Photo by Cameron Wittig
Kristian Matsson is building a new barn in his backyard. Yeah, a barn—a big ol’ wooded structure on the countryside of a village in the middle of Sweden, two and a half hours northwest of Stockholm. Why?
“A barn, yeah. Where we can have dances.”
The 32-year-old—who you probably know better by his stage name, The Tallest Man on Earth—is talking over the phone from his home in Sweden, telling me about the village in which he lives. “It sounds very exotic, but I live on the countryside. I have a horse pasture but don’t have any horses right now. There are rolling hills and farms and rivers on both sides. It’s beautiful.”
Horses. Rolling hills. Dancing in barns on the countryside. Everything this man says sounds like it’s a lost scene from a 19th century pastoral novel. These statements would make you roll your eyes and sick to your stomach, if they didn’t come from such a genuine and heartfelt place. Matsson isn’t pretentious, or performative. He’s just a dude who uses a guitar to try and figure out what’s going on inside of his brain. And hey, sometimes people listen. With his fourth record, Dark Bird Is Home (which released earlier this week via Dead Oceans), he’s continued down the path he’s paved with his discography: whimsical songs filled with stories of both joy and sadness, all driven by a beating heart of solitude.
“Not a lot of making this album and recording it hasn’t been a struggle,” he says, sounding somewhat ruffled over the phone. It’s around 9 PM in Sweden during our chat, and I imagine he’s sitting on his porch, overlooking the grassy knolls as the sun sets before him. There are probably some wild animals nearby, because at this point, why not?
Matsson doesn’t sound tired because he’s had a long day of physical activity, but instead, his exhaustion comes from our lengthy conversation, one in which he is basically performing emotional surgery on himself. He tells me about the rough year he had—he’s gone through divorce, a loved one passed away—but he’s quick to note that his struggles are just like everyone else; he’s not “fighting in wars.” But with his music, he presents these every day obstacles in a way that’s tangible and accessible, outlining the inner workings of his mind in a way that feels so urgent. Shortly into our conversation, it becomes obvious why this man uses art as the outlet for figuring out the world—he’s constantly going in circles with every question I ask. He thinks this, but also that, but also this, and oh yeah that. (He also just fucking hates interviews, as I’m one of very few that he’s agreed to for the release of Dark Bird). Yet, at times, he remains focused.
“It feels to me now like the most important and best song that I’ve ever written,” he says about the song “Dark Bird Is Home.” “I don’t know what would be after that. That needed to be the title track. It needed to be last on the album. Sometimes it’s hard to explain my positions, but it had to be that way.”
That last line is pretty much how you could some up his entire life. On the surface, Matsson may read like a cliché: a guy who makes a living playing songs with an acoustic guitar, who lives in a village in Sweden, who has pastures for horses, who talks about the countryside, who writes romantic songs that read like poetry, who builds barns for dancing. But that’s who Kristian Matsson is—there is no other choice.
Noisey: There is so much power in your live performance.
Kristian Matsson: It’s hard for me to explain. As a person, I don’t think I’m a person that by default loves to be in the spotlight. I don’t love that in the rest of my day, but I get up there on stage and when I’ve been doing that, I just disappear into that and I give everything. Now I’m putting more sounds on the record, and I have to bring a band but that doesn’t mean that I’m gonna relax into the backing of a band and just be comfortable with that. I promise myself, if I’m gonna bring a band, it’s gonna be even more powerful and the show is not gonna lack intimacy at all. People are gonna see me, because I can be pretty high energy at times. It’s actually gonna be more personal than ever, and honest of who I am and what I want to try to say and show of myself. I’ve been struggling with this a lot, for me as a solo artist to find the distinction between lenses. I have to do that for my sanity. It all blends together a lot since it’s personal music and it’s just me out there. Where the hell am I trying to go with this? I’m not good at social media, at letting people into my life. If I’m gonna do this on a stage, I’m gonna do it fully, you know?
It’s interesting you don’t like to be in the spotlight and let the public in, yet you write these deeply personal songs.
I can’t just do this half-heartedly. You can’t do it as a fun thing. I have to go all in when I do stuff, and I do contemplate myself a lot. [Laughs] It’s very personal, and that’s why I don’t do a lot of interviews! I try to do it as much as I can through the music and through the recordings and the shows. It’s because I’m really reluctant to do other stuff. For me, to get recognized and get fame takes a little thing where people have known about you and your music. You’re on their map. To be recognized doesn’t really have a value to me. So if I can, in some way, try to get as many people as possible to see the show and listen to the record, I wanna do that.
What separates the new record from your previous releases?
To try to explain it, I’ve been touring constantly since 2008 or 2007. Doing that and just having a little time off to make a record by myself, and then going directly into touring, I’ve almost just been going in a straight line. Then I decided to take a year off from touring. I needed that. I needed that for a lot of reasons. I’ve been terrible at planning; I’ve been planning to have a year to focus on the rest of my personal life and then have some time to record an album. To just record at a slow pace, see what I wanted to do. That year off was a lot of things happening in my personal life, so then I had this record making turned into something where I could just—there’s a lot of growing up stuff I needed to take care of. The distant relationships, the family, stuff like that. They just happen all at the same time.
If you don’t mind me asking, is there anything in specific?
