Artist You Should Know: Matt Kivel

Singer/songwriter Matt Kivel just premiered his video for “Permanence,” announced an upcoming double LP due out in October, and consistently gets praised by the likes of Pitchfork, SPIN, and more. We caught up with the LA-based artist to chat about the collaborative recording process of 'Fires on the Plain,’ his evolution as an artist, and more.

Hey Matt, we’re stoked to have you be part of our series! Let’s start off with a quick introduction. Who is Matt Kivel?
Hi! Thanks for having me. I am 30 years old, married to a very intelligent woman named Emily, and I have been writing songs and making records for a long while now. I live in Los Angeles and have lived here, more or less, for the past 27 years. I enjoy reading, playing music, watching movies, and boxing … I feel like I’m on an old timey dating show right now.  

Pitchfork just announced your upcoming double LP ‘Fires on the Plain’ due out October 7th. The 82-minute album features guest vocals from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Sophia Knapp, and  Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold. What made you want to do a collaborative project and can you walk us through the recording process?
The idea of doing something with a lot of other people grew out of my experience making my last record ‘Janus.’ I made that album in Scotland with Alasdair Roberts and he brought along a pretty amazing group of musicians to perform on that record. I just really enjoyed recording live with those people, and hearing their ideas on the album rather than my own. It was more enjoyable for me. So, when it came time to make this record I knew I wanted to do something more like that and, luckily, I had been playing with a backing band for a while at that point, so those guys came down to the studio with me, initially. It just grew from there.

The house where we recorded the album had all of these amazing musicians living in it. So while we were tracking, one of us would get an idea for a part, and then we’d go find someone in the house who could play it! Whether it was a sax part or a guitar part, or a cello, or bass part. It was kindof an ideal situation. As for the vocalists, Sophia lives down the street so she just walked over and sang her parts. My wife Emily also drove over a few days after work and sang her parts. Robin was briefly living in LA so he dropped by in a similar fashion. Will lives in Kentucky so he had to record his part on his own and send it over via email, but it worked out great. My brother came and sang a little and he’s a dad, so it was a little harder to find time for him to come over, but he made it. It was a long process, but it was nice to work with so many other people this time.

I also wanted this album to feel like a movie and I wanted there to be some additional characters and, for the first time, some new narrators (Will, Sophia, and Robin). The main musical inspirations for this album were The Olivia Tremor Control’s two full-length records, Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid MAAd City.” All those records are movie-like and beautiful and expansive and I wanted to work in that same format, but using my voice, which is very different then all of those artists. I made a lot of field recordings for this album and worked to incorporate instruments and sounds that evoked certain landscapes. It’s meant to be listened to as one piece, but it can be easily broken up into four.

We read that you are a boxer and grew up training at a gym owned by Bob Dylan. Did this have a big part to do with the inspiration behind the music video for “Permanence?”
Well I know how to box, but I wouldn’t call myself a boxer. I’ve been doing it for about 15 years and it’s my favorite sport. Haha, yes I did learn how to box at this weird gym in Santa Monica that was housed in the basement of the synagogue my family belongs to. Bob Dylan owns the building and the gym seemed to be like his secret project. He would be down there from time to time, messing around, acting kind of mysteriously. Wearing weird boxing gear and tank tops. He once yelled at me and my friends when we were being too loud in the parking lot. It was an odd scene.

I had always wanted to do a video that involved boxing and the tone of “Permanence” seemed right for it. It’s kind of a duel, like in an old Western, except it’s being executed by these two boxers. My friend Trey stars in the video and he does an amazing job. I took him to the Wild Card Boxing Club with me a few weeks before we filmed and he learned really quickly. It was exhausting to film because it was 108 degrees out, but overall I think everyone enjoyed it.  


You started off your music career playing in various bands including Princeton and garage pop band Gap Dream and it wasn’t until 2013 you decided to go solo.
How have you evolved as an artist since the release of your first solo LP ‘Double Exposure?’

Hmmm. Well, I think I’ve become a bit more calm about the process. A bit more deliberate. In the past I always tried to do as many things at once as possible, but now I’m more focused. My ideas for albums develop pretty slowly. I write songs and then let them sit now. I rarely play them again after writing them until it’s time to record. I just think about them and listen to my demos and then try to understand how they might fit together. Then I map out a tracklist and just work to build a little musical world. I try to keep working on new things as much as possible. I have a number of songs for a new album, but I’m still trying to understand what they mean and how they can develop over time.  

SPIN praised you saying you conceive “wonderfully layered and delicate folk that sews captivating storytelling to instrumental indulgence.” Where do you draw inspiration from and what’s your songwriting process like?
I draw inspiration from lots of places. Movies have always been a source of excitement and invigoration for me. I’ll watch a film like “Scanners,” “Equinox,” “World on a Wire,” “Solaris,” or any of a million films I’ve seen and then want to work on music. To make something musical that feels like the world I’ve just seen created on screen. My everyday life seeps into my work at times, but I find that I’m best suited to writing material when I have some stillness and calm around me. My life can be chaotic and busy, but I always work better when I am relaxed and just spending time around my house. An ideal songwriting experience for me would be to watch a film or listen to a record all the way through in my home. Then, walk to the bar down the street from me called Sunset Beer. Drink two beers, and then work in my garage. I’d love to do that every day!

What was your first piece of equipment?
It was a Squire Bass guitar and amp combo in cherry red. I learned bass before I learned guitar and I loved that instrument deeply.

Tell us a random fact that people may not know about you.
I work full-time as a speechwriter for the space industry. I write for rocket scientists! It’s a wild job.

What’s next for Matt Kivel?
I think that I will play shows in the fall. It’s been very challenging for me to secure a booking agent over the years, so it’s not easy for me to set up shows. I do what I can, but without an agent, the touring has been minimal. I apologize to anyone who listens to these records and would like to see a show in their town, but haven’t had the chance. I’ll get out there eventually!
Other than that, I plan to work on new music. I am going to buy a computer and actually try to record myself a bit this time. We’ll see how it goes! Thanks for inviting me to do this interview!

Listen to Matt Kivel:

MikeArtist You Should Know: Matt Kivel

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