Those of you who have read our 2015 roundup will know which artists we were listening to a lot last year. Whilst we gave honourable mentions to the contributions made to the Chinese music scene by John Carroll’s Medic label, namely ‘Tish’ by William Gray, you might have noted lesser known artists were thin on the ground. The reason is simple, this blog has only really just got up and running in recent months and, like most consumers of music, we tend to listen to what respected critics point us towards, whilst at the same time trying our best to keep tabs on what’s local. Well, this year, we aim to work harder at bringing you artists you may not have heard of, be they local to us, or just something we really like that’s been sent our way. The internet makes the world a very small place, and there’s so much music freely perusable, everything effectively becomes local. That said, we still think it’s important to turn off the computer once in a while (bizarre suggestion I know but just hear me out) and get out there in the real world and attend some gigs, or, at the very least, do something to support whatever scene is local to our growing team of writers. So, let’s get going…
After our 2015 roundup had been published, as is always the way with this type of thing, I immediately began considering what we may have missed. I quickly, irritatingly enough, realised one glaring omission in particular, ‘Lake Khovsgol’ by Matz Andersson. Matz Andersson is a Swedish-Chilean singer-songwriter. Shaped around a low-pitched voice and a finger-picking acoustic guitar style, he conveys his unique perception of the world, simply born out of travelling far and wide, be it in the form of blunt realism or giddy fiction. Andersson is a resident of Ningbo, Zhejiang on the eastern seaboard of China. Tapping into a small but vibrant music scene that exists within the hazy sprawl of the Yinzhou district, often centred around open mic nights at popular spots such as Istation, Andersson has produced something which, whilst largely hidden from the world, is no less of a gem because of it. Andersson does not possess a dazzling singing voice, as he will freely admit, but as anyone who listens to Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen should tell you, it’s not about technical proficiency, it’s about what’s being delivered. What Andersson delivers on ‘Lake Khovsgol’ is an enticing level of sincerity, projected with confidence and warmth, a man who has found his own voice and is comfortable within his own skin as a songwriter. For people who simply want to hear great songs, this beats any performer with an overly impressive vocal range, yet nothing to communicate, any night of the week. What you have here is an album which is both delightful and comforting to experience from start to finish, songs that are well crafted and structured, arranged well and recorded effectively, and mixed and mastered in a way that suits Andersson’s approach perfectly.
What is also notable is the manner in which the instruments and vocals are arranged. Backing vocals, sometimes adding a welcome feminine touch, bolster the already strong foundations, whilst brass flourishes and lead guitar licks for example, boost the overall sound whilst never overcrowding or diluting the essence of the output. This of course is no easy feat, but it comes across as if it’s all been accomplished with consummate ease in terms of the recording side, whilst the emotive nature of what you’re hearing as the listener, implies it’s certainly not always been easy to withstand the experiences that Andersson has subsequently channelled into the songs themselves, ‘Someone To Listen To’, rapidly followed by ‘Until Now’ being two fitting cases in point. If you want a contemporary frame of reference, if you’ve ever heard The Tallest Man on Earth, also from Sweden funnily enough, one could think of Andersson as a mellower version, perhaps possessing a voice that comes across as older and wiser, whatever their respective age differences might well be. Personally though, I like to try and steer clear of too many comparisons if at all possible, and allow an artist’s work to stand alone, and Matz Andersson’s ‘Lake Khovsgol’ certainly deserves to do just that. A gorgeous piece of work. Give it a listen.
DOGS: Hi Matz. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today. You have been described as a Swedish-Chilean songwriter, can you tell us a bit about your family history and whether you think your cultural background has shaped your music in any way?
Thank you. Well, my mother is Swedish and my father is Chilean, a political refugee from Pinochet’s military dictatorship. But, I definitely know more about Swedish culture as I was born in Sweden and raised by my mother. I used to say that I was Swedish, but then got tired of everyone telling me “Hey, you don’t look Swedish”. However, later in life I’ve been more in contact with my Latin American roots both through my father and from having spent a few years travelling around Latin America as well as picking up a decent (although it should be better) level of Spanish.
I guess when being of mixed blood, there is always a level of searching for a cultural or national identity involved. From what I’ve learnt so far though, I believe it’s more of a hindrance to shape your identity towards a culture’s, or nationality’s, mindset. Why not take the best from all of them and make it your own? Maybe that sounds too happy to reflect my songs, but a common theme in my storytelling is the prejudice and beliefs that more often tend to come from mono-cultural identities.
