British-born songwriter and performer Tom Odell started playing piano as soon as his feet could reach the pedals. He remembers being “mesmerized” by the instrument, by live music. His uncle played; his grandmother did too, and she had her own piano. But his parents didn’t play songs, making the concept of the art form that much more exotic in the mind of the then-young Odell. He took lessons at about 7 years old and grew more over time as a songwriter, as someone who could understand the piano intimately and personally. It became more and more a part of his life, a way to express teenage angst and burgeoning emotions. Then, as he became a young adult at 18 years old, it became his profession. So much so that he can’t imagine his life—or the world itself—without music. On October 28, Odell is releasing his latest album, Best Day Of My Life. The record is concise, economical, and spare. It’s melancholic but also offers a touch of levity. It’s a work made by someone whose fingers have toiled over and traveled on 88 keys for a whole lifetime.
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“My grandmother was quite encouraging,” Odell, 31, says. “She used to pick me up every Monday and take me to piano lessons. It was a nice moment to spend with her.”
Growing up, Odell was close with all of his grandparents (all of whom, he says, have since passed away, sadly). His family was supportive in his early musical endeavors, to be sure. And though he’s gone on to be an award-winning, famous musician, that doesn’t mean everything was peaches and cream to start. Odell remembers not enjoying his early lessons. In fact, he finds the way music is taught to young people can be backward, starting kids off on scales and theory rather than expression and fun. Nevertheless, he got through those bumpy early days and has since found the “pure joy” of the task. And while his music career began with piano, it has since blossomed into more vocal aspects.
“As soon as people realized that I was quite musical,” he says, “I got roped into every choir ensemble [in school]. I did a lot of singing in choirs. It was quite a religious school that I went to. And I hated it. I absolutely hated it. But I think I learned more from singing in choirs than I did in a lot of other places.”
Even today, Odell says, he doesn’t totally consider himself a singer. Despite all the vocal work, by 13 years old, he remained a shy one. He played piano at his parents’ house but didn’t sing publicly. He’d “sort of whisper it under” his breath. By 17, he began singing more. He began to see himself as a piano player who sings, and today, he remains less interested in singing and more interested in composing. In music school as a young adult, he learned that employing an outside singer could be tricky and unreliable. So, he took on the job himself and slowly got better. Now, his voice is emotive and delicate but clear. It fits with his precise playing style.
“Economy is the thing I’m always searching for,” says Odell. “The wonderful thing about the piano is that there is so much precision.”
As a songwriter, Odell is all about making the right choices. Sometimes they pan out; other times they don’t, as with any writer. There’s a certain “less is more” characteristic to his work, especially on his latest album (his fifth). He listens to the spare composer Philip Glass, known for his subtle piano playing, and how a piece of his can only utilize a few notes, but when they’re played at the right time or in the right combination, they can sound like so much more, display so much nuance and even complexity.
“The way to make a great piano part,” Odell says, “there’s more to it than just playing notes.”
Indeed, Odell is no shredder—not obviously so, anyway. He isn’t some sweaty mess after he performs, having rampaged on the keys and offered a barrage of solos and notes and lines. Instead, he’s like a haiku. Meaningful, considerate. Those sensibilities are what helped him get noticed some 15 years ago. Odell was approached about a record deal around 2008, before streaming, before Spotify as we know it today. He’d been driving into London (using his grandmother’s car, which she’d lent him) and playing as many gigs as he could all over the city, dealing with “dodgy promoters” trying to rip him off when they could. The British singer Lily Allen eventually heard about him via word-of-mouth, and that was a window into more. Then, upon getting a deal, he fell into a serious bout of writer’s block.
“Almost like the gates fell down,” he says.
About a year later, after a conversation with his songwriting publisher, Odell learned to let go of the fear and anxiety and just started writing. That’s when a deluge of songs came. He moved from West London to East London, and suddenly he had his first album written and completed. Today, he maintains that same propellant creative energy. He loves the act of composition, and can’t live without it.
“I’m still in some ways just as obsessed with writing songs now like I was then,” Odell says. “Obsessed with making albums. I feel just as inspired as I did then, if not more.”
