EAU CLAIRE, WIS. – As he roamed the backstage area at the Eaux Claires Music & Art Festival last month, Kristian Matsson seemed to be right at home despite being 4,000 miles away from home.
“There’s definitely a Scandinavian vibe here,” said the Swedish folk-rock singer better known by his stage moniker the Tallest Man on Earth. “The people here are warm and humble — too humble, really.”
Actually just 5-foot-7 in stature, the lightly bearded Matsson arrived for his second day at Eaux Claires dressed in a stylish, all-white shorts and button-down shirt combo, quite inappropriate wear for a Wisconsin farm field any other weekend of the year. He knew his surroundings and his fellow musicians well thanks to his ties to the festival’s homegrown founder, Justin Vernon.
As the Tallest Man on Earth, he toured with Vernon’s Bon Iver when both their acts started garnering widespread indie acclaim in 2008. Six years later, the Swede wound up recording at the Wisconsinite’s April Base Studio just outside Eau Claire to make his most personal album to date.
This summer, he is touring with some of Vernon’s musical cohorts from the Minne-Sconnie scene for the first full-band Tallest Man on Earth tour after years of mostly performing solo. They’ve played the Lollapalooza, Newport Folk and Roskilde festivals together and will now make their First Avenue debut Saturday (a club they’ve all frequented separately).
“They’re honestly some of the best musicians I know,” Matsson said of his new bandmates, including Minneapolis bassist/saxophonist Michael Lewis (Happy Apple, Alpha Consumer), guitarist Mike Noyce (Bon Iver), pianist/pedal-steel player Ben Lester (S. Carey) and drummer Zack Hanson (Laarks).
Besides what they bring to the table musically, the members of Matsson’s new band serve another purpose that he said is also crucial this time around.
“Just having the camaraderie that comes with having a band has been a huge, vital difference for me,” he explained.
“All my tours before this, it would only be me and my own head to talk about each night’s show after the show. It’s helpful to have that active conversation about the music. And it’s a lot less lonely, too — which is nice for this tour in particular.”
The latest Tallest Man on Earth album, “Dark Bird Is Home,” was written in the aftermath of Matsson’s split from his wife, Amanda Bergman, also a Swedish singer/songwriter.
Yep, it’s another divorce record — a surprisingly lovely and at times upbeat divorce record, though, with lush, pristine-sounding arrangements that required the use of a band this time around.
“I think there’s a shared, collective quality to the sadness that’s almost triumphant when we’re playing it together as a band, and the audience is sharing in it, too,” he said.
The album’s blue-tinted, golden-sounding lead single, “Sagres” (“Places” in Portuguese), sounds like a postcard from Matsson to his former spouse: “The sadness I suppose/ Gonna hold me to the ground/ Where I’m forced to find the still/ In a place you won’t be around.” He sounds more optimistic in the intimate, all-acoustic title track at the end of the record, though, singing, “This is not the end; no, this is fine.”
Ironically, Matsson’s most personal record was also his most collaborative. He worked at Vernon’s studio with a crew including his future tour mates Noyce and Lewis, plus April Base in-house producer B.J. Burton, who also co-helmed Low’s new record there around the same time (and traveled to Sweden for more recording with Matsson).
“A sad record like this doesn’t need to be someone sitting in the corner by themselves, and in fact it can be quite powerful done with a large team,” Matsson said, pointing to other divorce/breakup records such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” and Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”
“I knew there were plenty of [divorce] albums done before this,” he added, “but I didn’t care. You can’t really think of things that way. You just have to follow your own instinct and passion and see what comes of it. That’s what I’ve always done, anyway.”
From Dalarna to Dylan
Matsson hails from the central Sweden province of Dalarna, which he likened to Minnesota because “it’s surrounded by a lot of lakes and nature.”
“There aren’t a lot of people to start bands with, so I played in a lot of punk bands and bands that weren’t really my thing per se, because that’s all there was,” he remembered. “That’s what I like about Minneapolis: There are so many bands doing so many different things musically it’s like a big melting pot.”
Matsson has spent plenty of extracurricular time in Minneapolis hanging out with friends, including photographer Cameron Wittig, who shot the new album’s artwork and promotional photos (and has a great sauna at his house, Matsson reports).
“I’ve really been falling in love with the city and this whole area,” he said.
His most prominent tie to Minnesota, however, might be via Bob Dylan. Since the first Tallest Man on Earth record in 2008, he has been heavily compared to Hibbing’s prodigal son, in part due to his similarly nasal voice and to a shared affinity for the traditional folk sound that defined Dylan’s first few records.
Although he has been shunning Dylan questions in interviews because they’ve been so prevalent, Matsson happily obliged at Eaux Claires given its North Country location.
“I loved that he was stealing a lot of his material from old, weird folk and blues songs and records that — as a kid from Minnesota — he really did not have any rights to stealing. But it worked. That really sparked something in me, a kid from Sweden.”
And now that young Swede is coming around to sing his own folky songs for Minnesota kids. What goes around, comes around.