THE TALLEST MAN ON EARTH
With music that is pure, raw and honest, The Tallest Man On Earth has become a seminal voice
There’s something innately humble about what Kristian Matsson does. Be it the sheer simplicity of his art, the enduring timelessness and purity of a voice and an instrument alone, together. Perhaps it’s the realisation that there’s nothing to stop anyone picking up a knackered guitar and giving it a go.
Yet on occasion, in the hands of a very particular few, music assembled on this most primeval level still has to potential to astound. And when the 29-year-old Swede’s singular voice and understatedly brilliant guitar work mingles in the air, it’s a seamless merging of man and instrument seldom compared to since the heydays of Buckleys both and Nick Drake.
For some, to be compared to greats of your ilk such as the aforementioned (and a nagging association with a certain Mr. Zimmerman) would be considered the highest, most esteemed praise. But not to Matsson. Since breaking free from his band background, the musical remit has always been to continue to stand alone, to be a lofty presence among music’s tall trees. His intention was always to be The Tallest Man On Earth.
Up to, and including the release of his latest, third album There’s No Leaving Now, reception to Matsson’s output has been nothing short of phenomenal. A self-titled EP sparked interest, a debut full-length, Shallow Grave, astounded. Follow-up, the genuinely wonderful The Wild Hunt, immediately became a reference point in the lexicon of modern folk (a label in itself which the artist shirks from) before a further EP did nothing to dampen a surging reputation. The records themselves were almost thrown together, guitars and vocals taped simultaneously and hurriedly recorded in various locations, when the opportunity presented itself. But while the process of laying down the music may have been sharp, rushed and unstable, these songs’ gestation period was not. These moments are loved, pored over, understood front to back. And how could they not be? The levels of artistry achieved on the likes of his staggering character study of love and death The Gardener marks out a craftsman of truly the highest order. And we challenge anyone not to crumble at three minutes and twenty seconds into The Wild Hunt’s closer Kids On The Run when Matsson, in that untouchably earnest and human, grainy, soaring, nasal croak, cries “Oh, let’s break some hearts!”
Such sustained brilliance afforded him the opportunity to make a record in his own time, on his own terms. While the sparse minimalism of the voice and the string may have been considered essential in The Tallest Man On Earth sound, this was not necessarily forged from desire any more than necessity. Given the chance, There’s No Leaving Now sees subtle textures aching through the cracks in the songs’ foundations, reinforcing them and rendering them more powerful still. While he can still stun you with a simple whispered word, this time around he doesn’t have to.
When we speak with Matsson, he refers to a strengthening of personal roots, surely based on his marriage to fellow Swedish musical miracle- worker, Dylan student and collaborator Amanda Bergman, known as Idiot Wind. It is this sense of solidity that has bred arguably his most profound and ambitious collection to date. For a man often labelled a shy, somewhat reticent interviewee, we find him welcoming and nothing short of invigorated by this new record, though not so much as to get away from the basic premise that his music should, in many ways, be allowed to speak for itself.
There’s been a common theme in much of your output of escaping into the expanse of the world – Kids on the Run, I Won’t Be Found etc– yet you’ve chosen to title this new record there’s no leaving now. Is that an intentional statement?
That’s pretty much exactly what it is. I used to write a lot of songs about running away and escaping from problems. But then all of my releases, especially The Wild Hunt, were recorded and written at a really chaotic time in my life when I was moving around a lot and recording in different places. Now I find myself in the best place ever personally, and I have the platform now and the comfort to, instead of thinking of running away so much in life, to just stay and try to deal with any anxieties and difficulties.
But while the title itself is born from a sense of satisfaction, that doesn’t seem to be the mood of the entire record?
Yeah, well I started the process of writing this record with that in mind, but you start to dig into things and it began to become one of my darkest albums yet.
There’s definitely been an expansion in instrumentation on this record, with certain songs more rounded out and textured. How did that come to be the case?
I just had more time. I set my own deadlines. All the other albums have been recorded in a couple of weeks, and the EP from 2010 was recorded in three days I think. Now I had the time to appreciate what was going on. I went into the process having four or five songs so I started to record, and then I wrote To Just Grow Away, the first song on the album. It just steered me in another direction and started to give me an idea of what this album was going to really be about. So I wrote and recorded a lot of songs simultaneously, and that hasn’t really happened before. It was chaotic in a sense, but a good chaos. Nice at points, but pure hell at others because you just don’t know where you’re going. But in the end I sat there with an album that I’m really proud of, and I think it’s an honest album.
