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Music, Star Series
NS2 & THE CAROLINA THEATRE OF DURHAM PRESENT
The Tallest Man on Earth
With Special Guest Andrea Von Kampen
Kristian Matsson has never remained in one place for very long. Having spent much of the last decade touring around the world as The Tallest Man on Earth, Matsson has captivated audiences using, as “The New York Times” describes, “every inch of his long guitar cord to roam the stage: darting around, crouching, stretching, hip-twitching, perching briefly and jittering away…Mr. Matsson is a guitar-slinger rooted in folk, and his songs are troubadour ballads at heart.”
Then came 2020, when Matsson left New York City and returned to his farm in Sweden. There, during that quiet, dreary time of isolation, he drowned out his thoughts by manically growing vegetables in his garden. When he tried writing again, during those many months of collective forced solitude, “I just found myself commenting on the darkness,” Matsson says. “I lost my imagination.” Playing live, music and inspiration returned near the end of 2021, and his produce became less of a priority. “When I’m in motion, I can focus on my instinct, have my daydreams again. When I was finally able to tour again, I started writing like a madman.” He eventually had twenty songs he wanted to record in ten days.
Now, Matsson returns as The Tallest Man on Earth with “Henry St.,” his sixth studio album following 2012’s “There’s No Leaving Now,” full of “vivid imagery, clever turns-of-phrase, and devastating, world-weary observations” (“Under The Radar”) and 2015’s “Dark Bird Is A Home,” his “most personal record… surreal and dreamlike” (“Pitchfork”). “Henry St.” notably marks the first time he recorded an album in a band setting. “My entire career I’ve been a DIY person––mostly fueled by the feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing, so I’d just do everything myself.” But now, longing for the energy that’s only released when creating together with others, Matsson invited his friends to come and play.
Nick Sanborn (of Sylvan Esso) produced “Henry St.,” which includes contributions from Ryan Gustafson (of The Dead Tongues) on guitar, lap steel and ukulele, TJ Maiani on drums, CJ Camerieri (of Bon Iver) on trumpet and French horn, Phil Cook on piano and organ, Rob Moose (of Bon Iver, yMusic) on strings and Adam Schatz on saxophone. “They opened everything up, and understood what the songs that I’d written needed: sounds that I couldn’t ever have thought of or created myself. We recorded so many of the songs live in the studio, playing, having fun and being really open with each other.”
An overarching theme of “Henry St.,” he says, is “how to be a person in this world.” The title track is about the deception that, “as individuals, we’re told that we should strive for success. But when we have it, it doesn’t solve anything. The song is about stepping away and thinking: why am I actually doing this?” While writing the song back in Sweden, he knew it would be the centerpiece of the album. “It’s the low point and the turnaround: the other songs are a reminder that I will always be a stubborn optimist, even at the darkest of times.” He was about to record the track as a solo piece, until Phil Cook came in on his first day in the studio. “I had Phil basically hanging over my shoulders at the piano while we were playing, and then he recorded it. He improvised that beautiful outro. When he did, our jaws dropped––I was in tears.”
“Looking for Love” is one of those songs about Matsson’s stubborn optimism, and a shining example of Sanborn’s influence on the album. “The first day in the studio, Nick created this hissing noise while I was feedbacking electric guitar. We had so much fun jamming like that. Then Nick put down some piano to overdub my guitar, and we knew we had the song.” The tone for their collaboration was set. “Nick is so emotionally intelligent, and we share an almost childlike joy in things that can happen with music. He makes the songs come truly alive by keeping the performances and the humanity in––the kind of stuff that just happens during the session.”
The song “Every Little Heart,” he says, came from a feeling of fearlessness, a confidence in making music after two years of relative silence. “But of course I still have little demons inside of me. I wrote some key changes in the song that came natural to me, but I worried they might sound unnatural to others. When TJ Maiani heard it, he straightaway went into this drumbeat that shocked me a little at first, but came completely natural to him. It fit the song perfectly.”
Matsson’s longing for social interchange, after months spent with only his crops, led to the collaboration that delivered the warm, unique and sprawling sound of “Henry St.” “It’s the most playful, most me album yet, because it covers so many of the different noises in my head. When you overthink things, you get further away from your original ideas. And God knows I overthink things when I’m by myself.” The time in isolation also brought him some newfound peace of mind. “Having been away from it taught me that making music and performing is what I’m doing for the rest of my life, and I’m so grateful for it. It has given me new confidence and playfulness. This is what I do. It’s unconditional.”
