This time last year, a little- known pianist called Tom Odell was about to pick up the Critics’ Choice Award at the Brits, a prize that anoints a future star and pretty much guarantees good times ahead. It worked that way for Emeli Sandé, Ellie Goulding, Florence Welch and Adele, so it’s not surprising that it signalled 12 extraordinary months for the deserving Odell. One gold-selling debut album and some high-profile gigs later, there’s no question about it, he says: “It’s definitely the best year of my life.”
Later this month he’ll come full circle and return to the Brits, where this time he has two nominations, for British Male and British Breakthrough. He has a strong chance of winning both against the likes of David Bowie, Jake Bugg, Disclosure, London Grammar and Bastille.
“I felt like a bit of an impostor at the last Brits,” the 23-year-old from Chichester confesses, downplaying his chances with a modesty that hasn’t wavered since his earliest days. “I try to think it’s just a load of people in a room with some free drinks. The best thing about it for me is that you get to go out and tour afterwards.”
Last year’s award put him in such demand that Odell thinks he’s played about 200 gigs since, everywhere from Camden’s tiny Dingwalls to some of the most famous venues in the world.
We meet in New York, where I find him enjoying a posh salad and a craft beer at Madison Square Garden, a historic arena venue so vast that cars trundle around backstage and the man in charge gets about on a bicycle. Odell seems remarkably calm about his latest support slot with fellow piano man Billy Joel, unlike his manager Sam, who pops his head round the dressing room door to say: “I don’t want to seem unprofessional, but MADISON SQUARE GARDEN!”
“I feel like I’ve kept my feet on the ground,” Odell tells me. In a long black coat and Chelsea boots suitable for the sub-zero temperatures, he has a bit of a modern Sherlock Holmes vibe about him and seems as confident in conversation. “They say that it goes by in a flash but for me this year has felt like 10. It’s bizarre. I’ve learned a lot about music, and probably life.”
I want to know more about those life lessons. “I quickly realised I didn’t want to be the party type. It’s important not to lose yourself in all the bullshit that goes with this job, to keep taking the Tube, and try to be as down to earth as possible. My aspirations aren’t to sell millions of records but to write really good songs.”
He deserves a little bit of the glitter, though. He’s served his time. After a few years slogging his heavy keyboard around the open mic nights of Brighton, usually as part of a band he called Tom and the Tides (“I remember when it was an aspiration just to get a gig”) he moved to London. The hype began in late 2012 when it was revealed that Lily Allen had signed him to her own label, the Sony-backed imprint In the Name Of. “He’s just a really charismatic and interesting songwriter,” she told me then. “He’s incredibly good-looking — my husband would hate to hear me say that — and he’s got a real presence about him.”
Allen’s star power and obvious good taste caught the attention of the tastemakers who vote at the Brit Awards, and he became the first man to be named Critics’ Choice (Sam Smith, this year, is the second). With characteristic good sense, he’d already finished his album before the spotlight turned his way. “It meant I was never daunted by it. Everyone else was trying to put the fear in me, asking if I felt the pressure. Your muse is very sensitive, pretentious as that sounds, so I’m glad I had the record done already.”
Long Way Down came out last June and went straight to number one. Soon after that he was supporting Elton John at the Roundhouse. As he does with so many aspiring musicians, Elton seems to have become something of a foster father, but it’s particularly appropriate in this case, since Odell is a piano player writing songs in the classic mould. He says that Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was the first record he ever owned.
However, with all that attention came a few blips on the way up. The NME gave the album a cruel 0/10 (“He’ll be all over 2013 like a virulent dose of musical syphilis,” said the reviewer) and his dad phoned the music weekly to complain. If you’re over the age of six you can imagine how mortifying that was for him. It’s not something he cares to discuss now.
On TV at the Brits, host James Corden likened him, in the floppy-haired looks department at least, to one-hit wonder Chesney Hawkes. The night after that he had his first real experience of the paparazzi when he was snapped having a drink in a Hackney pub, and then the Groucho Club, with country superstar Taylor Swift. “That whole little escapade was, I don’t know… It was very cool,” he said at the time, though he’s since learned his lesson and girls are another topic he won’t discuss.
They are a subject he returns to again and again in song, though. He put a photo of an ex-girlfriend on the cover of his single, the break-up ballad Another Love, not knowing that it would turn out to be his biggest hit to date. “It seemed like a good thing to do at the time,” he says. “I did have to ask her permission, which was awkward. I don’t think she realised how many people would see it.”
There’s no evidence of anyone special during our time in New York, where Odell has been living in an apartment in the East Village while he writes his second album on a hired grand piano. “When I’m in London it feels like I am that character who is ‘Tom Odell’. It’s nice to come away from that and be in a city of thousands of aspiring musicians like me,” he says.
Odell has been reading Hemingway — he just completed the collection with For Whom the Bell Tolls — downloading everything Nina Simone ever made (as recommended by his new buddy, legendary music producer Rick Rubin) and going to the theatre. Stephen Fry invited him to see him in Twelfth Night on Broadway. “Through one way or another, I’ve got to know Stephen, so he asked me down. It was incredible. I don’t know that much Shakespeare but it blew my mind.”
Away from these starry connections, he also found time to play a free gig for about 100 people at Brooklyn Bowl, a bowling alley for Williamsburg hipsters, and it’s here among the clattering pins that he really surprises me. This tearful balladeer is loud, backed by his three-piece band, rolling up his sleeves and hollering hoarsely, pounding his upright piano as though he intends this to be the instrument’s last night on Earth.
“Everyone thinks I’m going to be crying over my piano with this wispy voice. I happened to write the song that was my biggest single which is a bit like that,” he says. But this past year’s constant gigging have given real richness to his vocals. The couple of new compositions that I hear, aired for the first time in Brooklyn, are bluesy and intense and not the kind of thing you’ll be playing on date night. “There are a few things I’m exploring with my new music. It’s intriguing me. It’s not gonna be a love album, that’s for sure.”
New York has inspired him enough to write 15 songs in the past two weeks. He’s almost done touring the songs from his first album and is raring to knuckle down for phase two. It doesn’t look like this will be his only moment in the sun. He believes that if he keeps shunning the parties and concentrating on the songs, he has every chance of trumping this best year ever.
“If people stop being interested it’s because you haven’t written a good enough album. Music will always be the most powerful thing. It doesn’t matter what record labels or journalists say. It’s the song.”
Still, a couple more Brit Awards would be nice, wouldn’t they? A great year could get even better very soon.
Tom Odell performs at the O2 Academy Brixton, SW9 (0844 477 2000, o2academybrixton.co.uk) tomorrow and supports Neil Young at Barclaycard British Summer Time, Hyde Park, W1 (0844 8240 300, bst-hydepark.com) on July 12.