Tom Odell talks World Poetry Day, economical songwriting and not being a sex symbol

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As Tom Odell gets set to celebrate World Poetry Day, he talks to Getintothis’ Cath Holland of a love of words both read and sung.

Tom Odell is the floppy haired singer songwriter of ballads for nice people.

At just 28 years old, he wouldn’t be out of place amongst songwriters from the 70s.

A fan of Elton John and Billy Joel, he sings of love – all kinds, but comfortable songs, centred around earnest vocals and piano.

Press shots and videos have him in vintage houses, barefoot like Carole King on the front cover of Tapestry, and surrounded by well thumbed books. The classics, of course.

And yet, it’s an interesting time for Odell.

He’s inching, slowly, from romantic wistful sensitive singer-songwriter to one observing the world in deeper textures and colour. During the promotion for Jubilee Road, his third album released last year, he grinned amicably on the Good Morning Britain and Graham Norton sofas, but also sat down for a frank interview with The Line Of Best Fit.

We’re talking today because he’s part of a campaign to support Pay With A Poem, part of World Poetry Day in March. With this in mind he seemed an ideal candidate for Wrapped Up in Books, but as we chat – we’ve only got fifteen minutes, so the words come fast – it quickly becomes apparent there’s more to mull over.

Tom’s a voracious reader partly to compensate for not going to university, opting instead to attend music college.

He applied but failed to get into Liverpool’s LIPA, attending  BIMM (British and Irish Modern Music Institute) in Brighton instead – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Fellow BIMM alumni around the UK include Rory Wynne and George Ezra. 

The first book Odell enjoyed as a boy was Liverpool author Brian JacquesCastaway of the Flying Dutchman.

‘I don’t think it’s a particularly iconic book,’ he admits, ‘but I remember reading it and loving it.’

‘Literature just as much as music inspires my songwriting,’ he adds, the grown up Odell enjoying the works of Ernest Hemingway – he singles out A Farewell to Arms as a particular favourite – plus Graham Greene, John SteinwayJohn Updike, and  John Kennedy Toole’s sole and posthumously released Pulitzer Prize winner A Confederacy of Dunces.

For World Poetry Day, Odell’s part of a campaign by Viennese coffee roaster Julius Meini, in an initiative run since 2014 asking customers to write a poem in exchange for a cuppa tea or coffee.

It has to be your own work, mind. No use trying it on with a verse from Byron to geg a gratis your morning flat white pick-me-up.

The initiative, pleasingly, has led to hundreds of thousands of poems penned worldwide over the past nine years.

It’s a novelty for poetry to carry currency, given value, I comment. Contemporary poetry book sales experience notoriously low sales.

‘I loved poetry before I realized I did. I’m obsessed with lyrics and words been writing lyrics since I was thirteen,’ he enthuses.

…I love all things to do with words. Always have done. It’s a huge part of my career and what I’ve been doing for the past ten years.’

Citing DH Lawrence’s Piano as a favourite poem – in it, the poet attaches memories of more innocent times to the musical instrument Odell carries an obsessive passion for. He treasures the value of consuming poetry but also writing creatively, in verse or prose.

‘I just think it’s really important to encourage people to be writing words. I think particularly these days were video content is so accessible. It’s so easy to watch a film or a tv show even on your phone. I think   the only fear of that the written word loses its… ubiquity. It’s a good idea to encourage people to use the written word as much as possible.’

The power of reading or writing is that it slows our hectic world down, even for such a short time. It gives us space, and permission to take time for ourselves.

‘Oh my god, yeah. I couldn’t agree more. You’re obviously a big fan of stories and words and I am as well. But you see less and less people reading…even on the train and stuff people just watch films now and play Candy Crush.’

Does he write poetry himself, I ask next. Most of us have to write it in school, then maybe pour out our teenage angst and imagine we’re the new Sylvia Plath, but give it up not long after.

‘No, actually,’ he confesses. ‘I guess I would say that I write a hell of a lot of lyrics before I even get the music and if I was to not put music on it I guess that would be poetry. It’s a yes and no. Almost every day I write words into a notebook.

I always have the ambition to put them in a song. But there’s a hell of a lot of lyrics I’ve written that haven’t made it.’

It’s surprising that he, as a multi-million selling Ivor Novello and BRIT Award winning artist  only records and release a tiny proportion of songs he writes. To this, he says simply,it’s ‘because I’m not very good.’

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An awful lot of work sits in his notebook, by the sound of it. His record sales are pushing two million now and those sold out tours around the world speak for themselves, surely.

