Classically trained on piano, Tom Odell has been obsessed with music since he was a small child. He recalls the night he was watching television and saw Blur perform at the BRIT Awards. That clinched it for him. “I remember thinking: ‘I wanna do that.’” In early 2013, Odell made BRIT Awards history, becoming the first male artist to win the coveted Critics’ Choice award, which in previous years has gone to such artists as Adele, Emeli Sandé and Florence and the Machine.
“I started writing songs at 13 and I haven’t stopped since,” says Tom, who would return home from school every afternoon and practice piano for hours on end. Such dedication has clearly paid off. At 22, he’s an accomplished musician, as his debut album, Long Way Down, which debuted at No. 1 on the UK Albums chart, demonstrates. Yet what’s most remarkable about Odell is his gift for rendering messy emotions, for ripping songs out of his soul and slamming them onto a record without stopping to tidy up after himself.
“Another Love,” the first single from Long Way Down, paints a portrait of a man so emotionally spent after a previous relationship that he has nothing left to give a new love, much as he tries. “Hold Me” begins with a raucous count off and is filled with buzzed admissions, beginning with the notion that the narrator really shouldn’t be blurting out his feelings to a new companion just yet. Distinctive choral backing vocals are heard throughout, but perhaps never to greater effect than on the chilling “Can’t Pretend.” On “Sense,” the contrast between the delicate, jazz-era style piano and Odell’s raw vocals is striking. London’s Sunday Times, describing a video of Odell performing the track at home, said: “he sits hunched at the keyboard, his descending chords almost Tom Waits-like in their alchemical anguish, his voice rising from tentative whisper to feral roar...It is a one-take recording and it’s breathtaking.”
“I hope the music feels human and real and that there are some flaws – because the flaws help make it what it is,” notes Odell, who draws inspiration from Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Arctic Monkeys, Hunky Dory-era David Bowie and early Elton John.
Odell grew up in the West Sussex city of Chichester, located in southeast England, and later moved to Brighton, attracted by its music scene. “I used to stroll around Brighton with this massive keyboard and just go to these open mics all around town – and it was so demoralizing, but also really good for me,” he says.
Eventually, Tom moved to London, seeking a wider audience. His plan was not immediately successful – Odell wound up playing sparsely attended shows, running out of money and sleeping in a car borrowed from his grandmother. But along the way, he formed his band, which he credits with adding a heightened sense of power to the songs. A demo found its way to Lily Rose Cooper, who quickly signed Odell to her In The Name Of record label after seeing him perform.
With the label’s blessing, Odell spent the next nine months holed up in a tiny east London room, outfitted with simply a piano and a desk, penning the songs for his debut album. When he wasn’t writing, he was devouring the works of others – a list with a preponderance of American authors and filmmakers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Woody Allen, Ernest Hemingway, Hal Ashby, Jack Kerouac and Wes Anderson.
In addition to having already collected a BRIT award, Odell was shortlisted in the BBC Sound Poll of 2013. Long Way Down debuted atop the album charts in the U.K., Netherlands and Vietnam and within the Top 10 across most of Europe. While these are certainly notable achievements, Odell is after something even more ephemeral than recognition: he’s out to capture life’s peak experiences and deepest valleys.
“I’d love to live in a time when music felt uncontrived and imperfect and gave people a real sense of elevation,” he confides. “When it’s sad I want it to be really sad. When it’s happy I want it to feel euphoric…I suppose I want the record to express the heightened feelings and emotions we all get in our lives.”