- Photography by Mr Dima Hohlov
- Styling by MR Tony Cook, Junior Fashion Editor, MR PORTER
- Words by Mr Dan Cairns
On the final day of last month's Glastonbury Festival, Mr Tom Odell performed in the giant tent otherwise known as the John Peel Stage. Thousands gathered in sweltering conditions to hear the winner of the 2013 Brits Critics' Choice award perform songs from his debut album, Long Way Down. In an atmosphere that resembled a born-again convention, Mr Odell gave his life and soul to the show, and duly took the roof off. Nobody there queried his artistic bona fides, or processed his music through a filter of cynicism. And yet, six days before his triumphant set at Worthy Farm, the 22-year-old Chichester-born singer had been caught up in a media firestorm when his father, enraged by a scathing, 0/10 review of Long Way Down in NME, had telephoned the music magazine to make his feelings plain. News of both the review and the phone call quickly went viral, with Ms Lily Allen - who signed Mr Odell to her record label - taking to Twitter to defend him. Over the course of the next few days, the release of the album looked set to be framed solely within NME's terms of reference. Mr Odell had other ideas, however, and two trump cards up his sleeve. One of these was his ability to create musical alchemy in a live setting, a trick he displayed on that Sunday afternoon in Somerset; the other was played later that same day, when Long Way Down entered the UK album chart at No.1. Which is, by anybody's standards, a pretty emphatic riposte.
Going from basically being unknown to
doing 15 interviews in one day - that
was a bit of a jump, to put it mildly
A few weeks later, sitting on a Shoreditch rooftop, Mr Odell has reason to be pleased with how things have panned out. Understandably, he approaches the NME story with caution. "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion," he says affably, before wielding the most subtle of knives. "It gave them the most publicity they've had in about three years. Good on them. But it's not going to affect how I make music." In any case, he continues, he has had to contend with as much scepticism as enthusiasm ever since his crowning as the first male recipient of the Brits Critics' Choice award - previous winners include Mses Florence Welch, Adele and Emeli Sandé - was announced at the beginning of the year. "Winning the award was a huge blessing," he says. "But at the same time it meant that there would be people turning up to my shows who wouldn't have turned up otherwise; you know, standing there stroking their chins. I think that's stopped now, but for a few months that was definitely a difficulty. We've defeated that now.
"I don't think there are many times in most people's careers where you go from basically being unknown to being put in a position where you're suddenly doing 15 interviews in one day. That was a bit of a jump, to put it mildly. My biggest issue was that there I was spending all my time talking about music and none actually making it, and I never want to be in that situation again. It's so not the reason I do this."
The album artwork for Long Way Down
Some critics observed that Long Way Down was too polished, too targeted to truly connect on an emotional level, and Mr Odell himself implies a degree of acceptance that such criticism had some validity. "One of the most difficult things about music is finding a way to let the power of it, the emotion of it, get through all the obstacles and problems that can prevent the songs coming across. With the album, my only ambition was to make something that was completely unguarded, but, yes, there are still guards in there. But those times at gigs are when all those guards are dropped, the audience's, mine - that's when people really get it. I still think the best way to listen to Long Way Down is live."
He is certainly a blood-and-guts, fire-and-brimstone performer, running his fingers, Sir Elton Elton style, down the keyboard, unruly blond hair falling over his face, pounding his piano like a modern-day Mr Jerry Lee Lewis. Songs such as "Hold Me", "Another Love" and "Can't Pretend" draw on influences including Mr David Bowie, Sir Elton, Mr Tom Waits, Coldplay and Mr Ed Harcourt, building from bare bones to become rip-roaring, declamatory anthems that sweep audiences up in their fervour. To Mr Odell, that fact alone is a victory to savour. "The maddest thing about it all is the thought of writing "Another Love" in my bedroom at home, and then playing it at Glastonbury. It's just the weirdest thing, and I'll never get over that. I want to have that feeling for the rest of my life. I just think that the idea of the song is still one of the most powerful forms of art there is; it's so accessible yet it can have so much depth, and it doesn't leave anyone out."
The maddest thing about it all is the thought of writing 'Another Love' in my bedroom and then playing it at Glastonbury. It's just the weirdest thing
The singer admits that his optimism is often hard-won, and that there will always be a disconnect between the insular nature of songwriting and the inclusivity of performing live - but he is clearly determined to remain focused on the positives. "I never dreamt I'd have a No.1 album, but I did. And the day after that happened, I got back from Glastonbury and wrote about five songs; I was completely inspired. There are people that get it and people that don't, but the fact that anyone gets it is such a genuine joy."
He has, he adds, nothing to complain about. "You get those moments occasionally with music where everything suddenly makes sense, where everyone in the tent, or in the room, seems to agree on something. It's a rocky old journey, I think, for all of us, but those moments make it incredibly meaningful." Next stop is the US, where he and his band toured in the spring. He's determined to triumph there, he says, though he recognises he may have to ramp up the showmanship to do so. "I'm slowly breaking out of my English reserve and politeness," he chuckles. "I'm getting there." Will he succeed across the pond? Well, it depends on the cards Mr Odell has up his sleeve. On current form, though, you wouldn't want to bet against him.