‘Its genuinely is that I’m not very good. Once in a while an artist comes along, once in every generation and whatever they write is gold but for the rest of us, we have to work at it. I spend a lot of time trying to get better.’

He brings the conversation back to why we’re chatting in the first place.

‘Songwriting is a bit like poetry, there’s not that much room for error and…the canvas is incredibly small so you’ve got to show what you want to say. So you have to be incredibly economical. ‘

‘There are two approaches,’ he explains.  ‘You can either spend three weeks honing down a song or you can spend three weeks writing fifteen songs and one of those fifteen songs just happens to hit the thing you want.’

His latest album released last year, Jubilee Road, is a departure from his earlier efforts.

2013’s Long Way Down and Wrong Crowd three years back are records of romantic, fuzzy around the edges songs written by a young man staying safely within his limits. The new LP whilst not spiriting into bold new ground exactly, shows a shift.

Half As Good As You from Jubilee Road, a duet with Alice Merton, is a lovely ballad, and yet the lines Merton sings ‘I kissed a stranger in the hallway late last night, He was wearing purple shoes, I asked him when he kissed me, could he close his eyes?‘ are genuinely heartbreaking.

The title song starts with Randy Newman-esque observations of people and mood, before resting later into more familiar Odell-Elton John territory. There’s some lovely mature parts in there, a firmer sense of confidently capturing a time and place.

‘(the song) was inspired by this place I lived in London and…the road I lived on, I guess it felt like my first home looking back on it now. I’m really proud of that song I really enjoy playing it live. It’s quite different from my other work.

It’s much more outward looking rather than all this fucking self indulgent stuff, banging on about my feelings.’

Tom Odell’s audience is very loyal and take the songs to heart, very much so. How does it feel, your songs meaning so much to complete strangers, people you’ve never met?

‘It’s hard to contemplate it. I don’t really feel that much. That’s not me being insensitive, there’s nothing for me to grasp that concept of like they’re faceless people,’ he admits with more honesty than I expect.

‘I don’t know who they are so I can’t imagine them.’

But he goes on to cite examples of fan connections. Growing Old With Me from the first album  is popular at weddings, and he tells a story of a couple getting wed, witnessed by a close terminally ill parent.

‘This song meant so much to them…it was a strange moment of connection, I’ll always remember it… standing there with them whilst they told me about it.’

Then there’s others with happier tales, about how they walked down the aisle to the song, or had their first dance to it.

‘It…really mandates all the work I do,’ he says.

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I read somewhere that Tom was a reluctant performer, at first anyway, and the initial plan was to write songs for other people. But now, watching his performances, he gives it some real welly at shows. How did he make that adjustment? It’s quite a leap.

‘It was just through playing. I’ve always been interested in performance I just never had any experience of it. And then when I first started playing shows you get better and better and better at  it. It is something you can learn and it’s something I now think – I’m not being narcissistic  – I think I’m relatively alright at it now and I like to put on a good show.

 And I think we’re really good, the band and I, the band are a big part of it, they’re exceptional musicians but I think we’re a really good live band. We tour all over the world and it’s a big part of what I do now. ‘

His live shows are lively affairs. The fans are personal and passionate about their idol.  So I ask him what’s it like, being a pin-up.

There’s a pause.

‘What is a pin up? Somebody you… stick on your wall?’ 

Yeah. A sex symbol.

‘A sex symbol?’

He laughs, embarrassed.

‘I’m not a sex symbol.’

Are you sure, though. Because I think you are.

His fans think he is, for sure.

‘Maybe I am. You know what, it’s great. I love it’.

Odell tours around the world, including non English speaking countries, yet his songs still resonate. Why does he think that is?

‘Because I’m a very simple person, using very simple language. 

I dunno why it does. The wonderful thing about going to other countries, you go there and you give your all…I’ve found is that wherever I go there’s so much love in every body’s heart and the people are so great.’

The en masse scream the singer instigates at shows when he stands on his piano, really going for it big time and encouraging the audience to join in, is quite an experience to watch .

‘It’s just a nice thing. It’s a really bizarre job that I do. There are these little moments of connection. The thing with music, it transcends language transcends politics, transcends borders, and in this time of great divide round the world it seems to be getting increasingly worse it’s so wonderful. I get to I feel fortunate get to do this job which transcends all of that. It’s beyond all of those things.

The audience in Moscow or the audience in London, they’re kind of alike, there’s no difference between the two. I wish everybody would get the opportunity to do what I do. I feel very privileged.’  

  • Pay With A Poem/World Poetry Day is on 21 March.
  • Tom Odell plays Kelvingrove Bandstand, Glasgow on 1 June.

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