How I wrote ‘Is It Any Wonder?’ by Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley
We learn how the upbeat hit single was written under the stress of constant touring and the War on Terror
Anthemic rock band Keane was born out of the post-Britpop landscape and – unlike many also-rans of the era – quickly achieved mainstream, international success with the release of their 2004 debut album, Hopes And Fears. Over the next decade, the group from Battle, Sussex would go on to sell over 11 million albums worldwide, with all four reaching the UK No 1 spot. They’d also win two Brit Awards and an Ivor Novello, and charm a global fanbase by playing more than 700 shows in over 40 countries.
Although singer Tom Chaplin and drummer Richard Hughes both contributed to the creative process, keyboard player Tim Rice-Oxley took the reins as the principal songwriter and helped shape Keane’s piano-driven signature sound.
Here, Tim talks about how they made Is It Any Wonder?, one of their most successful singles, the second released from their second chart-topping album Under The Iron Sea…
“I found [the second album Under The Iron Sea] very stressful and the way I dealt with it was to work really hard on it. But I think there were a lot of ill effects from that – for me and the other guys in the band – even if I didn’t probably appreciate it at the time. I mean, Hopes And Fears was such a success that we were still touring it really hard at least a year after it came out – probably more than that – so we were already panicking about the next album, long before that tour had finished.
“So I was in the back of the tour bus every day, with a keyboard, trying to write songs, and I got to the point where I said, ‘Can I not do any more interviews, so I can just stay on the bus and write?’ Then, every day off, I’d be either be in my hotel room with a keyboard or find a studio in whatever town we were in, and work again, record some demos, play them to the other guys… So the process was very much happening on the road. It was quite fun, in a way. I remember finding a little studio in Detroit and Berlin.
“I suppose, in retrospect, it worked out quite well because it probably forced me to write, to push the songs really hard and push myself to finish them, and keep the standard high – we were always punishing ourselves with our high standards. But in a way, I’m amazed it turned out as well as it did. The whole feel of that record is quite dark and stressful, I think, to my ears, so it probably did feed into the lyrics – I suppose, I was just trying to work out and articulate whatever was going on in my head!
“The way I often write, even now, is: if I can get a bit of the melody, or even the chorus at least, then it’ll tend to percolate, sometimes for months. I was living in a sort of garret flat and it had a piano in it, and I remember playing the chorus of Is It Any Wonder? and having the melody with no lyrics – just those two or three chords.
“It always makes me think that it had a very U2-ish ‘eighths-y’ thing and a really exciting energy, a bit like I Will Follow. So I had that in my head and was carrying it around and didn’t really know what to write at all.
“Then I remember being in a plane somewhere, because we were still touring a lot, and I think it felt like a stressful time in the world, with the Iraq war and Afganistan. Like so many people, of whatever age, I certainly felt quite traumatised by 9/11. The fall-out is still being felt today, but we were right in the middle of it at the time and it was very much in everyone’s consciousness. So that feeling of being very on-edge somehow led to that phrase, ‘Is it any wonder?’
“When you look around and there’s all this stuff going on, you’re constantly being bombarded with terrifying news from around the world. I suppose things were quite stressful in the band as well, I hated flying and I was probably feeling quite frazzled at the time, so being at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic, or whatever, found me in quite a weird headspace anyway.
“And I remember sitting there with my laptop thinking that was a phrase that could start a series of lines with that question, ‘Is it any wonder…?’ So the whole song, lyrically, flowed very nicely from there.
“I’m a very instinctive writer, so I tend to follow my nose with a song and, if I’ve gone in a particular direction with it, I find it hard to change it. People say, ‘You can always go back to where you were and you should just keep pushing your boundaries,’ and I know that’s true, in my head, but it’s still hard to do – to take that leap and try something different from what you’ve already got.
“I’d nearly finished the song with a couple of others and I asked my tour manager to book a studio in Cologne. I hadn’t finished the middle eight and we were staying in a hotel overlooking Cologne Cathedral, which is a beautiful old gothic cathedral. And I’d been hearing a story about, when the city was bombed by the allies, the cathedral was the only thing that was miraculously untouched.
“That really got stuck in my head and fed nicely into the middle eight lyrics. It’s a very emotional song; there’s a lot of war-themed stuff on that album [Under The Iron Sea].
“So I had something I could go and record, I did a little demo and I remember Tom [Chaplin] really loving it. That’s when I started to think, ‘Thank God for that! We’ve got something.’”