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Strange Boy

Strange Boy on the tragic story of ‘Oscar’s Song’

Culture

Strange Boy's Kieran talks to us about 'Oscar's Song', which tries to make sense of the suicide of a pupil he used to teach, and is one of the most stunningly moving songs this year.

Strange Boy are the type of band who create a world to live inside. The two-piece, classically-trained vocalist and song-writer Kieran Brunt and electronic soundscape builder Matt Huxley, are just releasing their first album – Love Remains – after years of working intermittently together; and now it has finally come together, the transcendent beauty of their music is there for all to listen to. Though while it touches the heavens, it has its feet firmly on the ground, and none more so than in a single they have released ahead of the album.

While the usual manner of singles, in a music industry strategy way, is to pick potential chart hits or statement moments of intent, Strange Boy’s single, ‘Oscar’s Song’ is something else entirely. A few years ago, Kieran was balancing his music with teaching. One of the pupils he taught, Oscar, was the son of the headmaster, and was having mental health struggles. Then one Sunday afternoon, as he was about to fly to Sweden, Kieran had a call. Oscar had taken his own life.

In the aftermath of the news, as the school and community reeled in devastation, Kieran wrote the opening of a song about Oscar on the plane. It was an effort, through Kieran’s story-telling instincts, to try to imagine the final walk Oscar took that morning, to understand the tragedy of his final walk, to make some sense of it. And yet, after he took it to Matt and the song developed, including a hair-raising second half, the song also seemed to reach out beyond life and death to send a message to Oscar. It is reminiscent of Ghosteen, the record Nick Cave made after the death of his son, Arthur, tried to get as close as it could to arrowing music into the realm where lost ones are.

As a work of art, Oscar’s Song is something special, and as with Ghosteen, it will surely become a gathering place for those in grief, and also serve as a reminder to those who are going through hell that they are not alone. “We were there with you…” Kieran sings.

Have a listen to Oscar’s Song below, and then read our interview with Kieran about the making of the song, and why he, and Oscar’s father, wanted it to be written and heard…

Could you tell us about the background to ‘Oscar’s Song’ please, Kieran?

Before I went fully into music I was working part time at a school, leading the music department. They really supported the fact I was also a musician and let me take time off work to record, and a big person supporting me in that was the head, Guy. Oscar was his son.

In my time I taught Oscar from Year 8 to Year 10, and he was often off school. We were aware that there was lots going on with him, that he was having a tough time and it was impacting Guy; he was at times off work too and was very open about the situation with us, because we were his teachers as well. Then we got a phone call one Sunday afternoon which just blew all of our lives apart: Oscar had taken his life the previous day.

When I heard I was on my was to mix the first album of my other music project, Shards. I felt conflicted about leaving the community but they said it was best to go and not change my plans. I was flying to Sweden, and on the plane I was utterly in shock. I remember the person next to me looking at me, as I stared straight ahead and had tears streaming down my face. So the thing I did right then was to pick up my phone and wrote the first half of this song.

I realise now a lot of people were thinking about the same things I was, finding themselves cyclically going through what he did on that day, where he went and the journey he took. Guy said he had also thought about the very same thing, and other members of staff too. That’s what we all thought about. This journey.

The thing at the time that made me so sad, and so regretful about the whole situation was that he was on his own the whole time. The loneliness you must feel. Oscar was struggling with mental health problems, and the thing that really struck me was the tragedy of the loneliness of the situation. I know from my own experiences – I’ve been in some pretty dark places over the years – that often the unhealthy instinct is to burrow our way into a hole and hide away. It’s the worst thing we can do, really, but when you reach such an anxious state about anything around you, you still end up doing it.

‘Oscar’s Song’ revolves around one simple lyrical idea -‘We were there, we were there’ – this repeating of a mantra. You know you thought you were alone, but you weren’t, you had so many people who cared about you. And I wish you would have known that.

At the time I was mentally unwell myself, and my partner’s best friend from school also died suddenly around the time. We were both struggling. I really thought ‘I don’t know how to get out of this feeling.’ Then with Oscar that was a sudden flash. It put my own thoughts into perspective. I put that in the song: ‘I was shaking on your wavelength’. I was referencing that I was in a similarly not well place. What happened to Oscar had this profound impact on me and still does.

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It’s the type of art that feels like it also has a real purpose, that it can meaningfully get that message – because when you’re young and alone often you think you are not just alone but the only person who has ever felt like this…

We’re so used to the jargon of these things. How often do you hear, ‘You’re not alone’? And that’s the problem with language, it can become meaningless because we hear these things so often. That’s why I think writing songs or books or plays can be so important because it can present these things differently. There’s a definite intention to the song, to say this is what we went through, this is what Oscar went through, and maybe there’s something in it that resonates with people, and reframes it. That’s behind the decision to release this song.

