HOW TO DRESS WELL at the Great Hall (1087 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, October 4), 8 pm. $15. RT, SS, TM. See listing.
Talking to experimental R&B auteur How to Dress Well (aka Tom Krell) is a little heavier than your average rock musician interview. The critically acclaimed performer's new album, Total Loss (Acéphale), is a devastatingly beautiful meditation on death and loss by a pop singer also working on his PhD in philosophy.
Even a conversation about the connections between Total Loss and Janet Jackson's 1997 album, The Velvet Rope, goes deep immediately.
"That's a massively varied record that coheres because of the emotional signature and continuity," Krell says of the landmark R&B disc.
"Both Total Loss and The Velvet Rope are pop records with a lot of different styles and sounds. Both are explicitly about mourning and developing a healthy, creative, non-destructive relationship with loss and pain and the past. She says over and over, ‘You don't have to hold onto the pain to hold onto the memory,' which was such an important message for me in 2010 when I started working on Total Loss.
"She could have made an entire album of [upbeat] songs like Together Again, and it would have been way more successful. Instead, she stuck that song in the middle, which gives it specialness and character. There was no other way for it to have that character. It had to be this singular drop of weird paradoxical affirmation - a super-happy song about her friend who died of AIDS."
As you may have gathered, 2010 wasn't the happiest period of Krell's life, despite rave reviews for his debut album, Love Remains. The deaths of people around him cast dark shadows, and recording his sophomore record became a coping strategy.
"I feel infinitely more positive and optimistic and hopeful now. ‘Learning how to lose better' is a good way of thinking about the record.
"Music is a really important therapeutic way for me to develop trust in myself. When I'm following a musical idea, I have to trust that my intuitions are right and that I'm oriented in the world in a productive and meaningful way."
Krell's work is often lumped in with that of artists like the Weeknd and Frank Ocean because it's R&B-influenced music approved by publications like Pitchfork. He doesn't see the musical similarities, nor is he particularly interested in winning over an indie rock crowd, for that matter.
"I never could wrap my head around why anyone would listen to something like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah."