Two and a half years ago, Louis Walsh and Westlife‘s Kian Egan held auditions in Dublin for a new girl band. Three thousand girls and many rounds later saw Jodi Albert, Sharon Condon, Corrina Durran, Leigh Learmont and Kasey Smith emerge as Wonderland. These girls are not only beautiful but have amazing vocal ability, creating wonderful harmonies with their melodic tones.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Wonderland last week and I can honestly say I have never met a nicer group of girls. They’re each embracing their new-found life with gusto and their energy and joie de vivre shines through. I asked them to take me back to the beginning and tell me about the auditioning process. “It was a really exciting but scary time,” said Jodi, who’s married to Kian Egan from Westlife. “About three thousand girls turned up to the auditions and in the beginning, you wonder if you really have a chance. But over the following three months, there were about eight rounds where the numbers kept getting smaller and smaller. It’s funny, but the five of us had just gravitated towards each other and had already become friends. Eventually the numbers were whittled down until just the five of us were left.”
So the girls must have been doubly excited – not just to be picked for the band, but also to be picked with the girls who they’d become so close to. “Oh it was amazing,” said Jodi. Out of the small group that was left at the end of the process, the ones that hadn’t made it were contacted first. Then the five of us were told by Louis, Kian and a guy from the record label. We all just burst into tears. We’re so passionate about music and we felt so excited about the journey we were about to take.”
Jodi has been in the public eye herself over the last number of years, with a role in Hollyoaks and being part of another girl band. So how does being in Wonderland compare to her other experiences? She had no hesitation in answering. “This is by far the best thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “It’s really my dream come true. I’m excited to get up every day and go to work. It doesn’t even feel like work – I’m just hanging with my best friends, doing the things I’ve always wanted to do. Sometimes I feel a little bit too lucky!”
Perhaps I’ve been watching too much X Factor and similar reality shows, but I assumed the girls were immediately locked away together in a house where they could begin to make their music. “We didn’t move in together straight away,” laughed Leigh. “In the beginning, we’d go to Kian and Jodi’s house and spend a weekend or week with them; just chilling out and getting to know each other. When we got a record deal, we began to spend more and more time together and practically lived in a hotel room in London. It’s certainly one way to get to know each other inside out! These days four of us live in an apartment but Jodie and Kian live in the same complex so we’re never short of a tea-bag or a bowl of sugar! Poor Kian – I think we wreck his head a lot of the time but we’ve become like his little sisters.”
“Kian has been such a brilliant support to us,” agreed Sharon. “He’s put so much time and effort into the band and is a fantastic mentor. Actually all the boys from Westlife have been brilliant. We supported them on their tour last year and they were so good to us. They’re always there for us if we need advice or encouragement.”
But is it difficult for Jodi to be managed by her husband? “Not at all,” laughed Jodi. “Kian is fantastic. As Sharon said, he’s always there for us and has given us so much good advice. He obviously understands what it’s like to be in a band so his input is invaluable. Of course we have our disagreements and get annoyed with each other, but it would be strange if we didn’t.”
Louis Walsh manages such bands as Boyzone, Westlife and Girls Aloud as well as being a judge on the X Factor. How daunting is it for the girls to work with him? “It was certainly a bit daunting in the beginning,” said Sharon. “Louis is such a massive icon in the
music world; it was nerve wracking to be standing in front of him singing for our lives. But he’s a real sweetheart. He’s very warm and grounded and has really taken us under his wing. We don’t see him as often as we do Kian but every minute he’s with us counts. He gives us fabulous advice and not only about our music. He tells us to look after each other and even gives us advice on how to look good.”
It’s been two and a half years since the band was formed and are only now being launched. So why has it taken so long? “People seem to expect a band to just happen,” said Corrina. “I don’t think anybody realises the amount of ground work that goes on. We’re all so passionate about music that we wanted to get it right. We spent a lot of that time in the recording studio, working really hard on our voices. We didn’t want any songs on the album to be just there for the sake of it or to fill a space. We wanted every song to count and to be proud of every single thing we produced.”
I wanted to know how the girls rated their experience of being in a girl band so far. “I know it sounds like a cliché,” said Kasey, “but our experience has been magical. Every single thing right from the beginning has been fantastic. The band has changed all of our lives. It’s really unbelievable to be able to do what you love to do and furthermore, to do it with your best friends. It’s been truly life changing.”
“Yes,” said Leigh, in agreement. “The experience has been out of this world. I’m really close to my family in Ireland and miss them like crazy but I’ve bonded so well with the girls that it’s like they’re part of my family now. We all really appreciate every single thing that’s happening for us. We don’t take anything for granted and feel really blessed – we’re just five ordinary girls following our dream. Wonderland is a very happy place to be!”
The girls come across as a very tight unit and seem to really look out for each other. But five girls together twenty-four seven must lead to friction at times. “I know it sounds unbelievable,” said Leigh, “but we honestly get on so well together. I love the girls to bits. We’re all very much in touch with what’s going on and each one of us pulls our weight. Sharon is really fantastic. She looks after us all. She’s a brilliant cook but not only that, she’s like a big sister, making sure we’ve eaten enough vegetables and are looking after ourselves. I usually deal with the record company and Sharon deals with the accountant. The others usually take charge of the fan-mail. We all compliment each other so well. At the end of a busy day, we’ll often give each other head massages. Our lives are so hectic at the moment; it’s sometimes those little things that count the most.”