I was so conflicted about it; I want to be telling my truth through these songs, but its inevitably mixed up with the job of releasing music. The idea of promotion is so difficult for a song like this. When I sent it to my bandmate Matt and we first got to the stage where I thought, ‘This song actually works’, that was when I was like: I have to do this. I really felt like, if I’m going to make what I do making songs and telling stories and expressing things and reaching out to people, then I have to do this. But only if Guy is happy for me to do so.

I was putting it off sending to him, because I was worried about it. But his response when I did…he was so pleased that I had done it. Pleased that Oscar’s story was being thought about and would be told. Guy has been really happy with it all.

It reminds me of the Nick Cave album Ghosteen, which is about making sense of personal grief but is also provided a place for listeners to make sense of their own – as well as touch people who are going through difficulties.

I think that’s been a big part of the decision. It’s a functional thing and has an importance. The other record I had in mind was Sufjan Stevens’ record Carrie & Lowell, about the death of his mother. That was really in my head when I was finishing writing the lyrics.

In the end we released it as a single because I wanted it to have its own little moment. We don’t want to push it in the press, they won’t play it on the radio, but I wanted it to have its own time. Not just be a song on the album that people might hear, but to have its own moment and be talked about.

We made a video too. The song is pictorial and although we didn’t want to literally depict things, we thought this was the best way of doing it. We’ve been traveling south of Sweden by the coast, and it’s the most peaceful beautiful place. There’s amazing sunsets and we’d have a cold dip every day which does wonders for my head. So I associate being there with this sense of calm. People who are struggling with their mental health, what they are trying to achieve is a sense of calm. I’m pleased with how the video turned out.

Can we talk about the second half of the song? Which really turns into something else, a transcendental thing…

That came later. I guess I wanted to write…not a happy ending, but something that acknowledged that Oscar was very cerebral, and deeply philosophical. I’d seen some things he’d written before he died, and Guy has since shown me some things he’d written. There’s some really profound things. There’s a poem he wrote, when he was 10 which is about a Gecko who walks around thinking about how big his world is. It’s really moving. For me as well there’s a lot of existential angst in what I do. The end song on the album, Love Remains, is about looking inside yourself and around yourself. I feel like we had that in common, so that ending part was me being like, I so wish you hadn’t done it, but still, I get you.’ As in, I get what you meant.

There’s a song I love by Neutral Milk Hotel, called ‘Holland 1945’ from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. In the song Jeff Mangum imagines a boy growing up as a teenager who is fixated on the tragedy of Anne Frank and talks about her family’s death. The line goes, ‘Now she’s a little boy in Spain, playing pianos filled with flames, on empty rings around the sun.’ There’s a nod to that in the song, a sort of fantastical imagining og what Oscar might be doing up there.

You’re in for a busy time with the album and a tour. How going to look after yourself through this?

With the record coming out there’s definitely an anxiety there. With this record more than anything I’ve done, I really hope that it has the life it deserves. That’s what I’m most anxious about, whether it can reach the audience that I think is out there for it. Because we have put so much into it. We’re lucky that there’s two of us and we can look after each other. It’s a real laugh, we’re total buffoons together, and amuse ourselves at least. We started making music together 8 years ago, so we’ve been collaborators and relied on each other for a long time; that helps.

Would you like to add anything else about the song?

I suppose I just want to thank Guy for his encouragement over the years. When he was away from work years ago it become very apparent how much Guy was a mentor figure to me and really supported me, basically giving me half a job so I had the other half to write my music. It was such a valuable thing.

After Oscar died I was away for a while and didn’t see Guy. We were all grieving for him as well and very worried about him and his mental wellbeing. Especially because his life was so tied to that school. The first time I saw him after he was away was at the funeral. He stood up and gave a eulogy himself; it was one of the most extraordinary displays of strength I’ve ever seen. It was remarkable. Guy is an excellent communicator and writer and he had written the most beautifully expressed thing, standing up in front of his community, friends and family to deliver it. We were speechless. I’m pleased to say he’s since been married and I know as he’s finding out what his life is now, he’s getting a lot of support from his wife. I think he’d like people to know that.

Strange Boy’s single ‘Oscar’s Song’ and the album ‘Love Remains’ are out now. They are playing the following dates in March:

17th March – Birds of Paradise Festival, Utrecht

20th March – Glad Café, Glasgow

27th March – The Waiting Room, London

Photo credit: Özge Cöne

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