Andrea von Kampen’s “That Spell” is an emotionally evocative powerhouse. It’s cinematic and sweeping- with literary references, reflections on nature and above all the ability to transport you to a memory, a place in time or somewhere you saw in a dream with vivid lucidity. Like a film director, she works as an aural auteur building scenes with her rapturous voice and the plaintive plucks of her guitar strings. With these ten songs, the Nebraska-raised singer-songwriter immediately establishes herself as a formidable talent with her deeply felt folk-indebted sound and inquisitive, empathetic lyrics. Andrea excels at connecting the dots between personal experience and the world at large, and it’s what makes “That Spell” such an instantly memorable breakthrough to experiencing her artistic state of mind and the worlds she builds in her music.
The fact that “That Spell” achieves such cohesion and confidence is no accident. It’s the culmination of a life immersed in music. The youngest of four children, Andrea, and her siblings all learned instruments—a byproduct of their musician mother and choir director father. Their parents fostered a love of music, but it was also the family business – and the generational passing down of the skills they’d honed to their children was a given and a blessing. Andrea’s instrument of choice was the guitar and she picked it up at a young age.
“Music was just what we did,” she remembers, as she absorbed the work of vocal jazz icons like Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald as well as folk-pop legends Paul Simon and James Taylor—both of whom, like Andrea, are also part of the Fantasy Records family. Andrea wrote her first song, the inquisitive and quietly glowing “Trainsong,” in college—which set off a creative spark that’s fueled her since. “Ever since then I’ve looked daily for that hour to read, write, listen, and be intentional with keeping my creative muscle working,” she explains.
In 2015, Andrea released her debut EP “Another Day,” and the following year she submitted a performance of “Let Me Down Easy” to NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest that was shared by “All Things Considered.” After a steady stream of EPs that included 2016’s potent “Desdemona,” her debut album “Old Country” followed in 2019; since then, Andrea’s also starred in and composed the soundtrack for the forthcoming film “Molto Bella” and has accrued hundreds of thousands of regular Spotify listeners worldwide.
“That Spell” was begun shortly after the release of “Old Country” and worked on throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. After building the melodies and writing the lyrics, she turned to her lifelong collaborator—her brother David, who composed string arrangements and worked with Andrea to build out the instrumentation that would ultimately fulfill her vision.
An album that radiates quiet luminescence while possessing undeniable power, “That Spell” concerns itself with themes in a way best described by Andrea as “A response to what was going on politically, as well as reflecting on my childhood.” Indeed, “That Spell” features Andrea’s ruminations on ecology, classism, and adolescence, as she wields an empathetic lens through which she transmutes these ten melodic reveries.
First single “Water Flowing Downward” is teeming with gorgeous keyboards and Andrea’s floating yearn of a voice: “I was humming this old tune and I just penned lyrics to it, which I never do,” Andrea recalls how the contemplative song came about. The song’s lyrical content was inspired by the Oscar-winning film “Parasite”—specifically, the way the film uses water as a metaphor.
“It was a useful tool for the wealthy, and something that could destroy people who aren’t wealthy,” she explains. “I was inspired by the way that spoke to class discrepancies.” The deceptively airy-sounding title track was similarly inspired by Andrea’s recent readings on gender equality issues in society. “It was my response to all of the times as a female that I’ve been at the whim of people with more power than me,” she states. “I’m so done with that, and I’m not just going to pander to everyone just because society tells me to.”
The quietly radiant “Take Back Thy Gift” was inspired by the poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson, as well as the Greek story of Tithonius that Tennyson once wrote about himself. “It felt like an ancient cautionary tale that I wanted to breathe new life to,” she explains. Later on the album, Andrea offers a lush and gorgeously dreamy cover of the Beach Boys’ classic “Pet Sounds” cut “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” adding her own texture and personality to the unforgettable tune.
The honeyed melody and lush instrumentation of “Carolina,” meanwhile finds Andrea drawing from James Taylor’s musical influence on her childhood, as well as realizing the power of music at large: “When I was growing up, whenever that song would come on the radio, my whole family would reverently pause for it. That was a taste of realizing that sometimes songs mean more than just what it seems on the surface.” What she took away from that experience not only informed “Carolina” but the artistic ethos that courses through That Spell as a whole: “I realized that songs have power and that I wanted to have that effect on people, too.”