How To Dress Well's Tom Krell Talks Musical Instincts, Self-Reflection And Singing Like MJ

Tom Krell's performance at the Echoplex in Los Angeles last Tuesday night was sparsely arranged and haunting, a breathtaking adventure into a muted, introspective world. Krell, the experimental singer and producer who performs under the name How to Dress Well, is currently in the middle of a three-month long tour that flirts with two continents and a handful of countries in support of his most recent album Total Loss. The crowd in Los Angeles was receptive to the raw, unfiltered performance Krell is famed for, one that nudges and goads the audience to a similar place of self-reflection.

He stood on stage in black sweatpants and a cuffed white T-shirt, spotlit from above and leaned into a performance that wasted little effort. How to Dress Well's music is most notable for Krell's piercing voice which reaches heights previously owned by Timberlake and Jackson, played over loops, live violin and keyboard. His vocal range is tremendous and at its most affecting in those higher registers, and despite the R&B genre he's occasionally lumped in with, there was no overt crooning. He spends most of his set in that space which makes for a therapeutic experience that gently concludes with an a cappella ode to his brother. 

Krell shows gratitude to the people in his life, to those who've inspired his music, and to the fans in the audience supporting his vision. Though as a musician How to Dress Well traffics in mourning and loss, Krell is clearly invested in hope and promise.

I sat down with a tea-drinking Krell at his airBnB room in Echo Park before his performance to talk about connecting with his fans, feeling famous, and singing like MJ.

Frank Ocean said in a recent GQ interview that being heartbroken made the difference in how his work was received, that there seemed to be a moment when he felt like a real artist. Do you have that moment? 

Not really. I don't really believe it was one event for him either. Anybody I know who can make affecting music has it deep inside from their whole life experience. Life, or lives, can change really dramatically from one event but usually if you have the ability to give voice to something because of an event, say your heart being broken, it's because of something more constitutional in you than just one event. It can be an occasion for finding your voice, or finding a specific vibe, or some powerful sounds, but it goes deeper than something that can be caused by one occasion.

What guided your voice for Total Loss?

A lot of stuff. There was a lot of stuff going on for that time. Among other things, like great things, my first record coming out and being so well received by people all over the world. I had a pretty strange and twisted year. A lot of tough stuff in my family, tough situations amongst friends, but yeah, when I think about it now, it's something I've wanted since I was 15 or 16 years-old writing songs and really trying to figure out a way to make emotionally intense music.

How have you felt having your music become more and more accepted?

It's been exciting. It's really inspiring. This guy [in San Diego] with these beautiful eyes came up to me after the show and he was just crying in my arms. It was totally crazy. It was just a really intense and deep experience. That kind of connection... he described having lost a friend. He just needed to be close with him. This gave him an opportunity. The live show gave him an opportunity to be close to his friend. That is amazing. That makes me feel like everything is going in the right direction. 

It really feels like Total Loss pushes self-reflection in a number of different ways. Is that what you're going for?
That's dope. That's another thing, the response to the album has been super varied. Some people just vibe to it which is also cool, but I like when people have personal experiences to it because that's the kind of experience I'm seeking with a lot of the music I listen to.

Does getting these strong reactions (and seeing people have such meaningful experiences with your music) push you in terms of how personal you'll get with your upcoming releases?

Not more personal exactly. I've found a place where writing that's very personal but not ego-centered. It's that place where everyone has personal experience. I'm not writing about my experience. I'm not a guy with an acoustic guitar being like "Last Wednesday... " or whatever people write about when people are writing confessional music. It's not me confessing things. There's a weird place where the personal and the collective intersect. That's the spot that I want to be sitting down in to write my music. The sort of shared aspects of emotional life. For me it's easy to go in the direction of personal things and themes which took me to that place, but I don't go there to do me. I go there to do something more spiritual.

Are you drawn to music that does similar things for you?

I'm drawn to all types of music. All l the music I'm drawn to because I feel like it works on an emotional level that I sense is somewhere in that collective region. It might be a melodic trip by someone who doesn't give a shit at all about the stuff I'm talking about. It might be a little bit of a Future song, and I feel the way it resonates with me emotionally and I suspect that there's something universal about that, even if he's singing about getting a girl out of a strip club. I just try and go there. 

You've been put in the same category of artist as The Weeknd. Do you agree with that?

There are a lot of people right now doing all kinds of music, I would never want to say these people are my peers, because they might be doing something very different than what I'm trying to do. I know people who know Abel [Tesfaye, of The Weeknd], and my buddy Henry who plays music as Shlomo is in touch with him and does work for him and shit. I never mean offense or anything like that, it's just not in my zone. The thing is, both sonically and in terms of content, it's worlds apart. We're on very different levels. He's singing choruses for French Montana songs, and that's not what I'm up to right now. 

