Play­ing for keeps

Tom Odell is a hard one to pin down – the new­est pop kid on the block, with an Ivor Novello award in his back pocket and the mu­si­cal world at his feet but with lit­tle in­ter­est in the im­pend­ing star­dom. Ahead of his Dublin gig, the Song­writer of the Year t

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

Not quite an out­right pop heart­throb, not quite a house­hold name, not quite cool enough to get the seal of ap­proval from dis­cern­ing mu­sos: it’s safe to say that Tom Odell is a mu­si­cian firmly plonked at the cross­roads of his ca­reer.

Af­ter win­ning the BRIT Crit­ics’ Choice Award in 2012, it seemed like the Chich­ester­born song­writer had one foot in the pop trench, the other snared in the “se­ri­ous song­writer” one. He has been gen­tly ribbed by co­me­dian James Cor­den about his un­canny re­sem­blance to one-hit won­der Ch­es­ney Hawkes, but on the other hand he has al­ready clocked up sup­port slots with Billy Joel at Madi­son Square Gar­den, been named ‘Song­writer of the Year’ at this year’s Ivor Novello awards, and next week will open for “The Mod­fa­ther” Paul Weller in Dublin. Pop star? Heart­throb? Earnest song­writer? Is it pos­si­ble to be all three?

Chat­ting from his East Lon­don apart­ment, Odell is po­lite, well­spo­ken and sin­cere – yet he’s also slightly awk­ward with his an­swers, stum­bling over words and trail­ing off mid­sen­tence to start a new one. It’s hard to tell whether it’s down to the snatched na­ture of the brief en­counter, or the fact that he’s just not that ex­hil­a­rat­ing a con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist. In any case, you get the im­pres­sion that all of this ker­fuf­fle and hype sits some­what un­easily with him. He never set out to be a pop star, he says; while his friends were tak­ing up gui­tars and drums and form­ing bands at school, he was the one who begged his par­ents for piano lessons.

“I re­ally just wanted to play the piano and my grand­mother had one, so I used to play it ev­ery time we went over there,” he says. “Some of my ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of play­ing that piano. I had this very strange at­trac­tion to it. I think it had some­thing to do with this par­tic­u­lar type of piano; it was like a pi­anola, so it played it­self if you pumped the keys. I guess I was just sort of fas­ci­nated by it.”

He has cited Billy Joel and El­ton John as in­flu­ences in the past, and says that the lat­ter’s Good­bye Yel­low Brick Road al­bum was the first he ever re­mem­bers be­ing cap­ti­vated by. Con­versely, his youth­ful­ness comes into play when he de­scribes Ar­cade Fire’s Fu­neral as a for­ma­tive in­flu­ence. Still only 23, he was 13 when the al­bum came out and it gen­er­ated a cre­ative spark in him.

“That al­bum came out around the time that I re­ally started lis­ten­ing to records and get­ting into mu­sic,” he en­thuses. “I never re­ally fol­lowed what other people my own age were into – I was al­ways seek­ing out mu­sic on my own. Some of my ear­li­est teenage mem­o­ries are go­ing to par­ties and putting on some ob­scure Arthur Rus­sell song, or some­thing, and ev­ery­one get­ting pissed off at me be­cause I didn’t put on 50 Cent, which was what they wanted to hear,” he chuck­les. “So my mu­sic taste def­i­nitely alien­ated me a tiny bit from my friends.”

Odell spent some time fronting a band – Tom and the Tides – with lit­tle suc­cess be­fore em­bark­ing on a solo ca­reer, hon­ing his craft at open-mic nights in Lon­don. It was around this time that he caught the ear of Lily Allen, who com­pared him to Bowie in terms of his on­stage en­ergy and pres­ence.

“I re­mem­ber driv­ing away from that [ini­tial] meet­ing and think­ing ‘OK, that was prob­a­bly quite im­por­tant; I’m pleased I met her’,” he re­calls. It was. Allen signed him to her Columbia Records im­print In the Name Of, and things started get­ting a lit­tle crazy. Be­fore his de­but al­bum, Long Way Home, had been even re­leased, he had bagged the BRIT Crit­ics’ Choice award and mat­ters were taken out of his hands, to a cer­tain de­gree.

“The thing is, I don’t think even my la­bel were re­ally ex­pect­ing me to sell loads of records be­fore it hap­pened,” he says. “And sud­denly there was this award, and if I didn’t sell loads of records it would have been seen as a huge fail­ure – but nei­ther of us ever in­tended on sell­ing mil­lions, and none of us ever thought we’d win that award. So I dunno; I think it was a huge hon­our to win it, but I won­der what my ca­reer would be like now if I hadn’t won it . . .”. He pauses.

“I don’t know what it would be like. I’m not sure what the right road is. I know that you need these things, and it got me a lot more at­ten­tion and a lot more people started lis­ten­ing to my mu­sic – but I think that award is so main­stream that you nat­u­rally put yourself in the spot­light to be cri­tiqued in a way that you didn’t nec­es­sar­ily want to be in the first place, if you know what I mean.”

