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Tom Odell Discusses Meeting His Idol Elton John, Gushes About Lorde + Cat Power [Exclusive]

Tom Odell
Jim Dyson, Getty Images

Give Tom Odell a cup of Earl Grey tea with milk, and he’ll be your new best friend.

The singer-songwriter and pianist is not your typical 22-year old. Yes, he loves to hit up pubs with friends and discover new bands, but he’ll avoid a daily routine like it’s the plague, relates best to Terrence Malick films, and feels most at home when he’s on the road. “It’s a very strange lifestyle… very strange, but I like that.”

If you haven’t listened to his album ‘Long Way Down‘ from beginning to end, do so now. He understands the struggle of love and heartbreak better than other 20-somethings, but on the other hand will humbly admit that he’s still learning from it. “All great things are something that no one would ever understand,” he says. “Maybe in two years I’ll be able to answer that question.”

His music can sound melancholy at times, but his concerts are anything but. Supported by a guitarist, bassist and drummer, he can put on a rock show better than most — he’ll rile up a crowd while physically rocking his piano back-and-forth, and scream fiercely into a microphone.

Odell took some time out of his tour and promoting the U.S. release of ‘Long Way Down’ to discuss what it was like meeting his idol Elton John, who has inspired him lyrically (in the past and present), and what he does outside of touring, writing and recording.

You recently shared the stage with Elton John at the iTunes Music Festival and also covered his song ‘Tiny Dancer.’ Can you talk a bit about that since he’s such a big idol of yours?
Crazy, just crazy 2-3 weeks I’ve had. He rang me out of the blue like a month ago or so, actually when the record ['Long Way Down'] came out in the U.K., and [we] just had the most real conversation on the phone. He told me he liked the record and he thanked me for mentioning him in interviews. It was just crazy and I couldn’t believe it happened. And then he asked me to support him [at] iTunes and I was like, ‘Yeah, definitely,’ and I dunno, the feeling was just very surreal…

I think particularly when I was 11 or 12, I discovered his music at a time I was discovering songwriting. He had a lot of influence on me, those early songs, and inspired me to write more. And then we did a festival with him, where he was playing just after us, at the Bestival in the U.K.; he invited us into his dressing room, me and the band, and he was just a total dude — he was so cool.

We supported him at iTunes, and then he emailed the day before and said, ‘We’re putting together this TV show, like last minute, I would love it if you would record a song’ and he says, ‘I’d love it if you would do ‘Tiny Dancer.’ [Pause]

I quite honestly wanted to do another song, but you don’t say no to Elton. [Laughs] No it was such an honor. Words can’t really describe, there’s not that many situations I don’t think in someone’s career where… I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around it, where someone who is literally [your] hero and then they acknowledge you as an artist. He wrote a note to me saying, ‘It’s so wonderful me being at the end of my career and seeing someone at the start of his.’

Watch Tom Odell Perform ‘Tiny Dancer’

Can you pick out a record or a lyric that really inspired you and your songwriting? 
It was songs like ‘This Song Has No Title’ and ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ [off Elton John's 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road']. I think the reason I could relate to him so much is the piano thing, because there’s not many artists that can play the piano and sing — it’s quite an art to do. I don’t think it’s any better than playing guitar and singing, but because so few people [play the piano and sing], it’s hard to rework it.

There is a real art to accompanying yourself. I think with him I realized there was songs, and there’s was songwriting. I was playing around with melodies and writing words, but I discovered what could be achieved with it, and the power of it as well. And it was that album that opened that up for me.

How do you feel as a U.K. artist trying to break through in the U.S.? You’re quite established in the U.K., but your album ‘Long Way Down’ just debuted here.
I’m excited about it. It’s like there’s the rest of the world, and then there’s America. Part of the reason I would really love continue to making music over here because so much of American music has inspired me, whether it’s Jeff Buckley, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen. I think a lot of them were influenced by the Beatles and [other] English music, but English music is a huge, huge inspiration for me, as well. But there’s so much that comes from here [America], culturally, that I’m interested in.

I grew up reading a lot of Fitzgerald and watching Terrence Malick films. I always go back to that movie ‘Badlands.’ It’s a film I can relate to, I don’t know why.

