The album is best listened to from beginning to end - from sunrise to sunset. It's a journey and it challenges you as a listener to slow down, to dive into a space of emotional discomfort and utter contentment. It gives you space to reflect, meditate and simply be. Tom leaves you with this: space to sit and reflect in a musical oasis for a while.
This is the second chapter in our story of Tom Odell. In 2016, he was featured in issue 11, where we drank tea in a garden on a very warm summer day. This day is equally warm, and he was extremely generous with his time, letting the conversation flow as long as it took us to deep-dive into the full album. The interview takes the same shape as the album. We dive into each song that makes up Best Day of My Life, from the first to the last, giving a true insight into the tracks. Throughout, the piano is perfection. Think of the musical experience and sonic images of Ludovico Einaudi and Olafur Arnalds, but with the stunning vocals of Tom Odell. It's a simple pairing of piano and voice. This is an album that is musically and emotionally brave - his most personal one yet.
I'm at Tom's house, the perfect setting for the intimate feeling of this album. I admire his ceramic collection before settling into the shoot. He has great taste. Afterwards, we sit down in his garden, where he is very proud of his plum tree. We enjoy some fresh blueberries and settle into the conversation.
Tom Odell's fifth album Best Day Of My Life is out Friday 28th October.
It's been seven years. Time flies. I'm curious to see how you've been during these years - the world went a bit crazy.
It feels like the world has changed. It almost feels unrecognisable from when we last spoke. There have been ups and downs, and ignoring the pandemic, it feels like the world moves at such a remarkable speed. I wonder whether it's always been like that.
How would you say that your life has changed in the last seven years?
It's hard to find any aspect of it that hasn't changed. I guess I still do the same job to some extent, but I think everyone involved in the touring side of the business has a renewed respect for it because it was taken away from us, and I think we treasure shows so much more because two years felt like a long time. We couldn't do it, and there was maybe even a prospect we might never do it again.
What did that feel like?
I embraced not doing it and I was quite content to be in one place, but I found I definitely missed touring with the music.
I purposely didn't Google much on what you had been up to these last years, as I wanted to bring an almost innocent and clean mindset to experience your new album.
I don't do many interviews anymore, because of social media there's less of a need for them, in a way. But it's nice when you trust someone to be able to deep-dive into this together.
Thank you. I'm excited to dive deep into the experience and story of your new album Best Day Of My Life. I have listened through the full album, so I'd love for this to shape our conversation, diving into each song. In our last interview, we were just playing on the surface. It's an emotional roller-coaster, from Best Day Of My Life to Sad Anymore. These two feel like opposite ends of the emotional spectre.
If I was to think about the words in Best Day Of My Life, in a way they're even sadder than Sad Anymore because Sad Anymore is an acknowledgement of 'I don't want to be like this anymore'. Best Day Of My Life is much more immersed in a ride of depression and anxiety at its peak. The original idea I had for that song in my voice notes was to call it 'worst day of my life', which I explored for a while. It was last summer I was writing the idea initially, and I was exploring how one can't exist without the other, and to those that are susceptible to a sort of manicness with their emotions, and I feel like I am, it's the thing that drives me with my music, it can be very paralysing. It's this sort of up and down.
The song was also inspired by living in Los Angeles for three months in 2019. I'd had two really bad years with my head, and it was reaching a fever pitch. I was in Los Angeles on my own and was meant to be making a record. I had this little house in Venice Beach. On paper, everything about that sounds great. I was having a good life, but I was having a stressful time. I was drinking way too much and my panic attacks were out of control, having one, two or three a day. I got to a state where I was permanently in that mode, and I was trying to take stuff to bring it down, but that makes you very sad. There was this one experience where I was on the Santa Monica beach on my own watching the sunset. It sets in the exact same place over the ocean. It's beautiful and I had this realisation. There were these birds running up and down, getting chased by the waves, trying to pick worms out of the sand, and it was so beautiful. It's like a dance they do and the sun was going down. Behind me, the whole of LA was lit. You can hear the cars and you watch the sun go down and I had this moment of relief. It was a realisation that the sun has set here for a billion years and it will set here for another billion years after I'm gone. And all this stuff behind me that feels so assured of itself; humans, cars, lights, the world, the business. The stuff that dominates our thoughts - is just a flick of the eye. So impermanent and none of it matters. It's totally impermanent and it's beautiful nevertheless. It was a moment of relief and it stayed with me.