The Ivor Novello, on the other hand, was ad­mit­tedly “a very big mo­ment.”

“I don’t think it’s good to lose sleep over awards and that sort of thing, but that award was voted for by people I grew up lis­ten­ing to and ac­tu­ally in­spired me to song­write in the first place,” he agrees. “So it did mean an aw­ful lot to me, that award. I guess you con­stantly as­pire to be lis­tened to with that sort of re­spect and for your mu­sic to be taken se­ri­ously. I started out writ­ing songs and it was al­ways a dream of mine to be recog­nised for do­ing that, so I al­most feel un­de­serv­ing of it. But I’m also hugely proud of that award, at the same time.”

He has strug­gled a bit with the “celebrity” as­pect of be­ing a mu­si­cian, some­thing he was ex­posed to af­ter hav­ing a ca­sual drink with Tay­lor Swift led to a frenzy of tabloid spec­u­la­tion (none of it true, he says). He also be­came the sub­ject of tem­po­rary ridicule last year when it was re­vealed that his dad placed an an­gry phone call to the NME upon read­ing their “zero-star” re­view of his son’s al­bum. Fame, he is learn­ing, comes with a price.

“I’m nat­u­rally not some­one who goes to these kind of shows, and stuff,” he says, with a glum sigh slightly un­be­com­ing of a 23-year-old with the mu­si­cal world at his feet. “But I guess it’s part of it, so I have to do it.”

He perks up when the con­ver­sa­tion be­comes less fo­cused about his ca­reer prospects and more about how he goes about mak­ing mu­sic. He never went to univer­sity, he says, al­though he is a grad­u­ate of the Brighton In­sti­tute of Mod­ern Mu­sic. Be­cause he never read much at school or fur­thered his aca­demic ed­u­ca­tion af­ter his A-Lev­els, he has been try­ing to verse him­self in lit­er­a­ture over the last few years.

“I read a bit [at school], but I was al­ways re­belling,” he ex­plains. “I was a typ­i­cal kind of kid: I didn’t re­ally like be­ing told what to do and I think that led me away from books. I didn’t go to univer­sity, so I just had this great de­sire to ed­u­cate my­self through lit­er­a­ture. I re­ally like the idea of work­ing through books that have been key over the past 200 years – so I’m read­ing Tol­stoy at the mo­ment, which is quite in­tense. I have this weird sort of de­sire to get through ev­ery clas­sic book that’s ever been writ­ten. Just in case that I don’t know some­thing that ev­ery­thing else knows about.”

He says that his song­writ­ing has “ab­so­lutely” been in­formed by his new­found love of lit­er­a­ture.

“My one piece of ad­vice for a song­writer would be to read. It’s in­cred­i­bly over­looked as a tool to use for your song­writ­ing,” he says. “I’ve met some song­writ­ers that I re­ally ad­mire, and they all read as well. It makes you think of new words and gets that whole part of your brain work­ing. I can only re­ally write songs when I’m read­ing; I can only re­ally be cre­ative when that part of my brain is en­gaged.”

If the songs on Long Way Down are any­thing to go by, he spent a lot of the years pre­ced­ing 2013 read­ing love and ro­mance nov­els: the track ti­tles – Hold Me, An­other Love, Grow Old With Me – are a

“I don’t think even my la­bel were re­ally ex­pect­ing me to sell loads of records . . . And sud­denly there was this award, and if I didn’t sell loads of records it would have been seen as a huge fail­ure”

dead give­away of his in­ten­tions. Isn’t he wary of be­ing writ­ten off as just an­other lovelorn bal­ladeer?

“It’s funny; I look back to some­thing I wrote four years ago, be­fore Long Way Down, and they weren’t re­ally love songs at all – and then I lis­ten to Long Way Down and it’s just packed full of them,” he says. “I think love songs tend to make great songs, and you tend to feel very im­pas­sioned, but I’m writ­ing a lot of songs about dif­fer­ent things at the mo­ment. So I’m very ex­cited about that.”

Work on al­bum num­ber two is con­tin­u­ing apace since he be­gan writ­ing dur­ing a stint in New York ear­lier this year. “I got an apart­ment in Jan­uary and just sat there for three weeks and went through what I had,” he re­veals. “I record ev­ery­thing on a Dic­ta­phone and my phone; I had a thou­sand ideas on there, or some­thing. I went through them all and ended up com­ing out with a load of songs in about two weeks. We’re half­way through at the mo­ment and we’re work­ing with some re­ally cool people, and work­ing re­ally hard. I’ve learned so much about song­writ­ing over the last two years, and about per­form­ing. I lis­ten to so much more mu­sic, and I feel more in­spired than I’ve ever been, so I’m re­ally ex­cited about mak­ing this next record. I’m look­ing for­ward to mov­ing on.”

Tom Odell plays sup­port for Paul Weller at the Royal Hospi­tal Kil­main­ham on June 24th, and the Bel­sonic Fes­ti­val, Dublin, on Au­gust 18th

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