The experimental R&B artist plays "guess that tune" and discusses sincerity, loss and emotional wisdom with Ruth Saxelby.
How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell has a cold, the result of a few week’s hard touring his second album ‘Total Loss’ (read his account of making it here), but if it’s raining on his parade he’s not showing it. In fact, a few short hours after we meet he’ll play the final gig of his tour, stunning the almost uncomfortably full London venue into rapt silence with an emotionally hard-hitting set that climaxes in not one but two a cappellas, un-amplified. The applause and cheers that follow are thick with a sense of release. But right now, perhaps as a welcome distraction to the cold, he’s agreed to be blindfolded and played a bunch of songs for Dummy’s occasional Cover Up series. The songs have been selected for their resonance, either sonically or conceptually, with ‘Total Loss’; alternative ways into discussing its weighty, often raw, themes of grief and emotional wisdom. First up is something from way back in ’96.
Dummy: Do you know who that was?
Tom Krell: No – it sounds like Sarah McLachlan to me or something, in her voice.
Dummy: That’s Everything But The Girl with Mirrorball.
Tom Krell: Ah okay, I’ve only ever heard the one Everything But The Girl song that we know in the States.
Dummy: Oh yes – Missing.
Tom Krell: Which I love.
Dummy: I played this one because I think there’s something about Tracey Thorn’s voice that’s kind of like this acceptance-of-sadness thing.
Tom Krell: I really like her voice. There are some of the trills that I don’t like so much, or I wouldn’t do myself. They’re like a little Lilith Fair-y, y’know. It’s kind of got a Lilith Fair vibe to it at certain points which I don’t vibe with. I really like the song. The lyrics are so…like, there’s moments where the sincerity is verging on awkwardness, almost laughability. But it’s a beautiful song and I really like this “everything’s going to be alright / nothing’s going to be alright” lyrical motif. And I love the acoustic guitar. That’s something I really want to do more of on my next record. That total, almost cheesy, completely sentimental acoustic guitar in addition to beats and production. The production is kind of quaint on that one, I like it as well.
Dummy: This is mid-90s…
Tom Krell: Very progressive for the time.
Dummy: I remember listening to it on my Walkman walking home from school.
Tom Krell: I really like the way it made me feel. I’m glad it’s old enough that I might be able to sample it too. I was worried it was from 2012 or something.
Dummy: I liked what you were just touching on there about sincerity and sentimentality, because that’s obviously something that is crucial to How To Dress Well.
Tom Krell: Yeah, absolutely.
Dummy: That’s been a massive push forward with this record from ‘Love Remains’.
Tom Krell: It was in ‘Love Remains’ too but it’s something that’s become much more central for me. I’ve become a bit braver about it, more proud of it as well. Especially from doing ‘Just Once’, I learned that I could really record myself singing however I wanted, say whatever I want, really trust my musical and emotional instincts or whatever. And that song seems very instinctual, almost to the point of ridiculousness – when she’s like “and then I joined a band”. C’mon, life story shit [grins]. I have a song where I sing the lyric “that’s the story of my life”. My friend was like, you can’t put this song out. But it’s that kind of line, y’know? I will definitely put that lyric out.
Dummy: I think you always have to trust your gut above all else.
Tom Krell: Yeah – that’s one of the most blessed feelings that comes from this music project doing well, it all comes from a place of total, immediate intuition: this is what felt right. And then everybody else was like, yeah, that’s right. That’s a crazy feeling to know that in trusting myself I produced something that was collectively recognised as worthwhile in some way. So in terms of writing the next record, I just try to not think about anything other than what really hits me, what really makes the hairs on the back of the neck raise up or makes my heart flutter a little bit, y’know. So that song is good.
Dummy: Okay, I’m going to play the next one.
Tom Krell: [as song starts] Oh, I’m so stoked on the acoustic guitar stuff because this is what I’ve been recording lately.
Tom Krell: That’s a crazy song.
Dummy: Do you know that one?
Tom Krell: No, I don’t.
Dummy: That’s Joni Mitchell…
Tom Krell: Ah, that’s what I thought.
Dummy: …with Little Green – and the reason I picked that one was because it’s probably her most autobiographical and heartbreaking track. It’s about the baby that she gave up for adoption.
Tom Krell: That’s so intense. I like two things about it – that lyric where she says “I’m sad and I’m sorry but I’m not ashamed”. I think that’s a beautiful sentiment and right in my zone as well. That’s very powerful. And then there’s also this…I’m quite obsessed with the idea of having a child so it’s interesting that you picked this song. And I’m reading these stories by Alice Munro right now – do you know her?