Then I came home, I met Georgie and things got better and better, and that feeling stayed with me. It's difficult for me to describe because there are a lot of things in there. It's not euphoria but it's very melancholic. There is something relieving about it and I am proud of that. I don't know if the song is for everyone but occasionally with songs, you find something unique. It's very interesting to play it live because all the lyrics are present tense, there's no past. The whole album is made with a very strong intention to make everything present.
'I think today is the best day of my life'. I find it interesting that it subverts time in the right way because you never live in the future or the past, you only ever live in the present moment. That's all we ever have. I've listened to Alan Watts a lot this year and last year, he talked endlessly about the present.
That sits very nicely in the mindfulness space.
Yeah, I definitely feel that the album is inspired by that.
I feel like the whole album is a long meditation.
I'm overjoyed you think that because it feels that way to me as well. A lot of the music has been inspired by my experience meditating and what I've learned from occupying the space in the mind which is not dominated by thought, and realising that thought is the first experience of the material world. There's a place in your mind that's deeper, and music innately occupies that part of you. Music is felt, it's not thought, and that's what is so wonderful. The best thing in the world is that music transcends everything.
This is your most personal album yet, it feels very intimate. At times almost uncomfortable, because you're speaking about things people are sometimes uncomfortable speaking about, which is why I believe this is such a great album and so needed. I think the next pandemic is a mental health one.
If we're not in one already...
Exactly, so the fact you are in a place where you comfortably bring up these themes and share parts of your journey - wonderfully putting words on things other people can't, I think is wonderful. I listened to Sad Anymore, which I found even a little uncomfortable the first time, as it's so brutally honest and raw, but now it feels more like a warm comfort blanket. It's the kind of song where you easily get transported to your own experiences, which creates a personal relationship with the song. To expand on the uncomfortableness, for me, this came with songs that include very few lyrics. Just a few carefully selected words that throughout the song gently deliver the message, almost like a repetitive mantra. This song has two lines: "I don't wanna be sad anymore, look at all the happy people. What are they doing that I ain't doing?" That's it. It takes bravery to do this in a song. A stroke of genius, if I may say.
That's very kind of you. It certainly was a moment. The album was made by two of us in my studio in Hackney, me and Laurie Blundell, who I made my previous record with as well. We pretty much did the whole album together in one studio over quite a short period of time between September and December last year. At the time of conception when those words came out of my mouth, there was definitely a moment of discomfort for me as well. You're looking for that thing that says the truth. If it jumps out or is slightly abrasive, it's sort of good 'cause it's true. And if you're looking for an honest and real way of showing people how you feel, the best lyrics, in my opinion, are threefold. Is it telling you the truth? Is it telling the truth in a uniquely insightful way? Is it doing it in an economical way? Without writing a paragraph. Anyone could explain the truth with a paragraph, but to do it in one or two lines is the hardest thing.
What's interesting with Sad Anymore is we only did one take of that song, and what's crazy about it is that each time I say the line it gives a different view of sadness for me. A different feeling. All the different colours. One is resignation, the next is a real hope of not wanting to be sad, and then frustration. The next is rage, and then the endless colours which are hard to articulate. In the centre of it is sadness, and sadness manifests itself in so many different ways. As anxiety, as deep-rooted bitterness about what you've done with your life or the choices you've made, what you'd like to be and what you're not. It comes in so many forms. So it's interesting to give simply that line and see it differently each time.
A few people wrote to me and said they didn't get it. In today's culture, people are so used to being inundated with content from the moment we wake up. I mean, I have to physically stop myself from going on Instagram or scrolling and reading the news. It's like a tsunami of content that we've almost become numb to, and it's very interesting seeing people's reactions when you present them with something minimal. When presented with minimalism, sometimes you write it off, because you're so used to being spoon-fed. It takes a different frame of mind to create the space within where you're able to listen with intention and suddenly realise that it's an even richer experience.
It asks more from the listener. You go to some dark places in this album.
It gets dark.
