How To Bare Your Soul

How To Dress Well Combines Pop Music with Public Mourning

Tom Krell of How To Dress Well will play Casa del Poppolo this Sunday.

In part because of accolades from a certain three-pronged hype machine, Tom Krell’s solo-project known as How To Dress Well has enjoyed a growing international audience for the better part of a year now. Krell released his debut LP Love Remains in September of 2010—a collection of R&B and pop sounds driven by his delicate falsetto buried in reverb.

Now, Krell is expanding his sound in a live context, stopping in Montreal on Sunday with local opener Grimes. Rather than relying on synthesizers or midi-triggers, he is mounting the stage with just a microphone, backing tracks and visual projections as his accompaniment.

“No one expects Britney to play the drums or an acoustic guitar or whatever,” said Krell. “I want to be a pop singer—an uncanny one, though.”

This approach is the best representation for the record according to Krell, who has carefully chosen his method of live delivery.

“Live, I don’t want to stand behind a keyboard, I don’t want to have a backing band. For me, Love Remains is all about baring one’s soul, about honesty, about weakness and powerlessness,” he said. “Live, the best way for me to convey this is alone onstage, singing in the half-dark of some smoky venue.”

There is a definite sense of beautiful sadness in his super lo-fi recordings. In concert, the philosophy student sees this project as a medium for a collective exhibition of emotion.

“We could definitely use more non-religious occasions for public experiences of sadness, of mourning,” said Krell. “Like on ‘Suicide Dream 2,’ which is a song about my family, I will often improvise [live] and discover myself really going through shit, really working through some hard, traumatic shit. It is really exhausting for me but really special.”
For this kind of catharsis to happen onstage, Krell employs a few mood-setting devices.

“I use [projections and a fog machine] because I want to create a certain affective ambiance, one which accommodates my music in a live space,” he said. “When I make my music, I let myself feel very murky and foggy and often find my mind [flooding] with abstract emotions and images. I try to create the live space so as to accommodate the fragility of the voice and the songs I make.”

Layers of Krell’s voice are the driving force behind How To Dress Well’s sound. Manipulated percussive noise and the odd sample create the framework for his vocal noodling. Once a suitable atmosphere is established, Krell feels comfortable to see where impromptu melodies take him—often to ’90s R&B-inspired hooks.

“I just approach [songwriting] by creating musical ambiances, whether through piano or synth or samples, which make me feel comfortable [in] letting melodies and effects come out of my spirit through my voice,” said
Krell. “Like, when I sing ‘Ready for the World’ live, I feel like I’m in a really warm bath or something. That musical ambiance, that sample, those drums, make me feel at home and free to express myself.”

Krell’s success so far is a product of our age of web-based communication. To this date, How To Dress Well sports little more than a Blogspot page for promotion—but that hasn’t stopped listeners from taking notice.

“I am always so honoured by people who are into my songs, because if you get it that means you’ve really listened and really let your heart open up,” said Krell. “It’s so humbling.

“It makes me feel amazing to know that people are into what I love doing so much,” he said. “I just want to hug and hold everyone who supports me, it’s really dope to feel support for this stuff. Like, if you’re in love with someone and you see them flourishing in the world—you know how good that feels? To see your sister live happily? That’s how it feels for me to see people get behind Love Remains.”

Regardless of public opinion, How To Dress Well will always be an intimate outlet for Krell. He just now happens to have the world watching while he does it.

“It’s really crazy and really awesome, in the purest sense of that word,” said Krell. “I’m just super hyped on this whole thing. It makes me feel justified and confident as I keep doing what I do, which is what I would have done anyway.”
How To Dress Well and Grimes play Casa Del Popolo (4873 St. Laurent Blvd.) Sunday, Jan. 30. $10 advance, $12 door.

This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 20, published January 25, 2011.