“A lot of people are still interested in trying to feel something bigger than themselves. And I think that melancholic songs are a way to do that.”
Danish singer-songwriter Lasse Matthiessen knows a thing or two about sad songs – after all, he has four LPs filled with unapologetically melancholic (spoiler: you’re gonna hear that word a lot), bittersweet, and emotional tunes in his arsenal. His latest EP called “When We Collided” came out earlier this month, adding five more tracks to this collection. Starting with the eponymous lead single up to the closing track “Alchemist Fire,” Lasse offers a ride through the whole range of human emotions – from yearning to flaming passion to quiet spleen.
Lasse has been living between Copenhagen and Berlin, and somehow that does come out in his songs: they seem to mix this Nordic simplicity, succinctness, and minimalism with the sense of transience and inner turmoil that many find to be so characteristic of Berlin. There’s something particularly appealing about this combination – no wonder Matthiessen was invited on TV Noir and was hailed “Newcomer of the Year” by Radioeins back in 2009.
We met Lasse on the release day of his new EP, shortly before the start of his tour (on which he’s also been supporting none other than Oscar winner Glen Hansard) to talk about songwriting, vinyls and cassettes, the meaning of home, the purpose of sad songs, and many other things.
NBN: The name of your new EP and the lead single is “When We Collided.” It seems like a very specific choice of words. How did it come about? What’s the story behind it?
Lasse: I guess it would be fair to say that there is not one but a lot of different stories behind it. And I’m not gonna tell you all of the stories [laughs]. The lyrics in the song also were put together from parts of these different stories. And that makes my story to me, at least. I guess it goes around several themes. One of the themes is how you can kind of deal with maybe not being together with somebody you thought you should be together with. And you’re not quite sure why it’s not really working out. And in the song “When We Collided” we’re not really sure if it’s still there, if it’s something that the singer sings about happening right now or if he looks back. So that’s one of the themes. And it was very important to me that that question was not fully answered in the song, that it’s still open. And I guess I know the answer, but I’m not gonna tell you [laughs]. And yeah, then of course to me music is also very much about having, to me at least, pictures of what I sing about. So when I sing a song, a lot of my lyrics, they would be about me picturing where this song is happening. In this particular song, “When We Collided,” a lot of the things happening are happening in Paris, I guess. Also because I wrote this song partly there and I tried for a very long time to get to know the language and the culture. So that’s also a theme, I guess. It’s about picturing those streets with the cobble stones and the night on the roofs – which I did have, sort of, not necessarily like in the song where it’s about a woman and a man falling asleep and maybe something else happened too…But at least the picturing of all of the roofs – I don’t know if you’ve been to Paris – but the view of the very particular Parisian roofs.
NBN: When I was listening to the whole EP I thought that the vocals on “When We Collided” were quite distinctive. In a way, to me the song sounded kind of like a declaration or a hymn of sorts. Is that something you were trying to do in that song?
Lasse: I guess you could say that. I haven’t thought about it like that. But it’s very distinctive in a way that it’s almost like it’s messing a bit. You would tell the story, I would sing it of course and I do sing it, but it’s almost like a storytelling voice. I guess that’s a bit different from some of the other songs, like especially “Sorte Søer,” the Danish song, or “Broken Choir,” where I’m like singing singing.
NBN: I’ve also read that all of the songs were recorded in different places. Were they also all written in different places? So “When We Collided” was written in Paris, what about the others?
Lasse: Probably I should say that a lot of the songs I write in different places at different times. So yeah, it’s not only “When We Collided” – they were all written in different places. Like the last song “Alchemist Fire” – I’ve been writing on that one for maybe a year or two. And the lyrics have been all over. I would have this book, I even have it with me, and in it I would write in Copenhagen, and next time I would write in Berlin or somewhere.
NBN: And this particular collection of songs on the EP, all written and recorded in different places – was it a conscious choice or did they just happen to be on the EP? Is there a concept or a theme that unites them all?
