The 2013 Brits Critics’ choice winner was on the verge of releasing his debut album A Long Way Down when we caught up with the young singer-songwriter to talk about why the only direction he’s going in is up.
With Kurt Cobain looks, rousing vocals and the angst of youth, 22-year-old Tom Odell has been riding quite the rollercoaster over the last six months. Relocating from Chichester to London, via Brighton, at the tender age of 18, the young singer-songwriter has managed to pick up a Brits Critics’ Choice award, an acclaimed Later… with Jools Holland debut and a record deal with Lily Allen’s label along the way.
Now tipped to be one of the breakthrough artists of 2013 by nearly every critic in the industry, Odell has had that sort of overnight fame that normally hints to a well oiled PR machine and a short-lived career. However, he’s not going heading back to Sussex quite yet. Before he manages to disappear into the stratosphere, Acoustic’s Sarah Joy tracked him down to discuss festivals, the fame, and why he put this ex-girlfriend on his EP cover.
How’s life treating you at the moment, Tom? I guess it’s been an exciting few months…
Yeah I am good. I’m in Germany at the moment on tour. It’s kind of super busy but I’m well. It’s been crazy the last week because we got back from LA and then went down to The Great Escape festival in Brighton for two shows. We’ve then dived straight into the European tour in Brussels and now I’m in Germany. I’ve been a bit dazed but The Great Escape was fun, they were really good shows. I have played it before when I lived in Brighton, but it was only on a tiny stage and to be honest it probably wasn’t even part of the festival! This year we had such a great turn out though. We played in this church and it was a beautiful venue.
Sounds busy! Do you remember what music you listened to growing up?
I guess I started with piano music. I played from a young age and it always was fascinated me when I heard a popular songs played on the piano. I was into Elton John and Leon Russell, as well as artists like Tom Waits. I was into jazz when I was younger. I also liked Ray Charles. My taste developed so I started listening to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen when I got into my teens. Now it is people like Arthur Russell that I’m really into.
Do those artists have an influence on the music you write and play today?
Yeah I think everything does. It’s difficult to pin it down to one thing; it’s everything. Not just music, everything you experience inspires you. I listened to a lot of music and as I was one of the kids in the internet generation, I had a lot of access to it. It’s the same now. I never listen to just one person for too long. I tend to listen to things for a month and then move on.
When did you first start writing and performing music?
I kind of kept it a secret. I didn’t really feel like I needed to talk about it. My writing was quite personal and because I didn’t tell people about it, it felt my own. It was almost a journal, you know? I’d just come home and play for two hours. I’d sit there and just start writing songs. I didn’t really ever go out and tell my friends. Not until I was about 16 when I played in a band.
I started doing shows in London and this girl turned up, a friend or associate of Lily’s, saying she knew someone who would be interested in my music. She didn’t tell me who it was and I didn’t really think anything of it. Then at the next show, Lily turned up. I was a bit blown away as I’d never met anyone like that before. We had a beer and a chat about music. She said she had this imprint of Columbia and that she was interested in signing me. Being on an indie label is great. It’s a very small team running it so you get that extra focus and care. You are carefully making art and it’s not about the business, you know? It’s an amazing label to be on. They hardly sign anyone. I think there are only two other bands. It’s tiny and there are so few places in the industry today where you get that type of support.
Do you get to call Lily up and ask for advice or is she kept in the background?
She’s not involved day-to-day. She’s got her own stuff going on. She lets me do my own thing. I see her every so often and we chat. It’s a lovely set up and I don’t think I’d be here now releasing this album if it weren’t for them. They put a lot of faith in me early on.
Many congratulations on the Brit Critics’ Choice award. It’s a big accolade, but do you ever grow tired of people asking about it?
I have had three months of press about it but I am still very proud to have won it. I’m now looking forward to the album coming out now and people hearing what we’ve been talking about for a while.
What was it like winning at The Brit Awards?
It was a good experience. I can’t really remember it now. It was a whole another side of the industry. It’s funny being a musician because there this very glamorous side of it and you occasionally get invited to a few parties in London, but the real truth of it is touring is not particularly glamorous at all. Maybe it does get more glamorous once you reach a certain level but it is actually quite hard work. I have to say I’m least comfortable in the glamorous side. I much prefer the touring and writing songs – that, for me, feels very genuine. The most meaningful thing I do in my life is performing. I don’t feel like I get much out of the parties.
I feel it’s genuinely touching getting awards but I think I always put pressure on myself to make the best music I can. The quality of music I want to make is very high, so that is a pressure I have put on myself. That far outweighs any pressure from those polls. I want people to be touched by the album and that’s a stronger want than any commercial pressure. Perhaps that’s due to the people I work with, as they have a longer sight than just making singles.
