In a music industry that urges competitive young artists to go big or go home, 30-year-old British composer Tom Odell is taking quite a chance with his new fourth set, Monsters. Having already won a BRIT Critics Choice Award and been inked by Lily Allen’s posh ITNO imprint, the Sussex-bred keyboardist hit the ground running with his 2013 debut Long Way Down, which debuted at #1 on the U.K. charts. With each ensuing release, like 2016’s soulful Wrong Crowd and its more rocking followup in 2018, Jubilee Road, his piano-anchored sound got grander, more expansive and closer to his most influential recording from childhood, Elton John’s definitive Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Winning a coveted Ivor Novello Award along the way didn’t exactly pump the career brakes.
But on Monsters, everything grinds to a halt sonically, in skeletal, bare-knuckled reflections like the opening “numb,” which functions on a metronome-simple percussion loop and a melody that feels like a kitten skittering across the keys; Odell’s unadorned singing voice, at once frail but full of fight, echoes the song title (and, in fact, the depressing closeup album cover shot, as well) with worrisome lyrics like, “I hold my hand over the flame / To see if I can feel some pain.” The hushed approach underscores the singer’s new vulnerability, as—in e.e. cummings, lower-cased tunes—he confronts societal ills like alcoholism (“problems”), the pandemic (“lockdown”), homelessness (“Me and My Friends”), and his own personal demons in “monster v.1” and “v.2,” and “don’t be afraid of the dark,” a song he’s already decided he wants played at his own funeral someday.
So yes, says Odell, less is most definitely more, especially when you’re attempting to examine your own mental health, which a recent spate of debilitating panic attacks forced him to do. So getting the Monsters minimalism right was crucial. “When we were recording it—and we did it half in the studio and half at my house—it was always about the vocal,” he notes. “That’s all I cared about, really, was getting the words across and making sure the voice was clear and unaffected. That was the most important thing to me.” He sat down recently to discuss his introspective transformation, which wasn’t totally tied to Covid-19.
Paste: When last we spoke, you had just acquired a house in the suburbs, a girlfriend, a cat and a dog, and a Gladys Kravitz-inquisitive interest in your neighbors. W’happen?
Tom Odell: Ha! Well … I don’t have the dog anymore. I have the cat, still. I have a different girlfriend, and we’re engaged actually, to be married. So that’s all going swimmingly. And apart from that? Yeah, I guess quite a lot has happened since then, both personally and internationally.
Paste: When did you first notice that you were having panic attacks or any kind of anxiety? And how did you deal with it then?
Odell: Well, I knew when … I had this weird sort of thing in the summer of 2018 when I started getting these, like, two seconds where I would sort of black out. Or not even two seconds—for like half a second, I would just black out. And it got worse and worse and worse, until finally I was in the shower one morning in Munich while we were doing a concert there, and I just collapsed in the shower—I couldn’t breathe, my heart was racing a million miles an hour, and I genuinely thought that was it. I just remember thinking, “That’s it.” I thought about my parents and I was sad—you know, just a whirl of emotion. But it turns out I wasn’t dying, but I ended up in hospital and they said, “You’ve had a pretty big panic attack.” My body had gone into shock from it, and I then was sort of like off work for a month, and then I slowly crawled back to work and started having therapy and all this stuff. But I found that whilst I thought I was dealing with it, I wasn’t, and to avoid dealing with it, I just worked even harder.
And I then began to realize that this restlessness and this sense of duress that I’d constantly been running from my whole life actually had a name, and it was anxiety, chronic anxiety. And it helped for it to have a name, actually. And I’ve tried to deal with it since then, but actually there have been moments when it’s been bad, really bad. But I realized that I’ve probably had it since I was 14. I probably had when I became obsessed with songs when I was 15, in a way that was kind of weird. There were moments when I would lay there in bed, obsessing over single thoughts, and I couldn’t sleep at night. And I just thought that was me. I don’t know if I’d call it OCD. I think the very same qualities or characteristics that have made me make three or four albums—and it takes a lot of drive to do that throughout your 20s—that same quality that has driven me to do that is the very same quality that causes my anxiety. I put all of my nervous energy into something, and it’s usually music.
