It’s 10pm mid-week at Birthdays in east London, and the sold-out How to Dress Well show should have started half an hour ago. The audience shifts impatiently. In the dressing room, Tom Krell, the 27-year-old American songwriter and producer behind the moniker, is cracking jokes as he gets ready with his musicians, Cameron Reed and Aaron Read, warming up by singing several lines from “Suicide Dream 1”, from his first album, Love Remains. Krell leans back, his lanky frame a tight fit in the small room, and squeezes drops from a bottle of honey into his throat. He sips a hastily poured whisky and ginger ale, and pops a Xanax.
“London’s a big deal to me,” Krell explains. “When it’s 300 super-aggressive people who are either going to tell their friends that it was shit or that it was great, it’s important to me that it goes off well.” For nights like tonight, he isn’t self-conscious about the need for disinhibitors. “When I get this nervous, the drugs and alcohol are important. I don’t want to have so much that I fuck up, but I need to feel quite poised. With singing I just want to become a voice, you know, so it takes a little work.”
And it’s clear, from the moment that he steps on stage and his piercing a-cappella falsetto cuts through the room, that it’s all about that voice. A silent hush of attention instantly blankets the heavingly full room, the raw fragility of Krell’s voice provoking a collective intake of breath. It’s a voice that bears only a faint resemblance to the one muffled under layers of reverb in Love Remains. In fact, three years ago, this performance would have been unthinkable. In 2009, Krell was giving away new tracks on his blog and keeping himself in relative anonymity, despite the growing buzz around his work. When he released his first album in 2010 the blogosphere was seriously hyped on the mysterious new producer whose hazy, experimental tracks echoed with R&B-reminiscent layered vocals. Despite reviewers heralding How to Dress Well as the second coming of R&B, albeit a narcotised, atmospheric one, Krell rarely stepped out of the shadows (he wouldn’t even show his face in early interviews). When he nervously embarked on a world tour last year, he would sing over his own CD, calling out track numbers to a sound guy offstage.
But things have changed. Krell is on the verge of releasing a second album, Total Loss, as heart-rending as the name suggests, and he’s come into his own. Now accompanied by a backing band of violin, piano and sampled drums, he is selling out venues and reducing audiences to tears with his emotionally walloping performances.
At Birthdays, Krell is possessed, swaying, eyes scrunched shut and hands wavering. There’s an oddly charming dissonance between his soulful emoting and the R&B legends he’s channelling, and as he slips into a stirring, better-then-the-original cover of R Kelly’s “I Wish”, a round of cheers greet the first familiar strains. For almost an hour, he keeps the room electrically charged with an unearthly quality more akin to the reverential atmosphere of a church than a nightclub. As he leaves the stage, a huge smile on his face, he’s visibly buoyed and full of excess energy – he punches the dressing-room wall, but even a swelling knuckle does little to dampen his enthusiasm. “The vibe in this place was amazing!” he exclaims. “At the beginning, performing was horrifying. It took me six months to figure out how to be onstage doing these songs. If just one person in the crowd is having a really intense aesthetic experience that makes it totally energising. I feel that the stakes are high, so when people respond in kind, it’s awesome. It can fill me up for a whole week.”
Krell’s cultivated his online fanbase since the early days of How to Dress Well, and after his shows, the Twitter love flows in. An early blogpost invited an intimacy you wouldn’t find from most artists. “please come out to the shows & say hey,” he wrote. “i can’t wait to see u, because even tho we don’t know each other yet i think we will really like each other u know?” He signed off: “
But sceptics looking for traces of irony in his effusive messages can be assured that Krell is simply “4 real”. “It’s weird. The persona was totally uncalculated and now it’s actually helped me immensely,” he considers. “Like, I’m much more compassionate and less negative and judgmental than I was a few years ago, and a lot of it’s by virtue of having to continue with this persona. I get these intense confessional emails from people. The responses I get from playing these shows, the tears and hugs, opening myself up and seeing people respond with emotional honesty...” He trails off. “It’s basically changed me forever.”
If you were to go by that online persona alone, you might expect Krell to be a slightly camp, plaintively emotional kind of guy; in person he’s anything but. It’s an endearing contradiction. Displaying a fondness for shorts and Rick Owens t-shirts and rarely making eye contact, he’s measured and articulate when looking back at his exhaustive range of early musical influences. He brushes off questions about the PhD in philosophy he’s working on (appropriately, it’s on “love as a logical concept” and the history of 19th-century metaphysics), preferring to detail his new, spiritual approach to life.
Krell wrote the songs on Total Loss in the dark months following the release of Love Remains in autumn 2010, a period of personal tragedy. His best friend and his uncle passed away, his mother became mentally ill and he entered into a long-distance relationship. “In music and life at the time, it was like, ‘If you don’t get this shit in gear, you’re done,’” he remembers. “I wrote these very dark, sad songs, but I also wrote ‘Ocean Floor For Everything’ (the first single from the new LP). It stood out from everything else, so I spent the next few months putting it on the horizon, trying to write my way to that song. The album’s about developing a relationship with loss which is spiritually enriching rather than devastating. It’s more wistful and mournful. It’s challenging but also quite powerful, even liberating, when you can transform loss into hopefulness.”
