Magic dwells in the strangest of places. It’s not something you stumble upon. You have to look for it. Lift up rocks, explore caves, rub enchanted lamps, that sort of thing. If you’re a fan of many-limbed genre-benders To Kill A King – and while members of the London band are presently more likely to be working the bar of your local megaplex venue than gracing the main stage, a great many are – chances are that, beneath the oddness, beneath their relentless commitment to doing things differently, you’ve heard something that sounded much like magic buried within the band’s very special songs.
If you didn’t, then we invite you to spend some time in the company of that band’s music leader Ralph Pelleymounter and his debut solo album, Dead Debutante’s Ball.
Recorded by rising production talent Gethin Pearson (Kele Okereke, JAWS, Orla Gartland) in ten long days during Britain’s hottest summer in decades, and named so “because it’s a good title for someone releasing a solo album so late in their career”, Dead Debutant’s Ball is a record that carries a similar sense of mirth and mischief throughout its fourteen songs. There is, it must never be forgotten, a song here called The History Of Line Dancing. There are two about lobsters. But there is also brave storytelling here. A deep well of emotion. Magic.
It’s the clearest and most direct presentation of contemporary Britain’s most underrated songwriter to date.
“There are choices I made of this album that I doubt would have made it past the hydra debates of To Kill A King,” explains Ralph. “It’s quite scary going it alone and not having the usual sounding boards. I was strange not having the rest of the band in the room, but this is my fourth album and I feel like I know what I want more than ever. I’m not sure these songs would really belong on a To Kill A King album either. They are for the most part quite short personal songs, the sort of thing I’d play for myself backstage before we’d play a gig.” It’s not the first time Ralph has made music outside of the band; Bastille fans are eagerly awaiting a release date for Ralph’s side project with Dan Smith, a graphic novel with songs called Annie Oakley Hanging, and he’s also written songs with BRIT Award winner Rag’n’Bone Man.
To understand Dead Debutante’s Ball is to understand Ralph Pelleymounter. No easy task, but like any artist of substance, it’s worth pulling up your sleeves and reaching in deep. “I think as a child I was not so keen on living in this world,” laughs the composer. “It all seemed very boring. I spent my formulative years lost in the words of Tolkien, Pratchett or Arthur C Clarke. I loved P G Wodehouse. I loved comedies and films. My parents didn’t seem to care about what was age appropriate, so I would bounce between old British sitcoms and action horror films. I’d watch The Young Ones followed by Alien, then The Terminator with an episode of Bottom to follow. Musically it was Dylan and Jeff Buckley, Bowie and Simon & Garfunkel…”
Suddenly the eclecticism of Dead Debutante’s Ball makes sense. “I had this idea to make this album full of short, energetic tunes,” explains Ralph. “The songs would be strung together with snippets of friends chatting as if you were being led through a series of rooms, never quite sure what is around the corner but flowing fast, always on and on. A Wes Anderson film meets one of my teenage mixtapes, I think the album is playful but also I’m aware that I have a darker sense of humour than most. It talks about social anxieties and panic attacks, love and lobsters, how not to deal with break ups, feelings of powerlessness and a brief lecture on the history of line dancing. It’s full of things I thought worthy of writing about.”
This might be the pummelling anti-folk of Wild Beast; deranged and anxious, wild and untamed. Fittingly, the subject matter walks a similarly squiggly path. “It’s about social anxieties and panic attacks,” explains Ralph. “It’s trying to explain the something that from the outside can seem unexplainable. The song keeps on saying “nothing is true in the song although it is exactly how my world is”. Musically it’s all building towards this sharp climax of chaos.”
Or it might mean the rhinestone balladry of Your Pet Scan (Brain On Drugs), a bit like the sort of music that might come out of the Grand Ole Opry if it was relaunched as an NHS drop in center. “Forvarious reasons,” says Ralph, “I spent a chunk of time in hospital over the last year. I got thinking about the doctors being able to read people’s entire lives through their medical records, so in this song I thought it’d be interesting to tell the story of someone through their pet scan. I even sampled an old projector that we put in the first verse.”
Fittingly for a record so seemingly concerned with the neurological, Dead Debutante’s Ball sounds like a record made by a man desperately trying to understand who he is. Consider album highlight Blackness. A Void. A song that is desperately seeking a truth. That presents the songwriter’s arid voice within a variety of settings – it wouldn’t be a Ralph Pelleymounter song if it limited itself to just onecolour in the pallette. He explains; “The songis about feeling increasingly powerless, frustrated with a lack of progress and an acute awareness of our dwindling days. It hopefully though has a sort of cathartic release inviting people to ‘scream into that endless void’ and ‘do the thing you love with the ones that bring you joy’”.
So who is Ralph Pelleymounter? Who is the Dead Debutant whose Ball we’ve spent time within, travailing the multitude of aural textures; rock and pop, waltzes and jigs, blues and punk? Well, he’s the singer of To Kill A King. A worthy solo artist in his own right. A purveyor of magic. Sometime lobster fancier.
And the most underrated songwriter within British music today.