Q&A: How To Dress Well's Tom Krell On Finding Hope in a Godless Universe

Distancing himself from so-called alt-R&B, the singer-producer drops his most personal album to date, '"What Is This Heart?"'

Tom Krell of How to Dress Well in Arcosanti, Arizona.
Tom Krell of How to Dress Well in Arcosanti, Arizona Photo by Tonje Thilesen for SPIN
Marc Hogan WRITTEN BY
Marc Hogan

When How to Dress Well's Tom Krell was a publicity-shy sharer of amorphous EPs, culminating in 2010's Love Remains, publicity found him. When the R&B deconstructionist finished up his songs even more ambitiously with producer Rodaidh McDonald on 2012's Total Loss, his ghostly murmurs were just as entrancing yet remained mysteriously inchoate. On "What Is This Heart?" (quotations Krell's), the Chicago-based falsetto-wielder's third album, the paradoxes, like the music, have only gotten more intense. 

WITH zooms in on specific, often bleak emotions and conversations, and then it zooms out again to ask more universal questions, all with a detail-rich sonic grandeur inspired by Kanye West's Yeezus. The effect is something like Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life in its majestic, potentially disorienting swoops between the intimate and the cosmic. Krell, telling SPIN he relishes these types of internal contradictions, points to a Taking Back Sunday song where the singer screams at the top of his lungs, "It's time like these where silence means everything." He also praises Tracy Chapman's prayer-like "For You" as the song he has listened to the most in the past year ("Her music is the most emotional music on Earth").

Speaking by phone during a brief stopover in Chicago, the onetime alt-R&B poster boy firmly distances himself from that movement's ongoing ripple effects, explains why he doesn't cover R. Kelly anymore, and suggest he might ultimately be a folk singer.

So the last line on this album is, "This world is such a pretty thing."

It's not exactly like, "Oh, the world's a pretty thing. Krell's a happy guy now." It's more like — it's really hard to find an image of the world worth affirming. If you go on the news or if you do research in almost any field, you realize the world is a terrible place. I always think of this Wallace Stevens quote where he says, "The world is ugly and the people are sad." And I think that's at least 98 percent right.

We live in a godless, nihilistic universe. That's true. There is no God. There's no ultimate cosmic reason for our being here. So if there's no real reason for our being here and 98 percent of our being here is starvation and violence and sadness, then really tracking that two percent where it's possible to make that affirmation is enormously hard. It's really hard.

So that's the idea at the end of the song, to have this affirmation and to try and track that affirmation. I had initially arranged this swelling orchestral coda, and at the last minute I realized the song is much more powerful if it just cuts. If it ends with the coda, it's like, "Oh, the world is a pretty place. Now we're being led into this sentimental Hollywood closure."

The stuff you're mentioning that's terrible about the world is pretty universal to all of us, but this has been billed as your most personal work, too — can you explain a little bit about that?

I've always had a free-associative style of writing lyrics. I'll be writing, say, with a keyboard, or just singing some choral harmonies, or with a little guitar or something, and then I'll strike a chord and I'll be like, "Ooh, that feels really potent." And then I'll loop it, put my headphones on, and try and just sing and let something be wrung out of me. With Love Remains and Total Loss, I was always afraid that I was going to lose it. This little thing popped up, and if I didn't seize it I was going to lose it.

With this record, I learned to be a bit more patient. Partially out of necessity — I was on tour so much that there were these unavoidable interruptions. But then I also just started to feel like, as things got interrupted, I was able to move from a very personal free association to more general free association. So I would freestyle something and be like, oh wow, I'm talking about, whatever, my family. And then I'd return to it and I'd be like, okay, so I've been talking about my family, so I'd start free-associating and start to think about the meaning of family, the meaning of generational transmission, and stuff like that.

It has this telescopic aspect where I can be in one sentence saying something extremely personal, the most personal thing I've ever put to record, and it segues into something much more universal.

So what's an example of the most personal thing you put on record here?

If you look at a song like "House Inside," I sing about my mother saying this thing to me about the future. I literally sing, "She told you this." There's a lot of pain in my family, so it's enormously personal. And then it transitions into much more impressionistic and abstract things about life in general.

Or, like, "Precious Love" is another instance where I was feeling — relationships are really hard, because a lot of times you end up with people who not only make you your better self but also your worst self. You end up with people whose pathologies fit like puzzle pieces with your pathologies. For instance, you always see people who are obsessively clean ending up with dirty people. You're like, "How the fuck did that happen?" But pathologies have a way of coordinating themselves, like they're leading a life of their own. So I was thinking about my own love life and then I started singing about that.

Tom Krell of How to Dress Well in Arcosanti, Arizona. / Photo by Tonje Thilesen for SPIN

I really want to talk about that moment where you sing that "my heart will go on" on "Repeat Pleasure." It feels like a breakthrough, in a way.

