Q Magazine

Tom Odell: 'I Always Felt Like an Underachiever'

The multi-platinum-selling, Ivor Novello Award-winning singer-songwriter opens up about anxiety, unwanted attention, 28 million Spotify listeners and why he has 'no interest in trying to write something purely to be successful'.

tom odell
Source: Rory Langdon-Down

Tom Odell is not your average sensitive singer-songwriter.

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In a market saturated by earnest young men with guitars and pianos, Tom Odell stands out.

On the surface at least, his story seems familiar. After years performing at open mic nights and in a series of short-lived bands, he was spotted by Columbia Records and in October 2012, aged 21, released his debut single, “Another Love”. The following month, after a lauded appearance on Later… with Jools Holland, “Another Love” rocketed into the Top 10; a year later he won the BRITs Critics Choice Award, debut LP Long Way Down topped the U.K. charts, an Ivor Novello Award followed, and suddenly, his sad, soulful songs had become staples of daytime radio nationwide.

But there is another story to Tom Odell. On paper his career trajectory seems as stellar as any of his contemporaries – each of his six albums to date have charted in the Top 10, with latest release, Black Friday, peaking (so far) at No. 5 – but away from the awards and the sales figures, he has cut a more interesting path.

Not only has he shied away from the bright lights and shallow temptations of the showbiz merry-go-round, but in 2021 Odell left Columbia altogether to become an independent artist, saying at the time he wanted to “feel like I was making songs in my bedroom when I was 20 again.”

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Since then, and almost without anything in the way of traditional promotion, Odell has quietly grown into one of the most successful British artists in the world. The fragile, delicate melodies and nakedly open lyrics on Black Friday and previous album Best Day of My Life may have been absent from most mainstream playlists, but they have struck a chord nevertheless: right now he is one of the most streamed U.K. artists worldwide, with 28 million monthly listeners on Spotify (to put that in context, that’s more than twice as many as The 1975 and three times as many as Stormzy… and perhaps most extraordinarily, only 2 million behind K-Pop phenomenon BTS). After Ed Sheeran and Lewis Capaldi he is the third most searched-for British singer-songwriter in the world on social media, and “Another Love” is in the top 40 most streamed songs of all time, with over 2 billion Spotify plays alone.

You wouldn't think it to talk to him, though. In person Odell is every bit as thoughtful, reflective and honest as he is on record. Q caught up with him in the midst of rehearsals for a worldwide tour to discuss fame, songwriting, and why performing onstage is one of the few places where he doesn’t feel anxious.

tom odell q
Source: Rory Langdon-Down

Odell's 28 million monthly Spotify listeners makes him one of the most streamed British artists in the world.

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Congratulations on the album Tom, it’s a very beautiful record. Do you feel that by your sixth LP, you have to find ways to keep things interesting for yourself? Or is releasing an album still as exciting as it ever was?

Thank you. And it’s not hard to stay interested! I'm fascinated by the process of making an album, perhaps more so than I ever was. The biggest difference now is I almost set myself more limitations when I start writing and recording. For the last two records I’ve reduced the amount of colors on the palette, and in terms of them having a theme and a sound, I think that's been quite successful. I think you can listen to the new album as a piece, as a body of work, and that's definitely the intention. I want people to listen to it as it as 28 minutes and 41 seconds of music.

That’s quite an old school attitude – to consider an album as a whole entity, as opposed to the whole streaming thing where people cherry-pick tracks.

Yeah, I mean, god knows how many people will actually listen to it that way, mind. But then I think some of those old traditions in music have reestablished themselves. Like in terms of touring, we still go out and do a tour around an album, and in a way I think that’s going back to a ‘70s vibe – that you tour to promote the album. And it’s through touring, that people hear it.

tom odell black friday
Source: Tom Odell

Latest album 'Black Friday' was released on January 26.

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And that’s exactly what you’re doing with Black Friday?

Yep! The tour starts in March and we go through April and then there’s a little break and then we're doing quite a few shows all over the place in the summertime. I'm super excited to take a fresh look at some of these songs and try to get some of the intimacy that's in the album onto the stage.

Do you still need a bit of fear to have a good show?

No, actually, I don't. I've sometimes felt a little bit of anxiety before I walked on stage, but most of the time it’s one of the few places where I don't feel anxious. Being onstage is a place where everything is kind of as it should be; it's a lot easier in some ways than being in a lot of social environments, which probably suggests I'm a narcissist or something.

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You had massive success with your first single – one day you’re this unknown kid on Jools Holland and then suddenly you’re a household name. How did that affect you? I can't imagine it’s a thing anyone could anticipate or prepare for.

I didn't know it any other way, so it's tricky to say. It certainly wasn't what I expected would happen and I’d been plugging away for a while, so it was at the same time very slow and then very sudden.

To be to be honest, I didn't like all of the attention. I don't think I’m particularly a character that thrives in the spotlight. Some people are brilliant at it – you know, you put a camera on them and they just shine. I've never felt like that person, and so it certainly took some getting used to.

