Over breakfast burritors, we talked about nihilism, neoliberalism, and aiming for joy with How to Dress Well, a.k.a. Tom Krell.
Running late for our interview and photo shoot, Tom Krell texted me: "What should I wear LOL." An artist called How to Dress Well should have known—but I texted back, "Follow ur heart." A short time later, he showed up to Echo Park Lake wearing a powder-pink shirt bearing a Saiman Chow drawing of a person and a dog engaging in mouth-to-mouth.
Krell—raised in Boulder, Colorado, and schooled in Chicago—moved to Los Angeles in January, and the cheerful August day served as a better argument in favor of the relocation than any other. Palm trees foregrounded a faraway view of Downtown LA, and dogs and children, both of which constantly distracted Krell from our conversation, populated the sidewalks. "Oh my God," he remarked at the sight of a newborn baby, "it's like watching Planet Earth." For someone who's become notorious for dropping bleak aphorisms in the middle of interviews—"Everything is terrible," he told Noisey in 2014, while promoting his third studio album, What Is This Heart?—Krell was a far more cheerful conversationalist than such sound bites might suggest. "I want one," he told me, still observing the baby. "But not, like, really. It's just too much work. But I definitely want one. They smell so goddamn good."
Krell spoke like he was only half-aware he had an audience, with a kind of stream of consciousness that produces language bewildering to the listener and taken for granted by the speaker. "I'm definitely, like, a very thought-oriented person," he said. "I like to talk and think. I talk constantly. I don't really know how to not talk. I don't really have a rich inner life."
How to Dress Well's recently released fourth studio album, Care, reveals a singer and producer who has moved away from the atmospheric moodiness that characterized his previous music. The first single, "Lost Youth/Lost You," an energetic pop song produced by Jack Antonoff, lyrically maintains some of the darkness that has long characterized his work but is animated by an exuberance that was previously absent. "I say I think I know what love is now / I think I got it figured out," sings Krell in the hook. "But then the second that I open my mouth / I want to change my heart again." The song defers to the conventions of glossy pop music without entirely surrendering Krell's compulsive tendency toward somberness, as does the rest of the album. He sings about a happiness that is constantly fleeting and a safety that is under constant threat.
"Care is a truly joyous record—I hope that hearing it brings you pleasure above all else :)," Krell wrote on his site a few months before the release, teasing the album to his fans. "Joyous" was never a qualifier one could use to describe Krell's music. But on Care, there's a lot less obfuscation than his previous albums, which were praised by critics for his elaborate arrangements of sound. "Maybe I felt like I needed to make it a little harder on people before," he told me. "Almost like, if you want to like this, you have to pass through this gauntlet of challenges. On [Care], I was just like, Fuck it, let's just go for pleasure." Pleasure was decidedly not a priority for Love Remains, his first studio album, with its muddy vocals and heavy instrumentals—he told Pitchfork that he wanted to make an album that sounded as "depressed as I felt." "When I was first making the songs from Love Remains, if I started making something beautiful, I couldn't stop because I was afraid it was going to disappear."
He followed that up with Total Loss in 2012, which he wrote after the deaths of his best friend and his uncle. During that time, Krell was also working on a PhD in philosophy at DePaul University, writing a dissertation on nihilism, a fact that became a fixation for music journalists interested in emphasizing the "cerebral" aspects of his music (but which Krell downplays.) "I'm like, 'Yeah, I read all the unpublished letters in German that Jacobi wrote to, I don't know, the pupils of Mendelssohn,'" he said. "You'd be like, 'I don't give a fuck.' That's so lame. It's just not that cool." His academic history becomes evident in the way he talks, spontaneously flinging himself into a brief overview of neoliberalism in the middle of a conversation about pleasure in art. "The American logic is so dark," he said, in between bites of a squash blossom breakfast burrito. "We are the generation that is the first real lab test of this mode of political-economic reality. It's like, 40 years old, neoliberalism." He sings about this logic, the accumulation of debt, and "normalized anti-sympathy" on the 11th track of the album, "They'll Take Everything You Have."
"He's very academic-minded, but then he has this ability to distill or synthesize everything in this really childlike, naïve, innocent way," said his Care collaborator Kara-Lis Coverdale, a Montreal-based artist. It was important, Krell told me, for him to have women on the album. "I've had the luxury of working with a lot of dope women over the last few years, and then you're just like, Oh, why doesn't anybody know Kara-Lis's music?" he said. Coverdale, a composer and church organist whose haunting arrangements have earned her the praise of—at least—the Guardian, worked with Krell on "What's Up?," the second single off the album. "When my body's gone, tell 'em what made me sing / Say it was you," sings Krell, in lyrics that, again, demonstrate his refusal to abandon darkness.
"If I started making something beautiful, I couldn't stop because I was afraid it was going to disappear." —Tom Krell
On Care, optimism is generated despite the sorrow of existence, and not in opposition to it. He sings these lyrics to "Anxious" against frenetic pop instrumentals: "Why am I addicted to such attention? / When all I want is that love and affection. / Had a nightmare about my Twitter mentions— / Wonder why I feel so vacant, / And wake up so anxious?" (Coverdale called Krell an "internet wizard," adding that he originally reached out to her via Twitter direct messages.) Capitalism, he said, has produced a generation overwrought with anxiety and mental illness, and constantly on guard because "life is dangerous." But counter to this argument, he also insisted that "life is lit." How does one stay "lit" under capitalism? I asked. "Antidepressants. Coffee. My friends. My art. And then also, like, privilege," he answered.
When What Is This Heart? was released in 2014, it represented a more conscious shift toward a pop sound, with a more deliberate focus on lyricism; still, it remained persistently melancholic. Back then, he told a journalist that he wanted to make music that was pop but not populist. "I just meant something that has a value that's not counterfeit, but that's not, like, elitist, and not for a select subset of listeners who are like, 'Yeah, reminds me of Suicide and, like, Japanese noise from whatever,'" he explained to me now. "I'm not into that kind of elitism anymore." His musical tastes are wide-ranging, from Carly Rae Jepsen to Young Thug to Sheryl Crow—recently, he posted a video to his Instagram singing lines from Crow's "Strong Enough" in his signature falsetto. Later in the day, he played a few songs from the new Rae Sremmurd album. He told me he thinks Rihanna made one of the best albums of the year with Anti.
Krell strives to make songs that bridge the gaps between these musical tastes, and that is how he approached the production of Care. "I'll be like, 'You know what would be sick?' If there was a song that started in a folky register and went so that I could put Joni Mitchell on one side of it and Deafheaven on the other side of it," he said. "What's the transitional song?" He contacted producers like Grammy-nominated composer CFCF, dancehall producer Dre Skull, recording engineer Laura Sisk, and Coverdale. He aspired to an "aesthetic beserkness" and an "aesthetic courage," he said, defining these concepts as "the confidence and freedom to just play with elements and try out things." They lent themselves to an album that is sonically frenzied but tightly crafted.
"I'm way more playful and experimental [on this album]," Krell said. "When I finished making this record, I was like, Oh yeah, there's so much defensiveness and control and fearfulness and shit in those records," he said of his last three releases. Which is not to say he doesn't love those albums, but Care exhibits a clear evolution of skill. And what he had on this album that he didn't have on other albums was time. "I just went more slowly this time, really thought a lot about what I want art to be," he said.
So, I asked: "How do you want art to be?"
He answered, "That's not a one-liner. You literally can't ask that question." And then, because he couldn't help himself: "I don't know, joyous and liberating."