Q ’n’ A: Tom Odell
At the tender age of 22, singer-songwriter Tom Odell is the first male ever to win the prestigious Critics’ Choice award at the BRITs before putting out an album. A few months later when his debut Long Way Down was released, it rocketed up to at #1 on the UK album charts. We chat to Tom Odell about Woody Allen movies, being discovered by Lily Allen and his fear of flying.
Your songs seem to deal with the extremities of emotion. Grow Old With Me just sounds so euphoric, while Another Love is just heartbreaking. Do you like your songwriting to live in those acute emotional realms?
I’ve always found myself writing those kind of extremes. I don’t really know why. I guess I find it more moving. I’ve always been drawn to melancholia, probably over-romanticising things a little bit and my music I guess does follow that.
Where do you start? Is it a lyric, a melody or a theme?
It’s always different and for me I think what’s important is that inspiration starts it. For me the most important thing is that I don’t force it, that it comes on its own naturally. And it often comes at the worst of times. I seem to be doing a lot of flying at the moment and I always seem to get ideas in planes. Probably the worst environment ever to try and write songs, it’s just so fucking loud. And no-one likes humming. I always get weird feelings on flights. It always feels very sort of dramatic. I’m scared of flying, I always feel I’m going to die on a plane. But I really like moving, it satisfies me. Don’t know why, but it does.
Lily Allen signed you to her label. How did that came about?
I was playing some clubs in London and she happened to come along. I absolutely hate using the term ‘discovered’ but I couldn’t find a more applicable word in that situation. I was completely unknown and I went from being unknown to being signed to a record label and that entirely started from Lily coming to the show and me meeting her and hanging out with her. She’s just always been so supportive in giving me confidence and telling the right people. I’m very lucky to have met her, she’s just a fucking cool person you know.
Were you given free reign when you were putting the record together?
Yeah and I have to say Lily’s label are a part of Sony and they’ve always been kind of different and really just let me write the album. When I had all the demos I wanted to record it in the traditional way in a month and not many albums are recorded that way, especially for a debut artist. They let me pick the producer I wanted to work with, they just let me record it and I gave it to them.
The other side of that is then having to take those songs out to audiences. Do you remember your first gigging experiences?
It was very new to me, I was like 16 or 17 and it took me a long time to build the confidence to do that. I wouldn’t say it came that naturally. It feels very natural now but I wasn’t always very confident about singing in front of other people. I was confident as a singer by myself but the idea of singing to people, it was like taking my clothes off. I guess you’re showing your deepest fears and emotions. And that can be quite scary but now I find it quite cathartic. I get quite sketchy if I don’t sing for a while, it’s become a part of my routine.
Do your songs change from when you write them at home yourself to when you bring them to an audience? Do they take on a new meaning?
Yeah, I think they do. What the craziest thing about the whole past nine months has been experiencing that for the first time. Particularly with Another Love, which has been listened to in a lot of different countries, everyone does have their own meaning for it. There’s something quite powerful about that. I do a lot of interviews and people go “what’s Another Love” about and I hate explaining songs. I just want to let people have their own interpretation. Everyone interprets music in their own way and it’s like when you read a book and you imagine a character to look one way and someone else will imagine that character to look completely different. You never want to spoil that. But I love the fact that people have their own interpretations of songs. Videos as well.
Are there other forms of art, maybe film or literature that inform your work?
I’ve been in to film for a long time and I was always drawn to Americana, particularly like Terrence Malick. I saw Badlands and Days of Heaven and it really just appealed to me. I sort of get it. America has always fascinated me and that kind of escaping I think I can relate to. And recently I’m very interested in how music and film come together. Making the Another Love short film with Jamie Thraves was really eye opening, I want to get more involved in that.
A lot of comparisons have been made between your music and that of Jeff Buckley, Chris Martin even Bowie. They are some pretty big names. Who are the artists that shaped you?
There’s a lot of them really, those names you just mentioned, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Elton John, Beach House. This guy called Arthur Russell, he’s a ’80s cello player who always really inspired me. There’s a lot, though I never really listen to one artist for more than a few months. It’s weird I like to move on. A lot of artists can singlehandedly name an artist that’s the reason they make music. But I couldn’t, there are too many of them.
Is there an era of music or songwriting that you’re drawn to?
I used to think the ‘70s but actually now I don’t. There’s fucking great music being made now. I think if there’s an era, it’s definitely now. I definitely listen to a lot of ‘70s Bowie, Neil Young in the ‘70s, Joni Mitchell was making some pretty incredible music. But there are a lot of people who go around romanticising periods, but I think it evolves. You listen to Frank Ocean, Channel Orange, that is an incredible record that I’m sure in ten years time people will be looking back on that and say, ‘Wasn’t it great, music back then?’ That film, Midnight in Paris that Woody Allen made, I think he hit on something, I think he’s right. It’s very easy to romanticise the past. Like people romanticise the ’90s and I remember living in the ’90s and it wasn’t that fucking great. There’s nothing less romantic than the present.
Are you writing now, while on tour?
I listen to a lot of music but don’t listen to a lot of new music when I’m touring. But I’m writing a lot of new music at the moment and touring and travelling there’s always time where I’m playing the guitar a lot and when I can find a piano I’ll play the piano. I find the extremities of my situation, like there are days where I haven’t slept for a while or I’m really hungry or drunk or in a different place. The extreme highs and lows, it makes for good songs. I think that’s a good place to be for songwriting.
Does that bear much longevity?
I think so, I feel quite comfortable living like that. I don’t know how long you can do it, Keith Richards is still going.