Kristian Matsson, better known as The Tallest Man on Earth, has a reputation for being a tad introverted when it comes to interviews. The indie/folk singer-songwriter hailing from Sweden doesn’t do many interviews, and only recently made his late-night television debut with a performance on “Conan,” so our interview – which took place after soundcheck on the first night of his tour – was a surprise.
Matsson, who performs Friday at the Durham Performing Arts Center, sheepishly admits his Tallest Man moniker started out as a joke.
“I was playing in a rock band but doing some acoustic songs on the side,” he says. “I put them up on the Internet, not thinking anything would come of it, and my friends and I were joking around and just made up the name.”
Since releasing his first full-length album, 2008’s “Shallow Grave,” each new record has been met with a buzz of critical praise that has so far failed to translate into commercial success. His latest release, this month’s “Dark Bird is Home,” has telegraphed a change in Tallest Man’s signature sound; while the nods to American folk singers of the 20th century remain, Matsson has now surrounded himself with a full band on almost every track. He will continue to be backed by a full band during the current tour, and it is a change that the singer was more than ready for.
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“By the end of 2013, when I took a little break from touring, I was playing pretty big venues,” Matsson explains. “They were around the same size as the ones on the current tour, but I was playing the entire show alone on stage. Now, with taking the steps that I took on the current album and having the band to make something beautiful in these beautiful theaters, we have practiced a lot with the intentions to make people feel good and happy. We want to tear down the theaters, but in a good way.”
There are still times Matsson plays alone on stage, though. “It’s much more fun now because I get the best of both worlds. The show is just more dynamic now.”
The lonely artist
Many artists have found that the pursuit of success in the music world can become a lonely pursuit, and it didn’t take long for Matsson to discover the same. It hit home after performing on one of the most prestigious stages in the world.
“OK, this is going to sound sad,” he begins with a laugh, “but I played the Opera House in Sydney and walked backstage into the green room and all of my crew were back there packing stuff up, and there was no one in my dressing room to share the feeling with. I really believe I have been longing for the camaraderie and to just create something with someone else.
“I played festivals by myself in front of 15,000 people, so it is possible to play solo in front of large crowds, but it just became sad that I couldn’t share this feeling with anyone.... It’s nice to have someone to joke around with when something goes wrong onstage. Otherwise, everything is just always in my own head. All of the little flubs and mistakes were just stuck in there on past tours. Now at least I can share that with the other guys.”
A Dylan vibe
One thing that continues unchanged from past albums is Matsson’s comparisons by music critics to Bob Dylan. He has a similar folk-revival sensibility and a vocal style that doesn’t quite mirror Dylan’s croak (Matsson has a much better singing voice) but at least nods toward it in appreciation. Constant references to Dylan have been known to drive other young artists away from speaking openly about the man, but Matsson acknowledges the auditory resemblance, while also pointing an accusatory finger back at those same writers.
“Journalists need something, and I’m sorry to say this to you, but you guys need references like that,” he says. “I actually don’t mind. From the beginning I’ve been trying to write solid songs and just concentrate on becoming a solid songwriter. Dylan was a great songwriter that I listened to a lot when I was younger, when I first discovered him. I actually got more tired of the question, ‘Are you tired of being compared to Dylan,’ than the comparisons to Dylan themselves. I am really relaxed about the comparison now, because I’m just trying to do my own thing now and be the best I can be. It is what it is.”
Much like the legendary folk singer he is compared to, many are taking notice of the changes that The Tallest Man on Earth is going through, and wondering if the new band accompaniment could be considered Matsson’s “electric” phase. The singer says he is too preoccupied by the fun of the new tour to worry about future career paths.
“I try not to put much thought into what I do,” he says. “It might just be that I strip it down more than ever. I just follow passion where it leads me.”
Who: The Tallest Man on Earth, with Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham