“There are uncomfortable subjects on this album and it couldn’t be too pretty. It had to jar…” - Tom Odell on the bumpy journey to make his new LP Monsters...
The last time Tom Odell was out and about promoting a new album, it was back in 2018 with Jubilee Road.
That collection was inspired by the house in East London where Odell had written the songs for the LP. A joyful collection, inspired by community spirit and the comings and goings of a busy street, some of the songs, while moving away from the bombastic nature of his earlier work, had an almost whimsical nature. The piano was at the forefront of the mix, with jaunty melodies and big choruses. It certainly felt like a happy record.
The singer’s new offering, Monsters, is a world away from that album. Odell has left Jubilee Road, with this LP largely penned while he was living in Los Angeles. His period of living in the city was a period where Odell has revealed coincided with difficulties with his mental health, with the fallout and recovery a big part of the album’s genesis.
Written on a different continent, it’s a big musical departure too. This is a much spikier collection than anything the singer has done before. When Odell was introduced to everyone with the glossy pop of ‘Another Love’, he was talking up his love of Jeff Buckley and Billy Joel. This time, working with songwriter Laurie Blundell and producer Miles James, he’s channelling experimental electronic musician Mica Levi and Yeezus era Kanye West.
As the album hits hmv stores, we spoke to Odell about the difficult period that produced this album and why he’s very keen to talk about it...
How have you found being back out there after a bit of a break from touring and promotional duties?
“It’s all been quite strange. Getting ready for a record to come out used to feel quite energising. You’d be travelling, doing shows, it was exciting. Now I’m sitting in a little room doing interviews, so it has lost a lot of its allure.”
You started writing this album pre-lockdown then carried on as the pandemic unfolded, did you give any thought to pausing and see how things played out? Did it give you more time to work on things?
“Not really, I just cracked on. The first lockdown disrupted our initial plans to record because we just couldn’t get in the studio. We rented a load of gear and I put it all in the cabin at the end of my garden and we carried on in there. We did some bits in the studio, but mostly we worked there."
"I wanted to get this out a lot earlier than we’ve managed to, but I kept going back and tampering with it. Maybe without the lockdown, the record label would have been in my ear a little bit more, but because things were so uncertain they were a lot more cautious and were waiting for things to blow over. Which it hasn’t done. Ironically.”
You were finished touring Jubilee Road, so you didn’t have to interrupt anything…
“No, I didn’t have to cancel anything. I got lucky in that respect. I toured for a year and a half solidly, right up until September 2019. I’d planned to take a year off. No touring. In the end, that turned into a two-year break from touring and I’m happy with it."
"I toured so much in my career. I had a policy of pretty much saying yes to every show we were offered. I just wanted to play. We’d do 150 shows a year and we’d do them everywhere. It was incredible. I’m really happy I’ve been able to support my band and crew through all that time and we’ve toured the world as best friends.”
But you were ready for a break…
“I was beginning to feel like I needed to build a home somewhere. I needed to stop.”
Sessions for the album got started in Los Angeles. Why did you head there? Did you want to go there? Was it suggested that you did?
“I’ve got a strange relationship with LA. I’ve spent long periods of time there since I was 22 and I’ve built up a real love/hate relationship with it. I’m very drawn to it, but I’m really not sure why I wanted to go there and write beyond getting out of England. But whatever drove me was enough of a feeling to mean that I was considering moving there and I rented a house and I tried to put roots down there, but it didn’t work.”
“I missed England a lot, I missed home a lot. I missed London. And my anxiety was a growing problem, which I felt like I was managing, but a few months into living there it really got out of control. Suddenly I was paying all these huge f**king doctor bills because I’d be calling psychiatrists at 10 o’clock at night because I really didn’t have a clue what was going on in my body.”
No one is in Los Angeles by accident, you’re there to work or you’re there to try and make it, as it were, did working in a bit of pressure cooker exacerbate how you were feeling?
