Tom Krell’s voice comes through more clearly on “What Is This Heart?” than it ever did on his first two records as How to Dress Well. 2010’s Love Remains and 2012’s Total Loss crystallized a kind of shrouded tenderness, but the objects of their sadness stayed murky. His third record, out this week via Weird World, frames Krell’s lyrics at the forefront. He articulates familial drama, longing, and existential angst with startling clarity, all while drawing new facets of vintage pop into his music.
It’s not really fair to call How to Dress Well R&B anymore. The new record still looks to the genre’s ’90s for much of its internal logic, but it’s the part of the ’90s that people think back on with guilty pleasure: Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, boy bands. “I always feel an impulse to go against what people are doing, even if they’re doing something that I started or gave rise to,” Krell tells me over the phone. “I always have a pretty strong impulse to change things.”
Krell took the time to speak with Consequence of Sound about some of the challenges of making his new album and how he’s grown as an artist since he first started releasing music.
When you started playing live as How to Dress Well, you were singing solo over prerecorded tracks. Now you have this amazing full band. How did you navigate that transition? How do you communicate your ideas about the project to the people who are now working with you?
It was really hard at first, but then I found my friend Aaron, who is the guy on the right side of the stage who does all the electronics and the violin and stuff. He’s just really, really intelligent about musical translation. We’d listen to the tracks together, and he’d be like, “Oh, yeah, this seems like the essential melody, but if I’m doing this on violin instead, we can do a totally stripped-down version of the song.” And I’d say, “Okay, let’s try it,” and then it would feel amazing. He just has really good, creative ideas.
The new band, it was very fortuitous. It happened all by accident, sort of. Aaron and I were just going to go back out, and then his friend met this woman Marissa who has toured with Destroyer and such. She was like, “I really want to play in the band,” and he was like, “Okay, maybe we should hang out and talk about it.” They talked about it, and it felt right, and we all agreed that it was a good idea. Then my publicist emailed me like, “Hey, do you like Broken Social Scene?” I was like, “Yeah, of course. They’re one of my all-time favorite bands.” She was like, “The drummer is actually begging me to join your band.” I had never really thought about having a drummer.
Actually, I had thought negatively about having a drummer, because it just seems sometimes like projects can lose focus when you add a whole band. They get annoying “rock out” vibes. There are lots of artists that I’ve seen lose their step by adding a drummer. I was wary about it. But I spoke with Justin for about an hour on Skype, and he showed me things on his drum kit, little weird modifications of drums that make them sound weird and flat or just different, and then the things he was doing with his sampler. I realized that he had a pretty good sense of how to make himself fit into the aesthetic rather than dominating and changing the aesthetic.
Does having more support onstage get you to new places when you’re performing?
Yeah. It feels even more full-bodied. I can disappear into the music with even greater ease, which has always been my goal when I play. Also, I love extreme contrast in the live context. Like, a really harsh noise patch and then an a cappella part. This expands that dynamic range even more to where we can do a song on violin, piano, and voice, and then blast in a pretty solid wall of sound on the next song.
The new record definitely takes advantage of that love of contrast. You’ve always looked to the early ’90s for sources, but now it sounds like you’re drawing more from the maximalist edges of that period. I hear a lot more pop. You’ve always been placed in this R&B bracket, and the first two records were pretty minimal and fragile. Was this record a reactionary move to people pigeonholing you, or did it evolve naturally from what you were working on before?
A number of things changed that account for the change in the sound of the record. One thing is I toured for 18 months straight and really started to develop much more confidence in certain aspects of the sound. I realized live that people really like certain things. Also, my listening habits changed a lot. The-Dream’s Love vs. Money came out in 2009. It’s 2014 now. I just started to get bored with R&B to a certain degree, frankly. Now every single rock band that gets signed have one falsetto patch in one of their songs, like, “Yo, we have an R&B influence!” Whatever, buddy. It is a little bit of a reaction to that, but it’s not so self-conscious. It’s more of a gut reaction. It really does come down to listening habits.
This is slightly embarrassing, but I listened to The Velvet Underground for the first time ever on tour last year right before Lou Reed passed away. That was a major influence. I started listening to Prince for the first time in the last three years. A lot of Tracy Chapman and a lot of Everything but the Girl and Craig David, stuff like that. Also, Arthur Russell is a huge influence, and he was definitely really influenced by that stuff.
I don’t know if it’s intentional, but you almost quote Celine Dion on “Repeat Pleasure”. You actually sing the words, “My heart will go on.”
Oh, yeah. That’s not intentional. That’s really funny. I didn’t even really realize that. Nobody’s even mentioned that.
It stood out to me because there’s a lot of music from the ’90s that at the time was really heavily mocked. It was really popular, so there was backlash among people who considered themselves to know better, and now you’re drawing it into this music that is very contemporary and fresh. Do you think that it’s just a function of time, that enough time has passed that you can assign new meaning to that kind of pop sound?