It gets really dark. Right from the start, which prepares you for what's to come in the rest of the album.
You have to look out for it, though. It's easy to miss.
This is why at first, judging from the surface level and the title of Best Day Of My Life, I thought; "Good for him, he's living his best life". Nothing more annoying than shiny happy people, if you're not in that space yourself, which I wasn't the day I first listened to this song. But then I noticed on your socials you were posting really down-to-earth and honest videos, which I thought was so refreshing and helped give more of an insight into what your new album was all about. In one of your videos, you say: "Like lots of people, sometimes I go through a period where I feel sad. Sometimes I can hide it and people don’t notice, but other times it’s right there and everyone can see. Sometimes it’s like a sad melody, kinda beautiful, but other times it’s ugly like fingers on a chalkboard. Almost always though, being sad is a lonely experience and hard to talk about or describe, but I hope by singing about it and being as honest as I can so those that feel sad too might feel a little less lonely.” I thought was so beautiful.
With art, it's wrong to try and make someone feel different from what they're feeling. There is no feeling that is wrong. Every feeling is justified, and you should know that you're not the only person feeling that way. There's a huge relief in that. If you have a good book and the author acknowledges and observes an aspect of living you've never seen written down that you've felt your whole life, that, for me, is the absolute mecca of writing. To find the thing we all have felt or observed and somehow put into words can be so hard.
What would you say is your happy place now?
The Rose Garden.
Ah, I'm glad we just took a picture there!
I like it there. I like it here as well and I have my studio up the road, which is also lovely. So between those three places.
The next song on the album is Sunrise which is a simple piano piece, which I love. I think there are three instrumental pieces overall, right?
Yes, there's that, Librium and Sunset.
This is why I feel like the album should be listened to as a full story, from start to finish. It really goes through a full journey.
It's supposed to be a day. The sun comes up and the sun goes down.
I love how these three songs give you the headspace to just 'be' for a little while. It feels like meditation because you're not being fed lyrics the whole time, and when you are, they are few and repeated multiple times. The whole album is such a lovely experience, I found it very comforting. It's not asking much of me, except letting me be with it all, giving me these moments to breathe. And I'm a sucker for gorgeous piano music, and this album is simply your voice and beautiful piano sounds.
Thank you. We really went in on the piano arrangements, a deep dive, the deepest yet of all my albums. There is nothing else and that was inspired by a post from Rick Ruben. Lauri and I saw one of his quotes, which was something like "through arbitrary limitation, the results are boundless", which inspired setting this rule of only including a piano. So many times, I wanted to grab a bass or some drums and stick a beat on it, there were so many moments we stopped ourselves. It challenged me with my piano playing to do more than I have before, not relying on any other instrumentation. You change one note and the whole colour of the song changes. It was sort of like an ice sculptor, chipping away to reveal the final piece.
I'm so glad you managed to resist, this is one of the reasons I love this album. It's so true to its own purpose. What you are singing about in these songs is raw and true, and you're meeting yourself at your barest, so it's beautiful that the music truly reflects that.
The next song is Just Another Thing We Don't Talk About, which I also adore, which goes into communication issues.
To me, this song is the deepest dive on the album. I wrote it with my friend, Max, who is one of my best friends, and it resonates with me the most. Where I've grown up, being a man, and so many of the problems that seem to be ubiquitous in our conversations about what the world is, seem to be that it's a problem with men, and I agree with that. So many of the world's problems are caused by men that aren't able to express their emotions, and I'll even go as far as to say feel emotion. You just have to look at Putin, it's all bravado and pseudo-masculinity in this very fragile sense of ego. It's not isolated to men, obviously.
The inability of us to talk with each other honestly is such a huge problem. So many of us have problems in the relationships we have with one another, caused not by problems we end up having, but by not being able to talk about those problems. The more that mounts up, they grow and grow until essentially there's no room for that relationship to take place because you can no longer ignore the mountains of problems you've been sweeping under the carpet. With problems I have gone through myself, I've had this strange paradox that I've been able to talk about it in my music, but I'm still unable to talk about it amongst people who I love and I still find it so difficult to be vulnerable in front of my family and friends. It's so difficult to not put on a show the whole time, and I feel like so many people are the same, and it's the worst because a problem shared is a problem halved, right? I'm so grateful for when I met Georgie, I owe so much to her and we can share everything with each other. I never thought it would be possible for me to love anyone as much as I love Georgie. So this song means a lot to me, 'cause it feels close to home. It was a real labour of love.
