To explain the effect his new project Total Loss has on listeners, Tom Krell, who creates ethereal soul music under the name How To Dress Well, remembers a favorite tweet from a fan. “This new How to Dress Well album sucks,” retells Krell, pausing for dramatic effect before dropping the punch line: “to listen to in public because I’m crying.”
By using simple pop music form to explore complex emotions, How To Dress Well touched the hearts of fans and critics across the blogosphere with Total Loss. A spiritual journey that visits everyone from R. Kelly to The xx, HTDW’s brand of mosaic pop layers familiar, soul-healing melodies over lyrics and themes inspired by the deep pain and heartache of his own life.
Krell’s skill for conveying emotion via sound suggests he should be scoring movies, something the self-described film geek says he would love to do in the future. Currently, time not spent on music is dedicated to pursuing a philosophy doctorate at Chicago’s DePaul University. But his ambitious creative and intellectual endeavors don’t clash. Rather, they complement each other, allowing Krell to tap into the most universal emotions of the human experience.
All he asks is that listeners truly immerse themselves in the moment before embarking on the challenging journey he presents with Total Loss. “Nobody gives themselves time these days,” he says. “Give yourself time. Sit down. Get stoned, have a glass of wine or whatever you do. Take a bath and listen to the album and just let it make you think and let it make you feel shit.”
Below, Mechanical Dummy speaks to creator Tom Krell about his childhood influences, how he defines soul music today and how he makes deeply personal music universally relatable.
words by G. King
photography by Cochi Esse
Mechanical Dummy: Who are you and what do you create?
Tom Krell: My name is Tom Krell, and How to Dress Well is the name of my project. I got the name because my friend had a book called that and I was just looking for a name. It’s not anything super meaningful, the project is super meaningful though. It’s all about using pop song forms to express really complex, ambiguous, perplexing, intense emotions.
MD: What is the music you remember most vividly from your childhood?
TK: What I listened to as a little boy was like the shit my mom listened to around the house. Like Smokey Robinson and Michael and Janet Jackson. Listening to R&B radio in the car, I learned that I loved to sing. And I also learned that I loved to feel sentimental. “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, I played that single out so hard in my bedroom just singing my little ass of. I’ve always been attracted to sentimental music to the point that I never really got into rock music. I’m from the generation where we were little and all my friends were like in love with Green Day. And honestly, I didn’t fuck with it at all. It didn’t touch me.
MD: When did you begin creating music yourself?
TK: I started to get into rock music in high school because I wanted to play music and there’s not a lot of avenues to play sentimental music when you’re 16, you know. Kids just wanna play punk. But I started pushing my friends to do more atmospheric stuff, and like gloomy, doomy songs— sort of like experimental stuff. And then in college I just really found my zone doing solo recordings. Because I started to listen to exactly what I wanted to listen to. I’d listen to a playlist that had like “This Woman’s Work” from Maxwell’s Unplugged record, and “Candy Bling” from Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, but also had work from Antony and the Johnsons, William Basinski, Aphex Twin. I just really trusted my own musical intuitions and that the right thing to do was follow this path. To follow my love of soulful music and my love of experimental, ambient, super-affective music as well.
MD: Some people have trouble defining soul music today, some would argue it’s dying. How do you define it?
TK: It’s very much alive to me, but I don’t really restrict soul music. The idea of soul music as this 70’s bellbottom thing: that’s not what I’m into at all. I really don’t have a retro bone in my body, I don’t give a fuck about retro. Soul music is more like anything that carries an intense emotional charge. And for me, there’s as much soul in Brian Eno as there is in Kate Bush, as there is in Miguel or this new Jeremih record. There’s just soul everywhere. I think if you start paying attention to music as an emotional thing, you listen to Babyface and you can listen to Elliott Smith and you can tell that they’re doing the same thing.
MD: What young artists are keeping the soul in music alive today?
TK: The soul in music, that’s a good way of putting it. Honestly, it’s not as many people as I would like to say. Like, I really like that Jeremih record. I see this one, Grouper, I see her doing incredibly soulful music. Antony, I love the new xx album. I think that’s pure soul. That’s as close to pure soul as it gets. They have a song called “Angel,” that song is genius. Pure genius, it’s one of my favorite songs of all time. Oh, this guy Perfume Genius, 100%, that stuff is so powerful and beautiful and really pushes the boundaries of where soul music can go, too. He’s gay and it’s a lot about the challenges of the gay experience and shit, and you can really hear his whole emotional life in his music.
TK: You’re also a PHD-student studying philosophy. How do your studies affect your music?
MD: Both philosophy and music are ways to make sure I’m taking good care of myself and I’m living my life right. So that when I’m 33 and I wake up in the middle of the night and realize I’m dying, or I’m 95, I can have a moment where I say to myself, this is beautiful, this is true, I did this as well as I could. I asked as many questions as I could. I tried to feel truly and tried to be sincere and philosophy and music are two very different ways of taking care of myself in that way. I mean making sure I’m living my life truly and with depth and focus. So philosophy is just another way—You know, I’m like this with everything, like I absolutely love basketball, I am a fucking total student of the game. But I also want to be a student of the game of life in general. That, to me, involves reading literature, reading philosophy, writing, making music, singing, loving, all these things.
MD: Like philosophy, your music explores emotional and intellectual conflicts. How do your two interests overlap?
TK: Here’s how I would put it: Philosophy shapes my life, my life shapes my philosophical work. Music shapes my life, my life shapes my musical work. So there’s interaction, but I never approach songwriting with a philosophy in mind, or with philosophy in mind. It’s just about context. Like, if somebody asks you to pass the salt, you don’t tell them the chemical composition of salt. When my soul says to me, make a song, I don’t think about theories, I go to my voice. It shapes my life, and thinking opens up new avenues in singing, and singing opens up new avenues in thinking. Performing music live has changed my philosophical views intensely.
TK: Just the power of people in groups. I hadn’t realized how intensely powerful collective emotional experiences could be.
MD: How did your experience abroad change you as an artist?
TK: It’s changed me immensely. The main thing for me, you can go all over the world and every culture’s got different lives, different commitments, principles, different food, different everything, but the thing I’ve learned the most from travelling all over the world is that everyone feels the same everywhere. Nobody knows why we’re here. Nobody knows the right way to love. Everybody is trying to figure out how to live. And affects are universal, so that’s the thing with my music. My music doesn’t have a geographic specificity. It lives, or I try to make the songs so they live, in that place were affect lives. That universal place where all our hearts go to and where we go when we sleep.
MD: Popular music is usually expected to make people feel good or escape from reality. How do you make such emotional music universal?
TK: It’s about going towards pop forms; Pop musical forms. Like, it’s important that it be a little bit alien, but not alienating. And the best way for me to do that is to make it so you think you’re looking at a song. Like imagine it like this, you look at two pictures head to head, they both look the same. One’s called HTDW and one’s called, whatever, Ashanti. And you’re looking at them from like 20 feet away and you’re like, “Oh, these are the same picture.” And then you get close and you see that the HTDW picture has all these details that make you feel weird, maybe sad, they’re complicated, they stress you out a little bit, it makes you question who you are and shit. And you look at the Ashanti one and it looks the same from any distance. I try and take something that looks like pop and then give it that edge that just adds that emotional dimension that makes it profound, deep. Big feelings, big thoughts can come from that stuff.
Buy Total Loss on iTunes.
Visit HTDW’s SoundCloud page to hear more.