With influences as diverse as the The Velvet Underground and the Backstreet Boys, no other artist explores pop’s crossover points quite like American-born Tom Krell (aka How to Dress Well). Having come to prominence in 2010 through the lo-fi avant soul of his excellent debut album, Love Remains, Krell – who is a philosophy PhD candidate – emerged as one of the figureheads of the nascent "alternative R&B" movement with his second full-length, Total Loss. It saw the Coloradan ditch the claustrophobic sonics of his debut to instead embrace a refined soundworld of sparkling, wide-screen instrumentation and crystalline vocals. It’s a blueprint that Krell takes further on his upcoming third LP, the pensive What Is This Heart? By taking the same constituent features of R&B and moulding them around his widened scope and a more experimental approach to form and texture, the new LP yields How to Dress Well’s most affecting and daring set of songs yet.
Over a lingering coffee in London, Krell explains how What Is This Heart? is a method of examining the hinge between the personal and the universal, and of finding out what it means to be someone who is coming to terms with who they are. Below, watch the epic video for “Face Again”, part two of a trilogy which commenced with "Repeat Pleasure", alongside our conversation.
You recently unveiled the video for 'Repeat Pleasure', which forms the first part in a trilogy of films you've made with directors Luke Gilford and Johannes Greve Muskat. You’re now unveiling the second video, 'Face Again'. Can you tell us about the films?
Tom Krell: The works taken together form a trilogy that is oriented around the question of how to live and die right. Two young people who are troubled by the question – one because his father is dying and the other who is a young hospice caregiver – decide to take an extreme risk on an authentic way of life. The remainder of the trilogy tracks the consequences of this effort. It all came together through a long series of conversations between Johannes and me. I had been thinking a lot about George Saunders, actually.
Tell me about your headspace going into writing What Is This Heart? How did you approach it?
Tom Krell: I suppose I approached it from being on the road for 18 months. That’s a weird mindset because on the one hand I was doing my art and getting amazing support… But then touring is stressful for a few reasons: one is that you have to put yourself out there every night and you have to be away from everything that grounds you at home. It’s super exhilarating, but super disorienting. So I think I mostly wrote out of that weird paradox and feeling like I was in a searching mode - trying to figure out what this life is. I’m always trying to figure out how to live, what it means to live right, what it means to be alive. So that’s definitely a major thing for me as a person, but especially in terms of my art. I don’t know, it seems like the only reason anyone makes any art.
“I don’t know why I didn’t trust myself more until this record. But I feel really grounded in confidence of what I’m up to, and that confidence I owe to my fans and to music culture"
The record seems to communicate a sense of someone coming to terms with who they are, but that same someone never feeling comfortable about it because they’re aware that their personality is in a kind of transit.
Tom Krell: Yeah, absolutely, constantly in transit, yeah ... We’re in transit and at any given moment we’re - to an extreme degree and in ways we can’t understand and predict – blind to who we are and blind to what actually motivates us. The idea that I could decide, ‘Today I will be x,' or, ‘Today I will exercise my freedom in this way’ – that’s just not the kind of animal we are.
DD: So in that sense is the record a subtly angry one?
Tom Krell: That’s an interesting question. I would say no. What I’d say is that there’s a really weird tension at the heart of the record and, at the heart of that, the question of the album title too. Like, the heart is love, beauty and so forth, but it’s also, to my mind, the placeholder for that massive question mark of what is it to be this animal that doesn’t know what it is, or what it is to be good and right. To my mind, at least in the world we live in presently, with all of its nightmares and imbalances, there’s an unavoidable oscillation between the glorious, beautiful, exciting features of our lives and the nightmare of it. Even if the social order was perfect and balanced and there was equality it’s still... Y’know, you love someone and when you feel them there you’re filled with such love and pleasure that they’re there before you, but the only reason that they’re there before you is because they’re a creature that lives and dies, so eventually they will disappear. So there’s just this ambivalence to life, I think, and that is maybe the, not anger at the heart of the record, but on the one hand wonder, and the other hand desperate rage at that ambivalence.
DD: Do you ever worry about laying personal matters out there in your music?
Tom Krell: Y’know, I owe it to my family and the people that listen to my music. I feel confident doing this, which doesn’t mean I don’t feel vulnerable. It means that I feel the vulnerability and I feel the will to inhabit that. The album cover, to my mind, is a good expression of this. It fits with the record really tightly. It’s just a bare face. Obviously, it’s me, but hopefully it’s not just me. Hopefully it’s a bare face in general.
I read Alice Munro’s stories a lot. She has a book called Dear Life. There’ll be this little detail that just brings you into a character’s world with this extreme intimacy, and there’s this weird way where you get these incredibly personal details about this housewife in western Ontario who’s cheating on her husband, who’s a car salesman. And it’s like, ‘Okay, that’s only that life’, but there’s a moment where the switch is flipped in the story and you realise its a description of you and everyone else. She’s such a master of this. People usually either think something is personal, or its universal. There’s a place where the personal becomes impersonal and captures everyone. It’s a weird thing to try and track, but I think that’s why I fell in love with her stories. That’s where I want to come from. I’m not like a confessional songwriter or anything like that. Nobody knows about me through listening to the records. I mean, they do to a certain degree. It’s much more interesting to track the ways in which me saying something very personal – so personal that it’s removed from you – touches something off in you, and you realise that we share this experience.
There seems to be a particularly broad set of influences on the new LP. I can maybe even hear flashes of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden.
Tom Krell: Oh, I love Spirit of Eden. I have a song called "Set it Right" on my last album, and that was really inspired by Spirit of Eden. Yeah, that’s a really good call. Actually, the only other person who’s said that is British too! The influences are super varied, just because I tend to be a pretty omnivorous listener. With the first track on the record, I basically just wanted to make a Tracy Chapman song. Actually, I started listening to The Velvet Underground last year, for the first time ever. I fell in love with the Nico record so hard. So a John Cale influence really comes out on See You Fall, with the slightly detuned violin...And then you get to Precious Love and it’s basically "As Long as You Love Me" Backstreet Boys.
The pull between the experimental and pop elements of your sound seem more apparent on What is This Heart? compared to Total Loss. What Is This Heart? seems more extreme.
Tom Krell: I think it is more extreme…I listened to Love Remains about a year ago, for the first time since 2010. I was so happy with that record. And then also so blown away that people heard it, and heard what I was trying to do. I started to think more about recognising that my audience ‘gets it’, and then really respecting their intelligence, their love of art, their capacity to listen to music with an extreme openness. That’s what I learned listening to Love Remains. Like, wow, people are so generous. There’s such a generosity of spirit that drives people to love music. It’s an amazing culture. I’m in virtue of that. I don’t know why I didn’t trust myself more until this record. But I feel really grounded in confidence of what I’m up to, and that confidence I owe to my fans and to music culture.