Lasse: I guess all my songs kind of go together. If you think about themes in that way. Like, they’re not particularly happy, for example [laughs]. I guess you could say that. And they’re about trying to comprehend what’s happening around us and trying to comprehend why is everything changing all the time and why can’t you really make it stay. And although I’ve been singing about it for ten years, I’m not sure I still understand it. And music is somehow a way to do that. But you also asked something else in the beginning?..
NBN: Yeah, I was asking how the collection of songs on the EP came together, why you chose them over maybe some other songs.
Lasse: Oh yeah. I would very often have this idea: this is a concept, I wanna do this. And the concept could be the way I’m gonna arrange the songs, the lyrics, or the instruments I wanna use. And I’m gonna start out, and I’m gonna do five or ten songs and somehow they just like…part somewhere [laughs]. I’m not sure what happens. And then I come out and be like, “they don’t go together, they don’t fit, I don’t get it. ” I was supposed to do a songwriter record, or a record with a lot of synths. Then I end up with five for me very different songs. Some people say, “They’re just your songs, I don’t really hear that one song doesn’t fit in or something.” But then to me, they are very different. They get all these edges. I don’t know. It just happens [laughs]. So I have a concept and then …
NBN: …it disappears in the process?
Lasse: Yeah. Because sometimes you’d mix the song, and the mixer would say “But why would you do that? It doesn’t fit the song.” Oh, but I have this concept in my mind, that this is good. “But that’s not the best thing you wanna do with that song, so why would you do it?” I guess that doesn’t make sense, okay. But then it’s not my song anymore.
NBN: What about the language? Most of the songs that you’ve recorded are in English. Is that a conscious strategy? Do they just come out in English?
Lasse: I write in Danish, but also in German sometimes, and in English, and I go between the languages. I read in German a lot and in English, not that much in Danish actually…And I try to read in French, but that’s really going slow. I would love to be able to read it! And then I would go to Paris and would end up having a good time writing songs instead of learning French…But I would translate a lot of the stuff that I write into English, for example. But with one song, the song in Danish on the record, it’s just very simple. I guess Danish is a simple language, we don’t have that many words as in English or in German. So that song was very simple and it didn’t work out in English. It was just too simple, too banal somehow. So we left it in Danish, yeah [laughs].
NBN: When you translate lyrics, do you feel like something is getting lost in translation?
Lasse: Yeah, sure. A lot of things are getting lost, and some things are gained, you know. Like say you have a way of saying something in Danish and you would say it in German or English, and people would say “Oh, that’s a very nice way to put it.” And you’re like, “Thank you. I’m not gonna tell you that it’s something people have been saying for hundreds of years, just in Danish.” So yeah, of course a lot of things are lost and some things are gained. Like German is very precise, you can be very precise about a lot of things, very specific. You can’t do the same in English, I think, but you can get away singing about the same things that you would never get away singing about in German, or Danish.
NBN: Do you feel like you can express certain emotions or address certain issues better in one language than the others?
Lasse: Yeah, sure. I could have a really hard time talking about…Like I had a girlfriend and she was not Danish, and we spoke in English. And talking about love and how I loved her was very hard for me because it was very cliche. And I wanted to tell her in a very honest and very simple manner, but very directly, how much I loved her but it just came out like some songs from A-ha or something. Yeah [laughs]. And that wasn’t really the point.
NBN: I saw that you did a crowdfunding campaign for this EP to release it on vinyl. Why did you necessarily want to release it on vinyl?
Lasse: Well, several reasons. One is that people would like to buy vinyl. I think that’s really nice and I’m not gonna end up with 500 vinyls of my own on my shelves. But the other thing is, I’ve always wanted to do it. And I remember my dad has been collecting vinyls. He’s been working for the Danish radio and he’s been collecting since he was like fifteen. I think he has about five thousand, so I just remembered like these walls of vinyls at his place. And I guess when it didn’t really make sense to do vinyls any more, when nobody did it, I thought, “Ok, it’s never gonna happen.” But now it is, and I think that’s really great. And I really look forward to taking this vinyl, giving it to my dad and seeing him put it among all the other vinyls and I can just go like “Yeah, check!” [laughs].
