By Gareth Jones
CALGARY – In the three years since releasing his debut as Astral Swans, Calgary’s Matthew Swann has been busy. Touring Canada twice following the release of 2015’s All My Favorite Singers Are Willie Nelson, once in support of Dan Mangan, and a second time playing a series of more intimate shows in alternative venues, from art galleries to microbreweries.
He has since settled into completing a follow-up recording, Strange Prison, with co-production by Paul Chirka a recording engineer who’s worked with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Juno-winning Dan Mangan and Scott Munro of Preoccupations.
“We spent a lot of tireless nights working after-hours in his studio space,” explains Swann. Along the way, Swann also enlisted various guests, including Rena Kozak (Child Actress) and Tigerwing. Production on two of the record’s 13 tracks was handled by Mangan.
The result is a more dynamic, more enthralling and more emotionally complex recording than its predecessor. It’s brimming with life, full of texture and character while maintaining a laid-back, atmospheric quality. Subtle details, such as the lacing of a Theremin throughout, make the record shine while ensuring that no two tracks are alike. That being said, the record is cohesive and masterfully arranged, with Swann’s vocals tying the project together.
The stories presented are unconventional and at times morbid, seeking to dig to the core of the human experience and uncover beauty amongst misfortune.
“The complexities of being human is really the message. The complex situations that inform our behaviours and our perceptions of the world,” explains Swann. For instance, the song Controls finds him recalling a plane crash he read about as a child.
“I remember reading all the awful details of the commercial airline flight, with people being stuck in this very confined state. And they’re forced to deal with the complete absence of control, and submission to this horrible set of conditions.
“It really haunted me, maybe because it was the first time I really became aware of the horrible realities that can happen to human beings.” Swann uses the ideas of confinement and loss of control as a metaphor for trauma in his family life. He finds that music serves as a vessel to overcome difficult experiences.
“Songwriting is a way of dealing with those things, and finding ways to overcome the shittiness of life, and the world, and the mind.” Music, says Swann, provides a means of self-expression that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. “It’s a way for me to communicate ideas in a different and more complete way of expressing concepts, ideas, and parts of myself, emotions and psychological states.”
Comparisons have been made between the work of Astral Swans and the likes of Nick Drake and Daniel Johnston, and it’s easy to see why. Intimate, often hushed instrumentals paired with Swann’s ability to pull from and examine the human condition creates a clear parallel. Despite the morbid tone his lyrics may take, Swann strives to find the good.
“It’s really about trying to use beauty as a means to overcome the limitations of joy in the world.”
Strange Prison will be released on May 18. Astral Swans will perform at Massy Book on Sat., June 9 in Vancouver.