How have you dealt with being thrown into the spotlight?
I’ve put myself in a few situations in the past where I have opened myself up to it. I’m not interested in it. It’s not why I do this. I love performing and writing songs. It’s something I’ve done since an early age. The rest of it is a byproduct and I realised that very quickly. People get very wrapped up in that stuff and you’ll quickly lose yourself in it.
How did you find the recording process of your debut album Long Way Down?
It was my first time in a recording studio so in many ways it was a learning experience. I wrote all the songs before I went in and we did it in a fairly live way, partly because I get frustrated that so much music these days gets made by producers. Music is starting to become so much less human now it is computer generated and I feel like one of the most compelling things is when music is something you can relate to – when it’s not perfect. It shouldn’t be perfect. I wanted my record to have those flaws. I try to listen to it as a body of work and I want it to be listened to as a record. That’s what I put a lot of effort into; making it sound like a record. I also wanted to be able to tour it. As I’ve got into music, the more I’ve realised how important touring is. I wanted to make an album that I could go play every night to a crowd and for it not be compromised by the fact there are only four of us on stage. If you make an album using 20 multi-tracks, you just can’t easily replicate that live. The most important thing for me was that the songs had to stand up.
How do you write your material?
It’s always different. I try to keep it as organic as possible. I do find travelling inspires music. That’s what I’m finding quite strange about touring – I find I’m writing more than I was when I had less going on! Keeping moving and not staying in one place too long. I find a lot of songs come that way. I don’t know why. I think it’s more dramatic on the road. It’s a very particular way of living. It’s extreme, and I find it quite inspiring.
Would you describe Long Way Down as a coming of age record? Your relationships seem to feature throughout…
I much prefer when you describe it as a coming of age album. That’s definitely what was happening. Someone said to me: “your true coming of age is having your heart broken”. Maybe it was a bit of that. Some of the songs on the album aren’t about relationships, but then there are quite a few that are – I had just broken up with my girlfriend and was pissed off about it.
It felt like the right sort of thing to do at the time. I bet loads of people put their ex-partners on their EPs, right? Maybe it was a mistake… It was a just moment in time and she was happy to do it. It represented the period when I was writing the album.
Were you excited about Glastonbury? Had you ever been before?
It’s very strange that I haven’t been before because so many of my friends have. They all go every year and even some of my family go. For some reason, whenever it has been on I’ve always had something else on. I’ve even bought tickets to go and then had to give them up. It is kind of one of those things now, every year there is a new reason I can’t go. That’s why I am so excited. We played a slot on the John Peel Stage and it was at the end of the week my album comes out so it was a good time. All my friends and the people I work with were there so we all got to relax. It’s been such a crazy five months and I’ve not really stopped. I love the touring, more so than any of my band, strangely. I’ve always had itchy feet. I’ve never felt that comfortable at home. I’m not a home person. I like moving and travelling. It just feels good. There is nothing else I’d rather be doing. There are times when it can get tiring for sure, but any job gets tiring.
Are you a festival person?
I’m not someone that you will find sitting around the campfire, but I do enjoy them. I like that you get to see so many bands. The line-up for Glastonbury this year is incredible, there are so many people I want to see.
Musicians sometimes say festivals are a tough crowd because they aren’t necessarily playing to just their fans. Are you nervous about that?
I haven’t done many yet, especially with this album. I’m kind of going into the abyss. One thing I do know is that although the album is sensitive at times, it does have its moments to rock out. I don’t need to be in a little café to perform my set. It’s very versatile. We’ve done a few little festivals in the last two weeks and it has worked. Some musicians hate them and some people love them, but I’m definitely going to try and love festivals!
Do you still get nervous performing live?
It works on levels. When I play in London, or to a home crowd, I always feel more nervous. I can’t ever imagine not being nervous because you are getting up in front of a huge crowd of people and that is unnatural in some ways. I’m definitely comfortable playing the 500-700 people crowds we are playing now. You’ve still got that intimacy and yet there is enough of the crowd to get a real buzz in the room. I don’t know what it’ll be like in October when we go out infront of around 2000 on the academy tour. I’m worried about losing the intimacy as it is really important to me in the live shows.
What’s next after the album?
I’ve been talking to people already and got a few things potentially happening. I want to put an EP of new songs. There is a potential producer I may be working with, which will be crazy if it happens as I’m a huge fan. I’ve got some other ideas and things I want to do as well as I’m quite interested in film music and I’ll be looking at something in that area. I write a lot and I always like to have something on the go. I just spend a lot of my time making sure it’s all happening!
Tom’s Long Way Down is out now.
Words: Sarah Joy
Images and video: Gibson Guitars UK