Our perennial songwriting podcasters meet their youngest guest yet, in the form of an Ivor Novello-winning, piano-fuelled songwriter from Chichester
Joining the Liverpudlian podcasters on this occasion is an Ivor Novello award-winning, English singer-songwriter, who first came to prominence in 2013 with his smash debut record Long Way Down. In June 2016, he released it’s even more impressive follow-up Wrong Crowd, which saw him refine his brand of powerfully emotive, piano-led pop.
Tom Odell was born in Chichester in 1990, making him Sodajerker’s youngest guest so far. He took piano lessons as a child and began writing his own songs aged 13, inspired by the likes of Elton John, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and Bob Dylan. He went on to study at the Brighton Institute of Modern Music and honed his performing skills at an endless succession of local open mic nights before moving to London in 2010.
It wasn’t long before he came to attention of Lily Allen who signed him to her fledgling In The Name Of label, which was part of Columbia Records. Tom released his debut EP Songs From Another Love in 2012 and picked up the Critics’ Choice Award at the 2013 Brits. His debut album Long Way Down arrived in June 2013, entered the charts at No 1 and went platinum.
Tom gained further exposure when his tender version of The Beatles’ Real Love accompanied the 2014 John Lewis Christmas ad. To put the cherry on what had been a pretty stellar year but anyone’s standards, Tom won the 2014 Ivor Novello award for songwriter of the year.
Here is Sodajerker’s chat with the very talented Mr Tom Odell…
I just wanted to say congratulations on your recent album. We wondered, when you put an album like that together, is your motivation to think about getting the best songs that you possibly can get together?
“I think it was like madly throwing paint at a canvas for two years and trying to make sense of it. I wrote lots and lots of songs for the album and then end of last year or mid last year, I decided what I wanted to record properly and what felt cohesive with what became the album.”
The title track, Wrong Crowd, lyrics set up a sense of packing up your things and getting into a car. It really drags into a story get-go. Is that what you were aiming for?
“Yes, instead it was never intended to be the title track, it was just when the song’s were done it just felt right. I would love to say when I wrote a song I knew it was the title song but it’s far more chaotic than that. It comes about far more chaotically. I think. I think it does work nicely as the first song on the album and I was writing a lot of songs about that very feeling, of packing your bags and getting in the car, with your brother saying, ‘Why do you want to be like them, when you can be like me?” It was about that idea of abandoning the roots which you came from. There were a lot of songs I was writing from that time that were about that, but Wrong Crowd felt like the best one.”
It’s quite an economical lyric isn’t it?
“It says quite a bit in only a couple of verses. Yeah, I think that’s right, yeah. I think they are the best lyrics, when it is economical.”
I noticed it was co-written with Rick Nowels, who’s a veteran songwriter. How did that process work? Would you take ideas to him or would you start from scratch?
“I spent a lot of time writing the album on my own before I had gotten to that point and, so, just before I started recording I went to Rick and I was in Los Angeles at the time. With him it was very much I’d have a song where the lyrics were all pretty much there, the basis of the song was there, but he would help direct it in any way he really could whereas with Andy [Burrows], the two songs I wrote with him was the first time I had written like that. We would write from scratch together. A co-writer has usually happened when I couldn’t finish something but, with Andy, Constellations is something we wrote together and Here I Am too.”
What was his contribution there?
“It was an even contribution. With co-writing, I always shied away with it, because with a song being nearly finished and then with someone coming in, and getting half the rights to the song, almost felt like I was doing myself a disservice. With Andy, however, we very much started the song from scratch. The only way I am able to do that is because Andy is one of my best friends. He lives down the road, I am the Godfather to his daughter, we are that close that I don’t think I’d be able to do that with another songwriter.”
Do you find yourself making decisions on the production on a song during the writing process, because the production on this album is really distinctive isn’t it?
“A bit, yeah. I think you always have an idea, but it’s good to not premeditate it. One of the mistakes I had with this album was making too many demos before we recorded them because I have a little studio setup where I live in East London. It’s a tiny little cupboard but when I hit writer’s block I would just go, ‘Why don’t I demo that song I was working on?’ But doing that you tend to resource the magic of it. When you get to the studio it’s already been suffocated. All of those ideas it was confining them. A lot of the songs took bits from my demo and lots of the songs we started from my demo and worked upwards. With Silhouette, Magnetised, Here I Am and with Sparrow, I started heavily with stuff from the demos. It was the drums and bass we were really doing again in the studio. A lot of the vocals were from the demos as well.”
Somehow is a lovely one from that as well; I love the way the strings work on that. Is that the ‘piano’ song?
“I would like to say I am really proud of that song and it’s the one I enjoy playing live the most. I wrote it the same weekend I wrote Concrete; it was really a long time ago. It was in 2014 and wrote them both on acoustic guitar, wrote them extremely quickly, 20 minutes, each of them, and they two songs that were like that.”
