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
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