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Connect Sessions — ‘Realism is a Genre!’

How To Dress Well is a traditionalist, but a technologically and philosophically modern one

There is a logic to the music Tom Krell currently records under the name How to Dress Well that he recognizes and cultivates as being time-honored and almost conventional. Ask Krell how he describes it to people who aren’t familiar with it, and he says “soulful vocal pop” without hesitation, adding, “the songs are pretty traditionally structured.” Yet, press play on any How To Dress Well track and what you’re confronted with is far more progressive. It is as though a blue-eyed soul standard — as emotional and as searching as anything in one corner of the singing canon — has been diced apart, and re-stitched together. This isn’t a sampledelic fantasia, there are no seams, and the final result can’t be more organic or “authentic.” But the textures scream 21st century in a way the songs themselves do not.  This uneasy balance of “classical” and ultra-modern forms is at the heart of How To Dress Well’s twisted logic. It was also the main theme of the chat SPIN had Krell on the occasion of his participation in the Connect Sessions powered by Microsoft.

You’ve said that your music is, at least partly, about relationships and about making human connections. Which is interesting, considering the process of making music is getting pushed further and further into a solo silo space where people interact only with their laptops and do many of the creative bits on their own.
I mean, it’s never been like that for me. All of this talk about interactive technology is funny, because to me [music is] all about interrelating with people, you know what I mean? That’s what I like about music, making connections.

Like, my album title [“What Is This Heart?”] is in quotes, and part of that gesture was that when you put something in quotes, suddenly it’s part of a scene. It’s something that someone said, or maybe someone heard. When I was writing it, I found that so much of the lyrical content was coming from things that have been said to me that I didn’t understand at the time, but now echo through my life.  Things that I said to other people, the consequences of which I didn’t understand. Things I hadn’t said that I wish I had. Things I said that I wish I hadn’t said. And there was so much dialogue in the lyrical content.

Working on this album, I found that even when I go really inside, there’s a community there. I don’t trust these artists who when they go write, and they’re like “I want to be alone in the woods, I don’t want to have any interference.” When I’m alone with myself, I think about my family, I think about my friends. They’re all in there. They make up the whole of me.

Your songs are deceptively straightforward. In terms of songwriting, has your creativity always gone into a more traditional sound space?
No. I mean, I didn’t really write anything longer than a minute for about three or four years. A lot of the music that I was initially writing for How to Dress Well, a lot of the songs from the first EPs, they’re very short (thirty seconds long), like little windows. And right now I’m writing longer, formed 10-20 minute pieces of music. Over the last five years, I’ve really been attracted to pop as the form of my music. I think that at some point I’ll do something out of that form.

But again, when it comes to relationships, you can meet someone new and you might have something really important to say and you can say it in a poetic form or you can say directly. And the poetic form might feel the truest, but the communication might not be that generous. For instance, if I say something opaque to you, it’s asking a lot on your end to interpret all of that poetry. If I say something direct, I might not get the emotional stuff or the message into it. So it’s always about finding a certain balance between something impressionistic, poetic and something direct.  Hence: pop.  So what I do is maybe some kind of poetic pop music.

I also like to think of my music as having a certain avant-garde aspect, but I don’t like the isolation of the avant-garde, and the way that the avant-garde becomes exclusive. I want to be out and sharing with people, making pop music but do it in a way that’s progressive, maybe not so populist as Shakira or someone like that.

Talk to me a little bit about your recording process. Because while your songs tend to be very intimate and easy to understand, there is a sonic layer of what you just described as avant-garde. So how technologically progressive is your music?
Well, I do listen to a lot of sound music — there’s like a sonic self-awareness in my music because I’m as influenced by Brian Eno as by Brandy or whoever. So, for me, I don’t really use like cutting-edge technology per se. But when I’m in the studio recording on a grand piano and I sit down to play it, I’m interested in figuring out what I want to do with the active recording to make the relationship between me and the piano come through in a certain way.

So, for instance, if I’m playing the keys so soft that they’re barely striking the note, I want the sound of it to have that physicality in the recording. I don’t want to just write something and play it. I want to mike the keys.  I want to mike the strings.  I want to mike the room and create a synthesis of all that and try and give a 3 D or fuller image of what’s going on, rather than just, like, setup a mic, and record it in the traditional way. On this new record in particular, I dealt a lot with questions about like a realistic sound. And I think that to my mind, realism is a genre.

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