Interview: Tom Odell on his new album, 'Wrong Crowd'.

Interview: Tom Odell on his new album, 'Wrong Crowd'.

There’s not many people on this earth as pleasant as Tom Odell. We encountered him on a very early morning, a morning that had already started at 3am for him - when a fire alarm went off in his hotel room, leading to an emergency evacuation of the room.

Despite this, plus the added jet-lag, Odell was enthusiastic, and put careful consideration into every answer he gave us - as we chatted about humanity, and how the ‘Wrong Crowd’ is a universal ideal relating to fitting in and growing up.

We spoke to Tom about love, modern art, and when he plans to return to New Zealand…

"...this life is so fragile, it’s such a powerful melancholic ride that we go on, and there’s so much heartbreak that goes on every single day."

COUP DE MAIN: What was it about the phrase and song 'Wrong Crowd' that made you decide to title your new album after the song?
TOM ODELL: It was a phrase which had resonated in me when I was young, when I was like thirteen or fourteen. I’d heard it thrown around a lot. You know, that sort of thing with people constantly trying to work out where they fit in. And also, hanging around with the bad kids, and your idea of who those bad kids are and some people’s opinions of them are... they differ with each person. So much of being a teenager and growing up is finding out where you fit in, in the whole tapestry of people and their opinions. From school through to moving away from home, to moving to Brighton, I’d stayed there for a year and I’d met a lot of different people and then I moved to London. I didn’t do the standard thing of leaving school and going to university, so I dipped in and out of lots of different groups of people and was, I guess, discovering who I wanted to be. But then that phrase... actually, I was reading a book, and it was what I think ignited that phrase that resonated with me. Do you know ‘Bonjour Tristesse’? It’s a French book, and she says it in there, the author, Françoise Sagan. She says it in there, and then I had it down in my notebook already - and it even more resonates, the way she said it. This was a few years ago, maybe two, three years ago, and then it just got me thinking about what it meant to me now, that phrase of like, you know, hanging around with the wrong crowd. “Oh no, no, he got in with the wrong crowd." You know, went off the rails. And then, what it meant to me again was how, still at 25, I still don’t really know where I fit in in the whole equation. I guess it was about finding some place to belong and how that never seems to disappear, and how people fool themselves into thinking it’s a place they belong.

CDM: It’s an interesting social construction.
TOM: Yeah. There’s so many decisions you’re forced to make as a young man. Like, are you into football? Or are you into--

CDM: And it has a huge repercussion on who you’re allowed to hang out with.
TOM: I think our personalities and our characters are far more lucid and interchangeable, and they develop as you grow up. I’m not sure I necessarily believe that I would be the same person in ten years time, or I was the same person ten years ago. So yeah, it’s just an interesting phrase.


CDM: In 'Wrong Crowd' you sing, "I wish I could find somebody / That could treat me right." That’s such a universally relatable sentiment. Stephen Chbosky wrote in the book, ‘The Perks Of Being A Wallflower’, "We accept the love we think we deserve." Do you agree or disagree with that statement?
TOM: I think it’s very interesting. We accept the love we think we deserve... it’s a good statement. I don’t know... It’s interesting, love and relationships, because it’s never-- I’m constantly learning about it and what it means. It’s nice to feel loved, that’s for sure. But sometimes you can feel loved and not reciprocate that feeling in the slightest. And sometimes you reciprocate it. It’s funny, I was actually talking to my Mum about it the other day because she was going on about how when people are together, and you fill in some of the deficiencies of the other person’s traits. But, my argument to my Mother was, anytime I ever try and pin down love, or anything that you ever try and look at scientifically of why two people love each other, the people that I’ve loved in my life are certainly-- it’s just something almost chemical. It can’t be explained. Why do you feel a connection with that person? I think it’s beyond intellectual explanation. I think it’s just for some reason with some people, you sit there and you go, “You’re making me feel good and I don’t really know why.” Someone else could say the same thing, or look the same. But I don’t know, it’s just a strange thing.

