Astral Swans finds light in dark places for his brilliant sophomore album Strange Prison

Dark places.

Matthew Swann knows about them.

And he’s not afraid to show you them, take you to them.

It’s very much a part of his musical project Astral Swans and the psych-folk songs he writes: those that haunted his phenomenal 2015 lo-fi debut All My Favorite Singers Are Willie Nelson; and the ones that swallow you whole on his astounding new hi-fi — or, more appropriately, high-fi — followup, Strange Prison.

Dark, dark places.

“But with an end goal of transcendental beauty, hopefully,” Swann says, while sitting in a booth of Kensington’s Oak Tree Tavern. “It’s a lot of really dark themes and stories, for sure.”

The album, which was recorded with producers Scott Munro (of fellow locals Preoccupations), Paul Chirka (recording engineer for the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra) and Dan Mangan, and features contributions from Rena Kozak (Child Actress), Dillon Whitfield (Reuben and The Dark) and Tigerwing, is inescapably beautiful in its all-enveloping, suffocating yet somehow spacious layered sound.

And the songs, or as Swann calls them, “vignettes” are the means in which the darkness is faced, confronted and conveyed.

Take, for example, the brilliant Controls, which is aided by some amazing guest work by Destroyer’s Dan Gaucher. It uses the horrific imagery of a dying in a plane crash — using the details of a story he remembered from his childhood — as a “metaphor for the journey that those family members that are still with me, that we’ve gone through together.”

And then there’s opener Blow Away that opens with Swann gorgeously, ghostly intoning, “I had a dream in which I killed all of my friends.”

The songwriter says that one grew from a conversation he had with someone in which they had done something awful in a dream and wondered if that’s who they really are, if that’s what they’re capable of, and what would happen if people found out.

“Who are we? Are we our thoughts?” Swann asks.

“And it’s also partially about mental illness. I’m diagnosed OCD, it’s something I’ve dealt with for a long time. So it’s kind of about that, too, intrusive thoughts, obsessive thoughts …

“Ultimately it’s about the complexity of human thoughts and behaviours, and our fears of rejection and fears of being that which we’re afraid of or that which is appalling.”

That, he admits, is a theme that runs through all of the 13 songs on the confidently brittle, nakedly human, delicate, plaintive and pretty Strange Prison.

It should be noted, however, that as he attempts to explain each of those tracks — or anything about himself, for that matter — Swann pauses often, tentatively searches for each word, often uncertain if he’s conveying what he really means, as if it’s painfully difficult talking about what he does.

“Oh, fuck yeah,” he says with a laugh.

“The whole way that (a song) is a thing is very different than an object is a thing or something definable is a thing. Hence using that medium to describe things. If it was as easy as just saying it, then I probably would just say it in a literal, direct straightforward way in conversations with people or to a therapist or whatever.”

He laughs again. “I think that’s the thing, art is — not saying that I want to use such a lofty term for my own work — but it’s a forum and a medium by which you can say things that you can’t necessarily say in a just purely literal way.”

So it’s difficult to imagine that a year ago Swann was about to call it quits, hang it up and walk away from Astral Swans, from music.

“I wouldn’t say ‘hung it up,’ I don’t think I’m, at this point at least, capable of that,” he clarifies.

“I definitely had a breakdown last year and tried to get rid of all my gear and just vanish.”

Which brings us back to the dark place. Or, as he says directly, “a very bad place.”

A great deal of that was due to the fact that his sophomore record was complete, but was being held up because the label he was signed to, Madic Records, Mangan’s imprint on the Arts and Crafts label — Swann was the first artist on it — had gone on “indefinite hiatus.”

“I was dealing with some awful family shit,” he says, “and my outlet, the thing that is really — I don’t want to saying my everything, because there’s other small things in my life, too … but it’s all about this for me.”

He says that he holds no ill-will towards anyone, particularly Mangan — he actually went to the West Coast indie artist’s house last September to add some more tunes to what would be the final version of the record, which will be released Friday, May 18 on a trio of labels around the globe, and celebrated locally with a Thursday, May 17 Broken City show.

“I’ve always felt a great deal of belief from Dan in terms of what I’m doing that is humbling, flattering and just hugely appreciated,” Swann says. “I have no malice towards any of the people that I’ve worked with, it’s just the world of the music industry and the challenges of making it sustainable in a way that you feel good about what you’re doing. It’s hard. I don’t know my place in it.”

In fact, Swann admits that he’s even unsure if there’s an audience out there waiting for him now that Strange Prison is finally seeing the light of day.

“I’m not entirely confident about that, but I have a really critical self-perception sometimes,” he says unnecessarily.

Still, while the artist expresses the fact that he’s worried about ever getting back to that “very bad place,” things are looking a little clearer, a little lighter in his life, and he knows he has a great deal to be thankful for.

He points, again, to that ongoing relationship with Mangan, as well as the small labels who are putting out the record, including Calgary’s Saved By Vinyl, Tiny Room Records in the Netherlands and Tokyo’s Moorworks.

And that latter release has also facilitated an upcoming nine-date tour of Japan, his first, with Brock Geiger and Clea Anais from Raleigh as his backing band.

“I’m really trying to appreciate more,” he says, “like, I’ve been really lucky, I’ve had some amazing opportunities, and I’m just trying to take that in.”

And that’s a pretty good place to start from.

(Photo courtesy Ben Painter.)

Astral Swans release their new album Strange Prison Thursday, May 17 at Broken City.