What is the heart? It’s a simple but also quite heavy question. One you can’t answer objective and in only one or two sentences. There’s no generalization of this definition but somehow it seems to be a central element of human nature to search for this heart and love in general. Tom Krell might be just another explorer of these human relations in all of their complexity. That’s one reason why the new album of his alter ego HOW TO DRESS WELL got this question as its title.
With What Is This Heart? Krell takes his one-man-project into new heights, providing a more focussed and more ambitions version of his dreamy futuristic r&b. It looks like Krell doesn’t need to hide himself behind the shimmering alias of HOW TO DRESS WELL anymore. Instead he delivers honest songs about love, its fragile consistency and our troubled society in general. When NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION met Krell for an interview in Berlin we tried to find answers to the ultimate question. And since the artist is an intelligent, eloquent and philosophically trained person we weren’t disappointed about his thoughts. Far from it!
I really like the intimate way of how the new record starts in form of the track ‘2 Years On”. A very brave choice.
Thanks for liking it. You know what? The second I wrote that song I knew it had to be the first track on the album. I wrote it, I recorded it and after listening to it I really knew it would be the start of the record, no matter how the rest of the record would sound. And it worked out quite well, especially with the lot of pop on the record. It’s a bit like ‘You can get to the pop later, but first you’ll have to pass that gate.’
My first reaction was like ‘Okay, this guy is getting serious on this album and really opens his heart on it.’
Indeed. I love to play with the expectations of the people. I thought ‘What could possibly bolder than opening an album like that?’
I haven’t really figured out what the song is about. Is it really about a dream as the title implies?
Yeah, it’s kind of a strange experience. What I like about the way I work is that I get to learn a lot about myself. But not in the traditional ‘singer/songwriter’-way. I’m not sitting at a cafe, writing down my thoughts in a little book. I had a guitar since I was 16 but haven’t played it in years. When I lived in Berlin a few years ago, I was looking for a strobe light and I found the guitar in my closet. And I started playing and along comes the melody of what would later become 2 Years On. It felt special. I recorded it, put my headphones on and just started singing and singing. And I realized that I had a memory of a dream I never had access to prior. The melody was a key. And I thought about that dream and myself a lot. And I realized it was a lot about my relationships in the past. You know, the way elements like love, pride and guilt work for me. It was almost therapeutic.
Does this go for the rest of the album as well?
Yes, it was that way. When I finally wrote down all the lyrics I realized how it all came together. Every song was about things people in my environment were saying to each other. Things I overheard and aspects I didn’t fully understand back then. All these conversations had an impact. Whether I was aware of it or not. And it’s kind of funny since a lot of it was ‘freestyling’ and interrupted songwriting during the tour. But through it I was able to see myself a little bit from outside and set everything in perspective.
To me – despite its melancholy vibe it feels a bit like the album is about the celebration of love.
It is a celebration. But not one apart from the pain. I try to be honest about the full picture. The final track of the album, House Inside, sums it up pretty well. It ends with these words ‘The world is such a pretty thing.’ It’s about how you see the world as a child. Especially the future. Back then you thought it is full of opportunities, freedom and ‘everything is possible.’ But as you grow older you realize it’s not. Life is the consequence of your choices in the past and the future is the one of those made in the present. The future is full of… ‘your parents getting demented’ or ‘your brother becoming a junkie.’ and things like these. There’s a lot of hate, but also possibility and love. So, it’s not an empty space.
One can find it quite hard sometimes to keep the euphoria of love alive in such an environment. You know, with all the disappointments that naturally occurs…
On one hand I have a really sentimental part in me. So, I’m a bit ‘lovey-duffy’, I think. (laughs) Even though I face the gravity of the threats of love I always feel like its the most important thing. On the song House Inside I sing about all this pain and on how life on earth maybe is a massive mistake and all the things on this planet are deadly things. We think we’re so special and lovely but maybe we’re just monsters. But then I sing ‘And you came back for me’ – so, you can have a moment of love and that moment overshadows all the bad shit. The song is about the tension between grace and horror.
I think people in our society tend to get a bit too cynical from time to time. I can speak from personal experience.
