Connect Sessions – “Realism is a genre!” “
There is logic to the music Tom Krell is currently recording under the name How to dress well which he recognizes and cultivates as secular and almost conventional. Ask Krell how he describes it to people who don’t know him, and he says “soulful vocal pop” without hesitation, adding, “the songs are pretty much structured in a traditional way.” Still, hit play on any track in How To Dress Well and what you’re faced with is much more progressive. It’s as if a blue-eyed soul standard – as emotional and as inquisitive as anything in a corner of the singing cannon – had been diced and put together. This is not an example of delic fantasia, there are no seams, and the end result couldn’t be more organic or “authentic”. But the textures scream the 21st century in a way the songs themselves don’t. This difficult balance between “classic” and ultra-modern shapes is at the heart of the twisted logic of How To Dress Well. It was also the main theme of the chat TURN had Krell during his participation in Connect Sessions powered by Microsoft.
You said that your music is, at least in part, about relationships and human relationships. Which is interesting, given that the music creation process is being pushed further and further into a solo silo space where people only interact with their laptops and do a lot of the creative stuff on their own.
I mean, it’s never been like that for me. All this talk about interactive technology is fun, because for me [music is] all about interrelating with people, you know what I mean? That’s what I love about music, bonding.
Like, my album title [“What Is This Heart?”] is in quotes, and part of that gesture was that when you put something in quotes, it’s suddenly part of a scene. It’s something someone said, or maybe someone heard. When I was writing it, I discovered that much of the lyrical content came from things that were told to me that I didn’t understand at the time, but now resonate in my life. Things I said to others, the consequences of which I didn’t understand. Things I didn’t say I wish I had. Things I said that I wish I hadn’t said. And there was so much dialogue in the lyrical content.
While working on this album, I found that even when I really go inside, there is a community there. I don’t trust these artists who when they go to write, and they tell me “I want to be alone in the woods, I don’t want to have interference”. When I’m alone with myself, I think of my family, I think of my friends. They’re all in there. They make up everything about me.
Your songs are deceptively simple. In terms of songwriting, has your creativity always gone into a more traditional sound space?
No. I mean, I haven’t really written for more than a minute for about three or four years. A lot of the music I originally wrote for How to Dress Well, a lot of songs from the early EPs, they’re very short (thirty seconds), like little windows. And right now I’m writing longer, I’ve formed 10-20 minute pieces of music. Over the past five years, I have really been drawn to pop as a form of my music. I think at some point I’ll be doing something out of this form.
But then again when it comes to relationships you can meet someone new and you might have something really important to say and you can say it in a poetic form or you can say it directly. And the poetic form may seem the truest, but the communication may not be so generous. For example, if I tell you something opaque, it’s asking a lot of your side to interpret all this poetry. If I say something direct, I may not get the emotion or the message into it. So it’s always a question of finding a certain balance between something impressionist, poetic and direct. Hence: pop. So what I’m doing is maybe kind of poetic pop music.
I also like to think of my music as having a certain avant-garde aspect, but I don’t like the isolation of the avant-garde, and the way the avant-garde becomes exclusive. I want to go out and share with people, make pop music, but do it in a progressive way, maybe not as populist as Shakira or someone like that.
Tell me a bit about your registration process. Because even though your songs tend to be very intimate and easy to understand, there is a layer of sound to what you just described as cutting edge. So how technologically progressive is your music?
Well, I listen to a lot of sonic music – there is a kind of sonic self-awareness in my music because I’m as influenced by Brian Eno as I am by Brandy or anyone else. So for me, I don’t really like cutting edge technology per se. But when I’m in the studio recording on a grand piano and sitting down to play it, I’m interested in knowing what I want to do with the active recording to make sure that the relationship between me and the piano manifests itself in a certain way.
So for example, if I play the keys so softly that they barely hit the note, I want the sound to have that physicality in the recording. I don’t want to just write something and play it. I want to mic the keys. I want to mic the strings. I want to create a mic in the room and synthesize it all and try to give a 3D or more complete picture of what’s going on, rather than just putting a mic up and recording it the traditional way. On this new record in particular, I dealt with a lot of questions about realistic sound. And I think in my opinion, realism is a genre.
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