It's also a little bit enigmatic, because it sounds like a really strong gesture, but what I mean when I say there that the heart will go on is that the heart will go on wanting satisfaction, and then finding that satisfaction lacking and wanting again. What I mean when I say "my heart will go on" is not, "I'm broken but I'm gonna keep on keepin' on," or whatever. What I mean is that what desire at the end of the day desires is more desire. No object on this earth will make me stop desiring. No person, no thing, no nothing will fill my heart and stop it from going on wanting and being both pleased and disappointed, being both satisfied and lacking.

How did producer Rodaidh McDonald [who also oversaw Total Loss] affect the sound of the album?

I learned a lot from working with Rodaidh about how to do things in the studio. With this record, I had a demoed record that basically was at the level, in terms of quality of sound, of Total Loss. I was in Toronto, and Rodaidh was there, and he was like, "I'm so excited to work on this." And I was like, "I don't know if I'm going to work on it anymore — I think it might be done." And he was like, "No, dude, let's go in and detail absolute everything."

And then I started thinking about what it would mean to undertake something like that. Because it's a slippery slope. If you start detailing one thing then it starts sticking out like a sore thumb, and eventually you have to pore over every detail.

We've talked the last 10 years about texture and sonic adventurousness, but now more than ever I think there's incredible attention to detail in what's happening on people's records. If you listen to a record like Yeezus, it's evident that every single musical element is like a boutique element. Every element is so refined. Obviously the record is nothing like Yeezus, but I took it as a watermark. I was like, "I want to make a record that sounds like it was pored over."

So we spent eight weeks re-recording, repurposing, transforming every bit of the record. I've never worked so hard on anything in my life.

There's often a feel of conversation in your lyrics. What were you hoping the quotation marks in the title of the album convey? You said on Twitter it was like a spoken question.

It does a few things, the quotation marks. It puts it in a human being's mouth. Otherwise, album titles — what are they? Where do they sit? Does it sit on cardboard? Are they in the songs? Obviously the title is in the songs — it's in one of the songs that's on the deluxe package 10-inch. But it's important to me that the songs be placed in life and not just on a record or something.

Quotation is also about attributing something to someone, and the idea that that question and the whole ethos that comes from that question is attributed to me is something that I'm attracted to. It's almost a test for myself. Am I able to live up to having that quote attributed to me?

Also, I don't know why, but when I free-associate lyrics I often find myself free-associating things that people say to me. I just started to realize that so much of the lyrical content, and maybe just so much of my life, is constituted through this shared talking that we all do, this conversation.

The embrace of R&B by more of an indie or underground world seems to have snowballed since people first started talking about it in terms of you and some other artists (see Rhythm & Snooze: From Sohn to Chet Faker, A Global Group of Artists Explore the EDM-R&B Axis). How do you feel about your relationship to that whole phenomenon, whatever you want to call it?

Frankly, I've moved on from that. Love Vs. Money, that Dream record, came out in 2009. That was the record that gave me the impetus to start really playing with R&B more, thinking about R&B more. I don't really listen to that much of it anymore. I'm a little tired of it. I don't think there are that many R&B-sounding songs on this record.

I went forward and backwards, partially because of my listening habits. I never really listened to Prince until the last three years. And I started listening to more late-'80s stuff, being really moved by some of that stuff, especially the production values. And then I started listening to more late-'90s, 2000s pop, instead of that early-'90s R&B stuff.

I love that you covered "I Wish" by R. Kelly. But it has been a year where the bad things that he allegedly did have resurfaced. How have you been feeling about all that?

I've been feeling very strongly about it. I'm not ever going to play "I Wish" again live. I always do it live.

I don't know at the end of the day where I stand on the relationship of the art and the artist. It's an incredibly vexing question, one I think that we don't have an answer for and maybe won't have an answer for. I really like Roman Polanski's movies. So I have no idea what to do with it.

But again on this issue of attribution, I'm not willing to perform that song live anymore, because I just don't want to have that song attributed to me now, anymore.

I think that song transcends him. That's why I made use of it in the way I had. You know, Joanna Newsom sings somewhere, "It's not my tune, but it's mine to use." I feel like that about songs, too. It's sort of incidental that Robert sang that song and not someone else.

It's really tough. I thought those articles were really inspiring because it's like, hey, we made a mistake in our reaction to this, and we're actually perpetuating a second kind of harm in not being aware of the mistake we made. So we need to snap out of it and wake up a little bit.

Anything else about the indie-R&B trend?

It just seems like, whatever fad you want to pick. The Rapture were really interesting. "Oh, punk disco!" But then the 400 punk-disco bands that decided they were all going to move to New York and sound like the Rapture, nobody knows their names anymore.

Even when it was first starting and people were like, How to Dress Well, Frank Ocean, Miguel, the Weeknd — that's always been a ridiculous group of names. It's helpful, it's what a critic does — they help people figure out how to get into music and how to make connections where maybe they wouldn't make connections — but I always felt myself more in league with Arthur Russell. And even someone more like Mark [Kozelek], like Sun Kil Moon.

My friend Mike [Silver] makes music as CFCF and he has always told me that he thinks my music is basically folk music. And that instead of us sitting on a porch somewhere watching tumbleweeds go by we're sitting on the subway watching the feed go by on our Twitter.

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