Nov. 28 2012 09:12 AM

Songwriter Tom Krell creates his own kind of experimental R&B

Tom Krell has a keen ear for production.
Photo by Andrew Volk

Tom Krell makes sad music. The songwriter behind the lo-fi-pop project How to Dress Well, his productions are dark and alluring, featuring skeletal instrumentation and wistful melodies. His gorgeous falsetto—caked in reverb and distortion, gathered up into sensuous, multi-tracked harmonies—sounds like an R&B ghost crooning from the great beyond.

But Krell doesn’t wallow in sadness for its own sake. On Total Loss, How to Dress Well’s captivating new album, he explores what it’s like to deal with loss—not just being stuck in it, but coping with it, learning from it and eventually finding a way out.

“That’s very important to what I feel like I’m going for as a person—just trying to develop a good relationship with loss,” Krell says, speaking by phone from Chicago. “If you don’t develop that relationship, you can end up depressed, resentful, trapped, etc. That’s the goal, anyhow, is to get a good rapport with loss.”

During the last couple years, Krell’s been forced to come to terms with loss. In 2010, just before the release of How to Dress Well’s breakthrough full-length debut, Love Remains, his best friend died while sleeping. The experience helped form the inspiration for Total Loss; on the album highlight “Set it Right,” he pays tribute to his friend, as well as other friends and family he’s lost or lost touch with.

But Krell is more of a pop craftsman than a confessional songwriter. A studious listener with a voracious musical appetite, the Brooklyn-based musician plumbs an array of influences—among them R&B stars like R. Kelly and experimentalists like Scott Walker—to create his own, exploratory kind of R&B.

“I guess I consider myself a producer, but I’m actually quite an unskilled producer,” he says, pointing out that he worked on the record with Scottish producer Rodaidh McDonald, who’s also worked with The xx and King Krule.

Of course, even an infectious, undeniably sexy How to Dress Well cut like “Running Back” probably wouldn’t fit in on top- 40 playlists alongside Carly Rae Jepsen and Taylor Swift. While the song shows hints of Michael Jackson—with a slow, breathy beat and a soulful pop hook encircled in a thick fog of reverb—it’s also reminiscent of Xiu Xiu, another experimental group that embraces pop convention in the service of dark textures and sad lyrics. (Indeed, Krell is planning on a future collaboration with Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart.)

Whether a mainstream audience would like his tunes or not, it’s easy to imagine Krell eventually producing other people’s records. Though he acknowledges he isn’t a seasoned music-recording expert, he has a keen ear.

For his swaying, cello-led song “Talking to You,” he pulls the midrange out of a piano loop to give it a raw, haunting vibe. The finger-snapping tune “& It Was U” could be a big pop number, but he intentionally keeps the arrangement spare to emphasize a feeling of frustration. These kinds of considerations, he says, have as much to do with a song’s emotionality as the lyrics and melody.

“I don’t think it’s evocative. I think it’s actually real,” he says. “When you raise your voice, it’s not just that you put anger into it. The voice becomes more angry. But that’s the same for drum sounds and piano sounds and everything.”

While some may think of How to Dress Well’s music as intimate and headphone-oriented, lately Krell’s been translating it for live performance. Earlier this year, he assembled a backing band with Aaron Read on violin and sampler and Cameron Reed on keyboards and drum machine.

In the past, he’d perform solo, playing with a backing track. With this new band, he’s been able to reflect the intense emotional energy of his songs in new ways. For example, where Krell uses dozens of vocal overdubs in the recordings, onstage his voice is complemented by Reed’s violin— whose timbre, Krell points out, is similar to the human voice.

“The recorded music is so much about production choices and the way that the emotional payload is carried in little, subtle things. And it’s not going to be carried by those little subtle things in a live setting,” he says. “The interplay of the violin and my voice live—which is something we’ve worked on pretty hard for the last several months— that does a lot of the emotional work that the vocal layering does on the record.”

In addition to making music, Krell’s getting a doctorate degree in philosophy and has been working on a dissertation. But while he’s learned a lot from both realms, he tends to keep them separate: He doesn’t have a philosophical approach to music, or vice versa, he says.

Asked if he writes songs about thinkers like Walter Benjamin and Slavoj Žižek, he doesn’t hesitate.

“No,” he says. “Definitely not.”

How to Dress Well plays with Beacon and AIMON at Soda Bar on Sunday, Dec. 2. 

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.