This album is emotionally brave.
It takes getting into a place, and there are periods where I find it difficult to write honestly. But, for me, songwriting only resonates when there's something at the root of it that is honest. I have the fortune of having done it now for a little while, and I guess a lot of the confusion about what your ambitions are when you start out is so intoxicating. I certainly felt like this for a few years. You become unsure about what you're doing. The crazy thing is, after my first album, suddenly I'm employing people. I have a band and crew, so if I don't book gigs... you know, it's putting food on the table for them. Suddenly the innocence is taken out of it. But I've arrived back at a place where I know exactly what my intentions and ambitions are, and my ambitions are very modest. I just want to make music, enjoy making it and create a good piece of art. I have no global domination ambition at all, I just want people to resonate with it. It can be a very small amount of people and I'll be very happy with that.
It will be very interesting to see the reactions to this album.
I think it's very difficult nowadays to get any reaction because there is so much music coming out every week. The greatest thing we can do as artists is to get as close to something you love as possible and hope it eventually finds its way.
I've heard a few young artists talk about the state of the music industry today and the superficiality of it, and how we're beholden by whether a TikTok video goes viral on social media. Having done it for a little while, it was just the same before but with a different set of platforms. 10 years ago, you were beholden by radio pluggers and TV, and now you don't need any of that stuff. You can take control of what you're making. Back then you would be at the mercy of charming these radio stations and that's how the music business worked. It's not like that anymore. It's far from perfect, of course, and still guided by the issue of capitalism. I feel like there's a fatigue that all of us feel, and I resonate with new artists when they talk about the state of the music industry. It's hard for young people in general today, for all people, to make a living.
The Blood We Bleed feels very relatable. I'm picturing those times at Christmas when everyone goes home and comes face-to-face with their families. There's some real talk in here. Talk to me a little bit about where this came from.
It's hard to talk about that one, I'll be honest with you. I think the words in that song do the talking. The line that best reflects it is: "Come on, let's fight. Don't be polite. You Know the knife that cuts me deep. You treat me tough, we call it love. But it's your blood I'm gonna bleed." I'm proud of those lines. As we grow older, we realize that rather than those you never quite managed to love, it's those you do love that you end up hurting the most. All the pain we feel the deepest is directly or indirectly caused by someone we love. So that song is a meditation on that and my relationships with those that I love the most. I've come to understand that when we hurt someone else, we hurt ourselves probably more.
Your press release says that it hurts you to listen to that song, but you decided not to stand in the way of emotional truth, which is beautiful. If we see your album as a meditation, each song is an opportunity to meditate on things in our lives. The next song, Giving A Fuck, is interesting. I love how comfortable you are with self-reflection. You say, "People telling me I'm not enough. People saying my music sucks. It used to hurt me so much. Don't give a fuck anymore". There's something really beautiful about that, and I want to put a light on your mental health journey a little bit. It sounds like you've come full circle and let go of some stuff.
I thought it would be quite funny to have that in a song. 'People think my music sucks', as I'm singing the music. [laughs] In retrospect, I realise from my own career that I did give a fuck more than I let on. Criticism of my music affected me in ways that weren't apparent at the time, I found it very hard. My first album was very popular and it divided people, which I think, in hindsight is good, but we were living in a different era of press and journalism. Some of them were so nasty about my music and about me, I was just 21 years old. There was this assumption that because I'd been hyped up, it was okay to treat somebody like that, but it's not okay to treat anybody like that. I think, today people are more responsible with what they write and I don't think anyone would write that. It really fucked with my head because I was a very vulnerable human being, and I wasn't headstrong. It was a schizophrenic situation because, on the one hand, I was getting adoration because the album was number one, and on the other hand, to read in a magazine that you've read since were a teenager, that 'there's a place in hell reserved for Tom Odell'... I thought: 'what have I done wrong?' At the time, I just brushed it off and was like; 'I don't fucking care', but in reality, I found it very traumatising. It also created distrust in the media and journalists, so much so that I probably never gave a truthful interview, and very rarely did I say anything honestly, because I was so in fear of having something similar done.