Talking about strings on Somehow and then Silhouette has a fantastic intro with the songs as well. Was that something you had planned pretty strictly in advance?
“It’s weird with Silhouette it took me so long to write it and then took so long to record it because I really have limited experience with strings. There was a lot of imagination required and I got this wonderful man called Davide Rossi over, he lives in Copenhagen. He does all the Coldplay strings and lots of others, including The Verve. He’s an incredibly talented musician. We got him down to Wales, to try and layer it up, with his violin; he did it all and we got somewhere but it didn’t massively work out which was a regret.
“We got the basis of it there and then I always knew I wanted an overture at the start and wanted it to follow the chords from the middle eight but then we got this guy, Chris Elliott, in who’s a brilliant string-arranger. He and I worked on the strings quite heavily over the course of a few days then we recorded them at Abbey Road. It was a difficult track to do because the strings are such an important part of it and so we did the strings at the end. Trying to imagine the track without the strings was extremely difficult. It took Jim [Abbiss, producer] and I a long time to do that track, it was very painful, but I think I’m pleased with the result.”
There’s another typical chorus on that isn’t there, do you work long and hard on those choruses, finding those things that are going to lift it?
“No, the chorus was really quick, I did that at my little studio in my house; it was really quick and I had that chorus down for ages. When you’ve got a chorus like that it’s very annoying because you know it’s good and you’re like, ‘How do I get the rest of the song to match?’ It’s difficult to do and, in that chorus, the melody relies on the rhythm to syncopate against. Trying to find the right rhythm for it is extremely difficult.”
I think we are right to say that there are some over-arching themes or narrative that ties the songs together on this record?
“Yeah. I think there are themes of loss of innocence, desperately clinging on to that innocence that you’ve lost; where that loss of innocence has come from I don’t know. It looks back to childhood in a kind of sentimental sort of way. I think it was because I was becoming an adult and I suddenly realised I was an adult. I think a lot of singer-songwriters around 25 [years old] cover similar themes and it was something I could relate to.”
Was the concept sort of in place in advance or was it something that revealed itself?
“Yeah, it revealed itself.”
So does that mean that you might not include a song if it doesn’t fit with that concept?
“Yeah, yeah. It’s more the songs that are cast aside usually repeat something but in a slightly weaker way. There was a song I wrote for this album, Parties, which I loved, but it was very self-deprecating and self-loathing. It lacked the depth that the song Wrong Crowd managed to fulfil. It was a real richer and ambiguous lyric about parties and Wrong Crowd fulfilled the theme better.”
It also incorporates whistling which I don’t there is enough of in pop music. I think you’re fighting the good fight there.
“There was whistling on Sparrow as well, which was weird, I don’t know why there was so much whistling [laughs]. It’s just because I can’t play harmonica.”
So, were you writing lots of songs and did you cherry-pick from them for this record? How many songs would you say you normally write on a project?
“I’ve only done two albums – this one was a ridiculous amount – but it’s way over 100. I think it’s because when I was writing my first album there was a point when I realised, when my publisher came down and I was trying to finish the first album, I hadn’t finished a song for six months. My published came down and said ‘you’ve got to get these ideas finished’. It’s difficult when you are sitting on 60 unfinished ideas, unless you’re a genius, it’s difficult to finish anything. So something clicked in me and I swore that everything that came me, every idea, that I would always finish them. I’ve sort of lived with that mentality ever since really. Particularly, when it came to the 2nd album, it was good housekeeping with every idea to finish it.
“Then, at least, you know that song’s there and you can judge it against another song. Judging two unfinished ideas against each other is difficult. Sometimes you find the magic of a song is not how good lyric or melody or the chorus is, it’s the accumulation of all of those things together. It’s like the saxophone in Baker Street. That song is ‘ehhh’, but the sax solo come in and it’s great. It’s the perfect lesson in following something through because you don’t know the thing that will emotionally grab you. In the song by Procol Harum, A Whiter Shade Of Pale, the organ line, for me, makes the song. If that idea had been unfinished, for me the most heartbreaking song that was ever written I don’t know why.”
Have you always been such a prolific writer from the day you started?
“It went through stages but I think the moment I was just talking about, weirdly, was the day I started being much more prolific. I’m writing more now than I ever have. I’m finding I am able to fit it into a busier lifestyle now, which I never was; I used to always have to be in a quiet room. Now, I am able to write whenever. That’s one thing that always blows my mind about The Beatles and Elton John who were all putting out two or three records a year. I think: ‘Where did you find to do these things?’”
We are really interested in the sort of customs each songwriter has. I think it was Neil Finn that he needed the room to be tidy and he needed to have a shave.