I recorded this album in a year when so many horrible things happened in the world. The wars, people are having real problems. What I did is just really the kind of thing everyone goes through. I went through a divorce; I lost a family member that was close to me. That year started off like that, and then so this album making process just turned into something that I could use for escape, or just to have an outlet to channel a lot of energy into. I wrote all of these songs when a lot of these things were going on in my life. Then there were two weeks, when we produced the record—they were amazing. Not a lot of making this album and recording it hasn’t been a struggle. I had an outlet in the studio for those two weeks. I could just run around and play a lot of instruments. And then it’s just, all of a sudden I had this record, and yeah, we should release this. [Laughs]
It’s weird how this is how life tends to happen—all of the bad stuff happens at once. How do you process this as a songwriter?
I’m not really sure yet if it’s processing anything. It’s not like it’s therapy for me, because it doesn’t really solve everything. It solves the need to get energies out of you. There are a lot of bad things you could do instead with energy. It has attracted me, you could just take this energy you have inside of you and try to create something out of air. It’s hard for me to explain. It’s a place where you can be super serious and naïve. To be naïve could be really serious. Maybe it’s that, when I’m talking about how this album is personal it’s because I can—I don’t know if I can believe that other people relate, but, for me the different songs, I can relate to what I was feeling when I was writing that. How I feel for me, listening back to this album it’s perfect for me in the sense. The melancholy, it’s spot on for me because it’s a lot of—the ending of “Dark Bird Is Home,” that’s exactly what I meant by saying “I need to go.”
Photo by Cameron Wittig
Do you view The Tallest Man on Earth as a character?
Maybe not, I mean… In the past, yes. It happens on this album, too. You can borrow and feel from other peoples’ lives, and you write about that. Even if it’s the first person in the song, it’s not you. I guess it’s hard for me to even talk about the intention or what it is. I wouldn’t say it’s a persona that I’ve put on, but it’s something that has maybe allowed me to be a liar sometimes. To make up stuff. If I would just go out there as me and try to describe exactly what happened in my life, it wouldn’t be interesting for a long time. I’m just like anyone else.
Something I think that’s quite moving about your music is that it manages to be poignant but, weirdly, not corny, which is often an obstacle if you’re just a person standing there with a guitar writing songs about being sad. Do you think about this, or how do you avoid it?
For me, it’s mostly that other people tell me who I am. I don’t blame them. I don’t blame them at all. What you’re supposed to be when you sit down and stand up with a guitar and then you—but I can’t, if I start to think about what I’m supposed to do or supposed to not do, I can’t really do anything. So I have a stupid name, like, stupid stage name. [Laughs] That’s it. That’s a joke, and I’m a sucker for sentimental stuff. The chord structures are that of basic pop songs, which I’m a sucker for, too. But then it’s like, forget what things are, just try to follow passion and do that as powerfully as I’m able to. Passion shines through, and I don’t think it’s really that important. I don’t know about this record, there are different sounds and there might be people that don’t like it. There might be people that enjoy it more. I can’t think of that right now. I just have to do the same thing.
I think that’s probably what leads to being the most effective in terms of songwriting and in terms of what you’re trying to do. You gotta get it out of the way and not edit yourself.
Right. I’m there to do some stuff and people will like it. If I play old songs, what people liked before, I do catch myself sometimes. Writing new songs, I just figure out that I’m just doing this because I know people like when I play “Where My Bluebird Fly” and the inspiration and creativity just dies.
Do you run into that wall often?
Yes, I fail a lot.
This record sounds like it was like performing surgery on yourself. What have you learned about yourself and how will you be moving forward?
I definitely came out on the bright side. It’s a little bit more powerful side, because, yes, I was worried about a lot of things. Being on the road since 2007 or 2008, that becomes too much to live a life. I mean, in 2007 I was 24 years old. It’s channeling all the time. I learned maybe just that a lot of things happen at the same time, and you grow up and you can resolve that things will happen that you have to deal with for the rest of your life. You’re never gonna come to a level where things are just easy. You know? That for me creates calmness that I’ve never had before. I think that calmness allows me to be even more powerful in what I’m trying to create. How I’m just not tumbling into another tour and the next thing. I’ve had time now to really think about things. How to be at my best, for other people and for myself, to have time to be more precise, I think, in what I want to communicate. [Laughs]
This is your fourth record. At this point is there anything as an artist about which you feel misunderstood?
I mean, I’m trying to figure that out myself. I don’t really understand. Not that I think about this all the time. It’s what we talked about before, what you should do as a singer/songwriter, sometimes they’re boring. You should just play the guitar! No, I don’t feel misunderstood. I feel super grateful, blessed, that I get to do this and I get to do these shows. It’s been over well over a year since I’ve done a show. Even though I was so worn out at the end of 2013, I miss it so much. I feel like a lot of live shows is a collaborative thing with the crowd. I could never go and stand on the stage and expect people to look at me. I can stare at people in the eye, and me playing a song by myself, I can put the emphasis on a certain word here, and emphasis on another word another night—it creates responses. For me, it’s an amazing thing to be a part of. Instead of feeling misunderstood, no, I’m not misunderstood. I mean, I try to not look at the internet. [Laughs]
That’s a good idea. Just never look at the internet.
Yeah, because there are so many experts. I will always be misunderstood.
Eric Sundermann is an internet expert. Follow him on Twitter.