I always felt like an underachiever, if I'm being honest. I still feel relatively like an outsider. I kind of just do my own thing and sometimes people are interested and sometimes people aren’t. Thankfully this last year has been great and it means that we can do lots of touring, I can give lots of work to the band and we can do what we love doing, which is playing music.

Fifteen years ago, when you were slogging around London trying to get heard, the idea of doing a world tour to promote your sixth album would just have seemed insane, wouldn't it?

It was certainly a dream. I always dreamed of making that many albums. I remember someone said to me around the time of the first album coming out: “Don't get too caught up in it, you'll get another chance, you'll get another shot.” And at the time I couldn't envisage a world where I'd get another shot. But yeah, I'm super proud to have made six albums. I guess keeping at it like that is maybe a measure of how restless you are, more than anything, and I'm relatively high on that scale.

tom odell flowers
Source: Rory Langdon-Down

'I don't think I’m particularly a character that thrives in the spotlight.'

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It seems to me like that “restlessness” also translates into a strong work ethic: your most recent three albums have all come out in the last four years. By today’s standards that's really knocking them out, isn't it?

Maybe, but I’d say a lot of that is because I don’t do so much promotion. I remember back in the day so much of my time was dominated by traveling around, doing TV, radio, stuff like that – you'd make a record and you'd promote it for a year. And also I probably spend a little bit less time sitting around drinking and smoking and stuff than I used to. Not that I ever really did that much, to be honest.

The plain truth is probably just that I love writing songs, I'm fascinated by it and even if nobody was going to hear them, I’d still do it. I've done it since I was 12 and it's a joy, it's a complete thrill to get to a position where I can actually do it for a living.

I'd say also, that when I was on Columbia, they were not really on board for me putting out music once a year. They would just slow things down. I remember I'd finish recording, then I’d be in this kind of queue, you know? Like, oh, we could put it out in six months maybe. Sometimes even nine months… and you're sort of sat there just like: why? It just used to infuriate me.

Since I left Columbia, I've got a much smaller team I work with. And the whole thing’s much quicker. I finish the record and maybe six weeks later it’s off.

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Has your songwriting process changed? Do you feel a responsibility to your audience now, whereas when you were starting out, you were just writing for yourself – do you feel like every album has to be more successful than the last one?

I would say honestly, I have no interest in trying to write something purely to be successful. Even if that was my ambition it would still be totally counterproductive because there's nothing inspiring about the desire to write a song purely to be successful. It does nothing for the song and if anything I think it does the opposite.

Often you can have a good idea, get really excited about it and start dreaming about how big it could be, and all that ends up just destroying the idea. And actually, you know, over the years there were probably opportunities I could have taken and I maybe could have had my eye on the charts a little bit more and cared a bit more about that stuff… and if I had done I'd now be living in a much bigger house than I am. But I honestly have never been interested in that. I never got into music to be the biggest artist in the world – even the thought of that terrifies me.

What I would say is that looking back through the years and my varying degrees of success, I've always taken great care of the writing. And when we tour now and I sing some of the older songs, I'm really proud of them still, I sing them with conviction because they still feel authentic and not contrived or disingenuous.

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tom odell rose garden
Source: Rory Langdon-Down

Despite his professed lack of interest in trying to write 'successful' songs, every one of Odell's six albums has made the U.K. Top 10.

Did you know you're one of the most streamed British artists in the world? You've got this enormous Spotify audience of 28 million listeners a month…

I truly did not know that. Twenty-eight million? That's great, awesome. I don't know what to say! I mean, it's a lovely thing to hear, but at the same time I know that figure will go down at some point. To be honest I try to stay away from hearing stuff like that as much as possible and not check on figures and things, because I feel like you might get a little uplift in your mood when the numbers go up, but when they come down again you’ll get an equal drop in your mood.

But don’t get me wrong, that's great. I'm really proud of the fact that so many people listen to my music and I'm overjoyed, actually, it’s brilliant.

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You once said your lyrics were inspired by your ‘inability to sustain a relationship’? Now you’re married, are you worried the inspiration might dry up?

Oh god, that quote has followed me around for like 10 years now. It's one of the very many naive statements I made when I was 22. I think I had this sort of romantic idea of being a writer, unable to have a love life for my art.

How would I update that quote today? I would say that I think you do need a degree of restlessness to make good work, I think that you need to feel some degree of heightened emotion – and that when you’re in a state where your life is very content and everything feels conveniently available, maybe you’re less inclined to write.

To me that heightened emotion has come at periods where I do feel restless or tense or anxious or low. It’s just one of the horrible paradoxes of this job, I think, that the good songs do tend to come at those moments. I don't know if it's got as much to do with romantic relationships these days, but I think it certainly does involve your relationship with yourself.

There's a great quote often attributed to Dostoyevsky, who was quite a miserable bloke to be fair, that says: “Happiness writes white – it doesn't show up on the page.”

There you go! He managed to say in three words what I just said in about 400. Yeah, it's definitely true. It's actually very difficult to write really joyful music; maybe it’s a more noble pursuit, because to be able to do it and for it to have depth is incredibly tricky. It's a little easier to find that depth in sadness. Or maybe it's just because I'm a bit cheap.


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