There's been this misconception about me, that because I was blonde and speak well, I've grown up with immense privilege. I got to go to a private school because I got a full music scholarship. I do acknowledge that as a white person, I do have an amount of privilege, but my parents never could have afforded to send me to a private school. So, I worked my ass off at that school and I worked all through my teenage years. But I got to a point where I realised people will always create the image they want to create, and I will never be able to control that image. That was the eureka moment for me, where I realised that all I can do is to be myself and as honest as possible, to put out stuff into the world I think is good and high quality.
Which brings us back to letting go.
Yes, it's relinquishing control. It's a surrender.
The album then takes us to another solo, giving us some headspace, and then we have Flying :)).
Flying is one of the last songs we wrote for the album. We started with euphoric joy, Beach Boys. You've got this moment of nihilism, surrender and relinquishing control of Giving A Fuck, and then you come Flying, which is a moment of relief and letting go.
The album takes you through the full emotional spectrum because next, we have Enemy, which dives into your anxiety around being scared of being judged by people seeing the real you. And here you are, making an album like this, available for everyone to hear. What does putting this honest album out do to your anxiety?
I feel fine with that, it doesn't scare me at all. I think I'm so used to putting music out now that it feels like second nature.
How do you stay on top of your anxiety? What kind of tools or methods do you have in your mental health toolbox?
There are lots of self-maintenance things I do on a daily basis, like meditating, which helps. I don't drink very much anymore, just to celebrate something rather than use it as an escape or relief. I don't smoke anymore. I exercise a lot and that helps. But all of these things don't solve it. I feel like the mental health space has been corrupted and become a billion-dollar business, and I don't want to feel like I'm contributing to that.
There is no solution to your issues that is easy, it's hard. It comes in waves, you go through good periods and bad periods. Everybody is different. For me, the most important thing is talking about it and being open about not feeling okay, not putting a brave face on it. I think that's the biggest solution. For me, I think all the other things like yoga and meditation help a little bit, but they're not the solution. If you have any trauma or are experiencing something on that level, there's probably something you need to deal with. I can't speak for everyone else, but my experience is that there's something that needs to be faced, and I don't even know if I've totally faced that thing. I'm still trying to work out exactly what it is.
With any mental health experience, people love to say "so are you healed now", but it's not so black and white.
No, it's not binary. Nothing is on or off. We're living in a world which seems to see things in that way; good and bad, on and off, depressed or happy, right or left. It seems everything is seen through that lens.
There's a brutality to Enemy that is touching upon that ugliness, that bit of you that you don't want to show to the world, the bit of your anxiety or whatever it is that you're ashamed of. When we recorded it, we put on the scene from Marriage Story where Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are screaming at each other. We turned the sound off and put the song on top, and it was a wonderful marriage (excuse the pun) of the picture and the song because whilst the song is more about my relationship with myself and my mind. It's about being betrayed by your mind and realising your mind is not telling you the truth, not giving you the reality of the situation. Betrayal is such a strong, crazy feeling and it's very present in so many aspects of our lives. I'm happy with that song. It is brutal and I think it can be interpreted, even from my own experience, in multiple ways.
As the album starts to round itself off, there's then Monday and Sunset, which is the final instrumental. It sounds quite hopeful. Then the final song is Smiling All The Way Back Home, which is the finale of the story. The sun has set, and the day is over.
Smiling All The Way Back Home I've had knocking around for a few years. I had the phrase, but I couldn't work out the rest of it. I was afraid I couldn't work out what it meant, and when I was making The Best Day Of My Life, I realised there was a beautiful phrase in regards to having met someone and knowing intuitively that this person was the beginning of something new. My experience of that was with Georgie, and there was this very magical period where I had been down for so long, we found each other at a moment and it was so intuitive. I wouldn't be overly sentimental if I didn't mean it, but from the moment I saw her, I fell in love with her. I felt it in every cell of my body, and since we met, we never stop talking. I feel so much gratitude to have met her when I did. Even if I was to die tomorrow, I would feel great gratitude to have felt that. So that song, for me, was the perfect way to finish the album.
