Tom Odell: “I’ve always been relatively cavalier and honest about it in public. When I started writing songs at 19, 20 years old, I was never afraid to be vulnerable and sensitive. My songs have always been very, very candid.”
Alice Gee | 20/07/2022
BRIT award winner Tom Odell has been one of the UK’s focal pop sensations since the release of his debut album Long Way Down. As he returns with a new single, ‘Best Day of My Life’, he warns us its time to expect something a little different. Hitting pause on darker electro tracks with hooks he’s best known for, Tom surrenders to a more delicate affair with a huge focus on minimalism, just him and the piano.
I ask Tom about ‘Best Day Of My Life’, a single which comes full circle back to his musical roots. “We decided to inflict this rule for ourselves that we couldn’t use anything but this one piano in the studio and my voice,” he tells me. “The whole album is working within that limitation. It’s inspired by a lot of minimalism, a lot like Steve Reich, and John Cage. There’s a lot of space in there. The limitation, of not being able to add any other instruments was a real challenge and made us use the piano in different ways.”
Having listened through the new album in one straight enchanted sitting, you feel the beauty of the relationship between Tom and the lyrics. It’s a contrast from some of Tom’s previous material, something I wonder whether Tom was nervous about pushing.
“I guess it gets to a point when you’ve been doing this long enough that you begin to look for new challenges. This was one of them. I wanted to go deep with the piano in a way I hadn’t before.” Pausing for a moment of contemplation he continues “For so long I would just sit, play, and sing, everything I played on the piano would just be instinctual. But this time, I spent a lot of time working on the piano parts and put an incredible amount of work into the composition of it.”
It fits beautifully, with the peaks and troughs of the euphoria and sadness from life presented delicately throughout each track, especially the single titled Best Day of My Life. I ask, whether his vulnerability encouraged the composition of the album. “There’s a search for vulnerability in the lyrics by removing a lot of the artifice. A lot of instrumentation is very stark even the emotion in the outset being very unfiltered.”
With Tom fresh back from tour, it’s nice to be able to find a moment of calm to catch up with him while shooting ... We reminisce about the last time we spoke, back during the promotion of his debut album Long Way Down in 2016, and how much has changed in the world since then. One thing, however, that has stayed the same is Toms candidness about his experiences with mental health. “It’s always been important to me. My last record was based on my struggles with anxiety, in particular panic attacks, I had a very severe panic attack problem where I was getting them the whole time. They became quite debilitating, but, you know, I’ve moved into quite a good place. It hasn’t really been much of a problem in the past couple of years. So that’s been positive. But I’m not sure that kind of stuff ever goes away.”
With a life mostly lived on the road (minus the two years artists remained home due to the pandemic) I wonder whether his panic attacks were triggered by, and how they fed into that lifestyle.
“I was very lucky in a lot of ways in the lockdown because I met my girlfriend, so I wasn’t alone. I’m very lucky to have her. But I guess I had something to get on with, which was music, which I felt very fortunate about.” Although positive he tells me “It was hard at times. I think the strange thing about mental health especially stress, is you don’t always notice it at that moment. I think often afterward, you realise how stressed you were.” Looking back on the pandemic he explains “I was pretty obsessed with the news but I mostly felt lucky, I felt for people that were losing their jobs and weren’t able to go work. And I felt for those people that were alone and those who lost someone.”
Tom’s perspective on his battle with stress and panic disorders is something I know so many will be able to connect with and learn from. But it’s a strange, even backwards, logic. “That’s the terrible thing about when you’re going through it, you often don’t even have a name for it at the time. You just feel that something’s wrong. That’s why I think it’s so positive to talk about it because when you give it a name, you identify something that isn’t necessarily you, it takes the problem out of yourself and puts it elsewhere, which I think for me was helpful. For years, I tried to deal with panic attacks and anxiety, I just thought that was just the way I dealt with things. So working through it by writing and talking about it publicly, I think has really helped ease a lot.”
It’s inspiring how comfortable Tom is sharing stories of the darker times of his life. It’s a comfortability not often seen in men his age, I was curious as both Mental Health and Mens Health week approached what has helped him be so open whilst living in the public eye.
“I’ve always been relatively cavalier and honest about it in public. When I started writing songs at 19, 20 years old, I was never afraid to be vulnerable and sensitive. My songs have always been very, very candid.”
His candidness in song was often his way of explaining to his loved ones how he was feeling in a less direct way, saying it was often easier to write and release something to the world than sit down and talk to his family and friends.
“I find it kind of excruciating to talk about with others. To talk about myself, in front of my friends, is just not within my nature. I think it’s a real outlet for me to write and sing about it and probably even talk about it in interviews.”
Tom explains the distance it creates from the problem. “I was never encouraged from a young age, to voice how I felt about something especially being a boy. There were so many issues looking back. that came from not having that encouragement to say how you feel about something. The progression with the next generation really does show a difference.”
It’s a generational difference Tom’s playing a part in. Having taken back control not just mentally but physically with his new album, I ask what’s next for him.
“You know, I’m looking forward to doing more touring. I have a permanent studio in Hackney, and I’m enjoying writing and recording there. As I write more albums, I’m feeling very inspired.” An inspiration, that I suppose he can put down to taking back creative control. “Definitely. The frustrating thing was before I felt I was in a bit of a cube where I had to wait to put out music. I’ve always wanted to make more music, and that’s something I can do now. No more hanging around. Just me feeling very inspired.”
And it shows as he sits opposite me, all lit up with excitement.
You can stream ‘Best Day of My Life” now.
Words: Alice Gee
Photography: Betty Oxlade-Martin
Photography Stylist: Chyna Guyat
Styling: Phoebe Brannick
Styling Assistant: Lois Jenner
Grooming: Eoin Whelan