Is Tom Krell fucking with me?
“I’m like, breathlessly bowled over by emotion right now, but I’m keeping it together so I can do this interview,” he says. Folding his lanky, six-foot-plus body into a booth at Silver Lake’s El Siete Mares, he leans over a plate of fish tacos. “I’m a little bit of a live wire,” he assures me, looking anything but. “I’m also good at masking.” He stares off into the parking lot and smiles, serene, lost—possibly in potential thoughts to tweet.
Prior to meeting the 32-year-old artist, who records as How to Dress Well, I half-expected him to have heart-eyes. His Twitter personality (display name: “literally your boy”) is twee, his updates liberally spangled with emojis and the word “cute.” Sample post: “Yesterday was his bday and today I'm working in the room Mike did thriller in wtf how did my life get this cute.”
Krell first arrived in 2009 in a then-fashionable cloak of mystery to woo the underground with foggy, R&B-adjacent bedroom recordings. Seven years later, he’s evolved, like the internet, to embrace things that are bright and earnest. His latest album, Care, has moments that wouldn’t be out of place in a Disney movie (one of the cool ones, like The Lion King), big name collaborators (like Jack Antonoff of fun. and Bleachers), and a near-off-putting level of naked emotion (with lyrics like “And when you walked in, oh/I felt my heart go right into you,” from single “Can’t You Tell”). It’s accompanied by a Twitter-approved persona. Krell rejects gendered sexual attraction, and calls his most recent single “consent pop.” He embraces Top 40 hits in a way that, 10 years ago, would’ve been dismissed as corny. He’s fluent in emoji. Long gone is the lo-fi cloudiness that made his lyrics unintelligible. He wants to be your wokest bae.
But in person, on this stifling August afternoon, Krell is Buddha-calm, articulate, and even a little smug as he discusses his work as a doctoral candidate in philosophy (“There is no God. That’s just the basic fact of the matter.”). He just moved to L.A. from Chicago at the start of the year, but already looks at home in the gentrified neighborhoods east of Hollywood: record label T-shirt, cropped trousers, grape-colored sneakers, phone addiction.
“Pleasure is fucking important,” Krell continues. “I made a lot of mistaken assumptions when I was younger about what I wanted my life to look like and it’s taken me a long time to get out from under those.” He runs a hand through his wavy, product-less deep brown hair, a habit. “Things I thought were valuable, [like] being the smartest person in the room at the expense of all intimacy. I think I just cost myself a lot of fun as a younger person. I was afraid to be free. Now I’ve come to learn… fun can be profound. Or just fun.”
That mentality is at the heart of Care. His debut, the haunting Love Remains, arrived six years ago to near-universal critical acclaim. It established Krell as an early and leading purveyor of ghostly R&B that acted as a tripwire, sending you tumbling into waves of nostalgia while still feeling brand new. Singing often-indecipherable lyrics, his falsetto floated above music that created a sensation of yearning for the past and future simultaneously. He released Total Loss in 2012 and What Is This Heart? two years later, was heaped with praise from every major publication, became a festival darling, and along the way, made his music more accessible. But Care is different from anything he’s done before—splashy, jubilant, forthcoming and, at times, downright poppy. And you can make out every word.
“The lyrics on this record are really important to me, because I found a voice that’s so plainspoken and direct,” he says. “I started working on Care about two years ago. It’s been a time of real extreme growth for me, in my head. I’m feeling so much more positivity in my own head.”
"I always think of what Future says: ‘I’m at the point of my life when I feel like there’s nothing I can’t conquer.’"
Still, he hasn’t completely crossed over to the world of shiny happy people, Twitter chirpiness be damned. While he’s “not a huge fan of talking about my relationships in the news,” it seems that he and his longtime girlfriend have split. One of the first singles from the album, “Lost Youth/Lost You,” opens with the line, “Change is hard.” According to Krell, the song is “about disillusionment and transformation, sometimes unwanted transformation. Sometimes maybe you don’t want it. One of the lyrics is ‘I guess there’s no peace until I’m in my grave.’ Well, that’s great. What a treat,” he says, laughing.
Instead of the changes crippling him, however, he’s feeling invincible now. “I always think of what Future says: ‘I’m at the point of my life when I feel like there’s nothing I can’t conquer.’”
“For me, turning 30 is important in that I’ve now had enough time to be in therapy for 10 years," he says. I’ve had enough time to be out of my family home for 12 years. I have my own full-blown financial independence, traveling the whole world. Enough experiences, enough sex, do enough drugs. I feel calmer now than ever before in my life.”
“I don’t have personal crises. I guess that’s why I’m good at change,” Krell continues. Or it could be all the resources he has had to handle them. That necessary glimmer of self-awareness appears just in the nick of time, and he admits, “To be white in the southwest in America in the ‘90s is about as sheltered and privileged as you can get.”
Growing up in Boulder, Colo. wasn’t especially idyllic, though. “My whole life has been touched by mental disability,” he told Pitchfork in 2014. His brothers have Asperger’s and his mother experienced depression. And as he sings on the fluttery romp “What’s Up,” “Not tryna be like my dad.”
“That song is definitely about not being determined by your defensive patterns you developed in youth that maybe you got from your dad,” he explains. “All the men I saw growing up were so fucking aggro. And unhappy. Out of touch with their souls. [I’m] just realizing over the course of 10 years I don’t wanna be like that.”
Krell, by contrast, says he was always comfortable in his own skin. His mother would arrive to pick him up from birthday parties and find him sitting by a window, alone. “She’d say, ‘Have you been hanging out with everybody?’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, I was just gonna look out the window for a little while,’” he recalls. “Okay, weirdo.”
His growth spurt arrived late; he spent his teenage years as a little guy. He half-jokingly says he had “small man complex.” Observing that advancing socially in this environment was best achieved by being a dick, he played the part. But by high school, he’d found other means of getting attention from girls: writing poetry and singing as the frontman of an emo band called A Far Away Place. He’s now reached his final form: a self-styled, indie-famous philosopher poet.
He’s come a long way from his hazy, enigmatic bedroom beginnings. With Care, he’s crafted an album that’s clear, direct, and colorful. Krell says he “worked like a fucking dog” on it, executive producing for the first time and recording 110 hours of vocals—it feels like the “most important thing” he’s ever done.
I ask what’s next, and he launches into a theory that touches on time travel and how the past is illuminated but the future is pitch black, so going there would be pointless—all while rolling a cigarette. “You can only have a look where some light has gotten,” he continues. Then he stops, his eyes shining, his mind somewhere else. “I’m gonna tweet that.”