I think it’s a whole bunch of factors. I remember I had the Titanic soundtrack, and I played it constantly, so maybe that’s something. I was never caught up in the idea of “alternative” music. I remember when my friends were listening to Green Day and Nirvana, I just didn’t like it. I thought it was too aggressive. It just seemed phony and manic to me. I was much more interested in The Bodyguard soundtrack and shit like that.
I also think that one of the dominating false ideologies of the ’90s was that there was “alternative” culture, which is “outside” the bullshit simulations of pop and mass culture. But it was just another form of mass culture. We can see that in hindsight. Every tween on earth celebrated the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death.
To be fair, when I eventually got into rock music in 1999 and 2000, it was through Alkaline Trio and Saves the Day and stuff like that. Basically, I don’t really like songs that aren’t about love and heartbreak and stuff like that. I never did.
Your voice is much more at the forefront of this record. Do you feel like you’re making yourself more vulnerable here by doing that?
Yes, for sure. Partially it was a natural evolution through the live context. It just gave me extreme confidence. I wanted to be under the spotlight but still with the same affect and still with the same emotional content, same approach. That is a bit of a nerve-racking thing. The first song on the record [“2 Years On (Shame Dream)”], putting that song first is a pretty important gesture for me.
How does it feel to put yourself out there like that?
It feels great, but it’s also extremely nerve-racking. It feels really good, though. I’m incredibly proud of the record. That first little tour had a good vibe for us onstage, and the response was so amazing.
Now that you’re framing your lyrics in a more upfront and present way, do you find the way that you write lyrics has changed?
Yes and no. I think I’ve always had a freestyle approach to things. I don’t write lyrics and then refine them and try to say things perfectly. It’s all somewhat free-associative. I’ll start to build a song, and then I’ll just put my headphones on and close my eyes and just sort of sing, and then I’ll learn what the song is about based on what spontaneously comes to me. With Love Remains, I would get one phrase or two phrases, and I’d be like, “Okay, that’s the song.” I was worried that the songs would disappear if I didn’t pick the two lines right away. With Total Loss, I’d let myself be a little bit more patient and get 10 phrases and then be like, “Oh, that’s the hook, that’s the bridge.” And with this record, partially because of the way I wrote while being constantly interrupted by being on tour, I just had a lot more patience with it.
On the instrumental side, you’re pulling in all these different textures and instruments. There’s a lot more guitar on this record. How did you arrange everything in a way that supports your vision for the record?
The guitar was also a really nice, fortuitous thing. I moved into an apartment in Berlin, and I found this nylon-string guitar in the back of a closet. I hadn’t owned a guitar since 2001. I started playing around on it, and I was like, “Oh, this is such a beautiful, fun instrument.” So, that’s kind of how guitar made its way back into my life. As for my technique, I just pile tracks on tracks on tracks. Instead of removing things, I try and give everything its own place. That becomes really challenging because a lot of instruments tend to occupy the same frequencies, and there tends to be a lot of overlap, but then it becomes a bit of a puzzle for me, how to create this super deep but still balanced and still open-sounding thing. I never have really honored the pressure to make a song sound like whatever a song is supposed to sound like.
“House Inside” was an enormous gamble. So was “Childhood Faith in Love”, because they’re both, to my mind, emo or pop punk songs, which have these very strange backbones. “Childhood Faith in Love” has this detuned harmonic bass as its hook, and then there’s piano, there’s distorted electric guitar, there’s choral voices, there’s live drums, electronic drums, sub bass, live bass … there’s a million things going on. “House Inside” has this really noisy, acidic loop that’s going on underneath the whole thing. That’s a pretty risky thing to start a song with. You’re like, “Okay, everything now is going to have this underneath it.” That was the challenge.
There’s a lot of pain and heartbreak on this record, but it ends on this hopeful line. You repeat, “This world is such a pretty, pretty thing.” What allows you to let beauty have the last word here?
That’s a quite ambiguous line. Obviously that’s an incredibly sad song in terms of the lyrical content, and a quite cynical, almost pessimistic song. The chorus is pretty impressionistic and poetic, but it’s also about how human life on Earth is terrible and full of injustice and pain and so forth, and then how life on Earth is an incredibly strange thing, and then it also entertains the idea of “maybe it would have been better if these things had never crawled out on this globe.” Like, I call life such “deadly things,” and then I sing this final line: “You came back for me/ It’s such a pretty thing/ The world is such a pretty thing.” I try and track the whole range of what I understand life to be. The song has this joyous, emotional chanting quality, and it builds to be really emphatic, almost emo-anthemic at the end, the final chorus.
It’s just a really emphatic sound on the one hand, and then this pretty grave description of the afflicted character of life, and the possibility that life is a massive aberration, a massive cosmic aberration. And then it ends with the fact that we have to navigate it and people are capable of expressing extreme generosity of spirit and doing things for one another that are really important and saving. The final word is that this whole complex nest of problems and thoughts is at present my most thorough description of the world. So, to try and affirm that, it ends really suddenly. It doesn’t end with a string coda. It just ends. It remains an open question to me. The possibility of affirming it is something I’m interested in.