We speak to the alternative R&B artist about pop vs. populism, the power of joy and working with makeup artist Kelseyanna Fitzpatrick on his colourful new clip
Back in September, How To Dress Well released his fourth album Care. Building on the smouldering R&B of his previous album What Is This Heart?, Tom Krell’s latest album marked a full transition towards the pop aesthetic that he’s gradually been gravitating towards since he emerged seven years ago with debut album Love Remains. Whereas the Krell the world first knew was indecipherable, drowned in distortion and reverb, the Krell of 2016 is much more readable and unswerving in his commitment to the joyful power of pop music. And in a week where hate has trumped love, on Care, there are still messages of hope and optimism in these hours of darkness.
Krell says that Care is a record of joy, directness, and curiosity, and these ideas are no better exemplified than on the album’s second track “Salt Song”. A seven-minute song about happiness and self-care (”I want to learn to learn to care for my soul / Like I wish that you’d cared for my soul”), “Salt Song” is the record’s most dramatic moment and probably the most unique in the How To Dress Well catalogue. Couple this with the giddy rush of “I Was Terrible” (in which Krell proclaims that “love will find a way”) and Care becomes a songbook to turn to when it feels like the world needs some emotional and spiritual healing.
Ahead of his European tour starting tonight (November 10) in Paris, How To Dress Well has released a new video for ”Salt Song”, conceived and shot with Canadian make-up artist Kelseyanna Fitzpatrick. Watch the video for below, and read on for a short interview with Krell about his pop (not populist) aims, alternative R&B in 2016, and working with his collaborators on Care.
How did you get involved with Kelseyanna Fitzpatrick for the ‘Salt Song’ video?
How To Dress Well: I can’t really remember how I found Kelseyanna’s Instagram, but when I did, I fell in love. I showed it to everyone I know like I’d discovered a new lifeform! I love so much how she basically perverts the rules of her discipline and just absolutely prioritises beauty and inventiveness over conventions. I feel like her relationship with make-up and my relationship to pop are very similar or homologous. What she does to people’s faces resonated with me as somehow close to what I wanted to do on ‘Salt Song’. For the video, I asked her to make some paintings that she would replicate on the body and she was super down. She was really an amazing person to work with – so creative and so exciting!
What were the concepts behind the video?
How To Dress Well: To me, the song is about revelation and growth – like, how can I learn about myself and what I truly need to do to take care of myself, to nurture myself for growth? It’s a slow revelation; it takes time and chance (and dreams) to get your head above water. I wanted to translate this process of patient revelation and growth visually, and this is what I came up with.
You moved to Los Angeles recently – did a new environment have any influence on Care?
How To Dress Well: I moved after I’d finished Care. I moved because I needed more sunshine – I get too sad in the winter.
“Care is a joyous record, but it’s also a realistic record. It’s about the dismal contemporary situation” – How To Dress Well
You described ‘Can’t You Tell’ as a ‘consent-pop song, a sex-positivity anthem’. What advice do you want listeners to take from the song?
How To Dress Well: I think it’s important to move the concept of consent away from being a specific, almost contractual act to being something more like an ethos, you know? A way of relating to a whole person, as a whole person – like a real concept of reciprocity and care. But I hate didacticism in art, so it’s not a didactic song; it’s subtle, but it’s also a song about sex, so it’s unsubtle at the same time.
You said in a recent profile that ‘there’s been a deficit of joy in music’, which explains the optimistic tone of Care. What do you mean by that?
How To Dress Well: Care is a joyous record, but it’s also a realistic record. It’s about the dismal contemporary situation. I sing about anxiety and simulation, about debt and poverty, about suicide and desperation. I sing about heartache a lot. But I feel like the opposite of joy isn’t sadness, it’s seriousness. I am so allergic to the faux-profound seriousness that attends so much art.
What was it like working with the album’s collaborators (Jack Antonoff, CFCF, Andrew Dawson, and Dre Skull) and relinquishing total control on the album? What did they bring to the project that perhaps you couldn’t have alone, or with previous collaborators like Rodaidh McDonald couldn’t?
How To Dress Well: If you asked any of my collaborators if I relinquished control, they’d probably LOL, because I was actually quite obsessive and controlling in the process of making these songs. Ultimately, every artist I worked with – including some whose contributions didn’t make the record – are artists that I felt could potentially bring something to push the songs to a deeper and more beautiful place. It was so much fun working with such a wide range of artists on this record.
It’s been six years since you emerged with your debut album Love Remains and pigeonholed as ‘alternative R&B’ with other artists like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd. I wonder what that term means to you now in 2016, and whether you were ever comfortable with it?
How To Dress Well: Well, I never was really wedded to the term or anything, though it definitely picks something out. But I make pop music— for instance, ‘Salt Song’ is not, in any meaningful way, an R&B song. It’s more influenced by, say, ‘Painter In Your Pocket’ by Destroyer and Suzanne Kraft than by any R&B music.
“I feel like the opposite of joy isn’t sadness, it’s seriousness. I am so allergic to the faux-profound seriousness that attends so much art” – How To Dress Well
What are your thoughts on how pop/R&B has progressed over the past half decade?
How To Dress Well: Too many thoughts! There’s been a transformation within the indie/pop dyad that happened since 2010, which I roughly see as follows: indie artists, myself included, began deconstructing and destroying the high/low art divide, the mainstream/underground divide — the distinction between pop and indie, as it were. This path led, however, not to a strengthening of indie and an influx of capital and attention for these artists, but to a re-authentification (and ultimately a completely false one) of the major label, mainstream pop music. The apotheosis of this, the most glaring symptom, is the new Lady Gaga album and her multi-million dollar ‘dive bar tour’. I mean, I’m really not shading at all; I’m just highlighting what’s happened in the culture. In essence, we thought there was gonna be a special new moment for independent artists, and we were devoured by the factory owners once more.
You’ve previously said that you want your music to be pop, but not populist. Why’s that?
How To Dress Well: Because pop music is so fun and emotional and beautiful and profound and pithy and powerful, and because populism is typically conservative as fuck and typically just a reinforcement of the norms established by capital flows. Populism tends to be regressive and violent – confer with Donald Trump, Brexit, Jimmie Åkesson, Norbert Hofer, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry. Pop is universal and has the potential to become banalised and slide toward trash populism. Pop is always being saved from populism by the creative free spirit.
How To Dress Well’s European tour starts November 10