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PHOTOS BY VITA HEWISON.
When it comes to songwriting, British singer and pianist Tom Odell is not afraid of exposing himself. It’s evident when you listen A Long Way Down, Odell’s upcoming debut album filled with earnest, yearning love songs with titles such as “Grow Old With Me” and “Hold Me.” Odell’s music stands somewhere outside of the contemporary in an evergreen spot reserved for urgent singer-songwriters and their breakup ballads. You could compare him to Alex Clare or his throaty, female counterparts such as Adele, but you could also compare him to The Waterboys or Jeff Buckley. “Songs are about just being totally honest and putting those words to music,” the 22-year-old explains.
Last December, Odell won the Critic’s Choice Award at the BRITs, the UK’s major music awards. A Long Way Down won’t be out until the summer, but Odell has already released two EPs, including a covers record featuring songs by Palma Violets, The Beatles, and Cyndi Lauper in honor of Record Store Day,
Over the phone, Odell is as sincere and youthful as his music suggests; To Kill A Mockingbird‘s Atticus Finch is his favorite fictional character.
EMMA BROWN: I like your song “Another Love.” Does it feel disingenuous, once you’ve written an impassioned love song about one person, to write another one about someone else?
TOM ODELL: “Another Love” is a confusing one; it’s not a traditional love song. The song, for me, is about trying—really trying with all your heart—to be with someone else and you want to be with someone else. The song was written talking to this girl that I really wanted to be with, and I was trying to work out why I couldn’t be with her. And it’s funny, people sometimes listen to it as [though] I’m more talking about the last romance. What was the question? Is it disingenuous? It is always quite weird, yeah. But it helps me sleep, writing songs. That’s why it’s important to write songs—otherwise, I can’t sleep.
BROWN: Do you write every day?
ODELL: Yeah, I write something every day. It often won’t be a whole song. But I just finished this incredible book—have you ever read A Farwell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway? It’s just completely blown my mind, but in a kind of quite sad way. You need to read this book. It’s single-handedly changed my life. It’s such a beautiful book; it’s so heartbreaking. Have you read The Old Man and the Sea?
ODELL: I think that’s quite an inspiring book. But I think it’s his best novel, A Farewell to Arms. It’s really beautiful. It’s kind of a love story. It’s an amazing book.
BROWN: Do you ever write fiction?
ODELL: Literature? Yeah, I’ve tried in the past but I don’t think I’m very good at it. I can’t remember which author said it, but lots of authors said, “You shouldn’t write until you’ve lived a little bit.” I think you have to live a little bit before you write, personally. But I’m talking about me, really, because there’s been some brilliant books written. But at the moment I’m not very good at it.
BROWN: What about writing songs?
ODELL: You don’t have to be as good a writer to write a song; it’s a very different process to writing straight prose. To learn how to write prose takes a lot of years of practice.
BROWN: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
ODELL: Yeah. But the first song I ever wrote was when I was 12 and it had, like, four lines in it. You progress and get better.
BROWN: When you look back at some of the earlier songs on the album, do they make you cringe a bit, or have you reached a level where that doesn’t happen anymore?
ODELL: I was actually talking to someone about that the other night—a girl that supported us. We played a show in Belfast on Saturday night and she wanted to give me an EP, but she was like, “Oh, I don’t know, because it’s six months old and I’m kind of ashamed of it now.” I was thinking about it on the journey back—when you create stuff, you’re always going to be progressing and where you’re at a year down the line, as the creator, it’s always going to feel immature. You’re going to notice the flaws and the things that you’ve learned in that year aren’t going to be there. So, I think it’s important to see stuff as a capture of time—that’s what I was doing at that time—and not be ashamed of it. That’s how I try to approach music. But I think, particularly when you’re releasing your first EP, you can feel like you wish you could constantly, constantly make it better. There has to be a line: that is where it’s at, at that time. That’s my philosophy on that.
BROWN: Your songs seem like they’d be quite draining to play live. Are they?
