"It was in middle school, and all of my friends started playing music," says Jess Matsen, of the time he taught himself how to play the guitar. He concludes with typical self-effacement: "I never really thought I wanted to do that."
The 24-year old songwriter has a long discography to his name—at least a half dozen solo recordings and three LPs with his former band Dream Sick—each showing startling progress over its predecessor. Matsen's new record, Tall Told Tale, easily shatters his own high standards, and is one of the finest rock albums released this year.
"I was 14, probably, when I made my first album of songs," using a modest tape recorder, he explains. "That's how I learned: I'd hear these melodies in my head and try to figure them out. It was something that just lit a fire under me, I guess."
A friend's older brother introduced him to bands like At The Drive-In and Cap n' Jazz, "and some of the earlier Ben Gibbard and Bright Eyes stuff, what you listen to when you're, like, 14," while his father exposed him to the usual classic rock staples of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Neil Young, the latter of whom is somewhat traceable in his own music.
Later in his teens, Matsen formed a band "for fun, (but) I was really into recording myself; I've always been fascinated by it. It was always a search to make it sound better. A lot of people are, like, 'lo-fi sounds sounds so cool,' but I always wanted to sound pristine. I was always too poor to afford the niceties of good equipment so I was always recording on 4-tracks and shit. I came from a low income family so I've had jobs since I was 15, supporting my habit of being a musician. It hasn't really changed."
By 2010, he began playing with bassist John Bullock in a project that evolved into the shoegaze-y rock band Dream Sick.
"We jammed with Matt (Baquet, drums) and there was a lot of good energy. We all had this fire; we were real hungry." The group was completed by guitarist Connor Gallaher (also a current member of the Night Collectors).
Despite their brief, but prolific run—three albums in three years—Dream Sick's influence and aesthetic looms large in Tucson's underground arts scene: Baquet is a member of Prom Body, Bullock and Gallaher play with the Night Collectors and as a band they were key figures in revitalizing the local all-ages rock underground. But Matsen's haunting, idiosyncratic singing and songwriting was of equal if not more importance.
When Dream Sick disbanded early this year—"We all wanted to do something else," says Matsen—the singer went back to what he's always done: recording in his bedroom. Tall Told Tale is the result. Far from an easy listen, the album has a spectral quality that seems to come from a dark, desolate place. Tracks like "Coward Island," "Bar Witch" and "Indifference" turn microscopic lyrical impressionism into mythical plaints, while Matsen's voice, frequently floating and emotionally untethered, articulates more clearly through stretching syllables than the actual words. But other songs, notably "Folk Fairies" and "John's Jacket," do commit and connect, and suggest the narrator isn't beyond redemption.
"There's always a direction you want the song to go but it never comes out the way you expected so I just let it go," Matsen explains. "I wanted to make more of like a '70s rock record. I was going for a David Bowie feel but no one else seems to think it sounds like that, which is awesome, because if it doesn't sound like what you were going for, then you're accomplishing something else.
"What I like about writing songs is that I can write about being a little five year-old kid, or a random memory that will just hit me, and it'll hit me really strong and I can just write about it. A lot of things are just a feeling and it could be a memory that you had or didn't have ... I don't know. But one song can have many meanings of, like, past lives—not literally—but past eras that I've lived. Our brains play tricks on us a lot."