Dummy: Yes, I don’t know if I’ve read any but I am familiar with her.
Tom Krell: You should read her for sure. This [song] is similar to the stories…the stories are a little bit more depraved or maybe a little bit sadder, darker, but not by much. I don’t feel quite ready to have a child yet. It feels like it’s one step further on the horizon than I can see right now but I’m quite interested in the idea and the emotions that come with that. And this idea of like…y’know, both promise and possibility and this new green of spring and stuff, and also all the threats that come with just being born into the world in general, but the specific threats of inheriting my constellation of problems. If you’re self-conscious about it, what it means to have a child is to both give them all these possibilities but also end up unassailably saddling them with all your fucking bullshit. I really like the way [Joni Mitchell] captured both sides of that, with the green of spring and the crocuses and also icicles and sorrows as well. It’s a nice way to capture both extremes of the promise and the threat of this new child, this future or whatever.
Dummy: And the importance of honesty – to make a song for the child and let them know from the very beginning that “sometimes there’ll be sorrow” too.
Tom Krell: It’s like a more restrained version of Niece’s Pieces by Xiu Xiu. He’s singing to this child and he’s like, I can’t wait to see you grow up around the people who broke your mother’s heart. I can’t wait to see you turn from good to bad. It’s really a very dark story. There’s a lot less promise in that child that he’s describing in that song.
Dummy: Damn. My mum used to sing Joni Mitchell songs to us when we were kids.
Tom Krell: That’s adorable. I hated the chord change into the chorus, that’s where it became…musically I didn’t vibe with it but emotionally it’s so intense. It’s the same thing with the Alice Munro, she’s Canadian and she writes a lot about rural Canadian experience and I don’t personally vibe with that setting at all and I would never write those stories but there’s something emotionally which transcends the specific setting of those stories, the chord changes or genre of that song. It’s quite, quite beautiful. Her voice is insane too, the range is crazy. She’s too good.
Dummy: With the acoustic guitar focus you mentioned, how have you made the journey towards this?
Tom Krell: I think it’s in large part because of listening to a lot of Babyface over the last year and then also becoming quite obsessed with the almost aggressively sentimental sounds of something like Every Time by Janet Jackson, that piano/guitar relationship that feels like a cool sonic direction to go. And I was living in Berlin and had no synthesisers, just an acoustic guitar so I wrote a lot of guitar music.
Dummy: There’s something perfectly naked about guitar music too.
Tom Krell: I also hate the idea that the guitar has been stolen by singer-songwriters and couldn’t be put to better work. It’s a very evocative instrument.
Dummy: We have largely being playing in one way for the best part of a couple of decades, and it’s exciting to think about turning that upside down or reinvigorating that.
Tom Krell: I like the way the guitar is used in Antony & The Johnsons as well.
Dummy: I always think music is one long dialogue…
Tom Krell: Yep, history.
Dummy: Exactly, so I can in some ways understand where Simon Reynolds was coming from with Retromania, but on another level, it’s not like everything in the past is null and void. Maybe we need to look at it from a different angle, like a conversation.
Tom Krell: There is stuff that is retro and then there’s stuff that’s historically influenced. I hate the idea that anyone would think I’m doing something retro in any way. I’m definitely doing something historically saturated. But I feel like, you only get to retromania if you have a kind of naive concept of how the history of influence works. If you think you can just go from 2012 to 1974 without bringing baggage to the 70s…I just try to be more self-aware of how history works.
Dummy: Okay, let’s move on to the next one.
Tom Krell: It’s the same chords to Nelly Furtado’s I’m Like A Bird.
Dummy: Oh yeah.
Tom Krell: I really like it.
Dummy: It’s Enigma’s Return To Innocence from the early 90s – it was absolutely everywhere, used for the Olympics in 1996. And I only found this out because I was looking it up for this but back then everyone thought the chanting was Native American (they still do) but it isn’t.
Tom Krell: What is it?
Dummy: It’s Taiwanese Aboriginal.
Tom Krell: Okay well, I’ve talked elsewhere about how I’m interested in a return to naivety but a second naivety, and if you believe in a possible return to true innocence then you end up in the atavism and racism of the 90s – like this and Deep Forest and shit like that, which is exoticising the other.
Tom Krell: I like the production on that track a lot.
Dummy: The original reason I picked that is because when the beat crashes in on Ocean Floor For Everything and the “hey”‘s start – that was something about that contrast – the chanting and the beat – that resonated with this for me. Then when I started looking into this song and watching videos of these Taiwanese guys singing…
Tom Krell: I bet the Taiwanese singers are much cooler and much more interesting that this song.
