Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Tom Odell 17a by Chris Almeida 2018

Telling Stories

22 October 2018, 22:15
Words by Emma Finamore
Original Photography by Chris Almeida

Tom Odell tells Emma Finamore about building imaginary worlds and forever being the outsider looking in.

"The feeling I can best describe it as is this great relief that I'd finally taken these very heavy, muddy shoes off my feet after many years of walking around in them,” says Ivor Novello-winning songwriter and pianist, Tom Odell.

“This sense that I’d arrived somewhere and I could stop and unclench my jaw, and I could relax. I think as soon as I relaxed, after years of travelling and trying, I suddenly saw so much more and felt inspired to write this album." He’s remembering the time he moved into an East London street, where the community and way of life he found propelled him into his latest record, Jubilee Road – a pseudonym for the real-life place that inspired its songs.

Although rooted in the present – framed by a contemporary street and its inhabitants – Jubilee Road is a record that also glances back over its shoulder, in the direction of the 1970s. Odell says he listened to Whatever's for Us a lot while writing – the debut album of British singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading – and that his love of this vintage genre infuses his work in the present with a gospel, bluesy hue. "She's amazing, one of my favourite artists,” says Odell. “And I've always been interested in Dr. John, Leon Russell, all those blues artists. And undeniably, this album is influenced by the 1970s. Elton John's Yellow Brick Road is one of my favourite albums, and there's this album by Billy Joel called Turnstiles – that really influenced me."

Literature of the past creeps into this new body of work too; it’s something of an obsession for Odell. "Books influenced it just as much as music. I would call myself a big reader, and I think it’s because I didn’t go to university. When I was about 19 I said to myself, 'I'm going to read all the classics, and then I’m going to read as much as I can to learn as much as possible.’ And that hasn’t faded over the years – I still dedicate a lot of time to reading."

He cites John Updike – "I was reading a lot of Updike when I was writing the album." – alongside greats like Graham Greene and John Steinbeck as looming large, and as helping him become a storyteller. "It's just the words,” he explains. “Literature inspires the 'word' side of my brain. I wouldn’t say I was born a natural writer, but through ferocious reading and writing I am able to express myself a little clearer with words than I was before. I guess there has always been a desire to tell a story but when I was younger I didn’t necessarily have the pen to tell it or write it down.”

"I can feel all this confusion, but then I sit at a piano...suddenly there is just utter calm. Everything seems to make sense, and there is possibility.”

Moving into a house in East London – along with a girlfriend, a cat, a dog, and a street inhabited by a longstanding community – helped clear this writer’s block, freeing Odell to reimagine the lives of the people on his street and tell these new stories through song. Initially, he didn’t want to write songs, but was drawn back to the creative process by his new environment and new life. “My piano was in the living room, and every night I’d see this family who lived exactly opposite on the same level sit down for dinner, and that just set me off thinking about my own family,” he explains.

“I’m unquenchably obsessed with the piano. I always have been, and it never goes away. The only way I can describe it is, I can feel all this confusion, but then I sit at a piano, and as soon as I feel my knees under the keyboard and I play a chord, and I feel the music come up, suddenly there is just utter calm. Everything seems to make sense, and there is possibility.”

Odell began seeing narratives all around him, through a new lens. “There was this couple that were about to get married, who I got really friendly with. My sister was getting married at the same time, and me and my girlfriend were just getting quite serious as well, so we were having this moment, where we bought a cat and stuff, and I was just experiencing these things for the first time. Through all these other people’s lives, I saw stories, even more clearly than I would about my own life. So I pretty much wrote the whole album there in this house, through the year.”

These stories can be heard in the lyrics of Jubilee Road – the opening track’s scene-setting of the street’s colourful community, or and the whiskey-shaking gamblers in the local betting shop on “Queen Of Diamonds” – but the street lives in the music too. Odell recorded most the tracks in the living room of the house and if you listen back closely, you can still hear the sound of the old man’s TV seeping through the walls from next door, the kids from the house opposite playing football in the street below, and the sound of his girlfriend’s footsteps on the wooden floorboards above.

"I have this great desire to just sell all my possessions, to sell my house and everything that holds me back"

It was a sense of home that Odell hadn’t found for a long time, but (now that he no longer lives on the street that inspired Jubilee Road) it’s one he’s not sure he’s in a hurry to get back. "There's a great quote I read from Michael Palin, that he could only enjoy travelling when he knew he had somewhere to go back to,” he says. “I thought that was interesting about travelling – because I'm back in that kind of vagrant lifestyle now – and recently I was toying with the idea...I have this great desire to just sell all my possessions, to sell my house and everything that holds me back. Live completely freely. I can't shake this feeling I've had. But one of my good friends – Davy, who's a bit older than me – said he's done that and it's really terrifying. There's so much emphasis today on possessions, and it’s a complete illusion. We define our personalities and characters on things we own."

"I don't know what I would get out of it, a weightlessness maybe? That would be nice. It seems quite appealing right now."

Odell is deeply concerned about the trappings of modern life – our sleeping patterns being messed up by our social media addictions, the importance we place on belongings – and rightly so, but paradoxically his route into music was shaped by the very phenomenon that makes many of us anxious about the contemporary world: the internet.