Is there any pressure on this release based on the reception for The Wild Hunt and Shallow Grave? Does expectation increase with each successful record?
I can’t lie, in the beginning of the process for sure. Those thoughts come to you and then you just can’t get anything done, y’know. But with good support from friends who have been through the same thing just telling me to try to believe in myself and try to make the album I want to make, you just begin to swim around in the madness.
The record also shows you continuing to develop yourself as a piano player. Do you feel as comfortable expressing yourself on piano as on guitar, or is there a while to go?
Oh no no no, I’m a lousy piano player! I don’t feel comfortable at all. I just did a couple of my first shows here playing the grand piano in theatres and stuff, and I really, really have to focus. But I love the instrument and I really wish I played better. Now I have a good grand piano at home so I can practice. Everything takes practice. I practiced the guitar for a long, long time … well, not practiced, but played a lot, so I know it takes time.
The piano you played on Kids on the Run has become quite talked about, mainly cause it’s so charmingly out of tune. Where did you get that instrument from and why did you choose it?
That was a lousy little piano I had in this little house I lived in when I was recording that song. It’s kind of how I treat all of my instruments. I’m not a professional on any instrument; I just try to make sounds. It’s the same with guitars. I just try to put them in different tunings and find what works naturally with that song and create sounds that inspire me.
Your lyrics are consistently emotional and touching, yet at the same time often remain pretty difficult to decipher or understand – do you enjoy leaving that room for interpretation?
Yeah, I guess I have to. I can’t do it any other way. The lyrics, they come out as they want to, in a way. To me, they’re really personal, especially on this record. They’re very close to me, but I can’t really explain them.
So does it make you uncomfortable to discuss your motivation behind writing a song?
Not uncomfortable really, but on this record in particular I’ve maybe deliberately hidden stuff that I want to say in songs and made it a little harder to understand because I’m not quite there yet to just say them straight. It’s hard to just scream out really deep, personal things. They are there in the songs, but maybe only I have the key.
You’ve got some great UK dates coming up, including an appearance at Green Man. You played there back in 2010; do you have any memories of that show and are you looking forward to going back to the Welsh countryside?
Oh yeah, for sure. It’s so, so beautiful there with the views around that area, and I have a lot of great memories from that show. It feels really wonderful to be going back to that same stage, and there are so many great bands and artists on the line-up.
As the size of the shows you play increases, do you find it difficult to achieve the intimacy and connection with the crowd that you’ve become accustomed to feeding off?
No, I’m liking the luxury of playing in these seated theatres, I love it. I mean, obviously the sound is good and the crowds are fantastic and they really listen. Sometimes you play in a small place with a noisy bar, with people throwing around bottles and the cash register sounding. I mean, the festivals can be a bit harder, y’know and you have to play your tricks a bit more there to get everyone involved, but I really like the nice theatres I get to play in.
When you’ve got this reputation for feeding off an audience like you do, literally seeing the whites of their eyes, do you feel as if you’re able to fully accomplish what you’d like in these more expansive settings?
Well, I can’t see everyone now, but I still feel a great connection with a crowd. Also, that’s something that comes from playing solo, just me and my instrument. That makes another kind of intimacy with a crowd. When you have a band you can turn into one group of people, and the crowd is another group. When it’s just me, I don’t have anyone other than the crowd.
As you go on these extended tours, do you find yourself able to achieve the emotional resonance behind these songs each night? To conjure the joy, or jealousy, or mourning of certain songs – does that come naturally?
It doesn’t come naturally. Let me put it like this, there’s a lot of hard work; travelling and trying to keep sane and … clean! But you have to learn how to save up the energy as much as possible, so then you can be that person every night. If I would start to feel detached from the songs then when I played them, they wouldn’t be the same songs. I feel like that’s what I have to do. I couldn’t go around and not be my best. People paid money to come to this show, people came here to see me, and they deserve a proper, honest show each night.
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There’s No Leaving Now is available on Dead Oceans
Catch The Tallest Man On Earth at:
HMV Forum, London | October 22nd
Colston Hall, Bristol | October 23rd
HMV Ritz, Manchester | October 28th
St. Bartholomews Church | October 29th
Words: Geraint Davies