How To Dress Well's Tom Krell on What It Means to 'Care'
The impassioned musician opens up about his newly-released fourth album.
The impassioned musician opens up about his newly-released fourth album.
Text: William Defebaugh
Tom Krell may be known for pop music that borders on the melancholic, but the 32 year-old L.A.-based musician has a lot to be happy about. With Care, he releases his fourth studio album—one of those rare records made with complete creative freedom that's a career in the making, and deeply-laden with philosophical queries and references that span his entire discography. Here, VMAN sits down with the musician to talk about sexual and gender fluidity, the secrets to existence (which were revealed to Krell in a dream), the inspirations behind his new record, and what it really means to care about another human being.
Your work has a lot of existential weight to it, which is no surprise considering that you studied philosophy. How is Tom Krell feeling, existentially, before he launches his fourth album?
He’s feeling great. I don’t want to sound hubristic, but I think I’ve done something really fucking dope. I’m so proud it and I can’t wait to tour it, and I can’t wait for everybody to listen to it and fall in love with it. There’s obviously an anxiety and anticipation but above all else, I feel like things are aligning in really special ways for me.
Tell me about the inspiration behind Care.
There are a lot of musical inspirations, non-musical inspirations, and life inspirations. A lot has changed for me personally. I don’t know if it’s a consequence of years of therapy finally getting traction, but I just feel free, joyous, and happy. I’m still a depressed loser, but I feel so much joy and tenderness in my heart.
What are the extra-musical influences?
One of the extra-musical influences is the film Mommy by Xavier Dolan. The way he uses music in his films is really inspiring to me. It’s almost berserk to put 10 full-length pop songs in your film, but there’s one instance that hit home for me in Mommy. The movie is about this super troubled boy and his single mom. He’s so violent, manic, and crazed, but there’s this one moment of respite where he sings “On Ne Change Pas” by Celine Dion into a hairbrush in front of his mom. It’s got this weird homoerotic energy, so loving and beautiful. I saw that and I was like, I get it now: What I care about in pop music is that when presented right (as in a long film), it’s aspirational towards joy, release, and freedom, but indexes within that the desperation that would make you want that. It’s not just the case that Celine Dion made an amazing pop song, it’s that this teenage boy could sing it to his mother and give her a moment of pure joy despite the fact that he broke a bookshelf over her head two days earlier. In that world, that is where pop music is important. I wanted to focus on that very specific location of what pop is when I was making this record.
And what about the musical influences?
It’s kind of like a KIIS FM template from the early '90s and 2000s. I was listening to a lot of Shania Twain, Donna Lewis, and NSYNC, but also a lot of weird, left-field indie music like Cities of Foam and Infinite Body. Obviously, elements of Future and Young Thug made it onto the record in different ways. Kara Lis Coverdale was a huge inspiration, and I ended up working with her for a song, which was sick. Everything from "Strong Enough" by Sheryl Crow and “Streets of Philadelphia” by Bruce Springsteen to No, My Name Is Jeffery is on my record.
It’s interesting you say that you’re happier now, because that was my immediate thought when I heard the first song on the album (fittingly called “Can't You Tell”). What Is This Heart? was so much darker, with death being such a prominent theme. What exactly changed in your personal life in between the two albums that affected the change?
I don’t know, because my personal life is in utter shambles. I think it’s just where I am at in life. I feel like my priorities clicked in place and I was like, "Oh I don’t have to do anything other than live my life as truly and well as I can. I don’t have to do anything other than love my friends, and care for the people that care for me." I would like to say I had an awakening, but it really didn’t have that character. I just started to put my hands on a keyboard and start playing. When you start to make music, all of a sudden you’re engaging with something very special called “play.” Play is free, play is not sad. It can produce all different kinds of effects, but the actual moment of play is goofy and joyous. By the time I was getting to the end of song productions, I felt like the play had been evaporated. But I really wanted the play to be on the record.
When I went back and listened to What Is This Heart? again, it felt like “Childhood Faith In Love” was the prelude song to this album. Is that fair to say?
Absolutely. And “Set It Right” was definitely the jumping off point for What is This Heart?. I didn’t want to feel guilty in indulging and feeling good. There’s a biographical story as to why there is that guilt, but then there’s also a cultural story, in which we don’t value pleasure and play. We take them to be things that you can do in private rooms or not at all past a certain age. You’re supposed to stop playing at a certain point. It’s insane, because play is one of the only things that make us feel alive. So you’re supposed to go places where you can spend money and that’s where you go to rewind, but you better not get too playful, and you better not get too free. I became super allergic to that.
Well there’s a huge emphasis on youth in American popular culture, and then we place a negative emphasis on growing older.
It’s just pure capitalism. Capitalism likes youth because one, youthful people make impetuous decisions, and are extremely impressionable, and two, because youth and novelty are connected. Novelty is the engine of capitalism. They want you to buy a new device every time it’s offered, and they want everything to expire as quickly as possible so you can buy a new thing. Honestly, I can’t wait to have sex when I’m 45. Think about how you were at sex when you were 15, and then 25. Imagine when you’re 35, 45. You’ll just know how to play. I think that tenderness is also connected to play and childhood, and I think that those things can amplify over a lifetime. Your capacity to play and capacity to be tender can amplify, but a lot of people are trained and disciplined to be hard, and less tender, and for some reason that is what we are told we have to do. It’s so sad.
So the title of the album, Care, is that a reference to some of the things in your past that you used to care about, but think about less growing older?