Would you ever go there?

I'd do it. Could be fun.

Do you want HTDW to get more mainstream?

I would love for it to be absolutely massive, but on the terms I've set for it. I want to follow my own musical instincts just as truly and with as much focus and honesty as possible. It's already growing in really cool and exciting ways for me. I wouldn't want to do something to compromise myself to make it bigger. If it gets bigger by its own momentum and energy, that would be great. I'm not trying to do something for a select group of people, I'm just not trying to do something in a populist way in order to make it popular. I would love it to be more and more popular but without compromising or capitulating to populist bullshit.

Are you affected by the amount of people who listen to your music? How do you not think about mass audience while staying true to what you want to do?

To be fair, I don't think about it when I'm making music. I'm just trying to make something beautiful. I think about it in a couple ways. On one hand, it must affect me personally just through energy, that people are listening to my music. It's something incalculable and strange. If there's some 22-year-old emotional kid in Mexico City listening to my record right now in his parents basement, that's got to be doing something to me on some spiritual level. In terms of making music, I just don't think of it... I just try and make something that sounds beautiful to me.

My first record is really weird. This record, even though it's more poppy in some spots, it's also quite strange. It's very strange in many spots on the record, the fact that there are so many kinds of sounds on the record, the fact that it's called Total Loss, the fact that I say the kinds of things I say about my music. It's got such big wings, even given all the weirdness, the personality in it, that just makes me think I can really try and develop trust in my musical intuitions, to make something beautiful that's going to resonate. Lately I'm working a lot with guitar and vibraphone. For some reason it feels deep to me. When I hear the things I'm going to record, it feels deep. It feels like it hits home. That's my only gauge. At the end of the day, if it moves me. If I can play a song three days later and find it's getting stuck in my head, it's giving me goosebumps, it feels deep. That's my only real gauge.

They talk in the recent Spike Lee documentary about Michael Jackson's BAD that MJ actually had a relatively low speaking voice, and at least a three octave range. Despite that he chose to sing, and speak, high. His whole voice was an affectation. People would ask him to sing lower, and he said no. He just wanted to exist have the higher range. Is that a conscious thing for you to sing higher?

Oh really? Wow. No. There's moments on the record where I do sing lower. And live, I do a couple of different additions to songs where I go in a lower range. It's just what has always felt right to me. One of the songs I'm working on right now starts with a lower vocal pass, a lower line. That's really interesting about Michael. I can't imagine doing a whole record where I didn't sing high. To me it sounds very beautiful. Those are the moments I feel very moved when I'm singing in that register. The kinds of things I can do with vibrato in that register feel very pretty. I don't know. It's an interesting question though.

Have you always been this open of a person? Is it scary sharing such vulnerability with so many people?

Here's the thing. It doesn't go deeper. It just goes more personal in the direction I was saying, like ego-stuff. You don't want to hear about my shitty day or whatever. You want to hear the personal stuff that has this weird capacity to become immediate and universal. You don't want to hear me singing about my specific this-or-that. That's the deep stuff. For me the most important stuff in the world would just be boring as hell for anyone else. Nobody needs to know about that stuff. That stuff just is not, for me, artistically relevant. A lot of people like to sing about that stuff, and that's just not what I'm interested in. I don't feel stressed by it or afraid. It takes a lot of practice. It's taken me a lot of practice to feel unafraid about shit. To be emotionally honest.

Do you feel famous?

No. You know why? Because I'm definitely not famous [Krell laughs here]. I would like to feel famous. That'd be very cool. It's a weird time to be alive and to be a successful musician. People are listening to my music all over the world and I still play a show for 20 people in Bloomington, Ind. I walk around Chicago all the time and nobody recognizes me. My friends are stoked and loved [my success], but they don't care. Even if there's notoriety and success coming to me through the project, there's not a lot of fame at this point. That's part of what I was saying, too. 

I played a show earlier this week and these kids were gathering around and they were asking me lots of questions which made me feel famous, and it didn't feel that good. It was impersonal. I felt deified. I felt like they thought, "This is our moment to ask this question." Then the night before I played in St. Louis. Same kind of vibe with people really excited to meet me, and just be on the level. I try to be pretty down to earth about the whole thing. I appreciate it when fans are like "What's up dude? How's it going?" more than like... I would never want to be famous like in the Justin Bieber/TMZ-style of famous. I don't expect that. It doesn't make sense to me. The music performs a natural selection. It is intense, and emotionally serious, and I think people feel like they connect with me through the music so we're past the point of small talk when we meet. We can just be normal people together.


How To Dress Well @ The Echoplex


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