By Jason MacNeil
(Album: Long Way Down out April 15th)
Britain’s assembly line of quality singer-songwriters is well known dating back to the late Nick Drake through to Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe to current darlings Jake Bugg and Ed Sheeran. Now newcomer Tom Odell has all the makings of someone whose name will be recognized by many later this year. And for many years to come.
“It’s a nice surprise, a real nice surprise,” Odell says down the line from a car cruising around downtown London. “I didn’t expect it would all perhaps happen, that people would like it so much. But it’s good, it’s nice that people are liking it.”
Although still at a tender age (22), Odell already received “buzz” status from his debut EP Songs From Another Love last October and his anticipated full-length effort Long Way Down being released in mid-April. Odell also earned the Critics Choice Award at the BRITs (Britain’s equivalent to the Grammys). The only snag (and one he laughs at) was he could only keep the award for an hour as it will be properly presented to him on Feb. 20.
“I grew up watching the BRITs on tv so it was mental to be involved at this point in my career,” he says. “I’m just happy because that means people are liking the music and that feels really good to me.”
It wasn’t a quick rise to his current status however as Odell put in several years laying the groundwork, playing open-mic nights and wherever he could to hone his craft. He says his years in Brighton were nothing less than an arduous trial by fire.
“I think what I took away from it was I worked out which songs were good and which were bad,” he says. “It was so tough, it was like the song had to be very good if it got any reaction. It was the most brutal way to judge your songwriting. Although it might be demoralizing at the time when you start out at anything along those lines it can be demoralizing.”
What wasn’t demoralizing though was the fact a teacher became aware of Odell’s talent when he was around 15 or 16 years old. The teacher – the first to realize Odell’s potential – encouraged the singer to continue working at his craft and working hard.
“I’d always been writing and singing but I think he somehow found out,” Odell says. “I never really told anyone about it until that point and he found out. I sort of listened to him every week. I would go back and speak to him and we’d have a chat and he’d tell me about his experiences with it. He was just really inspired.”
Odell’s EP certainly got heads turning particularly for the song “Sense,” a heart-tugging piano ballad seemingly just scratching the surface of what he had in him.
“I was just playing around on the piano late at night once,” he says of its origins. “It just sort of came out and the lyrics popped into my head. I wrote that not long after I moved to London from Brighton. I think it was kind of inspired by being a bit overwhelmed by a big city.”
What also was initially overwhelming to Odell was acclimating himself to the studio environment, something he learned a lot from.
“When you’re making your first bit of music you don’t really have any experience recording, of knowing how to make something sound like you want,” he says. “On your first album that’s one of the hardest things, getting the hang of it.”
As for the upcoming debut album, Odell – who finds it “quite easy to write a melody” — says he wrote about 100 songs for Long Way Down which was slowly pared down to 50, then to 20 and then finally to the final 10 which made the cut. He also says he’s influenced by the likes of early David Bowie, Elton John and Bruce Springsteen.
“I guess it comes from a certain period of music in the ’70s when there was a lot of creativity going on,” Odell says. “Also they’re all songs that are (from) very songwriter-type albums. An album like Hunky Dory by David Bowie is incredible and Elton John albums like ‘Honky Chateau,’ they are some of my favorite albums and they are quite raw in their writing. I love listening to that.”
Another song getting notice (and much airplay in Britain) is the slow-building “Another Love” which Odell co-directed a video for after being inspired by the cult film Trainspotting. The video shows Odell staring into the camera before it deliberately pans out with a girlfriend tossing furniture and dishes around him.
“None of it was my furniture, thank god,” he quips with a laugh.
The next few months are very busy for Odell. A video for the song “Hold Me” was recently shot with acclaimed video director Sophie Muller which will be released soon. On top of that there’s promotional work and a slate full of tour dates, including an extensive trek to North America in late April and some British dates before the summer festival season commences.
“I’ve been lucky to support some brilliant artists like Jake Bugg and Michael Kiwanuka in the U.K. and Missy Jackson,” he says. “It’s been a real pleasure to support people like that and learn from them as well.”
But for now Odell – who says he doesn’t read his own press – embarked on a four-date North American tour in late January which included a show at Toronto’s Rivoli. The small club was also the same venue where a certain British singer played her first Toronto show on March 26, 2008. Her name was Adele. So Odell is definitely in good company.
“I can’t wait, I’m so excited,” he says. “I’ve never been to Canada before, first time in Canada. I’ve been to New York once before but it’s the first time I’ve ever played over there.”
The only thing Odell can’t be accused of is reading about himself.
“No, no way,” he quickly replies when asked if he reads his own press. “I don’t want to get hurt.”