Music

Calgary songwriter Matthew Swann opens up and looks outside with latest Astral Swans album 

As the world shut down and got heavy, not surprisingly Matthew Swann went the other way.

The artist opened up, lightened up, reached out, connected in a way they never had before.

Swann does that.

Zags when things zig in a Zig-Zag way.

And the third album, the eponymous (see?) new record under the Astral Swans moniker, which will be released Oct. 8, is all the better for it.

It is an almost disarmingly poppy and immediate collection of collaborative tunes from an individual known predominantly for darkness and digging into the solitary depths of a bruised, battered and brilliant psyche. 

Never not appealing musically, the new release is still a surprise, an almost airy summer offering from an often dark-cloud of an individual and, dare we say it, an almost mainstream indie-rock record — beautiful, inviting, catchy, warm and winsome.

By design?

“Yeah,” Swann says simply, sitting at a high-top table in Inner City Brewing, sipping a water. “The last record (2018’s Strange Prison) was so heavy and it was coming from a period of my life where it was a bombardment of shit going on. And a lot of it was largely working through trauma and thankfully this record isn’t coming from that place.

“I feel like I wanted to just focus on writing songs and have a bit more absurdist, dark comedy to the existential questioning … just the tragicomedy of being a person”

Swann acknowledges “my creative process has been very individual” and while that didn’t change this time out — most of the new material, Swann says, they “wrote them in my head” while out walking, wandering the neighbourhood and city — there’s an openness to them that makes them feel less introverted and much more welcoming. 

“I really did try to focus on melodies and having them have a catchiness to them,” Swann allows, “but pretty much all of the songs are still pretty dark lyrically.”

Yet still not even remotely the disturbing, semi downers that are part of the Astral Swans brand.

Take the positively punchy, dreamy and sweet, swirling track Wind In A Mindless Universe, which the musician wrote in Tokyo during a tour of Japan.

It is, Swann says, “a song about making a commitment to never kill myself … to just enjoy the good shit. There’s so much beauty and experiences to be had and I’m a privileged and blessed fucker when I’m not spinning around in my mind and projecting anxiety on every scenario and somehow conjuring it into possibly leading to whatever the worst outcome I could conceive of.”

The record’s upbeat nature is also informed by the collaborative direction Swann chose to take with it, inviting other artists they “admire and respect” to contribute. Wind In A Mindless Universe, for example, features a contribution from Jpop performer Minami Taiga, while the rest of the album contains a trio of takes with Canlegend Julie Doiron (“Having her involved was an amazing gift”), and participation from others including Jim Bryson, Scott Munro, Brock Geiger and a pair of lovely local Lauras, Hickli and Leif.

It adds more elements to music with many, and the songwriter acknowledges how outside of the comfort zone it was.

“It is kind of funny, actually,” Swann says. “And the funniest thing actually is that none of those collaborations happened in person, either.”

That, of course, is a byproduct of COVID, but Swann says there was never any problem with being on the same page, sending songs for participation and having those parts returned almost instantly, always perfectly.

Swann says the collabs are a result of, “Having the ideas and being fortunate enough now that I feel like I can really reach out to people.

“I had a little on the last album,” he says, “but it was just so dark and personal. It’s like, ‘Hey wanna come sing on a song about my childhood trauma or familial abuse?’ ” 

He laughs.

And while the self-titled Astral Swans album is something of an opening up and reaching out, of course, the world has not entirely followed suit.

Planned Japanese, Brazilian and Canadian tours, are, naturally on hold, with the most pressing live date to celebrate the release being a Broken City show Oct. 28 with Shane Ghostkeeper and summer bruises.

Swann is wanting and eagerly awaiting for the feedback that comes with performing in front of an audience, but admits the album, itself, is satisfying it its own right.

“There’s something nice about just following those melodies,” Swann says.

“I’m sure there will be more obtuse and incredibly dark and fucked up work again at some point in the future, but it was nice to just write some songs and play around.”

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