Tom Krell channels emotions into How to Dress Well

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Tom Krell has been very open about the experiences that shaped Total Loss, his second album as How to Dress Well. The sudden death of a friend, the untimely passing of an uncle, and his own mother’s debilitating depression laid the emotional groundwork for the collection of spaciously ambient, R&B–influenced songs. Reached on the road to Austin, Texas, Krell acknowledges that he took the making of the LP as an opportunity to process what he was going through. He makes no apologies for that.

“One of the questions I get a lot is why I don’t write happy songs, or something like that,” the Chicago-based singer says. “I always think of, in The Theatre and Its Double—this kind of half manifesto, half theoretical philosophical work by [Antonin] Artaud, this French theorist of the 20th century—he says no one ever sculpted, painted, drew, wrote a thing, danced, or sang, except to literally get out of hell. And that’s a pretty flamboyant way to put it. But for me, when I’m chilling with my friends, just some dudes hanging out watching football, I’m not like, ‘Oh, I want to write a song about this.’

“I only am moved to write a song or to make art in general when I encounter an affect which is exceedingly complex or internally in tension with itself or my other desires or whatever—something that I cannot metabolize in my normal day-to-day experience,” Krell continues. “Then I go to this other zone to try and unknot it a bit, or work it out, or at the very least just give a voice to it that’s not the voice of my everyday life. That’s the special power of these songs for me personally, is that I can give some presence to these things which are rending or intense in a way that I can’t quite handle in day-to-day life.”

If that sounds like a recipe for a difficult or painful listen, the big surprise is that Total Loss is much more than a trip through the long, dark night of Krell’s soul. The string-burnished elegance of “Talking to You” is certainly sombre, and the noise-gospel of “Set It Right” has the singer reeling off a list of the people he misses, but the message imparted is one of resilience, of having weathered grief long enough to see the light begin to seep back into the blackness. The thumping club beat that underlines Krell’s spirited falsetto on “& It Was U” sounds like a call to shake it off and keep on moving.

Krell sometimes performs these songs solo, but more often these days he is joined on-stage by two Canadians: Vancouver’s Aaron Read on violin, guitar, and keys, and Toronto’s Cameron Reed (the erstwhile Vancouverite also known as Babe Rainbow) on beats and keyboards. The point of it all, Krell posits, is to provoke an emotional response from the audience.

“Taking some songs which are really loud and then stripping them down to just violin and piano and voice, and making it really plaintive, that is kind of disorienting and reorients the audience back towards the deep feeling that I kind of want them to be in the midst of,” he says.

And sometimes Krell wants people to quite literally feel something. This is best achieved in a live setting, where you’re capable of “going from really quiet to really loud, and that’s not something that’s possible on an album. You’re never going to blast out the noise, you know. Whereas live, you can make somebody hear the sound in their body, hear it in their gut.”

How to Dress Well plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Monday (December 10).

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