Born in Dalarna, Sweden, singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson, who performs under the stage name the Tallest Man on Earth, says his teenage years weren’t that much different from a typical American teen’s.
“We enjoy American culture a lot in Sweden,” he says via phone from New York where he was visiting friends. “Growing up on the countryside where I grew up, there’s a history of Swedish folk music, traditional music and fiddle music. It’s always around. Living on the countryside, I was in a bunch of bands. You just find some dudes to play with and it’s inspiring when you have to figure things out for yourself.”
A set of introspective songs characterized by Matsson’s quivering vocals, Dark Bird is Home
features fragile songs that suggest early Dylan or the late, great Elliott Smith.
Initially, Mattson learned to play the recorder in school. He then took up clarinet. But because his mother played guitar, he gravitated to the instrument.
“Guitar was always around,” he says. “Of course, guitar is cooler [than clarinet]. I fooled around with that. It wasn’t until my teens that I got my hands on an electric guitar and then I went through a big David Bowie phase and loved Lou Reed and glam rock.”
He discovered the music of Bob Dylan in a rather roundabout manner.
“My parents listened to him,” he says. “When I was around 10 or 11, I listened to lots of Guns N Roses and heard them do ‘Knockin' on Heaven’s Door.’ Then, I realized he wrote it. This guy’s brother had his greatest hits album with the purple cover. I immediately enjoyed it when I heard it.”
On his first album, 2008’s Shallow Grave
, Matsson tracked his guitar and vocals together. As a result, he has to really emote to be heard and his voice even sounds stretched thin on songs such as “I Won’t Be Found” and “Honey Won’t You Let Me In.” Matsson says that he no longer takes that approach to recording.
“In the beginning, I played small tiny venues sometimes without a microphone at all,” he explains. “I played pretty loud guitar. My voice had to be louder than that. It became kind of harsh and loud. When I recorded, they were glued together. It has changed, playing bigger venues and being able to calm down a little.”
He began recording his new album Dark Bird is Home
in Sweden but then finished the process in the states (Matsson says he regularly travels back and forth between Sweden and the States).
“I didn’t have a plan or a concept,” he says when asked about his approach on Dark Bird
. “I had a bunch of songs. I was writing songs like crazy. Things were happening in my life. I had an engineer and co-producer who came to my place in Sweden. I live in the countryside. I have a barn I turned into a studio. He came there and we just tracked all these songs for two weeks. I had some friends come over to play some drums and some bass. Other than that, I was running around from instrument to instrument. It needed to be different this time. I needed to let all energy free. I was constantly rewriting lyrics, so I wanted to go somewhere else to record vocals and mix it. We went to a studio in Wisconsin and did the vocals there. There were musicians around in the studio so we ended up with saxophones and horns and strings.”
It might not sound like it from the song title, but “Darkness of the Dream” is an upbeat, happy sounding song that you can imagine will become a vibrant sing-a-long when Matsson sings it live.
“I am very happy with that song,” he says. “It’s one of my most cynical songs for sure. What inspired it is life and breakups. I’ve been through a few of them. But it’s also about the feelings surrounding a breakup. They aren’t quiet. It definitely tells the story of asking, ‘What the hell? Is this ever going to be easy?’ It’s a little bitter. Making this album and the time that passed doing it was figuring out that you could see past it in your life. For the first time in my life I felt calm about it. Maybe that’s just growing up. These things are going to happen to you for the rest of your life. You just have to learn to deal with it.”
For the upcoming show at House of Blues, which he says will be his first-ever appearance in Cleveland, he’ll be backed by a band. He says it's essential that he have a band to play the new songs.
“It’s four people and they’re multi-instrumentals,” he says of his band. “They’re really talented people. Parts of the show I do solo. If it’s a very dynamic show, if I do say so myself. All the songs I wrote on a guitar or piano but with ‘Darkness of a Dream’ you want to play with a band.”
The album just came out this year and Matsson says he’s focused on touring. But given that he had a year off prior to the album’s release, he says he’s got the energy for it.
“I’m in good shape physically and mentally so it’s pretty easy,” he says. “I haven’t thought about what the next step will be, but I am definitely still writing songs because I just can’t stop.”
The Tallest Man on Earth, Lady Lamb, 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $25-$32.50, houseofblues.com.