We talk to electro-soul and alternative R&B pioneer How to Dress Well about grief, mourning, the joys of touring and his second, critically-acclaimed album ‘Total Loss’.
Tom Krell, a Berlin-based New Yorker studying philosophy at University, released his debut album Love Remains in 2010, under the musical moniker How to Dress Well. His signature minimalist electro-soul sound, which resurrects the ghosts of 90s R&B and refashions them into new and haunting shapes to almost uncanny effect, set the pages of music blogs and magazines aflame. Two years have passed since then, and they have not been particularly easy for Krell.
Having tragically lost one of his closest friends and also his uncle in quick succession, his sophomore albumTotal Loss (as the title suggests) deals with feelings of grief and mourning. Yet, despite all this, it is not a depressing record. At its best, it is genuinely touching, balancing deftly moments of quiet sadness, reflection and hope. Through the miracle of that most wondrous of inventions, the internet, we talk to Krell about his new album as he prepares to embark on a lengthy, continent-hopping tour.
Firstly, how did your name come about? What’s the one item of clothing you wouldn’t do without?
It was the title of an old book my friend had purchased at a used bookstore. He just liked the name of it as well as the title of his other purchase, How To Photograph Women Beautifully. The books were sitting on the table when I first entered my music into iTunes, so when it asked me for the artist name, I just put it in. Nothing really special, although I do like the name. As for clothing, I couldn’t live without my Acne sweat pants – they’re the best on tour!
What’s your writing process like? How do you get inspired?
It’s all about melody. It all evolves from an affect that I’m trying to express through a vocal melody. I build everything around the voice, adding rhythm, further instrumentation, then texture.
How would you say your sound has changed from your first LP Love Remains to Total Loss?
I think there’s still an overarching sombreness and darkness to my sound but in terms of technical shifts, I took the songs out of the bedroom and into a proper studio. Not really to polish the sound, per se, but more to take advantage of the technology that would allow me to reach the precise sound I was striving for.
Some parts of Total Loss are beautifully poignant and melancholic (such as ‘World I Need You, Won’t Be Without You’), whilst others are a little more up-beat and hopeful (like ‘& It Was U’). How did you go about striking this balance?
I wanted to present not melancholy (like Love Remains and Just Once), but mourning: so I needed to develop a product that had these grindingly sad moments side-by-side with ‘head above water’ moments – moments of clarity. Mourning is a more dynamic affective situation than melancholy and Total Loss needed that dynamism. It’s about developing a balance of form and content, which I strive for in all my work.
What song are you most proud of on the album?
‘Talking To You’ is my favourite song on the album. It’s a duet with myself (low and high register). The song’s about competing desires, competing life-forms in my head. I don’t want to get too deep into the thought process behind it and risk sounding ‘meta’, but it’s a very important song to me and, for me specifically, it’s perfect.
What’s next for How To Dress Well?
I’ll be touring till the end of the year, and then hoping to play for more people next year. I’m also writing constantly and would love to record more, if I can find the time. I have an idea, a sound for my next record, which I’m thrilled about!
How do you cope with touring, and being away from home for such extended periods of time?
It can be difficult. It’s a push/pull effect in which I’m very inspired by new cities, people, food, sounds, and cultures. However, the always-on-the-go push makes it all seem a little fleeting. And, I can feel very ungrounded at times, being away from my girl, my bed, my kitchen, my neighbourhood. It’s extremely exciting, yet very stressful. But it all becomes worthwhile when I hear that people are moved by my show: that’s why I do it.
And lastly, summarise Total Loss for us in one sentence.
Not afraid of drowning in sadness, finding the strength to swim up to the surface for a breath and plunge oneself back in with one’s eyes open, looking for a secret door to the future on the ocean floor.