Have a look at the video for Tom Odell’s new song Wrong Crowd. You might get a little concerned about the clean-cut, floppy-haired pianist, winner of 2013’s BRITs Critics’ Choice award, owner of an Ivor Novello and a platinum disc, and the voice of one of those cuddly John Lewis Christmas adverts. There he is, shambling around a large dim hotel room in his dressing gown, hurling two minibar whiskies into a glass without looking, as though he’s done it a thousand times before. A French female voice plays on an answerphone, dumping him. Then he’s in the thick of a South African nightclub, surrounded by strangers and drenched in booze. Is everything okay, Tom?
“It’s a story,” he says, back to being calm and collected in a smart shirt and an even smarter restaurant in London. “I started developing this story of a guy, using some of my experiences, so this person on the album is half me, half not me.” His forthcoming second album, also called Wrong Crowd, is full of pain, lost love and grandiose music of unexpected power. He talks of being inspired by the rich soul and strings of his friend Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom and, more surprisingly, the Nineties dance of Adamski. If he could sometimes fade into the background on his first album, he won’t be ignored this time.
Fans will be familiar with some of the new songs. Odell, now 25, has gigged pretty solidly since the 2013 release of his million-selling debut, Long Way Down, including a tour of Britain’s forest parks and a stint supporting the original piano man, Billy Joel, in Madison Square Garden. I heard him play Daddy, a thunderous blast of electric bass and bluesy howling that sounds uncharacteristically like Muse, in New York over two years ago. He was writing all the time, working out new compositions during long pre-gig soundtracks (“That’s partly why I’ve got through three drummers I think.”) and says there are around 30 songs that he’s played live that haven’t made the cut for the new album.
“I never stopped. To be totally frank with you I think I made 10 albums to get to this album,” he tells me. “It’s a cliché for an artist to say they’ve written hundreds of songs but I genuinely have – so many.”
That’s how he sees himself: as a songwriter first. The Ivor Novello award, for Songwriter of the Year, is the one he was proudest to receive. The platinum disc is “in some cupboard in my house”.
“I never really intended on being a singer. I only started singing so I could perform the songs,” he says. “I don’t kid myself that anyone likes me because I’m a ‘pop star’ or a particularly brilliant singer. I think I’m mediocre at those things. But the one strength of the first album is that Another Love is a good song. I don’t think it’s arrogant to say that. It’s a good song and that’s why it did so well.”
It doesn’t seem easy for him to admit that he wrote a good song. Another Love, the hit single from his first album, was a moving break-up ballad that ended up selling over 800,000 copies worldwide. Despite the prizes on the mantelpiece, or in the cupboard, a middle class air of pained modesty remains his default setting. I’ve met him a handful of times now and he’s always friendly, keen to be engaged in conversation about enthusiasms such as Ernest Hemingway or his regular jogs around Victoria Park. Just after finishing Wrong Crowd, he invited me to a Soho recording studio for a private audience with some new songs and we had a lovely chat over some Rich Tea biscuits with no dictaphone whirring. Today he’s a little more closed, looking off to one side, groping for the right words, and shutting down as soon as anything personal comes up.
I ask after his current girlfriend, in a bid to find out how much of the broken heartedness of the new album is real. He’ll admit that she exists, but that’s about it. “I’d just rather not go down that route. You’ve got to have one thing you can call private in your life, because doing this job there isn’t much.” When asked about the emotions he has to tap into to write such powerful songs, he gives a wonderfully English non-answer: “I think in order for me to be able to write genuinely, I’ve got to be able to switch to a mode where… I’m trying to find the best way to articulate it… You have to not… I don’t know. Sorry. You were doing your journalist’s pause then. You have to say something!”
He warms up, however, when talking about the overriding theme of the album. “It’s really a yearning for innocence. This person sort of staring from his city tower block to the forest in the distance. I’m obsessed with Terrence Malick’s filmmaking and the fact that so much of it is about the way man and nature interact. Man naively denies that he’s a part of nature while he’s destroying it. A lot of the album keeps returning to the idea of wanting a more innocent beauty and not this spoiled perversion of nature.”
That’s a bit harsh on Hackney, where he lives. At least there are no bears. But it does sound like there’s a greater weight upon him this time around. “As you become a bit older you start realising that the bad stuff gets more press in your life than the good stuff. Things just become a bit less dreamlike and a bit more real. I guess it’s part of becoming an adult. People die and things happen, and with each thing that happens you lose a little bit more innocence.”
Has someone died, I ask. “Yeah. I’d rather not go into it but yeah.”
This is not to say that his new album is a 45-minute downer. There’s a swinging beat, handclaps and an almost disco feel to Here I Am. Silhouette is drenched in an orchestra’s worth of strings and must be his catchiest, most upbeat moment to date. Produced by Jim Abbiss, who has also worked with Adele, Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian, Odell is unafraid of sonic excess now.
“With the first album, I held myself back,” he admits. “I was scared to get a string orchestra, I was scared to really go there with the drums. I’d take things out if they were a bit too wild. I was young and I didn’t have much confidence. But the albums I’m drawn to are the ones that are full of musicality, full of chord changes, wild strings, amazing basslines, full of music and melody. We really went there with this album.”
So he’s spreading his wings, growing up, taking the slings and arrows and turning them into great songs. Whatever that video may suggest, there’s no need to worry about Tom Odell.
Wrong Crowd is released on June 10 on Columbia.