It’s an interesting time, career-wise, for us to be checking in with Chicago-based singer-songwriter How To Dress Well. It’s been about six months since he put out his third album, What Is This Heart?, a release that marked a noticeable shift in Krell’s output to date. Gone were the echoey, distorted vocals of his previous work and in favour of a more lucid lyrical style. To add to that, the production focus shifted from deconstructionist R&B to more tonally uplifting aural set pieces and the lo-fi feel of his previous two albums made way for maybe the clearest expression yet of Krell’s singular and soulful engineering as a musician. It’s an awesome, grandiose, romantic offering; without having lost any of the introspective fragility we love of Krell (just so long as he never ditches that incredible falsetto).
Sugar Mountain Festival is probably one of the most artistic, and imaginative independent events on the Australian festival scene in recent years; musicians performing there are known for pulling out some awesome interactive stuff with artists – will there be a creative element to your Sugar Mountain set?
Yeah, I’m really looking forward to it, some festivals just want you to go onstage and play your songs and be done so this is a really nice opportunity. I’ve been working for a while now with a multimedia artist named Melissa Matos, whose artist name is TRUSSST, she and I have developed a pretty elaborate video installation that Australia will see at Sugar Mountain.
Was she the same artist who did the visuals during your last set of Australian shows? I remember during the open-air show you performed at Perth Festival a couple of years ago, you wore a white shirt and images were projected from the front, so they appeared across your face and body.
I was working with a different visual artist then, the visual aspect of my show has progressed heaps since then.
“…[this album] made me way more way more reflective over structure and sonic details, and I had to make what I created count.”
In June of last year you released your third studio album, What Is This Heart?. You’ve said, as opposed to your prior albums Love Remains (2010) and Total Loss (2012), this album taught you to be more patient, and look at the music in a new way, as you were writing the album on tour, so you were faced with multiple interruptions. Could you elaborate on this?
Yeah, it led to a more complex album, a more detailed and more focused release, I think. When I first started making music it was just happening to me, I wasn’t really that thoughtful about it, I wasn’t really inspired in the classic sense of that term. I didn’t feel like I had control over what was happening. When I first put Love Remains out, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to write another song, or if it would be a weird fluke thing… like a sickness. Then I started writing again but when Total Loss came out, I’d written hours worth of material, maybe 400 songs. Doing this latest album on tour meant I had to continually re-visit things and not just having eight hours to obsess over a song, it Doing this latest album on tour meant I had to continually re-visit things and not just having eight hours to obsess over a song, it made me way more way more reflective over structure and sonic details, and I had to make what I created count.
It’s been four years since Love Remains. Your profile’s increased, the publicity’s really come and sought you out, even though you’ve traditionally been quite low key in terms of press. A lot of people know your name now. How do you deal with all the attention and noise? Is there a place where you can still find solace?
I actually have more time than ever in the studio now, as a result of being able to work on my music full time now, and not have to do other jobs, so I find plenty of peace spending days there. The weirdest thing for me is that, I still think I make music that’s not super accessible – like, stuff that’s not for everyone. My music is not… populist pop. So it’s strange to me that I’m experiencing this semi-fame. The other day I just went and had some dinner in the neighbourhood I live in, in Chicago, I was just trying to eat a burrito, and these two people came up and were really excited to see me, said they were big How to Dress Well fans, excited to discover I lived in their neighbourhood. It’s a different ball game now. Going out to bars at night type thing…I live in a pretty hip area in Chicago, so now going to a bar or cafe has a different vibe to it. So I stay home and hang in my studio more and more these days. And go out less and less.
The emotional moments on What Is This Love? can get quite specific, there’s a conversational aspect to lots of them with what seems like real people. On the track House Inside, you’re singing about your mother, and things she’s said to you, on Precious Love you’re talking to a lover perhaps, about a relationship that’s bringing out the worst in you. Is there an open dialogue between you and your family and friends about your music?
There’s a lot of support for my music from my family, not so much a dialogue. Like you know what I mean, I have a friend whose a machinist, he cuts parts for engines of cars. I know he does this, but we don’t dialogue about it. The music’s just not personal in that way. There’s no themes or names… things are ambiguous. My music’s confessional but I always end up making it more abstract, I expand it out into more universal themes so it becomes less about me.
I try to be tactful. I never have a song where I blame anyone or anything. Part of being honest is cutting the difference between your take of something and the real story.
The track with RL Grime is great, Reminder. That’s a collaboration that I didn’t expect to see, but I think his epic builds work well with the swelling emotion in your lyrics. How did that collaboration come about?
Henry sent me basically just drums, a drum track, and was like ‘what do you think of this tempo? And I was like, ‘There’s nothing on this track. So I played some piano on it, sang a little bit, sent him back a demo. Henry was like ‘cool, let me spend a few days with it.’ Then he sent me back basically a produced, then I structured it, the verses and everything, then went in the studio and sang it. It was pretty easy and open. It’s pretty rare a producer would send you just a drum production, usually they have a song ready that they want to do, and they just need a top line singer. But Henry’s a lot more into inter-collaboration. My initial goal was to just rap on it, then I ended up rap-singing.
Have you worked with Henry/RL Grime on anything prior to that?
When I was working on What Is This Heart? Henry sent me a few things to sing on, but nothing clicked. It was more in the style of his older music. Then I think he realised it didn’t make sense to work like that…Like, I’m not going to sing on a dubstep song.
The A.G. Cook remix of Repeat Pleasure for the remix EP is awesome. Did you reach out to him for that?