NBN: Sounds like a mission accomplished! Would do you think of the comeback of cassettes then?
Lasse: I think that’s funny. The drummer playing on my records, he’s just been releasing cassettes. I mean, from sound quality, it doesn’t make sense. But…why not? I mean, It’s funny.
NBN: So no cassettes for this EP?
Lasse: I don’t know. Maybe not right now. Maybe I’m gonna give it to my drummer and ask him to produce some. I don’t know.
NBN: The vinyl campaign, it wasn’t your first crowdfunding campaign, right?
Lasse: Yeah, we did that with my former label TV Noir. And that was kind of a on-off deal with them, and it was really nice. We didn’t do it for a vinyl though, we did it for a double-CD which had a very nice huge booklet, cost huge amount of money…Money-wise it was like suicide, but it’s really pretty [laughs].
NBN: Do you feel a certain obligation or duty as a singer-songwriter? Also against the backdrop of crowdfunding and beyond it?
Lasse: I’m not sure. I guess I feel like, and I’ve always felt like that, when people buy my music, I’m very grateful. So like asking for money, which crowdfunding could be perceived as, it’s a balance. You gotta find the right way to do it and not to push people and say “Hey, buy my vinyl, buy my stuff.” But on the other hand, what I actually experience is that a lot of people really want to support me. That fans really want to give something back. And I get a lot of mails these days with people saying like “Could you please write the lyrics of that song.” Like I got one the other day, he wrote me, “My girlfriend is really supportive right now. I’m in a kind of a mental institution. And she loves your music, and it helps her a lot. And there’s in particular one song called ‘If Dragonflies Draw Flame’ – could you write the lyrics in hand for her? Because that would mean a lot to her.” And he supported my crowdfunding, you know. So that really feels like it’s not a thing about money, but it’s part of supporting my music. It’s an exchange and they get something in return.
NBN: Your background is in sociology. Does that influence your songwriting a lot?
Lasse: No, I don’t think so. No. I really try not to. So it’s not only in sociology but in broader social sciences, and I do care a lot about reading about politics and so on. But to me that gets very specific. And my songs are mostly about emotions and not about communicating political themes. And if I would go into that – which I’ve tried – it would be too… I mean, I would end up on the barricades just shouting, like “We should get a better world” and so on. So I think that to me, music has to be something that is communicating something which is much more non-verbal, or something that is really hard to explain. That makes sense for me to sing. And that’s where I have my strengths, I think. I can sing emotions more than I communicate a very specific message.
NBN: Do you yourself appreciate more political music?
Lasse: I do too, yeah, I do. But to me, growing up with a dad who’s a musician, and growing up with jazz music and classical music, to me it’s more about the music and the emotions. And I think that music has really to me it’s strength is in not defining very much how people should think or feel but letting them actually feel something from what you sing and the way that you sing it. And I’m not really sure I would be very good at it. I get very emotional about politics. And where would you start and where would you end? I’ve been singing some songs in Danish, so should it be about Danish politics? Or should I sing about American politics? Or German? Or how would my song about Brexit be? “Don’t do it, guys, come on, don’t do it!” [laughs]
NBN: But don’t you think there could be a more implicit political message in a song?
Lasse: I guess it depends on how you define politics. If you define it very broadly, of course you can find broader themes in it. Like, how should we treat each other? But they’re not necessarily politically correct, my songs. I do have songs about having a girlfriend and…having another girlfriend. I mean, I don’t really like that. I find that’s very problematic in many ways but it’s true. The song is true. That’s what happened. To somebody. Not me. Not saying that.
NBN: So what made you choose music over sociology, given that you’re so passionate about politics?
Lasse: It wasn’t really a choice. I needed to do it. I still need to do it. It’s like breathing. You do not choose to breathe or not, you just do it and maybe you find a way to do it. Not to overuse that analogy…but it’s not really a choice. The choice is how to do music.
NBN: And what part of the process of making music do you enjoy most?
