Tom Odell – Interview 2018

There are some, whose lack of generosity of spirit is topped up by industrial strength bile, who simply cannot abide Tom Odell, the singer/songwriter. Back in 2013, the NME notoriously awarded Odell’s debut album no stars out of ten. That’s right, ZERO. In the review, the NME described the then 22-year-old singer as a “Poor, misguided wannabe who’s fallen into the hands of the music industry equivalent of Hungarian sex traffickers”. The reviewer added, “I wish I could say there’s a place in Hell reserved for Tom Odell. There’s not. Just loads more Brits. He’ll be all over 2013 like a virulent dose of musical syphilis”.

Harsh, and most definitely not fair. Yet, at least the NME was right in the sense that, once Lily Allen had ‘discovered’ him, Odell would soon be everywhere. The song ‘Another Love’ became a smash, the album went to number one, and Odell was literally everywhere for a while. His second album, Wrong Crowd, while over-produced, and garnering much less attention than the debut, still made it to number two. Underneath the hype and spite there was an obvious talent, one whose songs resonated with millions. One who had worked for it the old fashioned way, writing prolifically, and playing anywhere that would have him.

Album number three, Jubilee Road, is about to be released, with a tour of the UK to be undertaken shortly, and the former Brighton BIMM student sounds like he is in a good place, even if he has just woken up, apparently forgetting he had an interview lined up… “I’m awake. Got coffee now,” he says, groggily. “That’s all you need”, I say, mentioning I am on my second cup, and raring to have a chat with this critically underestimated artist.

That coffee is all he needs. Odell’s enthusiasm for Brighton, music, and life showing no bounds, and evidently excited by the prospect of the new album being heard, and visiting Brighton again, a place where it truly came together. “Brighton is the show that all my family always go to. It’s the one where I’m probably the most nervous for. I’m always most nervous when I know people in the audience.”

Born and raised in Chichester, just over the border in West Sussex, Odell attended Seaford College before heading to Brighton to enrol at BIMM, eventually becoming perhaps its most famous alumni. However, first, there was the small matter of learning his craft. “My first ever performance in Brighton was in a pub, three days after I arrived. It was an open mic. I have to be honest, I think I did them all. I must have done 40 to 50 open mics in pubs. Anywhere that would have me, I would drag my keyboard along and play.

“It’s where I completely learnt my trade. I learnt to perform at open mics. I can’t recommend any more highly to any young performer to do that. It puts you in such good stead, whatever the venue you are playing. Some pubs would be awful, but some would be incredible. It also taught me how to write songs, and getting feedback. It’s brutal, but that’s what you want. If you turn someone’s head, who is stood at the bar, drinking a pint, and you’re getting this instant feedback just from the body language, you think ‘that song is working’ or ‘that bit in that song is working’. I was writing in the day and doing shows in the evening.”

This head down and hard work approach has worked for Tom. It has also turned him into a steely character, able to withstand the body blows that the likes of the NME can try and deliver. Reared on Elton John records, and learning to play classical piano from age 11, music is in his blood, and there’s nothing more he likes than to perform live, be it in a pub, or in a large arena. “We never really did a gig in-between size in Brighton. We went from pubs all around Brighton to The Haunt, just before my first album came out, and then next time it was the Brighton Centre. I always pinch myself that I am playing there. I used to cycle past it and think it was completely unobtainable.”

Jubilee Road is definitely a more optimistic affair than his previous two albums, works that were littered with failed relationships and bad living. Songs such as ‘If You Want To Love Somebody’ and ‘Wedding Day’ feature his trademark “joy tinged with melancholy”, and there is a loose concept that permeates throughout. “I wrote it all in one location, in the living room of this house, on this street. I knew what I wanted to write about, and lyrically the direction was much clearer. In terms of the feel and the sound it’s centred much more around the piano, and I really tried to strip down on the production and wanted the songs to be in their rawer form. A lot of the songs we recorded live. The concentration was on the performance and not spending hours in the studio adding things. I would very much say the songs are about the lyrics and the piano.”

Is Jubilee Road a real road? “It’s real in the sense that the road it’s based on is a real road. I called it Jubilee because my girlfriend and I, who I lived with at the time, we used to meet underneath this arch, which was called Jubilee Gate. It became that name. I didn’t want to call it the name of the road. It’s their road as much as it is mine. I lived there for a few years, and the characters in the songs are very inspired by the people who live in this road. But I think that’s interwoven by my imagination. I think that a lot of the characters, if they were to listen to the songs, the real characters that inspired them, I don’t know if they would completely recognise themselves, or even the road. For me, writing songs is about dreaming – you take the character, and you blink, and the character has got the face of someone else, and they are perhaps in a location where you don’t ever see them. It’s quite lucid. You’re always reaching for a feeling, and this feeling is steering the ship, rather than anything else. And so the facts aren’t that important, but it’s very inspired by this road, and it’s about community. It’s trying to give a snapshot of a time.”

Tom claims that, like many artist do, “I can’t really listen to my albums, it’s too much of me.” The NME thought so, back in 2013, but whereas Odell is still full of life and optimism, and writing thoughtful, inspiring songs, where art thou NME…

Jeff Hemmings