Americana folk has its heroes and anti-heroes. The lovesick troubadour. The ramblin' outlaw. The pastoral idiot, strumming a cliche into the dirt.
Ally Mattson is no protagonist. If anything, the 25-year-old Minneapolitan is an antagonist. On her debut album Bones of Bandits — out June 23 on Polkadot Mayhem — she constantly sabotages herself and those around her. In the aftermath, she sulks before shrugging and debauching more. She inverts, fails, and crashes into reflection. In short, she does everything the Singer-Songwriter Bible tells you not to do.
"I don’t like when artists try to paint themselves in this really romantic light," Mattson says. "[Bones of Bandits] is a really honest self-reflection, because I need to see these ugly parts of myself if I’m gonna keep on living."
But that doesn't mean Mattson is any less a storyteller than the archetypes she actively rejects. In the scant seven-song tracklist of Bones of Bandits, she runs over the last two-and-a-half years of her life in tenacious detail. Ahead of the album's release party Wednesday at the Turf Club, Mattson dug back through all seven tracks of Bones of Bandits so that we could get some cautionary advice from her wayward exploits.
Bones of Bandits opens with an immediate deconstruction. Amid kind, upbeat notes, we find her drinking herself stupid in pursuit of a song. It's an imitation of idols the likes of Elliott Smith, Jeff Buckley, and Nick Drake, who could pull art from the sorrow of a bottle. But for Mattson, it's a disaster.
"I was blind all the time / I was drunk in the silence," she practically slurs out in defeat on the song.
"['Hellbound'] was really inspired by a stretch of a time when I was drinking way too much. It was not pretty," Mattson says. "I’d sit at home, and I’d drink, and I’d play guitar, and I’d write. But I wasn’t making good music, so I had this moment like, ‘Is this just gonna keep driving you into the ground, or are you gonna get your ass up and make something of yourself?’"
That message is why Mattson chose "Hellbound" to lead off her album. Though its circumstances are desperate and spiritually grim, she does eventually find the strength in herself to pull out and create something with meaning.
"It’s about feeling like, no matter what you do, everything’s gonna go to shit," she says. "But you have to keep on going.You might wanna bring in other people to help you out, but at the end of the day, you have to go through it by yourself."
Though the title of the song presumes a destination, "Hellbound" offers no finite guidance to any destination. In setting the tone for the album — there are no answers.
"You don’t know where it’s gonna go," Mattson says. "You're just plugging along no matter how much it fucking hurts at the time."
"Out of Touch"
No song on Bones of Bandits hides the solipsism quite like "Out of Touch." With drummer Matt Chartrand whistling a persistent harmony, the song jaunts through the blissful asides of a doomed relationship. Because of this, it made for an obvious single.
"This song actually came from a positive place," Mattson says of "Out of Touch." "It’s about realizing that maybe the people you’re surrounding yourself with aren’t super healthy for you, but it’s a really good time when you’re around them. You know it’s not gonna work out forever, but it’s pretty damn good."
Herein Mattson does her best to muddle optimism and pessimism. On the one hand, it's dangerous to fall in love when it's July and you know it'll implode by September. But, on the other hand, there's an existential mandate in sucking whatever joy you possibly can out of the moment. The damage can be dealt with later.
"If you’re not looking taking care of yourself, you’re not going to be able to be with anyone else," Mattson says. "But the song is also saying, ‘Fuck it, let’s just do it anyway. It’s 90 degrees in July, let’s just go with it.’"
The album's third song comes the closest to sounding like a folk-rock standard of anything on Bones of Bandits. Thanks again to drummer Chartrand, who taps a snare-driven revival into the song's spine, the track plays like a romantic daydream wherein Mattson imagines a world where she's reached the heights of Johnny Cash or Hank Williams.
"I’m so passionate about my career that I have to keep a buffer so that I don’t get disappointed," she says. "If this did go somewhere, would I totally self-destruct? Would I get so drunk that I fall asleep on the stage? But, at the end of the day, I can’t 100 percent let myself believe it’s not anything more than a fever dream."
But it's all for nigh. Mattson knows how those biopics end, and she can't even let her fantasies of fame play out without a pessimistic twist.
"Even with the fun songs, I can’t help but put that little bit of dark reality into it," she says. "Even if you don’t hear it on the first listen, I hope it seeps in subconsciously."