Because the girls have been working behind the scenes for so long, they must feel like they’ve been in a bubble. But are they ready now for the hysteria of having their music in the charts and being recognised wherever they go? “It does feel as though we’ve been in a bit of a bubble,” said Kasey. “We weren’t really recognised much over those couple of years but now in the last few months, it’s beginning to hit home. It’s crazy for us to hear our song being played on the radio. It gives us such a thrill and makes it feel real. It’s sort of like launching our little baby onto the world. But we feel ready for anything now. We’ve worked so hard and feel so lucky to be given this opportunity. Bring it on!”
Wonderland is such a fantastic name for a band – it conjures up images of happiness and excitement. Was it an easy decision to find a name? “Oh you’re joking,” laughed Sharon. “We were two years trying to find the perfect name. We’d thought of names such as Daisy Chains and Wildflowers but nothing seemed right. Eventually it was Kian who came up with the name. He was walking down the street when the Tim Burton movie, Alice in Wonderland, had just been released, and a bus passed by with an ad for it on the side. It just clicked with him straight away and when he put it to us and to the record company, we just all knew it was right. Now I couldn’t imagine any other name.”
In October of last year, a program appeared on our screens called Louis Walsh and Kian Egan’s next big thing. It was a fly on the wall documentary of the girls’ journey so far. I wondered what it was like to live with the cameras following them around all the time. “To be honest, we were all a bit freaked out in the beginning,” said Sharon. “We weren’t used to having cameras around and it was daunting to know that everything we were doing was being filmed. We sort of felt we had to put on a bit of a show. But as time went on and we got busier, we relaxed a bit more and just got used to having them around.”
So is there any particular girl band the girls admire? Who does Wonderland aspire to be like? “Oh we absolutely love the Dixie Chicks,” said Corrina. As well as singing, they play a number of instruments. They’re so talented. But it’s their voices that we love the most. They all blend so well together and that’s something we try to do with our music.”
The girls, who are signed to Mercury Records, are beyond excited about Wonderland‘s debut single, Not a Love Song, which is due for release soon. “The 6th March has been confirmed as the release date,” said Kasey. “But it’s available to pre-order right now here. We’re so proud of this song. We co-wrote it with Shep Solomon and Adam Argyle. We feel so lucky to have been given the opportunity to write songs with so many fantastic writers.”
“Our album is due for release later in the year too,” said Leigh. “We’re hoping it will be in May sometime but there’ll be a second single released before then. We’ve been recording the album for the last two years so it’s very exciting to know it will soon be available. We don’t have a definite name for it yet but at the moment we’re thinking of simply calling it Wonderland or perhaps Welcome to Wonderland.”
So how would the girls describe their music and what can we expect from the album? “I suppose you could describe our music as pop,” said Corrina. “But it’s got a real country and rock vibe going on. I think our sound is quite mature. There’s a nice mix on the album with some ballads and up-tempo songs too.”
Over the last number of weeks, I’ve noticed the girls tweeting about visiting schools. “We’ve been doing a tour of schools around the UK,” said Corrina. “Honestly, it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. We’ve had such a brilliant reaction and have been bombarded with positive comments on facebook from the students. It’s been brilliant fun and we’re very lucky to have had a chance to do it. We’d love to do the same in Ireland but at the moment we don’t have any definite plans.”
As well as the official Wonderland twitter, the girls each operate their own twitter accounts. Despite their busy schedule, they always seem to find time to respond to tweets and chat to their fans. “After we toured with Westlife last year,” said Leigh, “we decided to set up twitter accounts as a way to thank fans for all their support. Our fans are brilliant and we’re really flattered to have so many. Twitter allows us to chat directly to them and build up a relationship with them. On Wednesdays we do a question and answer session where we all come online and try to answer as many questions as we can through tweets. We’d be nothing without our fans so it’s only right that we talk back to them.”
I could have chatted to the girls all day… well… em… I think maybe I did! But as the interview was coming to a close, I wanted to fire a few last questions at them. I tweeted to their fans, who call themselves The Wonderland Army, asking them what questions they’d like to put to the girls. So I stuck my quiz show hat on and fired ahead:
Do you have a stylist or pick your own clothes?
Jodi: We have a stylist for music videos and for photo shoots but for the most part, we chose our own close on a day to day basis.
What’s been your favourite place to perform?
Jodi: Croke Park or O2 London
Sharon: Croke Park or Glasgow
Corrina: Croke Park
Kasey: Croke Park or O2 London
Leigh: Croke Park
What’s your favourite song to perform?
Jodi: Not a Love Song
Sharon: Nothing Moves Me and Starlight
Corrina: Not a Love Song
Kasey: Not a Love Song and Nothing Moves Me
Leigh: Starlight and Not a Love Song
Who would you most like to duet with?
Sharon: Bruno Mars and Adele
Kasey: Adele and Rihanna
Leigh: Taylor Swift
What are your hobbies?
Jodi: Dancing, horse riding
Sharon: Writing songs, going to the gym
Corrina: Walking, hot baths, cinema, hanging out with friends
Kasey: Just starting to play piano, reading, walking
Leigh: Art, reading
What’s your favourite comfort food?
Sharon: Chinese food, chocolate
Corrina: Bacon Sandwich, Chinese food
Leigh: Jellies, peanut butter on toast
Unfortunately, the interview had come to an end and it was time to say goodbye to the girls. Wonderland are about to take the world by storm and the girls deserve every bit of success that comes their way.