Breakups are hard. Just ask Stevie, or Alanis, or Kristian Matsson.
Matsson, known by his stage name The Tallest Man On Earth, has long been singing intricate folk songs about the age-old story of love and love lost. The singer-songwriter’s most recent record, 2015’s Dark Bird Is Home, has been touted as his most personal to date, with his country-tinged vocals musing on his divorce from wife and fellow musician Amanda Bergman. “It feels good,” Matsson says when asked about the breakup during a breather before sound check at Le Festival d’été de Québec in Québec City. “Me and my ex-wife are really good friends, so we can have a laugh about it. And she has her own album about the same thing. The songs are personal and they have connections in my life, but also there’s just a lot of made-up stuff in there.”
Born and raised in Sweden, and still living there part time, Matsson’s grainy, grassroots ballads sound as if they come from another continent, another time. “I grew up in kind of the Swedish Appalachian Mountains,” he says of his affinity for folk. “There’s a lot of fiddle music, and that music came from Europe, Irish ballads. I haven’t really thought about it, but there are lots of similarities, lots of songs that go from minor keys to major keys, and you don’t know if it’s happy or if it’s sad.”
“It sounds pretentious, but I need to live in the song.”
Despite its distant origins, there’s nothing inauthentic about Matsson’s music. Until recently, he toured without a band—just the man and his guitar on stage, a powerful duo when his masterful musicianship is taken into consideration. His stage presence is completely engrossing, perhaps because Matsson himself has so much invested in the performance. “It sounds pretentious, but I need to live in the song,” he says. “It gets very emotional sometimes. We played Royal Albert Hall in London just a couple weeks ago, which was our biggest indoor show yet, and when we played Fields of Our Home they just shined this big white light on everyone, and the band sounded so good, I started crying. It was very powerful. I guess that I’m very lucky that I get to go up on stage and whine about how hard love can be.”
Writing, talking, singing about the hardships of love, however, isn’t a cathartic experience for Matsson. “No song I’ve written I’ve solved a problem with, but you get an outlet,” he says. “Instead of being frustrated, it can take away some of those moments when your thoughts are just spinning and you’re just trying to solve things you can’t solve.” To distract, to commiserate—it’s what the best breakup songs manage to do.
At the shows, there’s an intimacy in knowing that it’s okay to be sad; it kind of feels good. It’s an element that doesn’t go unnoticed by Matsson. “It seems sometimes people seem to connect to other people who have been in weird relationships that didn’t work out,” he muses. “To travel around and sing sad songs and get applause for it, it’s pretty strange.”
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