“It was many things. I’ve always been drawn to LA. In my early 20’s, I got really into John Fante and Charles Bukowski. Writers who chronicled the sad side of Hollywood and that really fascinated me. I really romanticized the sad side of the city. There are loads of successful people in Los Angeles, but there are even more unsuccessful people. It’s a town with fame flowing through it like blood. That gives it a strange vibe. It’s a beautiful place. The Pacific Ocean, all these gorgeous canyons and amazing weather and you can sit on the beach in Santa Monica and see the dolphins. It’s an amazing place and I’m still obsessed with it. But it can be a lonely place.”
“It’s funny. I did a podcast with Chris Difford from Squeeze, who was my songwriting tutor when I was younger. I described my lowest point in Los Angeles and he repeated back to me pretty much the exact same thing. Driving down the freeway after having had one too many drinks and just being so, so sad. He had the exact same experience just 30 years earlier!”
You still feel drawn to it though…
“Absolutely. I want to go back again. I have lots of good friends there. I feel now that it was just an unfortunate setting for a really bad time for me, rather than something it did to me.”
Did you come back with much when you came home from LA? In terms of songwriting…
“I pretty much came back with an album. It was almost all written there.”
So it wasn’t an unproductive time, despite the difficulties…
“That’s the thing about anxiety. It isn’t unproductive, it’s very productive. It definitely gets you out of bed early in the morning. It’s really been the fuel that I’ve used for many years to be able to make music. It’s odd, when I feel calm some of that fire is definitely not there. It really does drive you.”
That’s a bit of a dilemma, the instinct of a mental health professional will be to try and solve things, but if it’s something that drives you to constantly create, you’ll want to keep that going…
“Like all things with mental health, it’s a complex problem and it’s nuanced. It’s a part of you. It develops over many years and you confuse it as being part of your personality. It’s something that I now feel confident talking about because we need to normalise it. There are so many people dealing with mental health problems and people like me have to talk about it. If I had known what a panic attack was for the first few months when I started having them, it would have been so much easier. If one person can read this and understand there are plenty of people going through what they are, then I’d be very pleased with that. We’ve got to talk about it.”
Having come back from LA with the album written, can you talk me through your next steps and who helped you make the album? You worked with Laurie Blundell and Miles James mostly...
“I met Laurie at a songwriter’s circle that a friend put on in London. He’s a real music scholar. He’s studied music his whole life and has travelled the world continuing to do that. He’s an absolute master and an incredible piano player. Totally overqualified for this job. We started working together in 2018, and, initially, we just played together, then that led on to writing a few songs.”
“He then introduced me to Miles, who I’d met many years before. He actually used to play with Michael Kiwanuka and we’d done some shows together. We started doing sessions in LA and it went really well and then we came back to London and carried on. Miles is another scholar. He’s got a really deep understanding of music, but knows the game, he toured with Michael for many years.”
The dynamic clearly worked…
“I feel like the three of us came from very different backgrounds and each of us brought something completely different to the process. It made making the record very challenging at times, but much more rewarding and I learned so much from making it. I’m very grateful to both of them for coming on the journey with me. It was a journey of discovery and it was not fast. They both had to be very patient with me.”
You’ve worked with a different producer on each of your albums, has that been a conscious choice or has it just worked out that way?
“I don’t know. I’m not sure why that is. Ben Baptie, who I did Jubilee Road with, he mixed some of the tracks on this album, and Dan Grech, who I made my first album with, we’re still very close. I feel like I’m always searching for something and one of the great advantages of being a solo artist is that you do have the freedom to do that. I’m trying to find another side to myself. I’m always trying to learn and that’s the wonderful thing about working with new people.”
It’s quite a different sound, particularly from your earlier records, it’s much rougher and tougher. Was that something you had wanted to do?
