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Local Q&A: How to Dress Well

Andy Downing for RedEye

6:10 PM CST, December 6, 2012

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Tom Krell is no stranger to pain.

The musician, who records and performs under the name How to Dress Well, penned much of his sophomore album, the aptly titled "Total Loss," while struggling with weighty issues like self-doubt, depression and death. "We never really plan for the worst of things, do we?" he sings tellingly on "Ocean Floor of Everything."

Rather than wallowing, however, Krell, 28, transforms his hurt into shadowy, R&B-tinged music that is at once gorgeous and weirdly affecting. Reached on a tour stop in Los Angeles, the Logan Square resident opened up about the extreme emotions that tend to inspire songs, his go-to karaoke jam and why he's the wrong person to turn to for fashion tips.

The first thing I remember reading about you was a 2010 profile in the Chicago Reader where you sounded almost annoyed by the fact people had an interest in your music.

To be fair, that had a lot more to do with that writer than it did with me. I was just really new to doing interviews, and I was surprised it came off like that. Since day one I've been super stoked and very thankful about what's happening. But that's funny. I had forgotten about that.

Obviously Pitchfork's review of your 2010 debut ("Love Remains") was a big part of that initial breakthrough. What was going through your head before you clicked on their review of "Total Loss" earlier this year? Nervousness? Fear? Indifference?

I got a call from my manager and he was like, "Dude, 'Total Loss' got Best New Music on Pitchfork and the review is totally beautiful." I went on [the site] and the tagline was "a poignant and devastating work of art," or something, and I was like, "[Bleep]. That's unbelievable." It's a totally insane honor when you send something out in the world and the people who hear it tell you, "This is something. This is beautiful."

Was it a challenge going into the recording of "Total Loss" knowing people would be paying attention this time around?

It was nerve-wracking sometimes, but I tried to ride the positivity. People were super-stoked about my first record, which was something very, very dear to me. At first I was nervous, like, "Oh, what should I do next?" Then I realized people were vibing to a sound I really trusted and loved, so if I followed with another sound I trusted and loved, I had to believe people would be moved by that as well.

The record deals heavily in self-doubt, depression and death. What helped you through that low point?

Well, I mean, for me music is definitely a crucial form of sublimation. It's a way of metabolizing these feelings in a way that doesn't try to change or deny them, but just lets them be present. A lot of the stuff I'm singing about is nothing that will change. It's just a matter of rearranging my comportment towards these bits of pain.

Do you find you have a stronger urge to create music when you're feeling down?

I tend to want to create music when I encounter a feeling that's just beyond what I think I can get my head around in my day-to-day life. I'm not a depressive person. I'm actually a jovial and funny person, but I'm not ever moved to make a song by something I found hilarious. I'm only moved to song by emotions that are complicated in ways I can't quite understand.

You've tweeted about hitting the karaoke bars. Do you have a go-to song?

Of course. "Speechless" by Ciara.

Are you a tough act to follow?

[Laughs] I don't think I'm that tough to follow. I'm much better at singing my own songs than other people's songs.

Considering the name How to Dress Well, I thought I'd finish up by asking if you had any fashion tips for RedEye readers.

No. To be fair, [the name] doesn't have anything to do with fashion. It was just a name I took from a book when I was a teenager to get music off of a four-track and into an iTunes where I could find it. Then it started to mean something more to me, like how to take care of yourself and how to live right. It's about how to be comfortable in your own skin, you know?

How to Dress Well, 9 p.m. Fri. at Co-Prosperity Sphere. $14.

Tom Krell personality test
What's the last album you bought? "This Maggi Payne record."
Song you've listened to on repeat recently? "773 Love" by Jeremih
Song you never want to hear again? "Livin' It Up" by Limp Bizkit
Best concert you've seen in the last year? "Off Love in Bloomington, Indiana. It was really small and super weird and intimate and intense."
New band you don't know personally that deserves to be big? "I don't know. It's weird, all the bands I love I know now from touring, so it's hard to track one down. I tend to reach out to almost every band I love."
Favorite movie ever? "Probably 'Humanite' by Bruno Dumont."
Chicago's best music venue? The Co-Prosperity Sphere