“I’m looking at a hawk right now,” says Kristian Matsson, the Swedish singer-songwriter better known as The Tallest Man on Earth. It’s a Friday morning and, on the phone with INDY WeekMatsson eagerly tells the story of his recent move to the Triangle, while watching the birds from his home on the outskirts of Durham.
“I’m fascinated by all the raptors you have here,” he said. “Back home in Sweden, you see a hawk once in a while and it’s like, ‘Wow!’ Here it is all the time.
A confluence of factors led Matsson to North Carolina: his newfound relationship with old friends who run local artist management company The Glow, for example. The creative flash he remembers bottling on a friend’s lawn in Raleigh in 2011, as he rode an internationally acclaimed first wave and retired here to write “Little River”. And the new album he wrote and is currently recording in the isolated Chapel Hill studio of Betty, Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath. To sweeten the Tar Heel deal, Matsson kicks off his Songs of Hope Tour – his first North American swing in two years, with several sold-out dates in major markets like Boston, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles – at Haw River. Ballroom at Saxapahaw on February 26.
“It’s kind of like a hometown show in a charming way,” he says.
After keeping an apartment in New York for six years, the pandemic changed Matsson’s priorities.
“I needed to help my parents, so I thought I would go back to Sweden for two months,” he recalls. “Then I was banned from the United States for 18 months. I got rid of my apartment in New York, and now I’m slowly doing [North Carolina] my place in America. I love it. I have all my gear here for touring and recording. When I got here the songs just started coming out of me. There must be something about this place.
It’s a rare admission of contentment for Matsson, a famous hyperactive and nomadic singer-songwriter. He’s revered by critics for his intricate fingerstyle guitar and dreamlike storytelling spanning five studio albums and four EPs, and fans are equally wowed by his emotional intensity and energetic live presence. Prowling the stage and jumping over amps, his head and neck move with frenetically selected beats as he sings and howls in a high-pitched, throaty rasp often compared to that of Bob Dylan.
However, Matsson’s open-hearted vulnerability and prismatic voice stand in stark contrast to Dylan’s icy inscrutability. World’s Tallest Man’s 2015 album, The black bird is at homedug into the thorny subject of divorce, while 2019 I love you. It’s a fever dream. swirling, Springsteen-style scaffolding around some of Matsson’s most personal songs (see the haunting triptych of “I’m a Stranger Now”, “Waiting for My Ghost” and “I’ll Be a Sky”).
Buried just below the surface of all this grief is a lifelong fascination with nature, especially avian persuasion. Past EP tracks include Sometimes the blues is just a bird of passage (2010) and When the bird sees the solid ground (2018), while the 2012 album cover There’s no leaving now represents geese taking off.
“I’m kind of a hummingbird as a person,” Matsson laughs. “During the pandemic, when the tours were canceled, I was at home in a beautiful place in Sweden. But I was always at home. That didn’t necessarily calm me down. Oddly enough, it’s the moving around – meeting other people and being in the world – that calms me down. I used to think I was an introvert who needed alone time. I now realize what a little social creature I am.
This new extroversion extends to Matsson’s new material, which was written expressly in the spirit of collaboration – a big difference from his past dedicated to doing it all alone. He does, however, keep thematic discussions about the songs close to the vest, cryptically hinting that he’ll reveal more in a future interview (“Let’s do it again after the album is done to see how it all went” ).
“I wrote these songs thinking they might change when people walk into the room and add them,” he says. “I’m much more open now to invite others. In the past, I was very shy about showing my work or never thinking I was really good.”
So does the world’s tallest man suffer from a Scandinavian strain of Tall Poppy Syndrome, the Australian cultural phenomenon that puts people off standing out? Matsson answers with an emphatic yes.
“In Sweden, we’re not supposed to be really proud of what we achieve,” he says. “We do a lot of things in the dark and we won’t show them until they’re pristine. But I gave up. It’s part of my attraction to America. It’s not the stereotype that you’re brash and loud and arrogant, because that’s not what I see. But it’s a bit more… you dare to do things here.
Matsson speaks fondly of local friends whose bold artistry he admires: Brad and Phil Cook, who introduced him to Sanborn and Meath; Phil Moore of Bowerbirds (“one of my favorite bands of all time”); Flock of Dimes’ Jenn Wasner (“The album she released during the pandemic saved me from a lot of dark times”); and Mountain Man’s Meath, Molly Sarlé and Alexandra Sauser-Monnig (the latter’s solo project Daughter of Swords will open for Matsson on her first 12 US dates).
Then, he spends a few breathless minutes expressing “deep feelings of love” for his “travelling circus” of a road crew; shyly reflecting on the vulnerable cheekiness of his social media presence (describing his genre as “sad pony music”, adding an old press photo with the updated caption “What were you so afraid of, kid mate? Losing your pick? Your ghost costume not believable enough? Just play your songs”); and decisively dismissing “the vanities I had before the pandemic”. Like what? “Like saying, ‘I don’t don’t want to play in this room because the AP is bad,'” he laughs. “Now it’s like, ‘Give me a scene!'”
Exhaling, he laughs and apologizes for his enthusiasm.
“Well, he said, I’m inspired by my friends. The warm breezes here are magical to me. For the first time in a long time, I’m having a lot of fun. I feel myself relaxing in the strange craziness and emotional outbursts that music can bring.
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