photo credit Netti Hurley
Interview by Alli Lindsey
At the intersection of anxiety and harmony comes Tom Odell’s forthcoming LP Monsters. The celebrated indie crooner levitated to fame at the ripe of 20 years old with his award winning EP Songs From Another Love followed by his debut album Long Way Down. The two projects came equipped with award-winning accolades, sync deals, and the widely-accepted notion that he was an alternative mainstay. But status and stardom are not all that they seem. Around the time he released his 2018 album Jubilee Road, Tom spent some spiritually formative months in Los Angeles where he finally confronted his struggle with anxiety and depression and his tendency to glamorize it. At once influential and melancholy, this era ultimately led the anti-bullshit attitude he embodies today. Materializing the complexities of his soul and the sentiments and hardships that define it, Tom Odell will release his fourth studio album Monsters June 25. With two singles out from the LP already, this project is a witness to Tom Odell’s musical depth as he plays with bedroom-pop soundscapes and explores the jovial side of songwriting paired with his familiar soulful touch. Ahead of this incredibly special and deeply personal record, Tom Odell gives us a glimpse into the struggles, stories, and strategy that made Monsters.
Monsters is an album about overcoming anxiety, and in today’s day and age there is so much happening that can trigger emotional distress. Explain the difficulties you might have faced when searching for the roots of your anxiety.
When I first started experiencing these awful panic attacks the whole time, the first thing my new therapist asked me was about my childhood. I get that a lot of people who get anxiety have had terrible childhoods. But I also think it could be more likely that a lot of people are experiencing mental health problems because they take a look out the window and see how fucked the world is. It’s terrifying. I think the people who sleep seamlessly for 8 hours every night are the insane ones.
You’ve been in the public eye since you were 21-years-old. Do you ever feel like you missed out on finding yourself the way a “normal” 20 something would?
I guess because you only get to do it once, I don’t know any different. I would say I have experienced a lot in my twenties. I have travelled the world ten times over, and just been in a lot of very strange situations which twenty something year olds rarely get to be in. There is a huge positive to that, I have learnt a lot very fast. I think looking back though, that learning fast was also at times traumatic. There is a strange duality to being a famous musician. On the one hand, you walk on stage every night and a few thousand people scream your name. But then on the other hand, you wake up the next morning and a journalist has written in a national newspaper that they think your music is officially the worst bit of music of the year. It’s a fucking roller coaster!! And I didn’t realise at the time. You develop a thick skin after a while…
“I’m now on a mission to talk about panic attacks to as many people as I can. I don’t want anyone to feel like what they are experiencing is embarrassing or lonely.”
Is there even a right or wrong way to find yourself? What worked for you?
I think when you make music for your job, you have the advantage of having to make sure that you are being honest with yourself. People smell bullshit in music very quickly. Have I found myself though… hmmm… think I’m still looking to be honest.
Those who haven’t experienced anxiety or depression often unwittingly share advice that can be filed under “toxic positivity.” Rather than telling someone to “look on the bright side” or “exercise the depression away,” how can someone truly offer help to a struggling friend?
I think there is still so much stigma around mental health. The moment that shocked me the most is when a male friend of mine came to me in secret to tell me he had panic attacks too, and he was embarrassed about it. He was afraid what his friends would think. I realised he had been suffering for ages, and it was making them even worse. If I had known, I would have said something sooner. I’m now on a mission to talk about panic attacks to as many people as I can. I don’t want anyone to feel like what they are experiencing is embarrassing or lonely.
When you were writing music in LA after your Jubilee Road tour, how did the city positively or negatively affect your emotional wellbeing?
I have this strange love hate relationship with LA. It’s probably the city I’ve spent the most time in outside of London. I am attracted to the sunshine there, the food, the nature but also the people. People travel from all over the world to go and make something of themselves there. A lot of them manage to do that, but even more don’t. I guess there is a kind of sadness there which I find quite appealing. It can be so easily romanticised. It so often is in movies and books. If you wanna get a bite in literature read John Fante or Charles Bukowski. Anyway, the last time I spent a few months there, I found the sadness that I had always observed and romanticised, well I found I was succumbing to it myself. In a pretty bad way too. My anxiety was out of control. I was lonely. I would sit on Venice Beach looking at the planes taking off from LAX every morning. Then one morning I booked a flight home, and I literally haven’t been back since. I will soon though.
When you create colorful, happy soundscapes in your music that were actually born from sadness, is it difficult to be aware of that contrast?
I think combining joy and sadness can be tricky. When done correctly, one can create melancholy, which I think is always powerful feeling in music.
Is there a difference between mental health and spiritual health?
I think so yes. But I guess it depends on your beliefs. I have been interested in spirituality for many years. I practise Transcendental Meditation. But I still know nothing on subject and hate reading other people talking about it in interviews. So I’m reticent to start now myself. I do know this though. I buy a pair of shoes and feel better for an hour, only to return to the same state of restlessness. I spend an hour in nature, and I feel good all day. Being connected to nature, accepting my tiny but vital part in it, respecting it. Ah and breath, suddenly all of my worries disappear. Then I begin to understand that when I hurt someone else, when I pollute the ocean with my litter, I am only hurting and polluting myself. I believe that more and more.
Musically speaking, Monsters distills some bedroom-pop influences. Who are some bedroom-pop artists we should know about?
I’m not really sure who fits in the bedroom pop category, but I love girl in red. I love Griff. She’s a friend of mine actually. I love Zaia. Actually I’ve just worked with Zaia too. He’s done a verse on Numb, which I’m so excited about coming out.
“I think combining joy and sadness can be tricky. When done correctly, one can create melancholy, which I think is always powerful feeling in music.”
Why was it important for you to explore new sounds and genres on this album? Did you find the process of changing up your sound accessible?
I actually didn’t really intend on changing the sound. I was gonna make another album with my band and then we went into lockdown, and suddenly recording a live band was out of the question. I made half of the album in cabin at the end of my garden. Maybe we should call it cabin pop?
What is a common misconception about your work as an artist?
I think there is misconception that I am quite safe and perhaps straight edged!? It’s funny. Because all of my close friends think I’m bat shit crazy.
How does Monsters compare to your debut album Long Way Down?
I think they are different but the closest pair of all my albums.
Which track off of the album was the most challenging to write? Which was most fulfilling?
The hardest to write was Streets Of heaven. That song is about a school shooting. I wrote it with my friend Courtney Marie Andrews. We took all the words from a news article about a particular shooting in the states. It was obviously a delicate matter that neither of us had experienced but we spent a hell of a long time studying it so we did it justice. I’m really proud of that song. I can’t wait for people to hear it.
Lastly, what do you intend listeners to take away from this deeply personal album?
You are not alone.