TSOFD: We love your album and something that struck us whilst we were listening to it is how timeless it is. It could probably have been recorded at any time from the 1960s onwards and still have sounded quite similar. It will also still sound good in the 2060s as far as we’re concerned. Was it a conscious decision to arrange the album in a particular way or was it just something that came naturally or hinged around the resources available to you?
Well, everything is based around an acoustic guitar and I guess an acoustic guitar didn’t sound much different back in the 60s from what it does know and probably won’t in 2060. But of course, everything about the recording was based on the resources available so that had a major impact too.
TSOFD: Can you pick one song on the album that maybe stands out for you and give our readers an idea of what inspired the words?
I think “Chasing Ghosts” is a bit special. First of all, I had no idea the song would turn out like it did. Mark brought his trombone down to Istation, our local bar, for our first band practice, and did something magical with it and then Benji filled out the sound with backing vocals and ukulele. The cajon, bass and lead guitar players were also great, but I kind of had that outcome in mind already. Unfortunately, the song didn’t come out as well on the recording as when we jammed it at Istation.
The story was inspired by a mixture of personal experiences, my imagination and George Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air which I read a few years ago. Basically, after travelling for seven years I went back to Sweden to study languages. After meeting up with family, old friends and acquaintances, I realised that things had changed, or rather I had changed and mostly others were the same or had changed in a way in accordance with the norms of society. After being away a long time people become nostalgic about their past, their old friends and their hometown, seeing it as a place they can always rely on where things are as good as they were before or even better. However, as many of us experience, and this is also a theme in Orwell’s novel, this often just isn’t the case. If a place was good when you were younger maybe that was just because you didn’t know any better and if a place was shit it is most likely going to be shit now as well. My point is that realising the nostalgic dreams of your past by going back to your hometown or meeting up with old friends can be a very fruitless experience like “chasing ghosts from the past”.
With all this said I also want to point out that I mainly have good experiences meeting up with old friends. I’m not a pessimistic person I just like to write about things that are true.
TSOFD: There’s times on the record where everything is brought to the boil so expertly it sounds like the work of a top producer – can you tell us more about how the album was recorded?
It was actually quite a chaotic experience and everything was rushed. So this is how it happened, I got in contact with every musician I knew that I thought could contribute something to the recording, basically half of the locals at Istation! We managed to get together for two Saturday afternoon sessions in the same bar before recording. On the day of recording everything got delayed. Fortunately, the studio is conveniently located just across the street from the aforementioned bar, so the musicians had somewhere to go. However, by the time we started recording the trombone, bass and ukulele there was only two hours left of studio time and all of the musicians were slightly more intoxicated than we might have wished. The studio was quite basic and there was only one microphone working with which we recorded all the instruments, not as a live group performance of course. My limited Chinese at the time also made things a bit more complicated when communicating with the sound engineer, who was great by the way. When it came to the mixing, I sent the tracks to an Australian guy a friend recommended to me which suited my budget – as cheap as possible that is! Luckily this guy turned out to be very good at his job and the tracks came out well in the end. I’m well aware that it’s not the best album ever recorded, but if you take into account how it was recorded and the resources we had I believe it turned out well above everybody’s expectations.
TSOFD: How do you find living in China compared to other places you have lived in regarding the vitality of the music scene here?
I would say it’s different. Compared to other countries I’ve lived in I feel that the expat community hasn’t integrated with the locals as much and so most acts are usually all Chinese or all foreign, but of course the culture and language differences are also greater and that probably plays a part. In Ningbo the scene is quite small, most foreigners who play music know each other, but there are also a lot of opportunities. For example, last year I opened for Bill Callahan who surprisingly passed by CMK in Ningbo on his Chinese tour. I just called up the venue and asked if I could join the bill and they said yes. A thing like that would never be possible in many places outside of China.
China is probably not known for its bustling live music scene, but I really believe that things are about to kick off soon unless the music scene begins to be censored by the government. Most of my experiences with the live music scene outside Ningbo come from gigs I’ve done with my Ningbo based rock ‘n roll band Exit 4. I can’t say that every band we’ve played with have been great, but there are definitely many bands and artists to look out for.
TSOFD: Thanks so much for your time. Please let us know if you have any gigs coming up or recordings you want us to hear.
Thank you. I definitely will.