How to Dress Well on making folk music for a modern world

How to Dress Well on making folk music for a modern world
Photo by Florian Reiman

Tom Krell, the man behind the How to Dress Well moniker, makes the kind of music you should probably listen to at home, alone, with maybe a bottle of something strong. His second full-length album, Total Loss, touches on dark themes from the perspective of a sensitive intellectual. Krell explores grief and separation through a delicate nuance of synth beats and R&B-inspired vocals, and the result is a collection of eleven beautifully anguished songs. He views his songs as a reaction to an emotion, and he talks about them that way.

Ahead of his Thursday night show at the 7th Street Entry, Gimme Noise spoke with Krell about the R&B tag he gets and what it's like to make folk music for a modern world.

GN: I think your new album, Total Loss, is a beautiful listening album, but there's more to it than that. The progression of the tracks is visceral in the slightest, almost imperceptible ways it transitions through emotions. What was the effect you wanted to have on the listener when crafting this album?

TK: Yeah, I mean, it was kind of the effect on me as I assembled the album and recorded it and spent time with it. I didn't have a concept. I went through an emotional education as I wrote it, and that was it. It's not a concept album, it's not obvious. It's kind of a progression for me. The whole album is kind of about my whole personal emotional education and recognition of the emotional character of that.

GN: I'm interested in the preface to the song "Say My Name or Say Whatever," where you have a sound bite from Steve Bell's 1984 film Streetwise. The line that goes, "The only bad part about flying is having to come back down to the fucking world" is really striking. Why did you choose to include it? What is significant about it for you?

TK: It's a song about how hard it is to find the kind of a solid spiritual place for yourself, or a moment a true intimacy and true privacy and true self confidence, a place where you can be in confidence with yourself and support yourself and endorse yourself, and the challenges that can keep us from being able to trust ourselves.... I was watching [Streetwise] with my friend George, because he had never seen it.

[That scene] sucks, because he's so young, and he shouldn't have the emotional wisdom that he does, and it's something like he has a condensed knowledge of what I was trying to think about and trying to feel, and it's condensed and it's hyperbolic, because the only moment he has is when he's high or jumping off a bridge. That's like, a hyperbolic instance of what I was trying to describe in the song.... For me. in music, there's a lot of serendipity, and I'll see a painting, and I just believe in the connection. It felt so right to include that part of the film in the song.

GN: I keep seeing you described as an "R&B artist," which is kind of surprising to me, because when I first heard your music, I didn't think R&B at all. You certainly fit well within that style, but that's not my initial reaction. How do you view your music and yourself as an artist?

TK: Yeah, I mean, well, I'm like a fan of all kinds of music, and I've been since I was very small, you know, and so I think that I do have... Before, I couldn't talk about R&B with my music, and now, I can't do an interview without claiming that it's R&B. For me, it's like, I've been making music this way since before this trend, and I'll be making it after the trend is gone.

I listened to R&B as a child, and that's kind of the background of my singing, kind of singing along with Babyface and Mariah Carey, and that's what I loved to sing. I still sing that way, but my music sensibility is as far away from R&B as you can think. The way I use noise and ambiance, it's a lot more experimental, and in my compositions. I think right now, people are just catching on... I think of it as a crazy kind of folk record for a contemporary world. We're no longer sitting on porches slapping our knees, we're in a post-capitalist world with constant noise and constant stress, and I want to create a folk record for that world.

GN: Your blog fascinates me. You're super positive on it, but you write with almost a stream-of-consciousness style. Is that generally how you create music? Is there an internal filter that you ignore?

TK: I wouldn't say I ignore, but I definitely go to a different place than I am right now. For instance, I do sort of tap into something that is more immediate for me, and it takes a lot of work to get to that place. It's not like this return to innocence, but that's part of the reason that I'm attracted to R&B, because from like 1965 to the present, everybody can catch on to it -- a Smokey Robinson melody or Janet Jackson or Paula Abdul. There's something immediate about those melodies that I keep returning to.

How To Dress Well will be performing tomorrow night, December 13, at the 7th St. Entry, with Beacon, Seyah and Katy Morley. 8 p.m. $12. 18+. 

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