With multilayered sounds and a hushed voice, Matt Kivel has released two albums this year. The latest one, Fires on the Plain released via Driftless Recordings is his most large-scale effort to date with 26 songs. It spans 82 minutes. “I hope someone listens to it all the way through,” he says via phone from his California home.
Weary of how people listen to music nowadays, he laments the idea that some may only listen to song lists curated by a bot somewhere and not develop a close relationship to music. This is the kind of seriousness that you can expect within his music as well. Kivel has developed a sound that is deceptively calm, but his songs build up to intense moments that give pause for the contrast of sounds and influences. “I like metal and folk music. To me it’s very natural to put those things together,” asserts Kivel.
One song on the album that marks a musical shift is “Something From Her,” which starts with slow percussion, then Kivel’s quiet voice slowly rises as the song begins to flourish into added layers of sound and heavier guitar chords. The entire album deserves a full listen, beginning to end, as it is a welcome vehicle to explore those half-formed emotions we all carry. At its core, Kivel’s music is about that innate complexity we all have. “I’m interested in that stillness and some kind of reflective quality that isn’t really ironed out,” he says, “an ambiguity with me as a narrator.”
The singer-songwriter says collaboration has been at the core of his music process from the beginning. “There are a lot of people on the album,” he says. Among them, he speaks of Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, with whom he recorded “Permanence.” Although Kivel admits he is not a hardcore fan of the Fleet Foxes, he did want Pecknold’s voice to be part of the album. “I just thought it might be interesting if the real person might sing this,” he says.
Another collaboration includes another duet, this one with Will Oldham for the track “Forgiveness,” for whom Kivel wrote the song. But the album’s standout collaboration may be with Sophia Knapp, “V,” an ethereal track that melds Knapp’s evocative vocals into a beautiful landscape of sounds. “Her song is kind of a collage,” says Kivel, who adds that he took the tracks of her singing and arranged it differently after recording it as a different song to fit the overall mood of the album.
As far as collaborations go, Kivel also credits his wife for helping him develop some of his ideas further. Music for Kivel “has that power to connect without necessarily explaining itself.” It is an alternative language and one that can transmit more complex ideas than language alone. Yet, because Kivel is interested in the complex and contrast within the music, he likes to share early ideas with his wife to make sure that the message he is trying to convey –loose as it is– is also being received in that way. There is definitely an elusive quality to Kivel’s music. His album Janus, which came out earlier this year, also via Driftless, has that contrasting quality as well, with folk and melodic sounds that are paired with noisier, harder treatments.
Kivel’s music is intricate and demands patience from the listener, yet it delivers in a way that rewards repeated listening, as the layers are revealed with familiarity. Kivel says that when he composes “there are things that you feel intuitively and cannot be expressed. I try to dig into that half-formed feeling that you experience in life.” As a result, the themes are open to interpretation and paired with moody, atmospheric sounds that take you to another place based in an inherent truth of our being.