Emotional intensity: Music of How to Dress Well
MANILA, Philippines - His music has been described as “poignant and devastating” and “artsy and emotionally affecting.”
But Tom Krell, the man behind the experimental music of How to Dress Well, is a grunged up human through and through.
After months on tour under the banner of his second album “Total Loss,” Tom sits exhausted by a restaurant table, unshaven in a plain dark grey shirt, eyes baggy from lack of sleep.
In 3 hours, he is to perform next door at B-Side in The Collective, Makati.
For now, he chats with Rappler.
Tom is fond of staring at his fingernails but fixes his eyes on you when answering questions.
His falsetto voice that weaves its way across fractured melodies, noise and ethereal sound collages in his album is replaced by his speaking one, startling us with how normal it sounds.
“I grew up in a house where there was a lot of music being played. My mom loved to sing and I sort of followed her in that,” he says.
The 28-year-old Brooklyn-ite joined a band when he was 15. There, he learned to play the guitar and to write songs.
And though his music sounds like nothing we have ever heard, he says:
“I have a lifetime of influences. When you first learn your native language, you don't learn it by a book. You learn it just by living it.
"The way I learned to sing by living it was through my parents. They were listening to Smokey Robinson, Janet Jackson, Paula Abdul. The first time I was told what music was, it was that.”
Tom is tall and Caucasian, not exactly the picture of an R&B artist. Yet his music is riddled with R&B-influenced beats, even using Janet Jackson’s “Velvet Rope” in one of the tracks. He is credited with creating a “new, narcotized strain of R&B.”
But he mentions contemporary influences too such as Kate Bush, Brian Eno and Antony and the Johnsons.
Discovering Antony and the Johnsons was a big deal for Tom. He describes their music as “some kind of really weird melodramatic operatic ballad soul; very sad, very beautiful music.”
“Antony is a very strange character ‘cause he’s like this transgender poet type of character. I’m moved intensely by his music so I want to make music that’s emotionally intense in the same way.”
What is experimental music?
Difficult to box into any genre, Tom’s music has been called “experimental.”
Asked to define what this means to him, he mentions Animal Collective, Black Dice and the Yellow Swans whom he says were “people who were experimenting with sound and texture and noise.”
Experimental music is more like “sound sculptures” or “soundscapes” in which sound is treated “like something you care for and take care of.”
He adds, “Every song on Total Loss could just be me at a piano, singing. But instead, the voices have all these effects on it and the sounds are all twisted and weird and different so the experimental thing is just the idea that [you] don’t take musical tropes and patterns for granted.”
His avant garde compositions sound complex yet organic, using everything from the chirping of birds to the crackle of static. But his composing process is pretty simple.
“Most of my compositions start with singing. I’ll just have a melodic idea. I’ll quickly sing the melodic idea (sings a melody).Then I’ll have it play in my head and it’ll be, like, it would be cool if that was in guitar or in piano. It kind of comes together slowly in my head and then I just record.
“It usually involves a lot of improvisational singing like, what is the piano going to sound like? Then I’ll sing the piano line with my voice and then figure out how to play it with my hands later.”
There’s no particular place where Tom composes music. He works on them even in hotel rooms and airports. Often, it’s the emotional ammunition of works of art that fires his music.
“It’s usually a song or another form of art like a painting or film that will feel emotionally powerful to me and then I’ll want to translate it into song; or some kind of life experience.
"I often write a song after having a conversation with my brother on the phone,” he says.
A different creature
Tom calls his new album “a different creature” from his first one, “Love Remains.”
“It’s emotionally intense in similar ways,” he says. “But it just comes from such a different time in my life.”
But “Total Loss” expounds on many topics begun by “Love Remains” such as the idea of emotions being “transpersonal.”
“Emotions are independent and live in a world of their own,” he says.
“The music’s not personal in the sense that it’s about my life. It’s personal in the sense that anyone who has a personality, who is a person, will have gone through these affective situations.”
Prolific Tom tells Rappler that he is already working on a 3rd album, one that is darker than “Total Loss.”
"I have 15 songs that feel to me like they belong together. The first song is just simple guitar and voice. The second song is just an acapella. The 3rd song is an ambient piano piece. The 4th is a beat-driven, electronic thing. All the instruments so far seem to be guitar, piano and vibraphone.”
Watch part of How to Dress Well's March 2 concert here:
Almost as an after-thought, we ask Tom why he chose his unusual name.
He tells us that as he was transferring his music to a machine, he asked a friend how he should label the track.
The friend showed him two books, one titled “How to Photograph Women Beautifully” and the other “How to Dress Well.”
Tom thought the first one was “lame.” The rest is history.
Later that night, a small but rowdy crowd listens to Tom let his ardent voice fly.
He looks surprised that the crowd is singing along. And though he is tired and has a long way to go before finishing his tour, he smiles and tells the crowd, “You guys are crazy.” - Rappler.com