Lasse: I love performing. I need to perform, it’s really like a drug. I need to perform. And I don’t necessarily care if it’s for five people or for a thousand. Both I like a lot. I just need to do it. And that’s sometimes a problem because I actually want to perform more concerts than I really should, you know. I like to rehearse with my band but that’s not the same. I also like to write the songs a lot, but in the end it’s about performing them, and performing them with good musicians, and I’m really lucky to have good musicians. Of course all the other things about it – I like doing interviews, and videos, and so on. But I don’t need to do that. That’s not the drug.
NBN: Do you remember your first concert?
Lasse: No, I don’t necessarily…Maybe it depends on what music, because I used to sing in a boy’s choir. We had concerts. We would sing Bach, or Mozart, or Danish classical music. And I used to have like a high-school garage band thing. We were really bad, really bad. It was a lot of fun. Also in university, we had like a university band. And everybody would come and listen to us. I just met someone, maybe a few years back, and he said: “Can I say it now? You were really bad. You were really bad.” And I was always so nervous about it. I was like, “This is serious, this is music. I need to do it.” And that was really bad.
NBN: Have you ever played on the streets as a busker?
Lasse: I’ve done it, yeah. It could be fun, could be okay. But I like to write songs where people give me their attention, really. I guess I’m really good when people are quiet and I could sing and be very quiet. But this kind of strumming on the streets, that’s really not the kind of songs I write.
NBN: The word “melancholic” always comes up in all reviews and texts about your music. Do you feel okay being described as a “melancholic singer-songwriter”?
Lasse: Yeah. I guess I use it myself, but I’m not sure if it’s really the right word for it. I think it’s more introverted, more like singing about things that you need to think a bit about. Like the bigger things in our life, you know. Especially when I’m playing the songs in an acoustic way or not with a band, it tends to be melancholic. If I play it with a band and it gets rocky, then people think it’s not necessarily melancholic, that it’s just rock music, you know. So it depends, of course. Like one song title is “Tonight We Drink to Die”. I guess that’s not really happy, you know [laughs].
NBN: What do you think is the appeal of this melancholic singer-songwritery music today?
Lasse: I think it’s not necessarily something that…I’ve been listening to a lot of Swedish folk music lately. It’s melancholic as… It’s really, really melancholic. Like, I can’t do that melancholic, I can’t. It’s like people’ve been playing the same songs and hearing them and learning them by heart, just doing that and being melancholic for hundreds of years. I think it’s always been there. It really depends on people, but a lot of people are still interested in that. In trying to feel something bigger than themselves. And I think that melancholic songs are a way to do that. To me at least.
NBN: You live between Berlin and Copenhagen, right? What are the main differences between the cities for you, what is the thing that one has and the other doesn’t?
Lasse: Well, one place is where I grew up and my family is there. I guess that makes everything very different. That you’ve seen the same places when you were four, and when you were twenty, and twenty-five. And Berlin is in many ways also a transit. People get in here and then they go, some stay, and some stay for a while and then they disappear. During the years that I’ve been in Berlin, it’s like totally different places from when I started being in Berlin, living in Berlin and to now – different people, different places. Even the city moves around, you know. I like that very much, but also it makes you kind of have this feeling that it’s really hard to stay in the same city. Because it’s changing so much. And I like that. Also, it gives you a lot of energy. In the winter I guess it eats you up a bit from the inside.
NBN: …and from the outside too.
Lasse: Haha, yeah, from the outside too. But coming from Copenhagen, it’s not really much colder here. Only the distances, you get really aware of how long you walk.
NBN: Do both cities feel like home to you though?
Lasse: Yeah, definitely!
NBN: What makes a place feel like home for you?
Lasse: I’m not sure…Normally you would say that a home feeling has something to do with people there, and I guess it does to me too. But also that you know the places very well. You know the city in and out. To me, like walking the streets – to do the cliche – at night, drunk, with a girl maybe…
NBN: That’s a song right there!
Lasse: Yeah. That’s a song [laughs]. It’s mine, the lyrics are mine [laughs].