Tom Odell is playing for keeps
Tom Odell is a hard one to pin down – the newest pop kid on the block, with an Ivor Novello award in his back pocket and the musical world at his feet but with little interest in the impending stardom. Ahead of his Dublin gig, the Songwriter of the Year talks Elton John, Lily Allen and Leo Tolstoy
Not quite an outright pop heartthrob, not quite a household name, not quite cool enough to get the seal of approval from discerning musos: it’s safe to say that Tom Odell is a musician firmly plonked at the crossroads of his career.
After winning the BRIT Critics’ Choice Award in 2012, it seemed like the Chichester- born songwriter had one foot in the pop trench, the other snared in the “serious songwriter” one. He has been gently ribbed by comedian James Corden about his uncanny resemblance to one-hit wonder Chesney Hawkes, but on the other hand he has already clocked up support slots with Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden, been named ‘Songwriter of the Year’ at this year’s Ivor Novello awards, and next week will open for “The Modfather” Paul Weller in Dublin. Pop star? Heartthrob? Earnest songwriter? Is it possible to be all three?
Chatting from his East London apartment, Odell is polite, wellspoken and sincere – yet he’s also slightly awkward with his answers, stumbling over words and trailing off midsentence to start a new one. It’s hard to tell whether it’s down to the snatched nature of the brief encounter, or the fact that he’s just not that exhilarating a conversationalist. In any case, you get the impression that all of this kerfuffle and hype sits somewhat uneasily with him. He never set out to be a pop star, he says; while his friends were taking up guitars and drums and forming bands at school, he was the one who begged his parents for piano lessons.
“I really just wanted to play the piano and my grandmother had one, so I used to play it every time we went over there,” he says. “Some of my earliest memories are of playing that piano. I had this very strange attraction to it. I think it had something to do with this particular type of piano; it was like a pianola, so it played itself if you pumped the keys. I guess I was just sort of fascinated by it.”
He has cited Billy Joel and Elton John as influences in the past, and says that the latter’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album was the first he ever remembers being captivated by. Conversely, his youthfulness comes into play when he describes Arcade Fire’s Funeral as a formative influence. Still only 23, he was 13 when the album came out and it generated a creative spark in him.
“That album came out around the time that I really started listening to records and getting into music,” he enthuses. “I never really followed what other people my own age were into – I was always seeking out music on my own. Some of my earliest teenage memories are going to parties and putting on some obscure Arthur Russell song, or something, and everyone getting pissed off at me because I didn’t put on 50 Cent, which was what they wanted to hear,” he chuckles. “So my music taste definitely alienated me a tiny bit from my friends.”
Odell spent some time fronting a band – Tom and the Tides – with little success before embarking on a solo career, honing his craft at open-mic nights in London. It was around this time that he caught the ear of Lily Allen, who compared him to Bowie in terms of his onstage energy and presence.