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Love Letter To A Record: Alter Boy On James Blake’s ‘Overgrown’

Music Feeds’ Love Letter To A Record series asks artists to reflect on their relationship with music and share stories about how the music they love has influenced their lives.

Perth-based alt-pop collective, Alter Boy, have just released the single, ‘I Repent’, an ode to self-forgiveness and transformation. Here, vocalist Molly Priest pens a love letter to James Blake’s second studio album, Overgrown, from 2013. Listen to Alter Boy’s ‘I Repent’ below.

Alter Boy’s Molly Priest on James Blake’s Overgrown

When I was a kid I pretended to understand how to read a clock face. I pretended for many years, and for many years nobody noticed. I got by on digital watches and careful evasion. On my thirteenth birthday, a teacher asked me what time it was on the clock above his head. I was exposed.

When I turned seventeen I auditioned for a music school and was admitted by good fortune. The head of the department was unwell on the day of my audition and a jazz musician stepped in to take his place. She happened to like something about the tone of my voice and neglected to test my knowledge of music theory.

On my first day of music school I was assigned to an ensemble and realised very quickly that I didn’t fit. The other singers had powerful, belting voices and perfect pitch. They read music and spilled jargon. They were in their element. I had a small voice and very little knowledge of music theory. I wanted to sing and to write music, but I didn’t know if I had anything to offer. It would seem that I was back in primary school, pretending to read the clock face.

Then I bought Overgrown by James Blake. Here was this guy writing beautiful words and melodies and singing them with a delicate, tender voice that had a lot of heart. The album was so much more than its melody, harmony and rhythm. The obscure, sometimes incomprehensible production design was the labour of a lifetime. The way James Blake uses delays, thick and full Prophet synths, and symphonic vocal samples to create tension and dynamics is celestial.

When I listen to his music I envisage a feeble man bent over his mixing desk, drenched in the final ray of divine light. Almost every track on the album uses repetitive vocal motifs that never tire. They merge with the groove and take up a special kind of residence in your head.

I met our drummer, Josh Hellis, that first year at music school and we write and perform together to this day. ‘Life Round Here’ is one of his favourite James Blake tracks. He says, “The way the beat drops and the backbeat doesn’t land on two and four is so adventurous yet satisfying.”

I spent a great deal of time listening to ‘Retrograde’. James sings in a frail tone, which carries its own kind of strength. He sings, “Show me why you’re strong / Ignore everybody else / So show me where you fit.”

These days I still battle with the clock face and the everlasting belief that I’m a musical fraud, but I’m grateful that I was able to pretend my way to the place I am now. It’s artists like James Blake that break the ground so the rest of us oddballs have some place to land.

‘I Repent’ by Alter Boy is out now. Alter Boy are playing at Carriageworks, Sydney, on Thursday, 2nd June for Vivid Sydney. Tickets here

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