CDM: You’ve said about this new album, “The album follows a narrative of a man held at ransom by his childhood, yearning for it, yearning for nature – a desire for innocence in this perverse world in which he now lives.” Do you think this Peter-Pan-Syndrome is common amongst our generation?
TOM: I think we grow up very quickly now, and I think there’s this impatience that we’re all sort of-- there’s such an impatience to everything we do, from our phones to, everything is on-demand now. So I think that rubs off on even growing up. Kids have phones, and they’re like 12-years-old. I met my second cousin the other day. He’s 11-years-old and he has a girlfriend already. I didn’t have my first girlfriend until I was about 20. So I think it’s interesting, but I think, we grow up faster. There is sometimes a lack of-- innocence is so delicate these days, and is so rarely kept.

CDM: It’s very fleeting.
TOM: Yeah, and with so much… I don’t know if that’s a positive or a negative thing. I’m not saying it’s a negative thing, but what I do think is interesting is that from my experiences of being in my mid-20s now, is I feel very drawn to things and feelings and smells.

CDM: Childhood seems even more nostalgic.
TOM: Yeah, but maybe it’s always been like that? I don’t know. But interestingly, because I spent a little bit of time here when I was a kid--

CDM: Have you been back to Ellerslie since you’ve been here?
TOM: I haven’t been back, because we only got in last night, but I’m gonna try and go back today. But even just landing in Auckland last night, it made me feel really nostalgic and it made me feel so nice. I’m happy to be in Auckland.


CDM: The album refers a lot to your Mum. In ‘Wrong Crowd’, you sing, “She says, ‘Please, boy, no more fighting / Oh it’s only gonna do you harm.’" What’s the best advice that your Mum has ever given you?
TOM: I think we do, I don’t know if we do, maybe. I remember when I was like seven or something, and we went to this circus thing, and there was this man sat next to me or something. He was a very, very old man and he was clearly in pain. It’s a very vague memory of mine, but I remember feeling very sad for the man, when I was seven-years-old. I just felt really bad, and I kept asking my Mum about it. Then when we were driving home, I remember asking her about it, and then she said one of the most important things you can ever do is be kind to people. I think that’s good advice.

CDM: I’ve seen a live performance of a song called ‘Alex’, which has never been released. Will you ever release a proper version of the song?
TOM: ‘Alex’. Maybe. It was ‘Three Days’. Yeah, no, I like that song. There’s so many songs.

CDM: You have a lot of unreleased material! Would you ever consider doing a B-sides release?
TOM: I’d like to. I’d definitely like to, just have to convince the label to. I’d love to do it. I really liked that song, it just didn’t really fit on the album, but I guess, with my songwriting I’m stupidly prolific. I always write songs, and I can’t help but play them in soundcheck, and then you end up playing it that night, and you don’t have any intention of ever releasing it.

CDM: And then you get journalists berating you about the songs!
TOM: <laughs> Yeah. It’s nice, in some ways, because I was talking to-- I have a friend that’s in a big band in the UK, and I was talking to him - they were like, "We don’t play any of our new songs in the live show, because the album’s not out." They’re really religious about it. I just felt like, nowadays, I think you should just embrace it. It’s nice. We have this song ‘Cruel’, which I played in the live show. We finished with it, almost every show, like for 200 shows, we finished with ‘Cruel’. It’s not been on either of the albums, I’ve never released it. We tried to record it, and it just didn’t-- we never got it down. It just never fitted right, never felt right. We occasionally play it now, we didn’t play it for a while. So, that’s nice.

CDM: Maybe you’ll release it one day in the future - in ten years, ‘Cruel’ will be on a Tom Odell album.
TOM: Yeah. My drummer, Andy Burrows, was telling me because he toured with Rufus Wainwright once, and Rufus said to him that they’d been recording a load of songs or something. And Andy asked him when he wrote that song, and he said like, "Oh I wrote this nine years ago, and it’s been in my notebook, my recorder for nine years and finally this was the right album for it to go on." I really like that, because it gives, with all the songs I write, it gives them a sense of worth that maybe one day I will stick them on.

