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Music interview – Tom Odell: ‘This album is a celebration of imperfection’

Award-winning singer-songwriter Tom Odell will be appearing in Leeds.
Award-winning singer-songwriter Tom Odell will be appearing in Leeds.
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As Tom Odell releases his third album and heads over to play in Leeds next week, Duncan Seaman caught up with him.

Tom Odell’s third album, Jubilee Road, finds the Ivor Novello and Brit award-winning singer-songwriter in a thoughtful mood as he reaches his late 20s.

The thematic strain running through its 10 songs, he agrees, is about discovering a sense of place in the world.

“I can’t speak for anyone else but I think it’s something I’ve probably struggled with a lot over the years and just accepting who I am as a person,” he says. “I think this album is certainly a celebration of imperfection. I think it was also noticing that other people struggle with what they think is wrong with them and trying to tell them through stories let’s celebrate what’s wrong with us and makes us human.

“The last time I listened to the whole record was in the mastering was this reiteration of ‘don’t be so hard on yourself’. It’s a celebration of the loser because losing’s fine. And I think it’s very optimistic as well, the album.”

Where some musicians seem to thrive on the transience of the touring life, Odell – who first found fame in 2012 with his song Another Love – says he realised he was “quite a lot happier” being settled in a corner of east London for a while. “I think I’d not ever allowed myself any of that. I’d constantly been touring and even when I was not touring I was still living that life. I was too tense and too concerned that if I ever relaxed, if I ever unclenched my fist, that something terrible would happen or the world would fall apart.

Tom Odell

Tom Odell

“Eventually I did to that and it didn’t and actually I felt this wonderful thing of belonging somewhere, actually being part of a neighbourhood and being part of a community and not just constantly running from something or running towards something.”

The songs on Jubilee Road are drawn from Odell’s own life. “But some of it is observations and some of it would be my imagination, but I might suggest even my imagination is probably drawing from memory. The best way I can describe it is there are some characters in some of the songs – in Son of an Only Child I imagine this babysitter with this young boy and then the young boy’s older and he’s part of this lost generation and he feels angry. In another song [Queen of Diamonds] there’s this gambling addict who is desperately gambling to try and satisfy his own addiction but also someone else because he thinks it’s going to save him. In all of them they’re partly things I’ve observed but also they’re partly myself as well and partly things I’ve witnessed and experienced.”

The Chichester-born singer-songwriter says he regrets saying while he was making the album that it was full of “songs to cry to”. “When I said that a journalist was asking me what I sometimes perceived my audience to see me as and that’s what lots of people had told me before. I certainly wouldn’t call this album that. I think that the songs are very optimistic, in fact. I think it’s the least cynical of the three albums. It’s joyful melancholy, that’s what I’d call it.”

Odell admits he felt like an outsider from an early age. “I guess there was always that sense of wanting to be a part of something but never feeling particularly comfortable there, but I think that’s true for a lot of people, I’ve come to realise that now. I think a lot of us are constantly feeling like that outsider. I actually think now more than ever through social media we’re led to believe our lives are somehow inferior to others. Social media brings people together but there’s a lot of divisiveness there as well. The thing on Instagram of that perfect life side, that really annoys me, that ‘look how perfect my life is’. No, nobody’s life is perfect.

I was too tense and too concerned that if I ever relaxed, if I ever unclenched my fist, that something terrible would happen or the world would fall apart. Eventually I did to that and it didn’t and actually I felt this wonderful thing of belonging somewhere.

Tom Odell

“With this album I think I was trying to do the exact opposite of that, to celebrate our imperfections, celebrate the fact that our lives are lives are never perfect and they’re incredibly fragile. They can slip through our hands like the finest grains of sand at any moment.”

The singer says he’s comfortable with the level of fame that he has achieved. “I don’t have photographers outside my window. It’s mostly about music and that’s how I like it. It’s very handleable and I wouldn’t want any more, I don’t think, than I have now. Some days perhaps I want less, but for me it’s about the music and that’s what I’m into.”

As far as longevity is concerned, Odell looks to the likes of Elton John and Billy Joel as a benchmark.

“If I could have a fraction of the careers that those guys have had I’d be satisfied,” he says. “For me longevity is key. Someone asked me about Jubilee Road what would success mean and I thought about it and realised actually for me it takes a lot of time to understand if an album had touched people. It’s only really now that I’d realised in a sincere way that the first album did mean something genuine to some people. It’s only those conversations where someone will come up to you and say ‘That was me and my dad’s song and he’s no longer around and I just wanted to say thank you, it meant a lot to us’. I get that every so often and it really means the world because a song has had some purpose and it has some meaning.

“I’ve never really made music just to be on the radio for a couple of months and be a light, enjoyable hit for people to listen to and then move on to the next thing. I really want my music to last. I want it to be a bit of furniture that people pass down through generations rather than a bit of plastic. I want it to be like carpented wood, without sounding too cheesy. I would love it to have meaning in 10 years time.”

Jubilee Road is out today. Tom Odell plays at O2 Academy Leeds on October 16. www.tomodell.com