ODELL: [laughs] That’s an interesting question. Yeah, it is very exhausting, which is partly why I feel so tired today. But I’ve always wanted to live like that. I’d rather feel the experience than to be sort of feeling something in between and dull and numb. I love feeling the highs and the lows, it makes life far more exciting.
BROWN: Are you ever not in the mood to go on stage?
ODELL: It hasn’t happened to me yet. I just love to play music. I enjoy it more than anything. I enjoy it more than drinking with my friends in the pub. I’d much prefer to be playing live and playing the piano—playing is one of the most enjoyable things I do and I live for it. So it’s very rare that I’d not be up for it. I’m very lucky to have something that I love so much; I don’t know what I’d do without it.
BROWN: Do you come from a musical family?
ODELL: No, no one in my family is musical, but my grandmother had a piano at her house and I used to go there every so often and play it. She’d take me for lessons and the lessons lasted for years. I was about six or seven years old when I started having lessons and I slowly became more and more involved in it.
BROWN: When I listen to music now, I sometimes feel that it’s never going to affect me as much as when I was a teenager. Do you feel that way?
ODELL: No. I’m still affected by music hugely. I find myself more affected by music the more I do it. Particularly when you’re touring and you’re in the bus and you’re listening to loads of music. Life becomes far more dramatic, I guess—you’re never in the same place, you’re constantly meeting new people. You almost become more sensitized to music. I think [music] moves me more than other people. I can hear a song and it can bring me to tears. It doesn’t happen the whole time, but I find songwriting—songs —very, very moving. I always have and I don’t think it’s fading, no.
BROWN: Does that make it difficult to listen to music around other people?
ODELL: No, it doesn’t. I think music is better listened to with other people. Music is better shared. It depends what situation you’re in—if it’s a song by Tom Waits, it can be nice to be on your own, but if it’s something slightly more upbeat, it’s amazing to be around people.
BROWN: Do you dance?
ODELL: I’m not very good at it. [laughs] I’ve made efforts to. I wish I could dance; it’s one of the things I’ve always been really bad at, actually. But a lot of my friends dance, and I have a couple of friends that do it professionally, and I’ve always been fascinated by it. It’s an amazing thing, dancing—the movement of the body. I wish I could do it better.
BROWN: What qualities do you look for in a friend?
ODELL: I find myself, the more I grow up the more I hang around creatives, musicians. I find them more inspiring to be around. I’d probably say that. The more creative you are—I get along with them better. There is more of an understanding.
I like it when people are opinionated. I like an opinion. I like people that will fight for their opinion ’til an argument and through an argument. When they believe in something, they fight for it. I like those people that are perhaps sometimes too full of life— perhaps it’s very difficult to be around [them]; they’re not easy going. But I like being around people like that.
BROWN: Do you ever feel competitive?
ODELL: I did when I was a teenager. The more I make music, the more I do things, the less I feel it. I don’t think it’s incredibly healthy for a songwriter or writer. It can make you take shortcuts and think more about what success is. I don’t think you can determine what success—success is such a funny thing. So I don’t think competition is good in music. What is good, is the desire and the ambition to create your best work.
BROWN: Would you consider yourself a perfectionist?
ODELL: I would consider myself a perfectionist, yeah. I don’t think that is always that helpful, either. Sometimes it’s good to be a little more open-minded; you can overthink things when things are actually fine, and it’s that moment that you lose it. Looking back, sometimes I’ve made mistakes from being a perfectionist.
BROWN: Do you feel successful?
ODELL: Do I feel successful? No. Do you?
BROWN: I’m pretty comfortable with where I am at this age.But perhaps music is different; everyone’s so young.
ODELL: Everyone is so young. It’s a weird thing, success, isn’t it? I think particularly [in] music, it’s a very fickle thing. You’re only as good as your last song.
TOM ODELL IS PLAYING AT THE BOWERY BALLROOM IN NEW YORK TONIGHT, MAY 2.