With his second album, How To Dress Well reflects on a period of such crushing loss that it became empowering in its totality; hence, Total Loss.
Some individuals have a way of squeezing a hundred lives into one. How To Dress Well appears to have squeezed the tribulations of a hundred musical lives into just three years. The initial hype, the tremors of influence felt strongly across an emerging scene, the devastating period of personal trial, and the triumphant return. The figure we met prior to a sold-out show at Dalston venue Birthdays was one emphatically reinforced by the strength of experience.
In 2009, Tom Krell traded in Brooklyn for Berlin in order to study for a PhD in Philosophy. Simultaneously he began a career as a leading figure in an alternative wave of contemporary R&B, anonymously posting his home recordings as free-to-download EPs via his blog. The sound of his stunning falsettos breaking out alongside distorted, deep, fragmented beats quickly attracted attention. In 2010 he compiled the best of his online releases and put them out under his artistic title How To Dress Well, in the form of beautiful debut LP, Love Remains.
Two years down the line and it’s been a busy and emotionally exhausting time for Krell, but ultimately an artistically fruitful one. His How to Dress Well persona continued to gather momentum, releasing follow-up orchestral EP Just Once, touring the world, and spending the last year composing and producing his second LP, Total Loss. While the new record certainly holds elements of the darker aesthetic with which HTDW is synonymous, Krell has also succeeded in creating something truly elating, an immense challenge given the backdrop of its creation. “It’s a complicated story, because I actually made two records when making Total Loss,” he tells us. “I started recording in September 2010, and my best friend had just died. In quick succession my uncle also died. He was the figurehead for my family, and his death sent my mother into a depression from which she hasn’t recovered – she lost the ability to speak for six-week periods at a time. I went into a long-distance relationship, and everything was dark. It was a really, really brutal time for me. I don’t think I’ve ever suffered sadness the way I did that fall and winter. I wrote 15 songs that are just like, dark fuckers – really mean, depressed music. And I was keen to release them.”
In stark contrast to this darkness, the first release from Total Loss came in the form of the heavenly Ocean Floor for Everything. The song undoubtedly emanates aspects of deep-rooted melancholy, but there is an atmosphere of positivity that clearly defines it from the pure despair that inspired his initial collection. It would be this song that led him down an alternative, more joyous route for Total Loss.
“I had one song in the mix of demos that was different, Ocean Floor For Everything. And I thought to myself, ‘look, if you put this record out, think of the life-form that you’re advocating’. When you put out a piece of music or a piece of art, you’re claiming a norm, y’know? You’re saying there’s something true in this. There is something true in those songs, and I want to release them eventually, but if I would have released those songs and toured them now, I would have just calcified my depression and ended up stuck in that series of effects. Ocean Floor had a totally different effect in my mind – it’s not a depressing song. It’s a sad song, but it’s mournful.”
The shift saw Total Loss become a record shaped by mourning, triggering a turnaround towards something powerful and uplifting. “Mourning is somehow richer because you experience the loss, and then you move on from the loss, but you somehow sustain the loss. People who are melancholy are unable to think of people they’ve lost – you bring those people up and they fall into a depression. When I listened to Ocean Floor, I was like “that’s a mournful song” and that’s when I was like, “I want to write mournful music” – I want to present this image of mournfulness”.
It’s a testament to Krell’s character that he produced a record which confronts such difficult subject matter head on, working towards a positive outlook for his audience. Whilst he admits the more depressing effects are the ones he is more attracted to artistically, you are unlikely to meet a more easy-going, gregarious and instantly likeable individual. As the main room of the venue begins to fill out, we leave to find a slightly quieter location. During the one minute walk between leaving and finding our seats in the opposing bar, Tom is stopped around half a dozen times by people who want to catch up. He apparently managed to make a lot of friends whilst over here for five weeks last summer working on Total Loss at XL Studios with engineer Rodaidh McDonald (The xx), despite having limited time available for socialising. He explains: “I know a ton of people because I was here last August, staying on Mare Street. I was in London for five weeks but only went out about twice because I was in recording from about 4pm to 2am almost every single night. It was brutal.”
Krell is also frank regarding those artists from which he has drawn influence. Whilst he has created a unique space for himself in combining his rich voice with elements of witch house and dream pop, he wears his heart completely on his sleeve in citing Tracy Chapman, Alicia Keys and Prince as the artists he was listened to in creating Total Loss, and takes delight in covering the likes of R.Kelly and Janet Jackson. However, whilst with Total Loss he takes HTDW away from the more lo-fi, distorted sounds of his debut to tighter, bigger gestures, there is no desire to directly emulate the pop stars who serve as some of his biggest idols. “I didn’t go into the studio to make a populist album. I always make pop music, but not populist music. The thing is, all the sounds are still, in principle, experimental sounds. For example, you might have something that could sound like a pop song, if the piano wasn’t weird and crumbling, or if the vocal weren’t occasionally just shooting off an echo. If you took those things away, you might have a clean pop song, but you wouldn’t have anything effectively charged.”
Tonight’s show gives Krell the opportunity to share the newest incarnation of How to Dress Well with a rapturous basement crowd. It’s a beautiful summer evening outside, but such is the longing for a first listen to Krell’s new work that the sweaty room is rammed long before he takes the stage, and then deadly silent for a spectacular acappella rendering of Suicide Dream 1. Back in 2011 Tom performed his songs alone to a backing track, now he is joined by an accomplice on piano and drum machine, and another on violin and synthesisers; welcome additions in achieving greater spontaneity and unique moments, but also allowing the intimacy of a HTDW show to remain. He explains: “I found in some cases the one man show was brilliant, and one which people would tap into and have these intense emotional experiences. But I wanted to help make a collective aesthetic and emotional experience easier – I wanted to help it to be little bit easier for more people”.
Krell dives into his new Total Loss material with perhaps his purest R&B pop song to date, the shimmering & It Was U, surely his biggest nod so far to R.Kelly and the like. A shuddering rendition of the second single from the new album, Cold Nites, demonstrates just how diverse the sound of HTDW has become, moving us into the stark contrast of a roving, dubby bass line while the projector behind him plays out a dreamy haze.
The highlight of the evening comes when Tom follows the epic Ocean Floor by quietly introducing new song Set it Right as “the biggest song I’ve ever written”. Minutes later, when the huge crashes break down to near silence as Krell’s falsetto details those that he’s lost in some sense (“Jamie I miss you / Mama I miss you / and Dad I miss you”), it’s clear that this is Krell’s most profound and open-hearted expression yet.
By the end of tonight’s show, it’s apparent that Tom has pushed How to Dress Well to yet another level in his short musical career. It also seems there will be more to come, as his attentions turn away from academia to music alone. “I’ve finished my coursework and my requirements right now, so I’m just focused on music entirely. At least until next year I’m just going to do music, because I really want to give it everything – it’s calling me right now. Philosophy to me is like a lifelong vocation, whereas music is very timely. I have to do it now. It feels like a “now” thing for me.”
How To Dress Well plays Bristol’s Thekla this Sunday, May 17th. To purchase tickets, head here.
Words: Jack Bolter
Photo: Andrew Volk