Mattson distances herself more from the fantasy by taking on a macho persona in the lyrics. She pictures herself as a gruffly inarticulate showman, unable to woo the one woman he really cares for and overcompensating with fame, groupies, and cocaine. It's a swap that makes sense given our culture's tendency to idolize the triumphs and tragedies of famous men — a trope Mattson gladly co-opts and distorts.
"I had a really good time messing around with the gender pronouns," Mattson says. "It felt right. I do have a more stereotypically masculine side to myself, so I was speaking to that perspective of my own personality."
None of the material on Bones of Bandits was really supposed to make it to a record. The reason why they're so unabashed is because Mattson wrote them purely for the catharsis of getting the darkness out of her own mind.
"Follow" is nearly a year-and-a-half old, but Mattson still feels the release it brought her when she first wrote it every time she plays it live.
"This song is about losing love for past romantic partners but also the love for myself," she says. "I felt really shitty when I wrote it, but I felt so much better after it was done."
A marked turn in tone for Bones of Bandits, "Follow" is a mournful coda that splits the album into two even halves. But like "Hellbound" before it, "Follow" doesn't gum up the momentum by ending in defeat.
"I know this hurts, I know this hurts," she sings, "but every second with you was a second worth."
"It was really my first stab at writing poetry, "Mattson says of "Follow. "I wrote the words before I wrote the song, which I never do. As opposed to ‘Hellbound,’ this is at the moving on point where you’re not just self-destructing, but you’re trying to chew through everything that happened. That’s where the words came from."
It's an unflattering portrait of Mattson, as she yet again depicts herself as the solvent in a relationship, ruining love before it can galvanize. But she hopes that her honest misdeeds can help others find the strength to bare their ugly parts and move on like she does on "Follow."
"I like artists who aren't scared to be vulnerable," she says. "As a result of writing these songs, it feels like I've purged something. It's out of myself, in this beautiful little package that people can listen to. It's not just a mud puddle in my head, and I'm better for it."
With all the loathing of Bones of Bandits comes the desire to escape. It's a conversation Mattson and a friend had one long night in the winter where they decided that people don't know how to love each other. They resolved, romantically, to run away and change their names.
"She said if we ever ran away together, she would call me Evelyn," Mattson says. "I joked with her that I would write a song about it, and then it happened. "
The speedy strum of her guitar leads Mattson to the line, "We’re either too civil, or we’re too mean / I’ve exhausted myself in the in-between." Though she never really committed to fleeing and starting anew, she still clearly simmers with some of the restlessness that drove that conversation into the morning hours — though her friend wasn't just doing lip service.
"She actually lives out of state now," Mattson says with a laugh. "She was like, 'I can't wait around for this clown anymore.'"
Unlike "Out of Touch," "Lantern Landings" obscures its sordid nature by being too forthcoming and bare.
"I almost don’t even know where to start with that one," Mattson says. "There’s so much shit in it. It’s the song about totally losing control of your shit."
Lyrically, it's Mattson's most opaque effort. The verses are dressed up in vague platitudes and pleas for forgiveness. The oldest of the songs on Bones of Bandits, "Lantern Landings" shows the rawness of a 22-year-old Mattson trying to refine all her psychic anguish into something that makes sense. Ultimately, it's never really clear what sins Mattson is looking to atone for. Only the venality of them is made clear.
"Even though it’s a bit older, it still resonates with me in those moments of madness," she says. "But that’s why I wrote it, because I can still connect with it even though I don’t feel that way anymore."
To end Bones of Bandits, Mattson comes back to an old folk cliche: The dark night of the soul. Conceived in a bout of insomnia and self-loathing, "Forget" does not try to subvert anything. Instead of grasping at an absurdity, "Forget" shoots as honest as Mattson could bear to lay to song.
"This was the only song where I was like, 'Maybe this one is too vulnerable,'" she says. "But if there's any song that exorcised a demon, this is the one."
It's just Mattson and her guitar — the same way it was conceived bedside. You can almost even hear her instinct to hush so as not to disturb the neighbors. She barely brings her voice above a shy murmur. It's a dynamic shift from the stomping opening of the album, but Mattson knew "Forget" was a song that could seep into people and leave a lasting impression.
"It might leave people feeling kind of cloudy when they finish the song, but that's because I wanted people to feel like they went through the range with me," Mattson says. "After all the ups and all the fun, I wanted it to slow down, because that's always where I end up."