Saturday night and Sunday morning; the sacred and the profane. These are the creative spaces of Kieran Brunt and Matt Huxley, AKA Strange Boy.
Strange Boy’s music inspires a choral ecstasy as much as it does the communal hedonism of the dance floor in full rhythmic flow, through melding the clarion call of Brunt’s classically-trained vocals with Huxley’s electronic soundscapes. It is a potent mix that has birthed collaborations with Bedroom Community staple Nico Muhly, experimental producer Clark, the London Contemporary Orchestra, and Wild Beasts producer Richard Formby for their latest EP, How Come That Blood, released on Grönland Records.
First meeting on a night out while bowling through Glastonbury in 2011 and bonding through a shared love of Joanna Newsom, the duo joined forces in 2015 when they relocated to London after studying classical singing and composition.
Disillusioned with the often elitist hierarchies of classical singing, Brunt had turned his attention to the songwriting world, drawing on his love of storytellers such as The Magnetic Fields, Rufus Wainwright and Anohni. Combining those artists’ narrative thrust with the grandiose symbolism of his choral training, Brunt created impressionistic lyrics that could accompany Huxley’s atmospheric soundworlds. “Strange Boy has always been about foregrounding Kieran’s voice against an electronic palette,” Huxley explains. “We’re marrying songwriting with dance music references to create something between the pop song and art music.”
The pair began honing a back-and-forth that saw Brunt write demos before sending them to Huxley for production input, ultimately resulting in their debut EP, 2017’s Annunciation. Adopting the Strange Boy name from a moniker given to Huxley by singer Beth Orton one hungover morning, Annunciation’s four tracks paired deftly-chosen synth textures with Brunt’s crystalline voice. The songs undulate through warm, blossoming melodies, while being undercut by the sinister, metallic coolness of Huxley’s electronics.
“We did it all ourselves,” Brunt explains. “Annunciation and our next EP, 2018’s Suburbia, were self-released and so experimental. We were merging our traditional musical backgrounds with the debauched, modern experiences we’ve also had growing up.”
Following Suburbia, the pair kept their collaboration on a simmer as they worked on other musical pursuits – namely Brunt’s direction of the vocal group Shards and Huxley’s work in film, theatre and TV composition. Having built on their musical experience, early 2020 saw the process begin again for a new EP – the first offering that would invite external collaborators.
“This is the first time we’ve let other people in and realised the full force of the collaboration,” Brunt says. “The time we’ve taken to work on other music has meant that we’ve amassed so many more skills. By bringing in others, it’s helped us hone our own ideas and ultimately this feels like the perfect realisation of the Strange Boy project.”
Friend of the group Nico Muhly wrote luscious string arrangements for the EPs four tracks, all recorded by the powerhouse London Contemporary Orchestra. “Nico’s strings take the music to a new place,” Brunt says, “I love the opulence they bring. There is a juxtaposition between my voice, which is quite pure, and the electronics, which are gnarlier and more experimental. The strings are like glue between those elements.”
The EP opens with Eating Anna’s Rabbit Delicious, a song which embodies what Huxley call’s Brunt’s “funny, sexy and visceral” lyrics. With its title taken from a delightfully strange Instagram caption that Brunt stumbled upon, the song is packed with glittering harmonies. “It’s set at a dinner party where someone learns about the death of a celebrity,” Brunt explains. “It’s quite tongue-in-cheek, playing with optimism and a sense of existential darkness.” Sonically, Huxley adds that it’s “a hazy summer tune, tapping into a sense of nostalgia,” referencing kitsch dinner party sound effects like ice swirling in a glass, which add to the lyrical playfulness.
How Come That Blood follows, the EP’s title track, where angular strings build over arpeggiated synths to create a cinematic grandeur that carries on endlessly, like a dawn light never fading. “I’m interested in telling two stories at once, and using an old tale to explain a new one,” Brunt says. “How Come That Blood is an old folk song but I’ve rewritten the tune to make it a dialogue between a police officer and a juvenile covert human intelligence source – basically a child spy – questioning the ethics and often violence of that relationship.”
Penultimate number Collector is a composition that the pair have been reworking in recent years. A downtempo breather during the EP, Brunt took thematic inspiration from writer John Fowles’ book of the same name. Contained within its melodic minimalism, Brunt explores the themes of obsession and dangerous masculinity contained in the book. “I’m presenting a grotesque character to ask the listener, what does this remind you about yourself?” he says.
Closing number and ecstatic highlight of the EP, Sunken Cathedral, featuring additional production from Clark, who lends his experimental ear to the track’s rushing sense of digital overwhelm. “The song is about a relationship that’s malfunctioning and it’s a metaphor for the breakdown of political and social relationships all over the world,” Brunt says. “I’m asking how did we get to this situation? What happened?” Drawing on the symbolism of a grandiose cathedral crumbling and falling away, the track’s lyrics reflect its musical makeup, bringing strings and a thumping bassline into focus and back out again, like dissipating ruins.
Ultimately, as the amorphous presence of Strange Boy, Brunt and Huxley have created a sonic world that inspires a communion – with ourselves and with something more ethereal. With plans for an album next year and an ensuing tour, the visceral storytelling experience of Strange Boy will be an event not to be missed.