While Total Loss is full of the moodiness and distortion that characterised its predecessor, Krell’s voice has freed itself from the ambient haze, achieving a newfound clarity. Calling it “a head-above-water moment”, he sees the vocals as an emotional guide. “Going into this record I just feel much more at home in my body and grounded in my voice than I did before, because of touring as much,” he reflects. “Now when I make mistakes in singing, I don’t feel destroyed by it like I used to. I feel like it’s personality shining through the melody, you know?”
Krell’s predisposition to emotional empathy started early. “Since day one, I’ve been forced out of this male emotional norm, like, the strong and silent type or whatever, by my family situation,” he says. “I have siblings who are disabled, and that was just enough of a rift in the fabric of my incorporation into so-called ‘normal culture’. Being exposed at three years old to people having completely senseless emotional reactions...” He stops to consider. “I guess I knew that because of this, everything was going to be different, no matter what.”
Growing up in Denver, Colorado, Krell’s first musical influences were his mom’s favourites, like Michael Jackson and Smokey Robinson. “When I started to sing, my voice gravitated towards the patterns
I learned singing along to the radio in the car with my mom,” he remembers. “I never liked manic stuff. It was never my energy. I was much more into heartbroken and lovesick songs, I guess that’s what all R&B is: love and love lost.”
In college, his older friends popped downers and listened to drone music, exposing him to experimental sounds, and he got turned on to the likes of Terry Riley, Scott Walker and his oft-referenced idol (and now collaborator), Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu. “I guess I’ve always liked music that gives me an emotional education, some sensitivity of spirit.” Krell explains, adding that a recent favourite is a YouTube video of Beyoncé performing an acoustic version of “Halo” at a children’s hospital. “It’s fucking super intense,” he says. “At the end, she says, ‘We can see all your halos,’ and it makes me want to cry.”
But it wasn’t until he moved to Cologne, Germany, on a research fellowship, that How to Dress Well really came together, separating itself from the heavier experimental music he’d been working on before. While translating a book on German philosophy by day, by night, Krell’s disparate influences joined full circle. “I spent a lot of time in my room working on songs. My music became about wanting to sing and make something beautiful. It was a time of intense creative output. It was blind creation, and I had no idea people would respond the way they did. I sent it to blogs I admired, I was so fucking thrilled when one day, eight blogs posted my music!” he remembers. “These days you get to cultivate your audience in a way more focused way, even if it’s super leftfield. I think there’s something happening with music now that’s really exciting.”
So does Krell feel part of a movement? He namechecks artists he respects like Frank Ocean, Julia Holter, and his friend Holy Other, saying, “It’s cool that there are a lot of people working on concepts of emotional openness and love. Although, for as many similarities, there are massive differences too. But I love that this is somehow becoming a collective project... not self-consciously so, but it’s happening.” He adds: “Only good can come when a bunch of hipsters face themselves and do some emotional reckoning.”
Perhaps most intriguing of all of his disparate influences is his underlying focus on spirituality.
“My parents are atheists so I didn’t grow up spiritual. It’s quite strange, my family situation – there’s a lot of love but also a lot of undesirable anger and sadness,” he half laughs.
“I guess my parents are both kind of in their own world. My mother is quite unwell but she loves my music. She doesn’t know how to use a computer. They have Love Remains on CD. It’s a challenging record so I’m not sure how they feel about it,” Krell pauses to consider. “Sometimes I want them to listen to it and pay more attention to it, other times I don’t care.”
In the end, his self-informed spiritual mission goes back to the performances, now a defining aspect of How to Dress Well. “I mean, the people in my life, they know, you know?” Krell says. “But it’s about sharing this experience with the fans who are touched by this. With my music I want to show that everyone can have this emotional relationship with life. I like the idea of just being an occasion for people to have these experiences.”
So has his growing success affected where he wants to go next? “It doesn’t really change the songwriting, I just have to deal with a lot more anxiety and stress about it all. But I feel much better about it now than after I first started to get attention. You know, I’m really, really proud of this album and I want it to be universally adored,” Krell laughs. “I like to think that I’ve made a completely new sound. I mean, it sounds arrogant, but that’s what I wanted to do. I wouldn’t put it out there if I could say, this sounds like this or that. I feel really happy about not just being another pop singer. I want to do something novel and special. I guess I don’t have anything else to offer. If what I’m offering gets me there, then that would be a dream come true. I just make the music I can, I can’t do it any other way.”
Total Loss is out on now Weird World
Follow Karen Orton on Twitter here @AaronKorton