I just noticed that I was using “care” a lot when I was writing the lyrics. I think care is a special phenomenon because in order to receive care, I have to already be able to admit that I need something, so I need to confess my frailty, and be left open and vulnerable. Especially as an adult, to need care, it exposes you to a really vulnerable position…it exposes you to the interpersonal in a fundamental way. Learning how to cry for help and learning how to hear that cry for help—that’s something that I was thinking about a lot over the past two years and hear it from within as well. Self-care is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. I decided that my project this year was to care for myself. I realized that I was looking for a lot from other people that I wasn’t able to give to myself. The opening lyrics on “Salt Song” are, “I wanted to learn to care for my soul like I wish you’d cared for my soul/ To feel my heart is my home.” It’s almost as if I started thinking about my inner life as if it was a child, and trying to be a good mother to myself, a good father to myself, and to raise myself to have dignity and bring values into myself the way that you would with a child.
I heard about a meditation recently that’s centered in cultivating a relationship with your future self, and you speak with that version of yourself and consult with them.
I want to do that meditation so badly. In “Salt Song” I describe a dream that I have where I’m older with a white beard, and I’m in this house and I open the door and I see myself as a toddler. Present me is gone, I’m future me, and then past me is there as an infant, but it’s in the future. They’re in conversation and the room is full of flowers. I go over and I join him on the floor and I hold him and kiss his head. He starts saying these mystical truths to me, like “Do you know what the real meaning of human dignity is? It’s this, you meeting me.” I woke up feeling bereft; I had tears on my face. It was so intense but I can’t get the image out of my head. The song is the centerpiece of the whole record for me.
What was the first single, “Lost Youth/Lost You,” about?
It’s about love and disillusion. I describe love becoming hard and difficult, and losing the definition of love because you think you know what it is and then it changes. The second you say, “I love you,” you change your heart. And then I describe this metaphor of roses being pulled from a safe garden and then given as a token of love, only to wither and die and end up in the trash. Is that the cycle of love? Is love destined to be like that? I wrote it because I’ve written songs in the past about desire changing and I wrote them with a certain confidence. This was something different: the joy of getting it right and then going through the disillusionment.
And what about the video?
I wanted to do it super bodily. I wanted it to be about love connecting, and then missing. Because in love, the connection can be a powerful fusion of bodies and spirits, and then to miss each other—to start as separate then fused then missing each other again—is very difficult and painful. And so, we started trying to come up with ways to symbolize it. And we basically decided to fabricate this giant 30-foot Lazy Susan. So bodies can float through space, and that allows for bodies and various permutations and all different kinds of bodies to fuse together and then share in a moment and then miss each other using split cam technology.
There was also an element of play in terms of sexuality in the video—how much of that has to do with your own life? Is any of that self-referential?
Well, I’m a very playful person. I got a question in the YouTube comments, this guy was asking if I was gay now. I mean, the gay community has been a big supporter since day one, and I’ve played at a lot of queer parties—I don’t think I’ve ever DJed at a non-queer party—but I was surprised. I’ve always been attracted to people. I’m attracted to character, a face, the way somebody inhabits their style, and the way they treat their friends. It never occurred to me to not kiss a guy or not have sex with a girl if I wanted to. When I was 11, my mom was like, ‘You can be whatever you want. If you want to be a girl, you can be a girl.’ It just never occurred to me that it would be a problem. So in college, I lived with my roommate and we had a weird three-person relationship for 18 months. Even our close friends thought it was weird, but it never occurred to me that it was a weird thing.
I think we’re seeing more and more of that with the generation coming of age now.
I think in the future—what I’m about to say is a little politically dubious and I might be wrong—people will bond and couple in all different kinds of ways. And different sexual acts will be possible, to pursue different kinds of pleasure in those couplings, and that’s how it goes. You hook up with someone and someone will be like, "Cool, what did you guys do?" and you can be like, "We did this and that and I had never done this before but it was so sick." We have like miraculously pleasure-capable, pleasurable bodies. Even sexual orientation along a dualistic path is pretty annoying; it’s inhibitive in terms of pleasure. The whole damn body is a pleasure center. So you can write for VMAN that this album is about the de-genitalization of sex.
What is the ongoing narrative of your discography? When you look at your four albums, do you see a clear arc?
I see it in a few different ways. With Love Remains, I was building from scratch. I then used those tools to build more tools in Total Loss, and then used those to build a toolbox for What Is This Heart? Finally, I used all the tools in my toolbox to build my first real structure with Care. It’s cool because I built it with all the tools that I built myself from scratch. These weird sounds that lasted two-and-a-half minutes on Love Remains are now every sound on Care. Another narrative is just realizing that I make music because I feel. I remember being two-and-a-half years old sitting in the backseat, sighing in the second between songs, in the throws of my emotion. I’ve always been like that. I’ll be with a friend and they’ll do something nice and I need a second, because I get caught up in tenderness. I learned a lot about that through my music and being more direct about that has been super important to me, but also polarizing.
It’s been polarizing with a certain subset of male fans. The guys that don’t like my music are really allergic to it for some reason and I think it’s because in a certain form of masculinity, there’s a real resistance toward the tenderness that I’m pushing for. This direct emotionality, this way of talking about sex in a way that connects it with care, but still lets it be super physical. Many masculine men think I can either make love or fuck; I can't do both and listen to what you’re saying. There’s something about this combination of valances that is like really hard for certain men.
What would you say your mission is as an artist?
I’m interested in saving my own soul, and helping other people save their souls here on earth. That’s why I write about the sad things, and love, the way that I do. I try to treat everything with a real reverence in my heart. The mission isn’t always clear to me; I kind of state the mission in the secret song on the record, which is about finding a value that isn’t counterfeit, and finding that which survives under contemporary situations. And just holding that, and holding that like a baby, and just trying to bring that back from the brink just a little bit. The things that I’m interested in are things that are on the brink: tenderness, true human sympathy.
How To Dress Well's Care is out now on via Domino Recording Co.