Of course. I asked everybody whose on the remix CD to do the remixes. A.G. Cook’s mix for DIS Magazine had just come out, I went and saw him and a couple of other people DJ, and he was just a goofball, he was a nerd… we hit it off right away. I was like you should do a remix of my song, and he was like ‘I don’t do remixes’ and I was like “well, yeah you should listen to it and see if you want to” and he loved it and said he’d do it. It’s cool, I dont think he’s gonna do any remixes for anyone all year.
“…everyone’s catching onto the PC Music stuff, but sadly, I think it’s going to be short-lived. It’s just too weird. American college guys will not dance to it.”
A.G. Cook’s label, PC Music, is a pretty divisive label. They’re underground in the sense that they keep an anonymous profile and give away their stuff for free, but their stuff is so bright and pop-styled. It just seems like this massive in-joke between the producers involved sometimes – like a parody of pop music. But then, they’re edging into the actual pop mainstream – i.e. SOPHIE just produced a lot of Madonna’s new album. People are making big calls – that PC Music is the future of electronic music.
Yeah, everyone’s catching onto the PC Music stuff, but sadly, I think it’s going to be short-lived. It’s just too weird. American college guys will not dance to it. Real people who like real music like it. But not people who want to hear nothing but club bangers. Alex…SOPHIE…they’re really weird guys. They’re not weird capitalist bros. Their music is not going to take off on that scale. They’re actually artists. I love what they’re doing, but there’s this general idea that they’re going to take over – they’re not going to take over. There will probably be like .. somebody recently said PC Music is like Ed Banger was…so there will be probably be like a Justice that comes out of Ed Banger, a big, bridgeable act.
“You know what I think? 99% of this ‘alt-R&B’ stuff is absolute garbage. I don’t fuck with any of it to be honest.”
You kind of carved out this alt-R&B space in music with Love Remains, and now that has become an increasingly popular trend in music, to the point where it’s become a signifier, almost neo-generic, kind of discrediting any actual boundary-pushing within the genre of R &B. Do you agree with what FKA Twigs told The Guardian that it’s time to “Fuck alternative R&B!”?
When I quote unquote “started the trend” I was making very, weird, music that to me, was never gonna be like…popular. I was surprised, Love Remains did so much better than I ever thought it would do. You know what I think? 99% of this ‘alt-R&B’ stuff is absolute garbage. I don’t fuck with any of it to be honest. There’s some stuff that’s just not indie. Miguel, or Frank Ocean, or Jessie Ware. Some of that I like, some I don’t.
Then this stuff that IS indie and it’s trying to go mainstream and it will fail. I know Autre Neu Veu just signed this huge contract with a major label. And frankly I don’t know what the fuck they’re thinking. His music is not great, and the idea that it’s going to take off seems misguided to me. They want like a Sam Smith ‘Stay With Me’… they don’t want real music. That Banks shit is the worst shit I’ve ever heard.
“I’ve learnt that people just want to listen to pop music. People don’t want to be challenged.”
Nah, I thought it was terrible. I’m very good friends with Henry…I don’t think it’s his favourite thing he did all year. It’s a passing fad, nobody gives a fuck about alt-R&B other than journalists. Trends will change so quickly from now on.
I still don’t understand how I started a trend that I don’t have anything to do with anymore. I like R&B and was making some weird music that had an R&B influence, mainly because at the time I made Love Remains, the Dream record, Love Vs. Money, had just come out, and I really liked it so R&B was on my mind. But, whatever. I’ve learnt that people just want to listen to pop music. People don’t want to be challenged.
“I feel bad for major label artists.”
Does that realization tie into the fact that Repeat Pleasure is your most upbeat pop offering so far? In a statement accompanying the release of the track last year you said it “celebrates the possible healing power of American pop music”. It’s pretty shiny sounding as a track.
For sure. For me, it’s a fun challenge to take a song that’s pop in form, the lyrics to that song are quite distressing. I don’t have anything against pop music, I like it just as much as the next guy. I just don’t think about pop enough to know the real difference between me and Banks. Is it a money thing, is that why she’s doing so well? Is she on a major label, are her parents super rich? I just feel like, at the end of the day, my music has so much more character and spirit and honesty in it. I feel bad for major label artists.
Well, at some point they signed a contract, they’ve signaled they want to be bound by that. That speaks for their interests.
There’s a few reasons why people sign contracts with major labels. One is money, the second is a desire for fame. I don’t think anyone’s ever signed a deal a deal with a major label thinking that it’s going to pave the way for a multi-decade-long career of real artistic integrity.
What about your label, Domino, are they paving the way for you to have a long-term career with artistic integrity?
My label’s amazing. You know, Domino has these number one records, like Arctic Monkeys and that…they have pretty deep pockets right now thanks to a few successful records. I had a few major label offers, but Domino matched a major label deal for me, and with them I have money, and artistic integrity. I’m working on my next album with help from them right now. I think I’ve got seven or eight songs down that I love, they won’t be released in a while, but I’m really feeling good about writing music, I’m really writing good things right now. It’s cool, because now if I’m working on a song and I think ‘it would be great to have, like, four brass players to do an arrangement here’ I can just employ those players, get in the studio and record with them. I have the money, and the freedom, to do what I want – it’s a godsend. It’s really, really nice. ■
How To Dress Well will be at Sugar Mountain Festival on Saturday January 24
How To Dress Well Australian Tour Dates:
Friday, January 23rd – Spiegeltent, Sydney Festival [Tickets]
Saturday, January 24th – Sugar Mountain Festival, Melbourne [Tickets]
Sunday, January 25th – Australia Day Eve (also feat. Ariel Pink, Dan Deacon) at The Brightside, Brisbane [Tickets]