Should you happen to catch How To Dress Well’s Tom Krell on his current tour with Sky Ferreira (and hurry, because it wraps April 11 in Los Angeles), you’ll likely hear five of the ambient R&B singer’s favorite chill-out tracks played on the venue’s speakers just before his set.
Spanning tracks from pianist Michael Cashmore to Rihanna to Swedish duo jj, Krell’s eclectic selections mirror the diverse influences that shape his latest album, “Total Loss,” which seamlessly merges references to 80s and 90s R&B with the more experimental sounds of Scott Walker and Xiu Xiu.
“I was born in 1984, so I started remembering things in 1989,” Krell says after sound check before a recent gig at New York’s Music Hall of Williamsburg. “So 1989 to 2002 when I left home, those are my formative years. My mom was always singing Smokey Robinson’s ‘Ooh Baby Baby,’ and then I would watch things like Maxwell on MTV, so my musical approach, especially vocally, is informed by R&B music. My parents didn’t listen to rock — my dad hates The Beatles with some pride — and my musical influences are more varied because sonically I am more interested in more experimental music. There’s a lot of ambient music and noise music that’s influencing the sounds.” He stops and pauses after taking in what is surely his umpteen-hundredth description of his musical upbringing. “Wow, that’s probably the best explanation I’ve ever given of the whole thing.”
The current tour also features How To Dress Well’s most sonically complex live arrangements yet, layering Krell’s voice with the psychedelic vocal effects and violin sounds featured on the album and pairing it with the same kind of arresting visuals and short films he’s become known for in previous years. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I’m so proud of this tour – it’s really beautiful,” he says.
Look for Krell and How To Dress Well’s unique sounds to show up in other places later this year, from the Roots Picnic in Philadelphia on June 1 (“I’m gonna go utterly H.A.M. for Trinidad Jame$,” he says), to a pair of collaborative projects still in their early phases – one with Xiu Xiu’s James Stewart (“We have two songs ready and four others in the works”), the other with Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste (“He wants to do an EP, and I think that would be a beautiful thing — us producing harmonies together.”)
In the meantime, check out Krell’s Gimme Five — a list of the songs he listens to before every show — for Billboard.com’s Pop Shop.
1. Michael Cashmore, “The Snow Abides”
Krell: “He’s a composer, and he’s just put one EP I think. He’s based in Berlin, and a friend of mine knows him — I want to work with him quite badly. It’s a really beautiful, really intense little suite with Antony [Hegarty of Antony & The Johnsons] on the vocals. It’s very flamboyant — in the middle of it he totally unexpectedly sings the words [sings] ‘ecstatic butterfly.’ Like, really flamboyant. I love it.”
2. Rihanna, “Get It Over With”
“It’s a song by that guy who wrote like half the Frank Ocean record, what’s his name? James Fauntleroy. He’s just the bro and his vocal melodies are incredible. That song reminds me of ‘Thinkin Bout You.’ He’s just the shit. I would fuckin’ love to talk to him about music. I love vocal harmonies and he just produces these 12-part harmonies and the vocals are rich as fuck and incredibly complex. The songs don’t have to be that substantial because the songs are so electric and charged. That song has the structure of a lot of songs I write too, where there’s not a real chorus just a repetition of the whole theme. I love how it just repeats this chanting of [sings] “in the clouds” at the end. Best song on that record.”
3. Britney Spears, “Everytime (Instrumental)”
“The song is amazing — the weirdly recorded plucked strings and the reverse guitar. It’s a masterpiece.”
4. jj, “Baby”
“It’s got my favorite music video of all time with the two horses (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWaRhuWJgGs). It’s a cover of a Swedish David Guetta style rap duo – they released it as a one-off thing but it’s so beautiful.”
5. Whitney Houston, “I Look To You”
“I feel like that song is a performance of the emotions described. And I think she wrote it for her daughter too, which is just beautiful. She just has hit the bottom, she’s forsaken by everyone and the only thing left for her to do and keep lifting her head is to look to her daughter. This is a bit narcissistic, but it does something vocally I catch myself doing all the time on the [sings] ‘I look to youuuu.’ She just hangs on and there’s a kind of rush. I could imagine she did that in a couple hours…[Billboard informs Krell that R. Kelly actually wrote the song, not Houston.] Wait, he wrote that song? Oh my God. Are you sure? Oh my God we have to verify this that’s a revelation. [Krell looks it up on Wikipedia] No. Nooo this is amazing. And produced by Tricky Stewart. You could burp into a microphone and that would sound good.”