In Conversation: Tom O’Donnell of Corner Soul talks Lowell, Mass, Bringing Pageantry Back to Rock, and The Band’s Excellent New Album

Corner Soul is a wild card in every sense of the term. In preparation for this interview lead singer and band leader Tom O’Donnell sent me an eclectic playlist full of the band’s influences while putting together their most recent LP Emergency Faith. The playlist had some interestingly sequenced twists and turns, at one point moving from Erykah Badu, to David Bowie, to Pink Siifu back to back to back, and later running thru a quick Richard Hell, Prince, Moodyman, Liv.e sequence, which maybe surprisingly all makes perfect sense after giving the record a listen. While Corner Soul initially established themselves as a punk outfit with 2018’s Positive Release, their new record has tracks that sound like everything from glitched out glam rock, to LCD Soundsystem styled dance rock, to subdued R&B ballads. While the production on all the tracks is sublime, both thanks to the live instrumentation and the multitude of samples utilized that help blend styles effortlessly, the band is able to cover so much ground sonically because of Tom O’Donnell’s unmistakable voice. Tom is able to convey a soap opera’s worth of emotion in every syllable he speaks. His sultry smooth cooing sounds at times like Bowie reincarnated and is impossible to forget; It’s the connecting thread that makes the multitude of styles explored on this record still feel so cohesive. “Downtown” sounds like a relaxed disco track, the kind of song that could get a tired group back on its feet late in the night, and Tom carries the track effortlessly. Meanwhile “Blessed to Forget” sounds like something Disclosure might have whipped up knowing they had the opportunity to get Tom’s voice on a record. Emergency Faith works so well because the instrumentals all sound pristine, bringing a menagerie of diverse samples and instruments together to meld genres with ease, which provide a smooth backdrop for Tom to dance all over.

Bowie is a nice reference point for the young group in a number of respects. He famously jumped from sound to sound and look to look between records, and from the punk of Positive Release, to the quieter indie pop of last year’s Instant Gratification, to the glitched out dance pop of Emergency Faith the group is setting a similar chart for themselves. The band also has hopes of harkening back to the more glamorous days of the seventies when people actually got dressed up to rock and to roll. When discussing their performance at last year’s Rock and Roll Rumble, which serves as a battle of the bands for up and comers in and around Boston, Tom lamented at the steady stream of bands full of guys in polo shirts they played with and hoped to bring some of the pageantry back to rock. Corner Soul did exactly that, matching the glamour of their most recent album by getting dolled up to the nines for the Rumble, full with make up, mesh, sequins, and lipstick, setting themselves apart from the rest of the polos in the pack. While they didn’t ‘win’ either night of competition in the first or second round they still found themselves in the finals thanks to notching two “Wild Card” slots. The Boston Herald’s Jed Gottlieb said that front man Tom O’Donnell impressed everyone in attendance though nobody knew how to describe what they were hearing. The crowd just wasn’t ready for those combinations of the old and the new that Corner Soul was providing, but they sure as hell knew whatever they were listening to they liked it. I’d imagine as Emergency Faith continues to catch ears more and more will go through that same journey, starting off puzzled as they listen trying to figure out what a given song reminds them of before realizing that they’re dancing in their seat and can figure it out once they’re done grooving.

We were lucky enough to ask Tom some questions about his hometown of Lowell, the young and the old musicians that inspire the band, and the process of putting this excellent record together.

What is your name and how do you identify?

My name is Tom, vaguely gender fluid but I go by he/him pronouns for the most part.

You come from Lowell, MA, a working-class city with a richer cultural tradition than people might realize. What was it like growing up in Lowell?

I bounced from state to state a fair amount when I was young but always ended up back in Lowell. It’s a fucking strange town that’s taken its share of hits, but it’s got a spirit to it. Mad cultures in very close proximity, vibrant immigrant communities, lot of different perspectives pretty densely packed together. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be so personally influenced by the Cambodian, Puerto Rican, Portuguese, Kenyan, Laotian and Nigerian communities that our circle grew up in.

What is the music scene like in Lowell specifically? Did you play most of your gigs in Lowell or did you end up traveling all over New England? Any favorite musicians from Lowell proper or Mass in general you want to shout out?

Lowell’s music scene is bizarre man, lot of weird outlier artists. And luckily a lot of wonderfully accepting people who are open to digging weird outlier shit. I think there’s a real lack of allegiance to genre, things are more connected by attitude than anything else. We’ve toured the coast a few times and play Boston and New York pretty frequently, but Lowell is still hometown proper. Shouts out to Arty $lang though, one of my favorite live acts ever, very good friends of ours. We actually bootlegged one of their sets and ended up sampling it for a couple transitions. One of my favorite spots on the record, the intro to ‘Sirens’, was cut from that show.

What are your earliest musical memories? When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

My old man played a lot of James Brown and Toots and the Maytals when I was a kid, which I loved, but the Stooges’ ‘Raw Power’ was kind of year zero for me musically. It opened the door to everything, punk, jazz, noise, blues, and defined my outlook for a long time. I don’t think I really considered myself a musician until I started writing though. I remember staying up for three nights on speed when I was like 15, learning how to play every song on the Ramones’ first two records, and coming to the conclusion that I didn’t actually need to be that good to write good songs. 

Corner Soul impressed the judges and crowds at the Rock and Roll Rumble which is like a Best of Boston Battle of the Bands. What made you stand out at that competition? More generally what do you think makes your live act so compelling?