Paste: But within all that, seeking help from a therapist is so un-British, right?
Odell: What’s funny is, I’m more prepared to talk about this stuff in songs than I am with my friends or my family. And interestingly, I think that British therapy-ism is somewhat cliché, but also true. But that stoicism was always rewarded, because it got people through hard times, collective stoicism, I guess.
Paste: Additionally,Thomas Mann once said you can never go home again. But you actually moved back in with your folks at one point?
Odell: I did. So you can go home again. My childhood room had been changed into a spare room, so I didn’t go home for very long—I just went for a month or so. But I’m very lucky to have the parents I do—my parents are very supportive and they’ve always been there for me, actually, the more I think about it.
Paste: And they probably sensed your problem before you did.
Odell: Maybe. But maybe not. I dunno—I think I’ve always been a very secretive guy, to be honest. Well, not secretive, but there’s a strange duality that’s gone on with my life, where I overshare in my music and undershare amongst my friends. And I’m not quite sure why that is, either. But I feel like quite a lot of songwriters are like that—it becomes at an early age, like 14 or 15, a much better mouthpiece, a much better way of communicating, a much clearer way. I think we’re drawn to it. Songwriters are drawn to songwriting because they quite often are struggling to communicate in traditional ways, struggling to express themselves with perhaps conversation or other things. I think what drives people to write songs, particularly lyricists, is because you can say something that you’ve never been able to say or get across in everyday life, something that you feel strongly.
Paste: Ironically, in your new song “money”—which I think is the linchpin song—you long for childhood innocence, but the world around is powered by cash dollars, as Pink Floyd swore it was.
Odell: Yeah. And it’s true, isn’t it? That song is super-important to me, and funnily enough, it was the first song we recorded for the album. But there’s a lot of humor in that song, but it’s very fucking dark. Very dark. And a lot of that is a response to the fact that the thing that seems to be rewarded right now—and I think somewhat depressingly, and as a result of individualism—is narcissism. And I find that very depressing. And it’s because we’re encouraged now, from a very early age, to shout. Shout your opinion. Shout how you feel about this, how you feel about that. And ultimately it’s because your data is the most valuable thing you have to offer now. Before, the most valuable thing you had to offer was you buying someone’s product. Now, the most valuable thing that the companies want is the data about you, so from Day One, when you’re born, you’re told to “Tell us how you feel! Tell us what you’re doing! We want to know! Give us the data!” And there’s a multitude of complex reasons—we now live in this world where ultimately the person that shouts the loudest is the person that’s heard, and nuance and depth is quite often overlooked now. So I think individualism actually can be very liberating. But I think it can also be incredibly damaging, and you can’t help but link some of the health problems and the mental health pandemic to the fact that we’re all living such lonely lives now. And we’re encouraged to live lonely lives—don’t go out, go on Zoom, don’t go to your friend’s house, go on Instagram. And I’m not even talking about the pandemic—I’m talking about before this was going on. I think it’s crazy. And it’s scary when companies realize that they can make more money out of you sitting at home, rather than going to a shop. So I think “money” is a reaction to that. And I think ultimately, so many songs on this record are me trying to work out why I was feeling increasingly anxious and increasingly down about the world that I was looking out at.
Paste: Can you recognize panic attacks coming at this point? And do you know how to avert it?
Odell: No. I don’t think so. But I’m better at it. I tend to feel now that since I’ve gotten better at dealing with acute panic attacks, what often happens more is that I get a period of time where … I don’t know … I feel squashed. And that’s when I know now that I have to just slow down a little bit and just go on some longer walks, and spend more time offline. The best thing that happened to me was my girlfriend forcing me to take weekends off, every week. It’s really helped my quality of life, if I’m being honest with you. Because now I just get time off every week, and I can just be me and not worry about anything else.