Tom Krell, a/k/a How To Dress Well, articulates with an admirable amount philosophical confidence. Since releasing his stormy, contemplative debut, Love Remains, Krell has established himself as one of the riskiest artists–sonically and poetically–to fall under the now-boundless umbrella of R&B music. However, perhaps his biggest risks to date are the moments of unfettered clarity on his third album, “What Is This Heart?” where he is willing to emote absolutely. In short, we absolutely needed to pick his brain about what it means to be an honest artist and human in 2014. Check out our interview with Krell below, during which we discussed making emphatic statements, the constraints of ego, extra comfy t-shirts, and Tracy Chapman.
Nerdist: Tell me about how you approached your new album. There are moments that sound pretty poppy.
Tom Krell: There wasn’t any calculation going into making this record versus my other records. Going into my other records I was just making music. And then I kind of realized what I was up to maybe about a year after working on the demos. On the one hand; there are poppier moments. On the other hand there are also some of the weirdest recordings—like the first song, “Pour Cyril,” and “Face Again” is really intense and almost industrial at certain points. The final song on the record, “Childhood Faith and Love,” is like pop punk. So even if its pop, its not like the pop of the day.
I went into writing this record on the heels of so much touring and it was a massive thing to go around the world, and have tens of thousands of people telling me that I was doing something right.
N: That must be inspiring to be able to connect to people like that on such a massive scale.
TK: It doesn’t register on an ego level; it’s just shocking on a connection level. You get out there and there 1000 kids in Latvia who are on the same wavelength as you, and it just gave me the confidence to totally follow my instincts and trust myself.
N: I recently saw you at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, and before performing a new song you discussed how raising a child leaves you vulnerable because you have to teach them that sometimes things aren’t going to be okay. Are you still exploring that idea or did you explore it on the new album?
TK: A lot of the record is about growing, now that I am in my late 20s and just learning how much more chaos, stress, melee, and general brokenness there is than I was ever prepped for. Especially the first and last songs on the record are about that. Not so much prepping an infant for the coming future, and more how I am dealing with waking up in the future and realizing demands that are different than I thought they were going to be and what I was told they were going to be.
N: How do you combat that fear sonically?
TK: Well, you can only combat it to a certain degree. One of the ways is through confident and emphatic statements—trying to pronounce something true about the world. Another way to combat is through real tenderness and sweetness. Like, basically I don’t think that you get to eliminate that reality, like that the world is a pretty damaged place, and we might not ever be meaningfully at home on this earth. So you have to figure out ways to navigate it.
N: A large part of how I think about music is involved with negative space. If there is a concrete problem—your task is to figure out the space that exists around that and sort of grow and not be anchored.
TK: I like this idea that music isn’t going to untangle psychic knots or complex knotted feelings. Instead it’s going to show you how to recognize and admit that knot and move with that knot on your back. It will teach you a new way to run with that weight on your back instead of just running like its not there.
N: Is it weird that PBR&B was sort of a prescient on your part since there is a much more vested interest in R&B now?
TK: I just listened to Love Remains again for the first time in a few years and it’s such a weird record. It’s very childlike. But I was like, cool, they are hearing this in my music and it’s obviously in there and I didn’t know it would be the number one touch point. Everyone was like you started this trend, and I was like that is cool, I like to start trends. Then I did Total Loss and every rock band was like let’s get falsetto on one song so we can get R&B in our press report. Now 99% of the time that I read that word, it is impossible for me to connect it to the thing that I am hearing or watching.
N: It’s weird that when I consider R&B, I can think of Drake, Tracy Chapman, and Tony! Toni! Toné!
TK: When people are like there is an R&B revival and we have to name some of the artists—I don’t really think we can name that many. So it’s weird—in essence there is something happening. The way I think of it is like this—I was making my music exactly the way I was before starting a trend. Basically I am resetting the thermostat on every record. On this record—I am changing the trends again.
N: What was the biggest theme that connected this album?
TK: The way I write lyrics is a process of freestyle. I will get a melodic trope and then I will feel compelled to sing and let the music ring out of me like you wring water out of a wet towel. I just close my eyes and vibe out to it and record myself singing. I will either come back to it right away, or some days later and then listen to what I was saying. What I found was that I was either constantly repeating things that I had heard people say, or recounting things I had said—the consequences of which I didn’t really understand at the time. I was recounting things that I didn’t say but really wish that I had. As I started to write out the lyrics, there was so much quotation and dialogue. Much of the record revolves around finding myself in all these weird interpersonal exchanges.
A lot of the record is about being with people in life. It’s about remembering a dream I had about being in a car with my parents. It’s about trying to fall in love when it seems like what attracts people is pathologies confirming pathologies. Its about having someone who used to be a hero or mentor break down and tell you that everything is vanity, and metabolizing that. Living in a world where children are starving and being completely destroyed by that, and yet figuring out how to live on. Its basically about contemporary life in an interpersonal sense.
N: This confirms the ego vs. connection dynamic we discussed earlier.
TK: That’s why I don’t think of myself as a confessional songwriter. I’m not doing confessional writing in the sense of coffee shop guy pouring out his ego. Through making a record, I learn a lot about myself and a lot about life in general. Its more a record about the kinds of creatures we are and what it means to be a weird biographical animal, because our biographies are always implicating one another, and our biographies contain quotes from other peoples’ biographies, which are either quoted correctly and generously, or misquoted, or heard correctly, or misheard. So I started to learn a lot about the fabric of the interpersonal, just watching how the things that were coming out of me in these freestyles were so connected up with things that all these different people in my life were saying to me and all the ways in which they are significant to me.
N: Tell me how that ties into your album title, “What Is This Heart?”
TK: That’s kind of the vibe of the title, too. I started to think about album titles and I wondered, “Where are album titles?” Are they on cardboard? Are they on iTunes? Do they touch each song a little bit? So I started to think: Okay I am going to have to come up with a different way of titling this album. I looked at all the quotations in the record, and I thought, quotations do a few things. They put something in a scene and in a context, and in the mouth of a person. And then it’s also about attributing something to a person. Like its illegal to attribute a false quote to me, because we are weird biographical creatures that want to cultivate and curate our life stories. We want to be responsible for the implications of only the things that we are willing to put our name to. The title is all about the kind of quote that I am willing to put my name to, and the kind of conclusions we are able to make about that title.
N: I am always worried that I don’t remember enough things about my life. What makes you who you are is all the context you have at your disposal. When I hear a story about myself, I perk up because not only am I learning about a thing that I did but also about how I should approach new things.
TK: One of the main things I learned while making this record is just how opaque I am to myself, and how I can’t just get to myself through introspection. I have to get to myself through dealing with all these other people. A lot of the record is this weird process of echo locating myself.
N: Would you consider yourself a nerd?
TK: I dunno; I guess I do a lot of nerdy stuff. People often ask me about guilty pleasures and I just don’t think of things like that. I guess that’s in our culture now where it’s cool to be nerdy. For me its like—I am weird in the way I transition between registers. I have no qualms listening to Tracy Chapman and then Rich Homie Quan, or watching a Dardenne brothers movie and then getting stoned and watching Godzilla.
N: Your t-shirts always look SO comfortable. Where do you get them?
TK: The t-shirt I wore at Lincoln Hall in Chicago is from APC. It’s actually really comfortable. It’s really coarse thick cotton. I feel silly for how many expensive t-shirts I own. If you really want to splurge, someone just gave me a main line Rick Owens shirt, and it’s the most comfortable thing I own—more comfortable than my comfiest chair.
“What Is This Heart?” is out tomorrow via Domino.