The Rumble was a blast, but we were notably the odd band out. We didn’t come up in the Boston scene, or the “rock” scene in general, we looked fucking strange. It seemed appropriate that we never actually won a night but managed to wildcard our way to the finals. I’ve always felt like shows were a way to express your ideal self as loudly as possible, so the androgyny, the dolling up, the attitude, the movement is as just important as the sound. A lot of our crowds reflect that too. But ultimately that essence is much easier to achieve when you’ve got a band that fucking slays and I have the privilege of being backed by a pretty brilliant and distinct group of players. 

Your sound has changed a good deal over the years, starting off as a straight punk band, slowly finding your way to this psychedelic dance pop that feels like if David Bowie was signed to PC Music. How did that change happen? Was it deliberate or a gravitation towards what you felt pulling you at the time?

I’d been producing more electronic leaning stuff on the side with other artists for a while by the time we really figured out how to incorporate those sounds into our own records. But individually our interests were pulling us that way regardless. Ray is a funk drummer at his core and Ramos is built on hip hop and house music, so it felt like a natural direction to move in. 

You sent me over an eclectic mix of influences for this record that encompassed everyone from Pink Siifu to Prince, from Liv.e to Nina Simone. What is the connecting tissue between the artists who inspired this record? Do any of the reference points particularly stand out?

If there is a common thread, it’s that the artists who inspired us most found ways to build their own universes and function outside of conventional structures. We’re always looking for ways to break out of established frameworks, musically and in our personal lives. We had a night off in Brooklyn when we were touring ‘Instant Gratification’ and happened to end up at Pink Siifu’s ‘Ensley’ show at H0L0 and that night put us on to this whole self sustaining community of super radical artists, Maassai, Liv.e, AKAI SOLO, that undoubtedly informed the way the record was produced. Prince, Arthur Russell, and Nina Simone have all been massive guiding light figures for us forever but it’s maybe a bit more evident on this record than any in the past.

You also mentioned that you co-produced the record with Eurotrash where you’d flip samples and put the production together before dubbing any other pieces from the rest of the group. What was the order of operations for putting these tracks together? Did you have lyrics written and then would make a beat to match the mood or would you produce the track and write to them, or a mix of both?

Every track’s a bit different but most grew from building little noise loops for the band to play over and using the recordings as source material. Live bootlegs, voice memos, fields recordings, all used as instruments. To an extent, we were throwing ideas at the wall until they stuck and then scrapping them for parts to reassemble as tangible songs. The lyrics were generally written stream of consciousness but repeatedly hacked away at and labored over until it felt like honest communication. Probably more time spent editing than actually writing or recording.

This is a sonicly diverse record with dance floor ready bops like “Blessed to Forget” to subdued and meditative tracks like “Say Something” to the glitched out glam rock of “Everything Hits at Once” to LCD Soundsystem styled alt-rock rippers like “Butterfly”, and everything in between. Was that a conscious effort or just how the album took shape? How do you keep such a cohesive sound across the album while pulling together so many disparate universes?

Though I realize that a lot of these songs are the direct sum of their influences, we made a point of committing completely to the sounds that we could live in and embody. It was something of a rule to function within our means. We wanted more than anything for this record to not sound like a collection of genre exercises but a band in control of their inspirations. It was an attempt to pay homage to the music that we’ve learned from without leaning into anything categorically. And then filter everything through that brickwalled DIY sensibility until it’s unrecognizable. 

This album has been in the works since early last year. What was the earliest song you recorded for the record and what was the most recent? How did the record or your perception of what you were putting together change over that period of time?

Funny enough, first track we demoed was the closer, “Sirens”. We had almost given up on the album after some gear gave out and we lost all the original master files, but “Butterfly”, “Clean”, and “Say Something” were written and recorded in a bit of a frenzy during the first lockdown and it really galvanized us to just do what we could with what we had and finish the thing. I don’t know that any of the songs necessarily reflect what their original intention was, but we’ve learned to live in our limitations, and I’m happy with what they grew into. “Gardening, not architecture” hahaha.

Do you have a favorite track on the record? I cannot stop jamming to “Blessed to Forget” personally.

Oh, I’m tied, they’re all my children. But I do miss playing “Dazzlingly Bright” live and I can’t wait for the day we finally get to play “Butterfly” on stage.

What music/books/tv/movies/video games/content in general has helped keep you sane over quarantine? Have you been able to maintain economic stability through these rough times?

Angela Davis’ books have really helped an incredible amount with trying to stay angry in the right direction and still maintain some semblance of willful optimism. A lot of Fanon, Marcuse, Márquez; I know ‘Black Marxism’ and ‘Blindness’ both got passed around the whole band as well. I think there was a conscious effort at de-brainwashing as a means of keeping mentally healthy hahaha. Rewatched ‘Paris is Burning’ and ‘Chungking Express’ almost every night for a stretch too, absolutely necessary. KeiyaA’s ‘Forever, Ya Girl’ and Sterolab’s ‘Dots and Loops’.

As far as the drudgery of making rent goes, I’ve personally been lucky, but most everybody in our circle, scene, neighborhood, has either been laid off with no real safety net or is being brutally overworked and still struggling to make ends. In part, it’s been the impetus behind that renewed militancy, having to constantly stare at the widening wealth divide as your neighbors are put out and your community centers are turned into courthouses and your churches are flipped into condos.

Follow Corner Soul on Insta, buy their records on BandCamp and stream them on Spotify and Apple Music!

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