When art becomes music (or music is already a piece of art)

Let’s make an experiment. You hear a track where the following people who made history are mentioned: Elizabeth ‘Lee’ Miller, Man Ray, Anne Boleyn, Henry Tudor and Pablo Picasso. What do you think you are listening to? What would you choose between an audio book of the latest publication of art critic Philippe Daverio or an indie rock song?

Put your headphones on, push play on this track and check it by yourself!

Surprised? You shouldn’t! Alt-J are not new to this kind of inspiration for their lyrics.

Former fine art and literature students, the trio met at the laundry of University of Leeds and, after a conversation about British visual artist David Shrigley, they decided to start a band. After all, as Joe Newman (voice + guitar) reveals “I basically went to art school to start a band”. Triangles are their favorite shape (listen to Tessellate to get this reference), in fact their symbol is a delta ∆ that comes out if you type Alt + J on a Mac. They seem to pretty like making allusions on the delta: take in example the cover picture of their debut album ‘An Awesome Wave’. The artwork literally depicts the delta of Ganges river in Bangladesh: it is a multi-layered image of the river where this multitude of colors arises from different background radiations.

Their songs and videos have more cultural references than a book of Bruno Munari. The song ‘Taro’ is completely about photographers Gerda Taro and Robert Capa, the video of ‘Tessellate’ is a clear reference to the fresco ‘Scuola di Atene’ by Raffaello, part of the lyrics of ‘Breezeblocks’ are inspired by Maurice Sendak’s children’s picture book “Where the Wild Things Are”, ‘In Cold Blood’ is named after the homonymous book by Truman Capote, just to mention a few.

A picture taken from music video 'Tessellate' and comparison to 'Scuola di Atene'

But let’s go back to ‘Deadcrush’. The song is based on the creepy concept of having a crush on someone whose dead. But it is not as bad as it seems! The band thought about going on a date with an historical figure who particularly inspired each member of the trio. Who did they pick? American photographer Elizabeth ‘Lee’ Miller, poet Sylvia Plath and… Anne Boleyn.

Going through the lyrics you can get a brief biography of these DC (deadcrushes). The first verse is dedicated to the photographer and it tells about her beauty, in fact she was a model before becoming a professional photographer, her liaison with Man Ray and her rumored affair with Pablo Picasso. Lee Miller started her career in New York as fashion model and, soon after 1929, she moved to Paris where she wanted to become Man Ray’s apprentice announcing to him “I’m your student”. In fact, she became his muse and collaborator and many of the photographs taken in this period credited to Man Ray were actually taken by Lee Miller. During the Second World War she was war correspondent for Vogue, covering events such as the liberation of Paris and the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald.

Anne Boleyn in the music video directed by YOUNG REPLICANT

The second verse is about the life of Anne Boleyn and the fact that Henry Tudor left her lifeless in 1536. In addition to this, there is a reference to an unknown artist who painted one of her most recognizable portrait. Just to light up your curiosity: did you know that after her execution, many of her portraits were destroyed for fear of upsetting the King? No?! Me neither, I discovered it listening to alt-J!