You’re right. I think a real rationality would be one to focus. There’s one thing humans can do special – and that’s love. Otherwise we’re just monsters. If you’re rationality doesn’t include love than I think you’re not rational at all.
Okay, back to the new album. Another song I really like is ‘Poor Cyril.’ The epic string patterns on it are truly beautiful and almost feel like a big movie score.
It’s really inspired by a movie called The Kid With The Bike by the Dardenne brothers.
What’s it about?
About the kid called Cyril. It’s a great movie, you should watch it. The song is about my reaction to the story of the movie. It’s about this little boy who is broken and lives in foster care. And this woman makes a beautiful gesture to destroy the violence that has happened to him, bringing out of this manipulative cycle of pain. She succeeds in certain ways and fails in others. The moment I watched the movie I remember being on the verge of weeping. It’s such an emotional movie. And I thought there’s nothing worse we can do than to break a child in the way we break children all the time.
I like the way of having the personal and the common human element in this. I don’t want people to think I’m a confessional singer/songwriter. And this movie was one of the most abstract common things I’ve seen. It’s about this boy Cyril specifically on one side but on the other side about humanity in general as well. I learned so much from movies about how simple morality is. And how simple the answers to problems are but also how we constantly fail to deliver these answers. And the world robs us about the simple and true kinds of love.
But you’re not giving up on love or the human race.
Well, we kind of can’t, don’t you think? My new song A Power is about that as well. I’m not that naive to be not fall for the cynicism you described earlier. I’m not that sentimental. Most days I just wake up and think ‘We live in the wrong world and I’m gonna die in the wrong world too.’ I live in Chicago and I think one or two out of six people there are starving on a daily basis. And it’s probably not even the worst city in the western world.
You can see that on the streets here as well.
Oh yes, Berlin is on it’s way to get fucked like other cities before. Gentrification is the worst. They’re building and building, pushing the immigrants further away from the centre. Luckily you and me had the pleasure of living here in Berlin while it was still beautiful.
The press release states that you visiting weddings has been an inspiration for the album.
Yeah, my friend Jamie got married and other friends as well. It was really inspiring. I knew that Jamie loved his wife Ashley for years. But to see him standing in front of everyone and pronounce it… I mean, he was just crying like a little baby. And he’s a big bear-like dude. We don’t commit to much things in the world these days anymore. No one has a career for sixty years anymore. Everything else is so fragile and flexible. And it was good to hear him saying that in front of his friends and family.
You didn’t perform there. But if somebody asked you – what would be the best song to perform at a wedding?
Actually, friends of mine just asked me to sing at their wedding. And I have no idea what to perform.
Well, you could write something especially for the occasion.
Whooa. That actually made me super nervous. (laughs)
Okay, than you might just stick with the BEE GEES. Everybody loves the BEE GEES.
(laughs) Yeah, exactly.
So, the BEE GEES haven’t been inspiration for the new albums but other artists. What have been your main influences for the album?
I listened to a lot of TRACY CHAPMAN. It’s kind of embarrassing but I really listened to THE VELVET UNDERGROUND for the first time. And also EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL.
Oh, great underrated band. But they parted ways a while ago, don’t they?
Yes, they did. And CRAIG DAVID. But the earlier stuff.
A lot of people choose an alias like yours to have a certain distance between their real self and their art. But you are quite honest about revealing your innermost in your songs. Ever thought about releasing music just as Tom Krell.
I don’t know. Maybe I will eventually in the future. I never really thought about it. My real name might not be as catchy as HOW TO DRESS WELL. I remember listening to PANDA BEAR and I never really thought ‘Why didn’t he just call himself Noah Lennox?’ And that’s a great name, by the way. Maybe I should call my project Noah Lennox, just to mess around with people. (laughs)
Final question. Since we think hope and passion are key elements I want to know from you which other aspects are important to life.
Hope is incredibly important but it usually only arises out of despair. Passion is great but you should also include attention, calmness and such stuff. I don’t believe in god but I think attention is a natural form of a prayer. Passion and drive are good, but always listen and take care of your environment.