After being spotted by Lily Allen and winning a Brit award, Tom Odell is finally releasing his debut album, Long Way Down. ANDY WELCH discovers his amazing journey
The first time most people will have seen Tom Odell was at the Brits earlier this year.
You’ll have thought, ‘Who is that rabbit in the headlights having his picture taken?’
Odell had won the Critics’ Choice award, the winner of which is announced long before the actual ceremony. He was handed his statuette by the previous year’s recipient, Emeli Sande, at a swanky pre-ceremony party on the same night the rest of the nominations were announced.
But he still had to face the photographers on the night of the main awards ceremony.
“I’ve never had anything like that before,” he says now, looking back at his baptism of fire. “It was actually a lot of fun, but having 60 photographers taking your photo, yelling your name and trying to get your attention is an odd experience. I was a bit dazzled.”
Now his debut album, Long Way Down, is being released, there’s every chance he’ll be back at the awards next year, nominated in another category.
“We’ll see,” he says cautiously. “It would be nice, of course, to get that recognition, but I don’t want to think too far ahead of myself.”
It must be difficult to do that in his position. He’s the first male artist to win the Critics’ Choice, with the winners since it was introduced in 2008 being Adele, Florence + The Machine, Ellie Goulding, Jessie J and Emeli Sande. You might have heard of them.
Life today is a far cry from his days spent lugging a keyboard around bars and clubs in Brighton where, he says, gangs of drunk lads would try to grab his microphone, or just shout over him as he was playing.
Now just 22, Odell was originally destined to go to York University before he decided to focus on music. He grew up in Chichester listening to classic songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Randy Newman, David Bowie and, above all, Elton John. He’d learned piano and played to Grade 7 standard, and opted last-minute to try to get a place at the Liverpool Institute Of Performing Arts (LIPA) to study music. He didn’t get in, so moved to Brighton to study at the BIMM music college while performing as much as possible in the evening, and supporting himself with bar work. And then he headed back to his parents and borrowed his grandmother’s car to drive to London to play gigs.
It was around this time he caught the eye of Lily Allen. She was setting up her own label, In The Name Of, under the Sony umbrella, and Odell is her first signing.
“She came to one of my early gigs, which was really exciting. We went for a drink, we talked about music and she told me about the label she was starting and it went from there. Obviously, I was big fan of hers, and it was slightly surreal working with her. After that, I went away and wrote the rest of the album. When I first met Lily I only had two or three of those songs.”
Over the following nine months, he wrote the rest of Long Way Down, inspired by a relationship that went south, leaving him heartbroken. He says writing the songs helped him draw a line under the upset, although locking himself in the room the label had rented to write and record made him go “completely insane”.
“That was 10am to 6pm every day, not going outside or talking to anyone. No one should spend that much time on their own, writing about their feelings. It’s not good for you.”
Odell’s album was initially meant to be released just after the Brits, taking full advantage of the exposure he got from winning the award. For whatever reason, it wasn’t but has finally been released this week.
“It was my decision,” he says, slightly defensively, rebutting the suggestion it was because Hold Me, the single released in March, failed to make the Top 40. “It feels as though more people have got to know me and the songs since then. Everything feels less rushed now, less frantic, people know what the music is about, and being able to tour so much before the album is released has been beneficial too.”
Indeed, since postponing the release, Odell has toured non-stop, all over Europe and in the US.
“We now know how to play the songs properly,” he says. “So yeah, the album is coming out at the same time as we in the band are on great form.”
He says a live show of his isn’t merely a trot through the album, note for note, either.
“Obviously they’re the same songs, but I play with a full band, so the arrangements are bigger. On the record it’s piano, guitar, bass and drums; I didn’t want to complicate things or put too much on there because I knew I wouldn’t be able to perform it live.”
He says things are much clearer now he’s had a few months away touring, and that he sees his album in a different light. Rather than Long Way Down being some songs he’s recorded, he can see it as a full album, a marker of how far he’s come.
“When we play live, it feels like people are coming to see the album rather than me,” he adds. “I want people to be able to experience these songs properly, too. It feels like the only time you get full engagement is when you play a show.
“People are always doing other things when they’re listening to music, but if they come to see you, you have their full attention. I want people to leave each show feeling like they’ve been on a journey with me.”
Tom Odell’s debut album Long Way Down is out now