But loving something doesn’t always make it easy to engage with it. Odell is successful. He’s won awards like the BRIT Critics’ Choice Award in 2013 and several others. When this is the case, it can be hard to mine one’s own creativity. It can be hard to access one’s unique personhood in the face of outside adulation. The key? Embracing change.
“It’s difficult,” he says. “I think it evolves. The reasons and the process evolve. I think it’s important not to resist that… The mistake is trying to do the same process and expect the same result. I think the process has to change.”
Odell recognizes that human beings are habitual. When we see one thing lead to a result, we just want to repeat it over and over. It brings a sense of safety. But reliability is not the spark of good art. At least not for him. So, one must be as open to new modes of making as much as one must be open to the muse. An album may come in a matter of weeks, chain-smoking at a piano bench, pounding out one note after another. Or it may come from years of thoughts, bits of ideas, a pastiche of influences, and inputs that eventually mold into a cohesive unit.
“I guess the thing for me,” Odell says, “is not resisting, is following your intuition, following your gut, and somehow trusting it to lead you into a place that retains your curiosity and freshness. That feels new and feels exciting.”
Odell thinks about it like this: Does a moment feel new? Or does it feel like trodden-on territory? If it’s the former, he’s onto something. If it’s the latter, not so much. For Best Day Of My Life, Odell found his new footing by taking advantage of strict songwriting limitations. He remembers seeing an idea on social media. To paraphrase: Through arbitrary limitation, you can find boundless results. This was the ethos with which he entered the writing process for his latest record. Odell wanted to focus on minimalism. He wanted to make a purely piano record. No drums, no bass, nothing else besides the 88 keys, lyrics, and his voice.
“It focused our attention on what was going on, what I was playing on the piano,” he says of the album’s production.
It was a challenge, but a welcomed one. It helped to further deepen his relationship with the instrument, as well as with his own writing ability. He wrote and recorded the new LP in a matter of about three months, he says. The whole thing was done in one room on the same piano. Lyrically, he notes, there is a bit of a stream-of-consciousness feel. Though there wasn’t a grand plan set when it comes to themes on the LP, there are aspects of sadness, as well as a “fuck you” mentality, nihilism, and even a bit of humor. He tried to live in the now as he wrote. He read books by heady authors and religious texts, too. The whole endeavor, he says, ended up feeling rather “liberating.”
“Really,” he says, “I sort of got out of the way of it. Probably more than any other album. I didn’t consider it too much, I just kind of let it happen. And when I got to the end of it, I was really fucking happy with it. In hindsight, I’m really proud of this album. It feels uncorrupted, in a way, by my own mind and my own worries and paranoia.”
The new record is lovely. It’s both a pretty collection of songs and, in another way, a cohesive text, a singular movement. The album begins with the precarious title track and continues with pensive, honest songs like “Sad Anymore.” But there is also stalwart confidence, like on the smirk-inducing “Giving a Fuck” that shows Odell standing his ground, not caring about criticism or those knuckleheads online who say his music “sucks” (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t). Though the runtime for the album is just over 30 minutes, it feels complete. A strong expression from an artist at the top of his game with still even more room to grow and contort.
“It was really fruitful,” Odell says of the writing for the new LP.
On past albums, Odell says, he may have fussed more with production or sonic manipulation. But not this one. Truly, less was more when it came to the work. Now that it’s done, Odell says he feels hopeful. Like a lot of people, the “fog” of the past few years is lifting some. He’s quite appreciative of those who take the time to listen, to stick with him. And he’s open to new ideas that may come to him in the future, both in the short- and long-term. Now in his thirties, Odell is watching himself change. While he got into music early, thinking it a “mystical” endeavor where he wanted to make his mark and be one of the greats, he’s now settled into a more evolved feeling. He chisels songs from proverbial stone and moves on to the next. He’s no longer “racing towards a great big mirage.” Instead, he’s solidified. Fortunate to make music every day. There’s no reason to cling to anything too tightly besides that.
“I think it transcends everything,” Odell says. “Without music, the world would be a very somber and sad place. It has the power to transcend all of the superficial elements of life that distract us. Music speaks a truth that very few other things can.”
Credit: Rory Langdon-Down / High Rise PR