On his allegiance to the uncorrupted beauty of song
“When you’re writing a song and get a good idea,” he says, “you can hear the whole thing in your head; you can hear what it’s going to sound like in all its uncorrupted beauty. And then I feel like the production, the recording process, the finishing of the composition, it’s just trying to get back to that original moment of beauty when you wrote it.”
Tom Odell is talking about the writing and making of Monsters, his fourth in a chain of powerfully realized and rendered solo albums, starting with Long Way Down in 2013, which ascended to the toppermost of the British charts.
In 2014 this native of Chichester, West Sussex, England was awarded the biggest British songwriting honor, the Ivor Novello award for Songwriter of the Year. He joined an impressive roster of recipients, including David Bowie, Adele, George Harrison, Elton John, Ed Sheeran and Lennon & McCartney.
In 2016 came his album Wrong Crowd in 2016, and Jubilee Road in 2018.
Monsters is maybe his best album yet. It’s different from his past ones for a several reasons. It’s unapologetic about being who he is, and confidently unchained from fear of fashion foibles. It’s grounded in the fearless joy of being unbound. He felt “disconnected,” he said, and “bogged down,” in the past, like he was “losing that sense of lightness.” With Monsters, Odell is arising again. He’s embraced the essence of each song fully before framing it with sonics. And he is soaring.
The writing and production was more collaborative than ever before, but a singular kind of collaboration for him and his co-writers. It wasn’t about speed as much as depth and conviction. And it worked. The first single is the stunningly raw and melodic “Numb.” [More on that in Part Two.]
“I did a lot of co-writing for Monsters,” he said. “It’s not the first, but definitely a big step in that direction of being a hugely collaborative album. I worked with a lot of different people making it in quite a unique way. I was taking ideas round to different people and people were contributing little bits to it.
“Now, that sounds like strange, and it was strange in a way, but it was more like everyone contributed a bit. Songs were started with people, but a lot of the songs were started on my own and then I just finished them with people, basically.
“It was very different from how I’ve usually done it. And quite different to what some of these co-writers have normally done as well.
“The album was about half made in a studio and half made in my garden studio at home. The production was mostly all done in one room with two guys and at my house. But the writing was done all over the place. I took songs round, I was writing songs with different people.
The other main distinction is that when he felt a track was weak in any way, he didn’t adjust the track to compensate. He adjusted the song.
“I think a lot of songwriters aspire to try and finish the day with a song done,” he said, “which I’d say most of the songs on the album were. But they were chipped away at, bit-by-bit, and verses were written and I’d throw that verse out and start another verse. It was done very progressively and slowly; I knew once I’d recorded them, that it was then, if I felt that the composition was up, I would go back and rewrite.”
“I tried to solve all the problems with composition. I feel like too many times in my career, I’ve tried to solve compositional problems with production. I’d think, why is this song not working? Oh, it must be the drum beat. It must be the vocal. It must be the key.
It also takes confidence, and the wisdom to avoid negative thinking that can interfere with the natural joy of making music. Tom’s attitude is considerably sunnier than many songwriters who see no redeeming aspects in the trajectory of modern songwriting. They pin their hopes on trying to frame their songs in the current style, and losing their singularity. Whereas Odell feels liberated in trusting the song, wherever it leads, irregardless of fashion. Being singular, and owning that which most uniquely distinguishes your song, is more welcome and possible now than ever.
“I’ve been very much studying the way people consume music,” he said, “and how to embrace that, rather than fight it. I feel more invigorated than ever, to be honest with you. I feel more invigorated than ever. I feel excited by music. I feel excited by what’s going on.
“I think what streaming has done is to have actually diversified music massively. There’s a sort of generic pop music that is somewhat of the past now. I think people now are embellishing and celebrating their musical idiosyncrasies, rather than just making everything generic. I do that all the time.”