Tom Krell: This is a good opportunity to dispel some things – because when I talk about emotional honesty and openness, I don’t mean something true and pure that’s been corrupted that we need to get back to. It’s about something in the future that would be won as a result, something that you get through a long process of developing that openness. Not returning to a lost innocence, but developing this second naivety and second relationship with things. That’s part of the meaning behind ‘Total Loss’ – I want to be a happy person but I don’t want happiness to come by trying to get back before loss, and back before pain, and come through the denial of loss. It has to come on the other side of loss. The affect of hope, if it’s not tinged with the pain that would motivate someone to be hopeful…you’re not hopeful unless you’re in a position of lack. If you make a song that’s supposed to sound hopeful, if it doesn’t have that twinge of melancholy and that aspect of loss in its textures or whatever then you’re just not being honest. Emotional openness is the opposite of a return to innocence.
Dummy: There was something my friend gave me when I was in a really low point at university – she copied out this poem by Kahlil Gibran and it said: “Is not the lute that soothes your spirit the very wood that was hollowed out with knives.” That’s basically: you can’t have this satisfying, spiritual existence without having had the pain.
Tom Krell: The hollowing out, yeah. That’s beautiful. I like these themes – my hatred of retro and my hatred of atavism and this desire to return is very dark. Even though my music that I make is influenced by the 90s and stuff, it’s important to me that it’s quite future-orientated.
Dummy: I think that’s why it’s been so embraced – it’s very instant but also very new. It’s not retro.
Tom Krell: I hope that’s clear. Oh, another thing I was going to say is a lot of people will tell me they love the record but they can’t listen to it all the time. Cos it’s too intense for just putting on. You can throw on the Jeremih mixtape, you don’t have to really feel anything. I like the idea of the music being, first and explicitly an emotional tool, and then being listenable. I don’t have any interest in making something that’s primarily agreeable: nice to listen to and then having it do the emotional work subtly in the background. I much prefer the idea of the work of art as primarily an engine for spiritual engagement, change, whatever – and then if it happens to also be agreeable then that’s really cool. That gives it a popular possibility which it wouldn’t have if it was just extreme noise or whatever. But yeah, there’s something about the Return To Innocence song too, which is that you can tell they were trying to make something that was first populist and then whatever else.
Dummy: For me, with the Taiwanese guys, they’re singing a traditional song but you don’t need to know what they’re saying to hear what they’re saying – there’s something incredibly wise and at that beyond point you were talking about.
Tom Krell: Obviously for them it’s religious – but religion is connected with wisdom, and even though religion is terrible and we need to have done with the judgement of God and all this shit – but there’s still something about connecting the art foremost with wisdom and after that with entertainment – that’s important to me. Aboriginal art is the same way – it’s not just about wisdom, it was also about transmission so it had to have some catchiness, entertainment aspect, some kind of hook to it, even when they wrote ancient songs they wrote them with an eye to having them stick with people but it was foremost connected to spiritual wisdom and I really like the idea of, y’know, it used to be the church where we used to go and have an experience of the finitude of this realm and the transcendence of something more perfect than us – an experience of imperfection and loss and pain – but in a way that workable. You didn’t have a wave in the depression in the field while you were working, you had an experience of sorrow and mournfulness in the church where you could be safe and have this experience. So taking that kind of experience of the non-transcendence of our position, taking that back from religion is something I’m very interested in, artistically and personally.
Dummy: Okay, I’m going to play you something else.
Tom Krell: Curious who this is?
Dummy: This is DJ Earl. He’s only 19 or something.
Tom Krell: Is he British?
Dummy: No, he’s from Chicago. He’s part of Ghettoteknitianz, with Rashad and Spinn.
Tom Krell: It’s funny, it’s way more reserved.
Dummy: This is what I really like about him – he has a really mature sense on the fracturedness and the soulfulness.
[The rapid-fire “Ghettotek” sample comes in.]
Tom Krell: Ah, there’s something with some edge to it. Until this comes in, it’s like juke robbed of all its intensity so it can be played in a lounge. Like, this kind of shit and DJ Diamond – that’s the stuff I’m more interested, a little bit raw and fucked up. There’s nothing in that song up to this point that carried the violence of repetition in juke music. Things were repeating and you could hear that it was juke in the toms patterning and stuff but it was never that repetition to the point of freak-out zone. This is tight, this sounds like DJ Diamond too. You know that record ‘Flight Muzik’?
Tom Krell: Fucking amazing, so good. This is easier; it’s easy-listening music. On my song Struggle…
Dummy: Which is the reason I played this one.