CDM: In your guest-column for Q Magazine, you talked about how you created a book for ‘Wrong Crowd’, which was 250 pages of images of all the things, people, and moments, which had inspired the record. Why was it important to create this document for your fans to read?
TOM: I was doing the artwork for the album with a guy called Fraser Muggeridge and he’s a very respected designer in London. He’s done a lot of stuff in the art-world, not very much stuff in music. He’s a really talented guy and he’s obsessed with graphic-design, and just general design. I started spending more and more time in Fraser’s office in London and in between making the videos as well, I was flicking through all of these art-books that he’s made. A lot by photographers and by lots of different artists, and I just couldn’t stop looking at them whenever I was there. I found them to be really visceral and there’s something really organic about the way they were put together. They weren’t put together in an expensive way, they were put together in a very, not do-it-yourself, but they just felt very real, and I wanted to give people a sense of a world in which the ‘Wrong Crowd’ existed. It’s a sort of surrealist, almost Felliniesque world we were trying to create around the 'Wrong Crowd' - this place of hedonism and extreme emotion and things I’ve witnessed along the way. Very turbulent dramatic people, and people that are chasing something, chasing some sort of enlightenment in a way, and much to their destruction. You chase enlightenment to your destruction, whether it’s with drugs or with alcohol or possibly with music or fame, or anything. It’s searching for something that provides some meaning to this existence. So this world that we tried to create, I wanted to give as much of it to the people, and you don’t get it from giving them an album and a booklet, and I thought it was nice to create something that whilst they’re listening to the music and go through, it has images from the videos we shot, but also images that just inspire and feel like they’re part of that world - and so, they’re immersed in it, I guess.


CDM: You’ve said the songs on the album kind of play out like scenes from a film, and I’ve also read that you’re a huge Terrence Malick fan. Is film something you’d ever want to branch out into?
TOM: Yeah, I’d love to. I’d love to do something in film. I’m not sure I’d have the patience, from just doing videos and stuff and being involved in whatever I have along the way. It’s a very tenuous and slow process, and I’m not sure I’d have the foresight to-- you know, it’s years. It takes years and years to do films. I don’t, right now, I’m searching for something maybe a little bit quicker - I could start with short films.

CDM: Do you play your music to your cat?
TOM: No, but it’s funny when I play the piano, he tends to come up and listen sometimes. He sits on the piano sometimes.

CDM: One of my favourite lines on the album is in ‘Concrete’. You say, “Staring at a picture on the wall / Yeah it’s pretty clever, but it’s got no soul / Show me your masterpiece / And it wouldn’t make a difference to me.” What do you think defines creativity?
TOM: I don’t know. I think it’s personal for everybody, isn’t it? It’s such a wide open term, ‘art’, now. You know, Tracey Emin has the unmade bed ['My Bed'] and it’s art, and I think it’s quite powerful, but where does the buck stop? It just becomes life as well, and then, I don’t know. It’s interesting. I’m definitely in no way an expert about it, in fact I actually know very little about it. I think that line is more of a comment on luxury, and pretentiousness, and just always wanting to be moved by something. I feel like this life is so fragile, it’s such a powerful melancholic ride that we go on, and there’s so much heartbreak that goes on every single day. But then I look at this sort of clever colour art on a wall in some bar somewhere and you’re just a bit like, "Is this really? All that’s going on right now this second in the world, and this is what you’ve managed to muster up?" Maybe they’re right. Maybe everything has its role. I guess what I was searching for is some art that pulls at your...

CDM: It’s hard I think, because art, for the person who creates it, it’s a total expression of what they’ve gone through - but it can be difficult to see that sometimes.
TOM: I can’t stand intellectual art though. Loads of people disagree with me. For example, my girlfriend is very into intellectual art, that’s more what she’s interested in, then if I take her to go see a Turner, which I love, or a great Picasso or Matisse, she stares at it and she’s not interested. She likes to go and see Damien Hirst, like the split-in-half cow ['Mother and Child (Divided)']. Maybe I’m speaking for her, maybe she doesn’t like that, but political art and stuff, and stuff that, which I guess is really powerful, but I guess I’m a bit of a romantic in a way.

CDM: And lastly, when will you return to New Zealand and play a proper show for us?
TOM: I know. It’s a shame I didn’t bring the band and we didn’t do a show. I would’ve loved to. It’s kind of silly coming all this way and not doing a show. I would’ve loved to, but I really hope I get to come back and do a show. I’ve only been here for twelve hours, but everyone seems so friendly, and I would love to come and spend some proper time.

Tom Odell’s album ‘Wrong Crowd’ is out now - click here to purchase.

Watch the ‘Here I Am’ music video below…