Pondering Willie Nelson and the meaning of life

In-store performances can be a regular part of an album promotion cycle but it’s strange — very strange — to see Astral Swans perform in a record shop. But here we are a week before this story’s publication standing in Kops Records a narrow store perched on the edge of Toronto’s Koreatown with Matt Swann and his well-worn 1966 Bobcat guitar. “It’s the same guitar that St. Vincent plays” he jokes to the crowd. “When we get married she can teach me how to play it.”

Today we’re shoehorned into the aisles on a crisp afternoon sunlight streaming through the storefront. It’s shockingly quiet in here though and that’s likely because Swann’s working his way through his sparse deeply personal and downright existential songs. It’s as far from chipper retail-music fare as you can get. Like for example when he sings “I had a dream in which I killed all of my friends. Now I’m awake and they can read my thoughts every terrible thing I’m capable of.”

See what we mean? But even if record-store performances are an unlikely setting for his songs Swann says the minimal folk songs on his debut All My Favorite Singers and Willie Nelson have found a home in theatres as he has while on tour with Hayden and Dan Mangan and Blacksmith. “The context of the venue really shifts the way people respond to [my songs]” he says. “I’ve had some shows where I’ve been playing in bars where it feels really out of place. It’s not loud enough to get anyone’s attention. The songs are kind of vulnerable and sometimes they can be mood killers if it’s someone’s party night.”

That’s an understatement. Willie Nelson the first LP issued by Mangan’s Madic imprint emits intimacy: For Astral Swans the singer-songwriter wanted to move away from the dynamics of a band — he’s played in experimentalists Extra Happy Ghost!!! and Calgary faves Hot Little Rocket — and shift towards music that can be played alone. For Swann that meant tapping into a certain level of earnestness (“it’s an attempt to not hide behind too much abstraction” he offers) writing tracks with more structure (“I wanted this project to be more song-centred” he says) and actually focusing on his singing.

The result is undeniably personal even live: At Kops there are times where it seems like he’s barely strumming sparsely downstroking his guitar with his thumb. “I wanted to push myself to sing at a level that felt good” he says. “I really wanted to sing. On [Extra Happy Ghost!!!’s last album] Modern Horses I wanted to sing like Nico I wanted it to be really drone-y and atonal. For this I wanted to sing like Nick Drake or Vashti Bunyan — in a realistic way so that live it doesn’t sound like a poor re-creation of something.”

Which isn’t to say that Swann emulates Drake Bunyan or even Willie Nelson (even if live he performs “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain”). Rather Astral Swans dips and dives through a battery of influences: Swann name-checks minimalistic folk of the 1960s but were we to guess we’d surmise that he’s a big fan of Drag City’s catalogue ’80s NYC no-fi and Mark Kozelek. Which is to say that Willie Nelson isn’t a rote singer-songwriter album: Even if certain passages are layered like a sleepy Hayden chorus Swann had no intention of coming across like another heart-on-sleeve troubadour.

“It can be hard to make a singer-songwriter album because it’s awfully cliche” he says. “It’s almost insulting [because it’s] the most classic white-middle-class privileged thing to do. And it’s been done poorly over and over again. I don’t want to be the kind of dude who makes another Bon Iver record — no disrespect to Bon Iver because that’s a great record but there’s more than enough people copying it.”

So no Bon Iver this ain’t. Instead when Swann gets personal he gets philosophical. (See: “You Carry a Sickness” a love song that drops the line “Nature doesn’t know you exist at all nature doesn’t care about you / But I do.”) There’s a lot of “self-inventory” in the songs but even tracks like “Holly” which was written about an ex-girlfriend now living in Montreal hardly feel confessional. It’s more grandiose than Swann would even care to admit because “it’s hard to talk about certain themes without being tacky.”

It is he notes a way to explore issues that are hard to articulate: Modern Horses was largely Swann’s way of addressing the suicide of his father and Willie Nelson has Swann working through the tension between ideals and action.

“It’s about the complexities of being human” he says. “I’m a person with high ideals but I don’t live up to them so often and there’s a turmoil and tension [to that].” And while his songs seem outwardly bleak Swann says he’s not a nihilist — quite the opposite actually. “I’m not misanthropic at all. But a lot of the [bleakness] comes from the fact that humans by nature have these drives and desires that are unfulfillable in light of the conditions we’re born into.”

Like for example the desire for love. “It’s heartbreaking that there’s no eternal love because there’s death.”

That’s a lot to chew on. So we ask why name-drop Willie Nelson on the album’s title? Doesn’t it seem a little glib considering the album’s content? Well no. “I have personal connections to Willie Nelson that other people may not necessarily have” he says. “[The album title] is an absurdist statement — it’s like Willie Nelson fractured through a lot of experimentation through post-1960s and 1970s experimentation.

“But he’s also a really fascinating character. He’s this massive figure in country music and pop culture but he’s also a complete weirdo: He’s a total pothead he eats shitloads of mushrooms he’s a crazy womanizer and he’s gained and lost his fortune many times. But he’s also this gentle benevolent sympathetic humble working-class guy in spirit. He’s also a really fascinating contradiction.”

As is Swann’s music.

ASTRAL SWANS performs on Tuesday March 10 at Jack Singer Concert Hall.