“I do get that yeah. Some songwriters are completely chaotic, with mess everywhere.”
Where do you fit on that spectrum?
“I was trying to work which one would benefit me, now I know it’s got nothing to do with it. I think many songwriters, certainly me and my friends who are songwriters, obsess over details as to what puts ‘me’ in the scenario where I write the best sort of song. Is it whether I have a shave, should I eat before, or if I get up and run in the morning will I write a song that day or is it best to listen to more music or read more books. As long as you are inspired then everything else is superfluous.”
Talking about childhood, you started out on the pianola didn’t you?
“Yeah, my grandmother had a pianola.”
Can you actually play one of those or is it a player piano?
“It’s what they had before the gramophone. You pump these pedals and you put a script in it and it moves the script around and the piano plays itself. Think it was around before the record player. Everyone had a piano in their house.”
You weren’t from a particularly music family were you?
“It’s weird because indirectly, my immediate family didn’t play instruments, but both my grandmothers on either side of the family played. My great-grandmother was a concert pianist, so she was very into it. It sort of was present, but not overbearing.”
Did you ever develop some sort of routine, as I know you are an admirer of Randy Newman and he’s kind of famous for that nine-to-five song-writing approach? Do you find you’ve got any kind of routines like that where you can get a lot of work done?
“Yeah, definitely! I mean doing a show like Brixton is fun and requires a level of focus, but not a level of work where you fall asleep after a hard day’s work. When I have a day, I like to have a run, and then spend the day writing.”
Going back to the past, it sounds like a song like Another Love could have only been written from experience, would that be accurate?
“Yeah, definitely, I think they all do to a certain extent but differ on how factually accurate they were. Another Love was a fast written song.”
It’s a great sentiment for song, though, isn’t it? Talking to your new partner and saying I can’t give 100 percent because I am still getting over a past relationship. It’s a unique perspective on it.
“It all came from one lyric which I remember thinking was ‘I brought you daffodils and a pretty string but they won’t flower like they did last spring’. The whole song was born from that one lyric. If you listen to Bob Dylan he’s always writing in couplets and he twists it. The one line ‘I brought you daffodils and a pretty string but they won’t flower like they did last spring’ conjured so many lyrics.
“I have heard some songwriter’s will say that they try not to cut as hard in the first or second line, so that it cuts harder in the third or fourth.
It’s almost like an elastic band, you keep holding back until it snaps. When you listen to Dylan, he’s a master of it. I grew up listening to Dylan and Leonard Cohen where it’s constantly contradicting the first thing and twisting it. I feel I am saying that more as a fan than a songwriter; observing what other people do.”
You talked about how you like chatting and getting to know people, is that your experience?
“He’s a true gentleman. I haven’t seen him for a long-time but he’s so enthusiastic; he has the enthusiasm of a 22-year-old. It doesn’t matter what it is, his wife says he must be upstairs by seven pm. That kind of structure to it makes it very exciting because in that last hour, the frantic-ness is exciting to be around. What is exciting about pop music is the sort of rule and regulations, the walls you make it in, is what makes it exciting and get’s the best out of people. That’s why I think Billy Joel is such a master of it.
“He could make an avant-garde, neo-classical, electronic album if he wanted to but the reason why those albums are so extraordinary is that he is working to such stringent regulations. To write something that has depth and speaks to people within those walls is what makes extremely special. You listen to Piano Man, that song is just a masterpiece. What he manages to say, you mentioned economical lyrics, is just genius.”
If we could finish on Hold Me, touching on Eg White, we wanted to know about the genesis of that song. It’s such an energetic performance and it just always struck me as an interesting one, did you have that approach from the start?
“Yeah. What was interesting about that one is that we recorded it so many times. I think from the start it was that, yeah. It was on a piano upstairs at Eg’s house.”
It reminds me a lot of Ben Folds, that hammering. There’s lots of overlaying of piano, that heavy sound really brought Ben Folds to mind.
“I grew up listening to Ben Folds; I love Ben Folds. It’s fun to do live.”
So now you are going on tour do you find you get any time to write?
“Yeah, definitely, I wrote a bit yesterday. I had this thing this year, when I was on the plane, I would right down the date and where we going to. I was very inspired by Nick Cave, who wrote a book called The Sick Bag Song. It was prose, I guess. He was just writing on the back of sick bags. I was very inspired by that, so I have done that on every flight I’ve taken this year, which is quite fun.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Sodajerker, who now have over 90 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by Liverpudlian songwriting duo, Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Paul Simon, Ben Watt, Justin Currie, Willy Russell, Lamont Dozier, Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, KT Tunstall, Dan Gillespie Sells and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 32-minute interview with Tom Odell – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them on Facebook or Twitter, or download the podcasts from iTunes.