When an artist expands the limited boundaries of any given genre, a certain amount of attention is to be expected. Drake reveled in this with Take Care, but for an individual to be attributed with creating an entire sub-genre – that’s a different story. Tom Krell, more infamously known as HOW TO DRESS WELL, found himself baring the weight of this title after the release of his 2010 debut Love Remains. With mesmerizing falsettos over ambient tones, Krell was at the forefront of “an R&B renaissance”, popularly referred to as PBR&B – you know, for the hipsters. Two records and four years of self-examination later, Krell is on the cusp of his third release and it is a surprisingly far cry from the realm of R&B he created. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to label it at all. And perhaps that was his intention.
As a PhD student in philosophy, Krell has been a lot more concerned with drawing the private and communal human experience out of his art than having it fall under a new age trend. Battling heartbreak, anxiety, death and existential instability, his music is not what it once was – and he’s never been more confident. In the final weeks of his pre-tour before the release of “What Is This Heart?”, we spoke with Krell about his various artistic visions and the organic writing process that takes the poised, American-born intellectual and transforms him into the esoteric How To Dress Well.
I want to congratulate you on a stunning third album. The production is a notably bold, but confident departure from Total Loss. How did you arrive at this sound?
That’s a good question. I wrote demos for about a year. On one hand, my skills as a producer developed, so the demos themselves were the quality of Total Loss or something like that. But then I became pretty obsessed with the details and started to think if I had two solid months in a really great studio, I could do special things with this record. I remember I wrote an email to my A&R and I brought up how fun would be to book a studio across the street from my house for two months so we can make this amazing-sounding record. We booked it right away.
You’ve said to find the song writing process as a catharsis for whatever it is you are experiencing at the time. Was Total Loss a purge of sorts for you to move forward into “What Is This Heart”?
No, I didn’t think of it like that. It was more like I made Total Loss and went out on the road for so long and so many thousands and thousands of people sort of affirmed what I was doing, and told me I was on the right path and doing the right thing. That’s what kind of emboldened me and that’s where the confidence came from – just doing shows. It’s one thing to have people download your record, buy your record, and have journalists and other people tell you it’s good. It’s another thing to have thousands of people scream back at you during your performance. The people who came out to support my music gave me so much confidence.
Do you think your audience will be able to relate to the new LP in the same visceral way?
I think so. We have our last four pre-run shows in the next ten days and thus far it’s been amazing. The response has been really beautiful, and I think this record allows me to do what people in the live context sensed I was trying to do. In the last set, it would go from really quiet with just piano, violin, and my voice, and then it would become really loud in one fell swoop. This new record does that all over the place. There were things I think people were moved by in the last show and it’s even more emphasized now.
How do you see yourself translating this album into a live show?
Musically translating it… it’s obviously a much bigger and more detailed record, so I added two people – a drummer and a vocalist. Then there’s Aaron Read who I have been touring with for awhile.
Listening to “What Is This Heart?”, it doesn’t feel like a record of single tracks you catch on shuffle but rather an album that builds and needs to be consumed as a whole.
That was definitely the vibe I was going for. I realized about 80 per cent through the process that the tracklisting was going to be really essential because of certain pop moments, like “Very Best Friend” or “Repeat Pleasure”. Taken on their own, they can be misunderstood as these pure abstract pop moments. If you’re going through the first few tracks, then what you get out of “Very Best Friend” is so much stronger. Like emotionally stronger than if you just heard it as a single. It became important to me for the moments of pop to be one with the album.
In the same vein, the video for “Repeat Pleasure” is not one people might have expected from hearing the song alone. You could have easily gotten away with something light and forgettable, but you grounded it with darker subject matter.
That was one of the first things we talked about, Johannes and I. To me, this is a very serious, despondent song and I think it can easily be misread as a pop song. So we needed to kind of confound those expectations and, as you said, ground it in something that’s spiritually rich.
That speaks for the album as a whole, where there is a lot of heavy material similar to Total Loss, but there’s a resilience throughout that brings it out of the melancholy.
I like that word, resilience. That’s kind of the vibe with the confidence I was talking about earlier. After going through like two hundred shows on that music and meeting thousands of caring people full of support and love all over the world, you can’t help but feel resilient and strong.
What comes as a bigger fear: writing music that feels repetitive and devoid of growth, or creating music that lacks authenticity?
I think those would be the same thing. The reason for writing inauthentic music is you forget to connect back home to your roots and to your heart, and you’re just writing for dollars or teens or whoever. If you’re writing for your heart, you’re obviously going to be writing for a person who is changing. If you’re writing it well, you’re going to be tracking that person who is changing and developing through that music.
Coming out of two albums that were heavily labeled R&B and moving forward into one that’s a far reach from that, do you find that genre and its ideas to be limiting?
I don’t find it limiting on me because I don’t really agree with it. I think this record stands as evidence that I don’t make R&B in the simple sense. I don’t know how “Two Years On” or “Pour Cyril” or “House Inside” could be R&B music. I think my take on the whole thing is it’s a cute trend. I feel the same way about it as when I put out Love Remains – people were like, “How to Dress Well, the first artist to ever use R&B music in this way”. I was flattered, it was its own microgenre. Now, that microgenre is a macrogenre and I still think I’m making much weirder music than the genre of definition captures. But it doesn’t really affect me in terms of the writing process or performing.
Your music has a timeless aspect to it as it feels just as relevant and present as it did two years ago. What do you hope listeners will take away from this album moving forward?
I’m not sure exactly. I think the album is full of questioning and the way I write lyrics is I freestyle and I listen back and think what this music brought out of me. In the way you’d wring water out of a towel or something. Every time I’d try to go back and listen to what I had said, I’d find I was constantly recounting quotes and things people had said to me. Things I had said that I didn’t realize the full meaning of and things I didn’t say I wish I’d had.
I started to feel like over the course of the record I began to understand a little bit more about what it’s like to be in a scene constantly negotiating relationships, including the one with myself. In terms of what people take away from that, the first thing I care about is that people are touched. That can be connected with an experience of whatever the question “What is this heart?” means. Or if you’re disconnected from that then at least an emotional or effective response. But I hope, in addition to that, people can get into the record a bit and think the question through.
I just read this book, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. She was describing this experience of empathy she had and it’s about her tracking her experience. So you’re left wondering, why do I care about Leslie Jamison? But then it throws you into the question of how you feel empathy and shame. Every time anyone asks me about “What Is This”, I just want to hand them this book and walk away.