Tom Krell makes emotional music, that much is never in doubt. Originally hidden under blankets of digital noise, his falsetto croon as How To Dress Well channels classic r’n'b and soul in an ultra-modern sonic landscape, with that clash reinforcing the push-and-pull tension in each all of his work. He is currently on tour in Europe in support of his second album, the altogether less lo-fi Total Loss, and is set to make his first Irish appearance tomorrow night at the Twisted Pepper. We caught him on the road between Copenhagen and Aarhus, a land where everyone is apparently really attractive. We’ll have to take his word for it.
TD: You must be used to being in Europe at this stage, you’ve lived in Germany before right?
Tom Krell: Yeah, I lived here for almost two years in total, in Europe. I was in Cologne for a year and Berlin for four months after that. Then I spent this past summer in Berlin as well.
Did you like living in Berlin?
Yeah, Berlin is great. I think it’d be hard to get a lot of work done there, it’s like really, really chill. There’s so much going on, so many parties, so many places to hang out. When I was living there it was the kind of thing where I’d be having lunch with one friend, dinner with another and then we’d go out somewhere. I’d do that four or five days a week and I’d realised I’d done nothing for about three months except hang out with my friends. Which is fun, just not very productive.
So have you been happy with the response to Total Loss so far?
Yeah, it’s been amazing. It’s been quite thrilling and such an honour.
You’ve mentioned feeling this album kid of feels like your first real record. Is that the case?
I like to think that every release can feel new, where it can follow out a new thought and flip the script a little bit, ending up with something that is still signature, still recognisable but really out on new terrain, that’s the goal.
How have the songs worked out live so far?
I’ve created the record for a listening experience which is quite intimate and personal, either on headphones or at home, like in quiet places and quiet times. It’s very different to listening to the songs in a group with me standing there singing at you. So we try to arrange a lot of things so there’s more openness and more nakedness live. I hate going to shows where you see the bands perform and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s that song from the record’. When a show is just good enough that you can say it sounded like the record. Like I really I like bands who flip things up and create a different vibe.
Has touring over the past few years had an impact on the kind of songs you’re writing?
It’s easy to lose perspective after touring. I think everybody who plays sensitive music has had this urge where you’re like, ‘Shit, it would be so much fun to play a loud ass song and rock out for the live set’, and I think people mistake that desire for what they should do on their next record and they make some heavy stuff. Then the records aren’t where they were before, they’re not as personal or intimate or whatever. I try not to record too much right after touring, just chill out for a little bit and then get back to song writing in a more focused way.
Do you have a structured approach to song-writing then, or is it just something that happens?
It’s more just something that just happens. I try to be a bit disciplined about it. It’s usually easy because I’ll be excited about a song I’m working on and I’ll be like, ‘OK, tomorrow I’m definitely going to do a bunch of hours on this song’. I just try to be ready whenever shit feels right.
And is it the same thing for lyrics then?
I very rarely write lyrics out of the process of making the music. I tend to find it doesn’t work for me to write something down and then go and try to make a song that would work with those lyrics because then you have this weird disconnect between the lyrics or the vocal melody and the other elements in the song. It’s important for me that everything sits together from a common origin or everything sits together specifically the way it all does. I know other electronic producers who pull sounds and they have little sounds that they’ll be working on or that will have caught their ear or whatever. For me, with every single song, all the pieces should come together quite organically in relation to one another, not pulled from somewhere else and added to it.
What was it like working with Rodaidh McDonald on this album? Was it a big change to have a producer involved for the first time?
It was quite exciting. I was quite scared at first and luckily I learned on the fly that it was good for me to have worked on the songs a lot beforehand. Also, Rodaidh is incredibly sensitive, he’s like an artist when it comes to working with artists. He was so sensitive to my aspect and my vibe. For the first two weeks we were together, he didn’t do anything, anything, to the songs without completely running every single detail by me. It was painstakingly detailed but he was concerned to make it so I felt like like there was no decision on the record that wasn’t my decision. I’ve had friends work with producers who basically just take the songs they’ve made and they make them again. Rodaidh just doesn’t care to do that and he wouldn’t do that to me particularly because he knows how obsessed I am by this stuff and how personal it is to me.
Do you ever worry about your records being overly personal or introverted? Total Loss seems even more personal than Love Remains.
There are different kinds of personal. So there’s personal which is like confessional singer-songwriter, playing guitar, singing about their life and then there’s also – the weird thing is it sounds paradoxical – personal experience; the structure and grammar of personal experience is universal and shared by everyone. Everyone knows what it’s like to have that moment of quietness with yourself or that moment of sheer anxiety in this totally personal or private way. There’s something about private experience that is actually shared by everyone. Everyone is trapped in their own little heart and mind so the contours of that personal experience I actually find are quite easy to share and quite relatable. A lot of people feel pitiful so I can write about that from my own experience and a lot of other people will have shared in that. The live show is cool because it’s clear that people do share that personal thing, so they come out and they’re not just watching me do my thing, they’re quite moved and we have some shared experience and it’s cool.
That’s surely the whole point of a live show, to have a shared experience rather than a strict divide between the audience and performer.
That’s exactly how I think of the whole live show, how to retool it so a collective experience of what happens when you’re listening to the record alone is possible. I think a lot about what it would feel like hearing an intense moment in the show as a spectator, as an audience member, to maybe look around and make eye contact with other people in the crowd. I try to create an atmosphere and situation live where that relationship with other people in the space can be really meaningful as well.