“I’m watching 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 a phone call with INDY Week, Matsson is eagerly telling the story of his recent move to the Triangle, all while birdwatching from his home on the outskirts of Durham.
“I’m fascinated by all the raptors you have here,” he says. “Back home in Sweden, you see a hawk once in a while and it’s like, ‘Wow!’ Here, it’s all the time.”
A confluence of factors led Matsson to North Carolina: His new relationship with old friends running the local artist management company The Glow, for one. The creative lightning he remembers bottling on a friend’s Raleigh lawn, back in 2011, when he was riding an initial wave of international fame and retreated here to write “Little River.” And the new album he’s written and is now recording at Betty’s, Nick Sanborn and Amelia Meath’s secluded Chapel Hill studio. To sweeten the Tar Heel deal, Matsson kicks off his Songs of Hope tour—his first North American swing in two years, with multiple sold-out dates in major markets like Boston, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw on February 26.
“It’s kind of like a hometown show in a lovely way,” he says.
After keeping an apartment in New York City for six years, the pandemic shifted Matsson’s priorities.
“I needed to help my parents, so I thought I would go home to Sweden for two months,” he remembers. “Then I was locked out of the U.S. for 18 months. I got rid of my New York apartment, and now, I’m slowly making [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 to flow out of me. There must be something about this place.”
It’s a rare admission of contentment for Matsson, a famously hyperactive and nomadic singer-songwriter. He’s revered by critics for his intricate fingerstyle guitar and dreamlike narratives spun across five studio albums and four EPs, and fans are equally enamored by his emotional intensity and energetic live presence. Prowling the stage and jumping over amps, his head and neck bop along with frenetically picked rhythms while he croons and howls in a high-pitched, full-throated rasp often compared to that of Bob Dylan.
Matsson’s openhearted vulnerability and prismatic voice stand in stark contrast to Dylan’s icy inscrutability, though. The Tallest Man on Earth’s 2015 album, Dark Bird Is Home, dug into the prickly subject of divorce, while 2019’s I Love You. It’s a Fever Dream. pitched swirling, Springsteen-esque 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 that heartbreak lies an ongoing fascination with nature—particularly of the avian persuasion. Past EP titles include Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird (2010) and When the Bird Sees the Solid Ground (2018), while the cover of 2012 album There’s No Leaving Now depicts geese mid-takeoff.
“I’m kind of a hummingbird as a person,” Matsson laughs. “During the pandemic, when touring was taken away, I was at home in a beautiful place in Sweden. But I was in my house all the time. That didn’t make me necessarily calm. Weirdly, it’s the moving around—meeting other people and being in the world—that makes me calm. I used to think that I was an introvert who needed time alone. I’m realizing now how much of a little social creature I am.”
That newfound extroversion extends to Matsson’s new material, which was written expressly with collaboration in mind—a big difference from his dedicated do-it-all-alone past. He does keep thematic discussions of the songs close to the vest, though, cryptically hinting that he’ll reveal more in a future interview (“Let’s do this again after the album is done to see how the whole thing panned out”).
“I’ve written these songs with the thought that they might change when people come into the room and add to them,” he says. “I am way more open now to invite others in. In the past, I’ve been very self-conscious about showing my work, or never thinking I was really good.”
So does The Tallest Man on Earth suffer from a Scandinavian strain of tall poppy syndrome, the Australian cultural phenomenon that dissuades people from standing out? Matsson answers with an emphatic yes.
“In Sweden, we’re not supposed to be really proud of what we accomplish,” he says. “We do a lot of things in the dark and won’t present them until they’re immaculate. But I’ve let that go. That’s part of my attraction to America. It’s not the stereotype of you being brash and loud and cocky, because that’s not what I see. But it’s a little more … you dare to do things here.”
Matsson talks affectionately of the local friends whose daring artistry he admires: Brad and Phil Cook, who introduced him to Sanborn and Meath; Phil Moore of Bowerbirds (“one of my all-time favorite bands”); Jenn Wasner of Flock of Dimes (“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 Daughter of Swords solo project will open for Matsson on his first 12 U.S. dates).
Then, he spends a few breathless minutes expressing “deep feelings of love” for his “traveling circus” of a road crew; bashfully reflecting on the vulnerable cheekiness of his social media presence (describing his genre as “sad pony music,” appending an old press photo with the updated caption “What were you so scared of, little buddy? Losing your guitar pick? Your ghost costume not believable enough? Just play your songs”); and decisively discarding “the vanities that I had before the pandemic.” Like what? “Like saying, ‘I don’t want to play that venue because the PA is bad,’” he laughs. “Now, it’s like, ‘Give me a stage!’”
Exhaling, he laughs and apologizes for his enthusiasm.
“Well,” he says, “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 into the weird wackiness and emotional outbursts that music can bring.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Comment on this story at email@example.com.