Sondheim’s “big leaps and random chord changes,” and Will can remember the exact car ride where he heard “Hey Jude” — down to the “ugly-ass building” in Purley that they were driving past at the time. “It was the first time that I felt something with lyrics and melody joining together to portray an emotion,” he says. “Before that it was just classical music.”
Drawing from a lifetime of immersion in various musical traditions, Olivia and Will first began sharing music on SoundCloud in 2019. Their first track “why don’t u love me,” created on Garageband, was a threadbare blues confessional that you could imagine hearing in a smoky 1950s Soho jazz club. In an auspicious signpost of the real-talking candour and humour that enlivens Wasia Project’s songwriting to this day, the song’s caption read: “Did they friendzone u? Coz same.” For how can i pretend?, the band ditched laptop software for professional recording with Luke Pinell, a producer and a member of London’s Suedejazz Collective. The beat-switching jazz ballad turned euphoric party-starter “impossible” was a particular breakthrough, melding Will’s background in jazz with Olivia’s pop sensibility. “Olivia actually wrote the song when she was 14 and it was just an acoustic number,” says Will. “I was like, “This song could have a drum beat and compressed vocals. That became a pure blend of both of our vibes.”
While Wasia Project is Oliva’s first experience with the flush of fame, Will is already a household name thanks to his character of Tao Xu in the sunny high school love story Heartstopper, a graphic novel series turned global Netflix phenomenon. The band are refreshingly candid about the benefits of the Heartstopper connection, but rightly don’t let that association define them or their rapidly growing audience. “Heartstopper fans found the music and related the music, so there was definitely a bonus from that,” says Will. “But we’re seeing an incoming listening audience of music lovers, and areas outside of the universe of Heartstopper.” They’ll always be a spot at Wasia Project shows for the Heartstopper cast though, some of whom Will says have become “my best friends” — one recent show featured a “very hidden” Kit Connor in the audience, singing his heart out.
Artists can put up walls between themselves and their fans. But Wasia Project take a sledgehammer to any dividing hierarchy between themselves and their audience, creating space for creative connection to flourish. At their sold-out December show at London’s Omera, the band partnered with a local bubble tea vendor to offer free drinks to fans, many of whom were under 18. The gesture invited fans to experience a nostalgic treat that’s close to the siblings’ hearts. “We wanted to give them something we’ve grown up enjoying,” explains Will. And in early 2023, the band personally wrote thank you notes to dozens of fans, sending custom-designed postcards inspired by traditional Chinese woodblock prints. “The personal depth to the music can be expressed in a whole bunch of different ways,” says Olivia. “It’s not just limited to a show and an album. There are so many cool things we can do.”
Will describes 2023 as a gradual plunge into Wasia Project’s rich musical world. “We see it as the bedroom opening into a studio,” he says. “‘Petals On The Moon’ is the first step of inching the door open, and it’s going to take a few tracks to open the door fully.” The duo hint that the “Petals on the Moon” follow-up, due this summer, will show a different side to their sound, while a project-capping winter release will be backed by an orchestra. “It’s going to be nuts,” enthuses Will.
In a music industry that puts a premium on trend chasing and viral hits, Wasia Project make the quietly radical move of choosing to play the long game — and doing it in their own relatably real way. “We’re brutally honest with each other and there’s no bullshit,” says Will, as Olivia nods in agreement, before adding, of their sibling bond: “There’s no stepping on eggshells with us. Basically, it’s pure authenticity because we know each other so well.”