"It's quite interesting that my musical tastes were inspired by the fact that I got Lime Wire when I was 15,” he says. “I just heard everything, I went on an expedition – I tried to find everything. And you normally didn’t even get the album version; you'd often get a weird live version. I remember having a Jeff Buckley live EP, Led Zeppelin, Supertramp, Elvis Costello...I immediately was drawn to the 1970s. I think the singer-songwriter thing was really appealing."

It’s notable that he felt drawn to singer-songwriters, a way of making music that – at least at the beginning of the process – is a lone activity. In an interview with Vogue last year, Odell said: “I've always felt like the outsider, it's part of being a songwriter. You're always staring through the frosty window rather than being in the bar. I'm much more of an observer.”

"I was in a place where I was ready to revel in a community and to feel like I belonged somewhere"

This feeling hasn’t changed, and seems to be a core part of the way Odell sees himself – as a person and an artist. "It definitely helps with song writing. I don't think I've ever been part of a group. I realised the other day, all my friends rarely cross and I can never get them to cross. But if I ever feel like I'm becoming part of a group I sort of extricate myself. I'm a jogger rather than a football player. I think its an issue with me, I think I'm a bit bad that way. I’m just thinking…maybe this whole album is about how I've never belonged to a community, and trying to build one in the music, because I can't build it in real life."

"It [the street] was special to me. I don’t know whether it was the place I was in, or the eyes I was seeing it through, or if the road really was was like any other road that you could go and live on but I was in a place where I was ready to revel in a community and to feel like I belonged somewhere."

Odell says we can see this different attitude throughout the new record, and it’s a move on from past work: "All the songs, they all come back to this idea of community. It's a warmer body of work – you can hear more positivity. And rather than fretting over the imperfections that are definitely present, I think it’s more celebratory. It celebrates imperfection, like that great Leonard Cohen quote about the cracks letting the light in. I can't help but agree with that." The album even features a duet with German-Canadian pop star Alice Merton (Odell told a journalist recently that “Islands in the Stream” performed by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, but written by the Bee Gees, is his favourite ever duet) – another sign that, at least for a brief moment, Odell wanted to let other people in.

His positivity allowed him to try out a different type of lyricism too, combining a love of novels and narrative, with the people he found himself surrounded by. "There's an older gentleman named Russ who I wrote quite a few songs around, and who I still see,” Odell explains. “He's an actor – he's amazing, really charismatic. I wrote a song about him that's not on the album called “Mr B” and it's funny how a lot of the characters on Jubilee Road started out as those people but they didn’t end up that way. The people that live on the road the album's inspired by would probably struggle to recognise themselves, and they'd probably struggle to even recognise the road "

His subjects developed and took on lives of their own, in a similar way to those of one of his literary heroes. "There's a great interview with John Updike – I got really into watching John Updike interviews on YouTube – and he's so candid about writing,” smiles Odell. “He says the great books are the ones where, with the characters, it's almost like you have no control over them. They go off and do things and you're just trying to get it all down on paper, as if you're sitting in the corner of a restaurant watching it all unfold. I think that’s so wonderful.

"I think just by writing about your own world and doing it truthfully, hopefully you reflect a wider world, not just your street"

"They ask him what inspired him to write and he says that anyone who devotes themselves to writing is truly just a lover of life. “He says the reason he writes is his insatiable love of life, and he has to find a way of putting it into something else. I love that. And without wanting to compare myself in any way to a great writer like John Updike, I can relate to that.”

Maybe part of telling stories of a street are a way of Odell not only finding a community but of reflecting concerns about society as a whole? "I'd love to say I was consciously thinking about that,” he says. “But I think just by writing about your own world and doing it truthfully, hopefully you reflect a wider world, not just your street. I'd say this album is most centred on someone that's 27, rather than any other age. It touches on what I feel like it is to be 27 right now, what it feels like to be in this slightly lost generation.

"It feels like there's this very loud voice that’s not being listened to. The inequality is just insane. There's greater inequality now than ever, the wealth is all held by the old, so young people have less and less power. Donald Trump and Brexit...I feel like it's so symbolic of the youth losing their power. The fact that no one that’s 27 can afford a house. I wrote the album while all this stuff was going on – January/February last year – and I remember watching Trump's inauguration, feeling like I was watching Armageddon. The songs touch on this – “Son Of An Only Child” is about anger and frustration towards the baby boomers, the irresponsibility of the baby boomers. And 'Jubilee Road' is all about this moment when the older people look at the young people and say, 'Why don't you do anything?' And they say, 'We don't do anything because there aren't any jobs, apart from working for Uber or Deliveroo.' I think the most terrifying thing is that it's just the start.”

Odell clearly doesn’t feel optimistic about the future, and despite his brief moment being part of a community, it seems he’s ready to withdraw again. Although his new record is full of the sights and sounds of a typical, busy London street, he yearns for something more isolated: "My desire right now, if I’m being honest, is to live on a mud track with no houses anywhere near me, with no community and nothing at all around, in the middle of nowhere.

“I just want to hear the birds, that's it. In a country like those Lars von Trier films – countryless, stateless." It might sound a little bleak – especially from an artist that some listeners might associate with warm, cosy John Lewis adverts, or sensitive ballads – but Tom Odell’s found his voice now, and he’s using it.

Jubilee Road is released on 26 October via Columbia Records
Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next