You’ve written a lot about love, love lost, and being heartbroken. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from love?
Good question. I don’t understand it anymore than I did two years ago. It’s a very grey area.

I dunno. All great things are something that no one would ever understand. I don’t understand but still is the thing that spins the world round. Maybe in two years I’ll be able to answer that question.

Watch the ‘Another Love’ (Short Film)

Who else, besides Elton John, has inspired you lyrically?
I think everyone mentions Bob Dylan, but he’s someone I just admire so much as a songwriter. I think people write songs, and then there’s Bob Dylan songs. He’s one step ahead of just everybody else. As a songwriter, I can’t ignore [that]… It’s almost [more about the] poetry than about the words. Jeff Buckley really inspired me lyrically. Cat Power has always been a huge inspiration for me.

Why Cat Power?
I think I discovered her when I was quite young, about 13, and there’s something about her work that I just got. It feels like it’s based more on the words, and it comes from that grunge scene when I was 13 and everyone was listening to Nirvana. I love Nirvana, but I think I very quickly moved away from it. I was more interested in lyrics, and Cat Power’s records back then were quite grungy.

What about right now? Are there artists more in your age demographic that you are really inspired by?
I think Frank Ocean, that record ['Channel Orange'] is just incredible, lyrically. I listened to that for so long, there’s not many records like that.

I love the artist Lorde, I think she’s pretty cool. I only really know a couple of songs. I like her lyrics as well. If you were to ask me right now, whose writing stuff that reflects what’s going on right now, just the consciousness right now, she’s definitely hit on something. And it’s not often that you get that.

I [also] think that Lana Del Rey is an amazing lyricist.

How do you plan to evolve as a musician? What’s next?
Well, I never thought I would enjoy touring, it can be difficult. I know some musicians who passionately hate it, [but] I really enjoy it. I like the fact that I’m disconnected from the real world, or any sort of evidence of normality.

Throughout my entire life, I constantly tried to fight normality. I hate it. I hate the idea of it. I hate routine. I hate anything that feels remotely regular or right. So to tour is just so strange, life is so strange because you’re constantly in a different city, and just to wake up at different times and doing shows. It’s a very strange lifestyle… very strange, but I like that. It’s everything I’ve worked towards to have a strange life. Because I’ve tried normal, well when I was in school I had a normal life. I f—ing hated it.

What inspires you when you’re not touring, recording and songwriting?
I genuinely find the most meaningful thing I do is to make music, but also to absorb some sort of creativity. Like particularly this time in London, there’s so much going on there, [it's] a bit like New York… One of the things I love [to do] is going to gigs where I don’t know the band, and get a feel for what’s [going on]. A friend will be say ‘go see this gig’ and it will be in some sh—y little club, and there will be like 100 people there.

The thing is, I did that for a long time, where I’d go to a city or a city I lived in, and every three weeks with my band I’d play a gig and would sell like 20 tickets. There’s so many people in London that go and do that every week or every month. Maybe it’s not their job, [maybe] they’re trying to make it their job, but a lot of them are amazing. Although they’re not making acclaimed albums, there’s a lot of things they that they’re absorbing that’s in their music. Sometimes it’s brilliant and sometimes it’s f—ing awful — and then you can just sit at the bar.

I think you [as an artist] can get very wrapped up in the fact that the channels you have to go through to release an album are not entirely dictative by quality of the music. You have to have a little bit of luck. I actually got lucky recording and working with the right people. But some people don’t get to the place where they get to release an album. They have the quality, but they just don’t have the other things.

I think it’s always important to remember that, because some of these people are just as good. There’s so many other attributes you have to have to get to this position of [releasing] an album. You have to be quite confident. A lot of people don’t have that confidence, [even if] they’ve got the talent.

Going off of that, what other advice would you give to an aspiring singer-songwriter?
I meet a lot of young singers that ask me how to “make it.” Part of me says, ‘What do you want? What is this idea of making it’? I think great music [is when] you wanna just create something you genuinely feel satisfied with and feels meaningful to you. That should be your only aim. That’s the most satisfying thing about what I do, is when I can make something that I am genuinely satisfied with, and perhaps others can relate to it. Everything else is pretty meaningless.

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