Tom Krell: Yeah, yeah – because I love the way the juke sound carries so much frustration and repetition and intensity in it. So that’s why I pushed in that direction on that song. And this [the DJ Earl track] is somehow juke by way of trip hop.
Dummy: I can hear that.
Tom Krell: Instead of juke by way of, like, fiercer, urban music. It’s a cool song though, I’d definitely be interested to hear his other tracks.
Dummy: DJ Earl made us a mixtape earlier this year [plays].
Tom Krell: Rad. Compare that last song to Poetry by DJ Nate and you have totally different emotional intensities, y’know.
Dummy: I can’t remember that one.
Tom Krell: You should pull it up.
Dummy: Oh man…
Tom Krell: Wait till you hear the sample. His R&B that he makes too…
Dummy: Oh yeah, the Gucci Goggles track is awesome.
Tom Krell: He was 16 when he made this track too. I always slow this song down 20% and it sounds like the most beautiful ballad. So intense. [Sings the hook] “In the bathroom taking showers / So they can’t me cry”. Crazy, right? So fucking big. Also, playing this song out is a blast because the subs are so rude. So fucking massive.
Dummy: I need this song really badly.
Tom Krell: That high hat production is what influenced Struggle.
Dummy: Okay, time for one more. This is one you’re definitely going to know but I have to play it.
Tom Krell: [As soon as it starts] Oh, of course. The most futuristic song ever made. It still sounds futuristic. Lyrically the best song of all time too. So much influence from this song.
Tom Krell: I DJ-ed this out last spring and someone came up to me afterwards and was like, is this the new How To Dress Well song? That’s the greatest compliment anyone has ever given me in my entire life. It’s such a fucking perfect song, it’s crazy.
Dummy: She’s just not given enough credit.
Tom Krell: Period.
[Tom sings along in perfect falsetto.]
Tom Krell: I just wrote a song that has a lyrical rip-off on this, in the van. Just two days ago. Just on the “when I close my eyes / I can see your face / when I lick my lips / I can taste your smile”.
Dummy: I want to hear it.
Tom Krell: Soon. It’s so weird, right? All these samples…
Dummy: It’s gone footwork-y!
Tom Krell: Yeah, and it’s way before juke. But it’s understated, so understated. But here’s the thing, it goes understated not in the same way DJ Earl does. It doesn’t go understated by picking up the signifiers of the lounge – it goes understated by ingenious mixing and having the background be these vibraphone loops, it can have this intense frenetic energy and then because of the way the instruments are chosen and then recording the vocals so quietly and so close to the mic so you hear her speaking in your ear, it gets the frenetic energy and the real, close intimacy vibe; it’s just brilliant.
Dummy: I know how much ‘The Velvet Rope’ as an album has been a kind of guide [to you]… When did you first hear it?
Tom Krell: I heard it first when it came out as a kid. Then about two years ago I started revisiting it, kind of being freaked out by how prescient and crazy and zoned in it was. It was really about two years ago that I started listening to it for artistic cues rather than just listening to it as a listener. One of the primary aspects of that record is that the vocals alternate from being recorded super close, super quiet – she’s singing in this really quiet, innocent voice – and then yelling. That dynamic change is part of what makes the record so powerful. Just the mixing is so amazing.
Dummy: And the interludes.
Tom Krell: Yeah, that’s also the thing. The whole message of this record – it’s also a record about mourning, like ‘Total Loss’ is. “You don’t have to hold onto the pain to hold onto the memories.”
Tom Krell: People will give me shit for not making a whole record of songs like & It Was U but, like, there’s only one Together Again on this record for a reason. She could have made a whole record of that and made a ton of money but instead it’s a station in the emotional journey of the whole record. So there’s a lot to be learned from her record, how she chose to make it, the lyrical themes, the continuity across the record despite every possible genre being on the record. That song in particular is so interesting too because of the way fantasy works in it. She wants to have this person completely, to get so far to even desire to read their thoughts? But she says, “if I could read your thoughts / I would be empty”. It’s the fact that she can’t get that whole person, she can’t devour that person completely that fuels the whole fantasy and fuels the whole love. That’s a brilliant thought, I think. That’s wisdom. And then also, interspersing weird Mortal Kombat samples – it’s artistically so bold. She’s just a genius. For that song to be called Empty – because it’s such a full song, it’s so sonically saturated – it’s crazy. But then again, it’s not based on distorted guitar or funky synth like so many of the other songs are, it’s based on this vibraphone thing. It’s quite beautiful. She’s a weirdo. I want to hang out with her real bad.