“So little of what I do is conscious. I really try to follow my gut. I don’t try to pre-meditate any decision I make and I don’t sit down and plan. There are artists who are a lot more successful than me who do pre-meditate and have an idea and stick with it. I like to wander blindly. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I can only trust my instincts. With this record, me, Miles and Laurie really wanted to keep an element of it feeling unfinished. This time we wanted to really show the process and show the working."
"I was really inspired by Frank Ocean and a lot of the bedroom rappers. People who are making arty stuff. Kanye West was a big inspiration. He leaves things raw and not too polished. This album is uncomfortable to listen to at times and that was important to me. There are uncomfortable subjects on this album and it couldn’t be too pretty. It had to jar at times. God knows what people are going to think of it…”
Are you nervous about that?
“No, I’m not nervous about it. I feel very grateful I’m still able to do this job and anyone is listening at all. I still want to explore and feel inspired. I feel like I have something to say and I feel more inspired about how to say it than I did when I was 20. That’s all I need.”
When did you decide that Monsters was the right fit for the title? Has it always been called that or did it come at the end?
“It was at the end. I had about 40 to pick from. In the end, monsters felt like the best summation of the album. I’ve recorded some more tracks and I put it together at the end and I realised all the songs were me trying to understand the elements that caused my anxiety. I felt like one of the things that I found most frustrating about people’s understanding of anxiety is the tendency for people to assume that what’s happened is for a therapist to say “Oh, you have a mental health problem, let’s go back into your childhood and find out why.”
It’s a real cliche…
“So rarely does anyone just figure things out that simply. I think there’s every chance now that your mind might be healthy, but the world we’re living in is not. I’ve been listening to a lot of Adam Curtis and what he says about that kind of thing. There’s a conversation to be had about that. So many teenagers are dealing with bulimia and anorexia and body dysmorphia and I’ve really learnt about this stuff since I’ve started talking about it publicly."
"It really makes you question things. I don’t think the individual is the problem here, the diseased thing is society, it’s the corruption and the fact that we’re more connected than ever on social media, but there’s never been more loneliness and never been more old people who die lonely. The inequality is just unbelievable.”
The pandemic has definitely made that worse…
“The right-wing stance on mental health has always been the same. They always start from the idea that something terrible must have happened and it’s up to the individual to try and fix themselves. That won’t work. We won’t solve the mental health pandemic by asking the individual to fix themselves. We all have a responsibility as citizens of this world to try and help one another. There’s been such a void of spirituality and community and that’s been in the name of capitalism. It’s scary."
"I know people will read this and roll their eyes. I see people roll their eyes and think ‘Here we go, this f**king privileged white guy is talking about mental health. I don’t care’. The problem with that is I’ve seen first-hand how counterproductive that is. So many of the world’s problems are caused by toxic masculinity. So many men kill themselves every year. The way we can help that as men is by talking about how we feel, rather than just remaining silent about it.”
You’ve got a big tour booked for early next year, you must be excited to get back out there…
“I’m really looking forward to it. I can’t wait to play with my band. I’ve not played in a live space for a long time and it’s such a big part of what I do. I can’t wait.”
You’re a solo artist, so you’re free to move around with your live set-up, but you’ve been playing with the same guys for a while. How did you keep in touch during the pandemic?
“They're some of my best mates. Max (Clilverd) has played guitar with me for 10 years. I’ve managed to get him a publishing deal, so he’s been writing and that’s fantastic. I’ve seen them a lot. I feel very fortunate to have them.”
Touring starts in earnest early next year, having been ground down by the process to an extent, do you think you’ll be a bit more sparing with your schedule?
“I don’t know. I’ve been talking with my management about it. I really miss it and I always want to play. But I do need to be more mindful. I’m a lot happier now, I’m in a good place now. I don’t want to spend this whole campaign complaining, I’ve got a lot of gratitude to give. I feel like I can make touring work and not have a breakdown.”
Tom Odell’s new album, Monsters, is out now in hmv stores. Click here to purchase it in hmv's online store.