The whole album was recorded with a cloth between the hammers and the strings, which we put there. We found this rug-type thing and it mutes all the pillows to this incredibly soft sound throughout the whole album, and on the final track, we removed the rug. It finishes the album on a very positive note. It was interesting, it's at night and the scene is having met someone and you're going home on your own, but you're happy that you've met them. Finishing on this positive note brings us full circle. In a way, you get the full day.
This is one of the most beautiful albums I've heard in a long time. It's minimalist genius-ness.
Oh, thank you, that means a lot.
It's so bare, it's so honest. Only your piano and your voice. It's unpretentious. It's not fireworks and trying to be pretty on the surface, it simply speaks the truth. It's like musical meditation - I think it's so lovely.
Oh, that's great. I'm pleased you like it, that really means a lot.
It's just my honest experience of it. I think it would be wonderful to see it live.
Ah yes, I'm looking forward to doing some solo concerts with it. The frustrating thing has been putting it out like we have, but I'm happy because we're giving some space to each of the songs. But ultimately, I think this album should be listened to as a whole.
I agree, I feel like it's one cohesive story. Let's speak a little bit about the piano because it plays such a key part. It's so stunning. I know you took inspiration from Eric Satie, but I'm also getting hints of Ludovico Einaudi and Olafur Arnalds. The piano on this album reminds me of the same sense of magic that their sounds create, and on top of these gorgeous piano sounds sits your voice. It's such a stunning combination.
I didn't know about Olafur until last year, but I've been a fan of Ludovico for a while, and I've got into Olafur since and he's wonderful. Philip Glass is another one, he is really fantastic.
In our last interview, you described playing the piano as taming a wild beast.
That Sounds like the kind of rubbish I come up with. [laughs]
How would you, now seven years later, describe your relationship with the piano for this album?
Well, definitely not that. [laughs] The way I play the piano on this album is not intuitively how I play the piano. I'd say there's a huge influence of Laurie, who is a highly proficient classical player. His influence on my piano playing has been huge. Obviously, you meet somewhere in the middle, but it would be amiss of me to not acknowledge the influence of classical music in these piano arrangements. There's so much Bach. The thing about classical music, and this is a sweeping statement, is that there is a precision to what you're doing. Whilst I did learn classically until I was 14, I very much rebelled against it. For me, it was all feeling the whole time, and it has made me the musician I am, real abandon and expression. But I do think bringing back some precision and a lot of consideration over why I'm playing isn't intuitive to me, so it was a very interesting experiment. Some of the pinnacle elements that I'm proud of I owe to Laurie.
For the piano lovers out there, will the sheet music be available?
Yes, we're working on it.
Great! Your latest music videos have some great animation.
Yes, that's been really great. I've been working with Manshen Lo. She's a wonderful animator, I found her work online and fell in love with it. It was like love at first sight, I'm obsessed with her work. Her drawings are beautiful. I wanted to animate the music on the album and we were watching a lot of Studio Ghibli stuff, which I'm obsessed with. Manshen is Chinese and she's learned to draw in a very particular way. Having worked with her quite deeply on this project, I think she's a really inspiring woman, an artist. It's been such one of the great honours of my career to work with her.
The videos are as beautiful and haunting as the music. We talked about this slight discomfort of repetitive elements, and these animations marry really nicely with your words.
She totally gets it. From the moment we met, it's been a dream working with her. She has a total artistic license on it because I love her work so much, it's really her interpreting the songs. It's such a lovely experience, and it's so lovely for me to see my music interpreted. It is so beautiful, I feel like I'm going to make many albums like that.
In our last conversation, we talked about innocence and loss of innocence as you're growing up. Seven years later, do you have any left?
Yeah, I think so. If anything, I feel lighter. I reckon I had a bit of the world on my shoulders then being signed to Sony. I had so much pressure on me to be a success. Being out of that system got my lightness back. I feel, not just free, but I can dream again. The thing I've realised about being an artist is it's so good to do it for a while because you learn stuff, but so much of my job is creating a space in which the music can come out, where it can come to life. It's realising that you're at the mercy of the world, at the mercy of an infinite amount of variables. You have to be in the present and that's why it's so nice when you just stop trying. Suddenly everything starts working.