For a little over a decade, Swedish singer/songwriter Jens Lekman has been captivating audiences worldwide with his unique mix of stunning sample-infused musical arrangements and quirky, witty lyrics. His songs have become a joy to listen to because we’re always wondering where’s he taking us to next, his stories rarely adhering to traditional thematic tropes. His magnificent 2007 album Night Falls Over Kortedala featured a newfound disco-accented edge, resulting in delightful turns like “Sipping on the Sweet Nectar” and the addictive “Your Arms Around Me” (which was used to wonderful effect in Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut Whip It).
Lekman’s songs have a warm quality to them suggested by the familiarity of his lyrics. He often sings about himself (and often in the third person) but the complexity of his arrangements and vast musical knowledge might result intimidating to some. This year, Jens released I Know What Love Isn’t, a majestic collection of songs that deal with heartbreak and sorrow. Gone are his more careless verses and we see him reveal a warmer, more vulnerable side as he explores his feelings after a harsh breakup.
I Know What Love Isn't
(Secretly Canadian; US: 3 Sep 2012)
His haunting voice acquires new depth when he sings lines like “What’s broken can always be fixed / What’s fixed will always be broken” and the album as a whole might be in serious contention for Best of 2012. I talked to Jens from his home in Gothenburg a couple of weeks ago and was quite surprised to realize that the Jens on the other side of the phone, sounded exactly like the Jens on the songs I’ve come to love: charming, hilarious, touching, and endlessly fascinating.
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So, by now we’ve heard you sing about everything from avocados and postcards, in this album you even go very Fellini and write a song about not being able to write songs. Is there anything you don’t think you can make a song about?
Hmmm. There are some tricky subjects, for example I’ve found here in Sweden it’s kind of hard to deal with politics, to write about politics. That you almost have to go through a portal for it somehow, to discuss that subject. Which I think I was doing in songs like “Waiting for Kirsten” and “A Promise” in the EP that came out last year. I think that probably the trickiest subject is writing about sex I guess, which is something I haven’t done yet.
Someone pointed out recently, that there’s no sex in my songs. Once I wrote a song about auto erotic asphyxiation for my first album but not many people picked up on that. Of course there’s a difference between writing about bad sex and good sex, I think it’s very hard, maybe that’s like the major challenge that I have: to write a song about good sex. It’s really something that you have to write good to pull that off.
I guess you’d need to rely on lots of metaphors, perhaps something in the vein of “Like a Prayer”.
I think the only way to write it would be to write it as straight and honest as possible.
Do you consider yourself a storyteller?
Yeah, I would say so. When I grew up and became aware of music and lyrics in the 90s, lyrics were very abstract and bands said things like, the lyrics can be interpreted by the listener or it’s up to the listener to determine what the lyrics are about which I thought was bullshit. I really wanted the artist to tell me what the song was about and there’s of course nuances that you can relate to in a personal way. I felt that it was almost lazy to put the interpretation on the listeners’ behalf. Ever since I started writing music I’ve wanted to know what the songs are about and to be able to tell stories.
Do you feel all the other arts are obliged to do the same and express their meaning in a straightforward manner?
Yes, I mean there’s a lot of stuff I like that isn’t a straight story so to speak. I like a lot of short stories that border on poetry, that maybe it’s just about a short moment and there’s not much of a narrative to them. But still it’s about something, you can tell once you’ve finished it “this short story, this movie was about this”.
Have you ever given thought to maybe writing a play or a screenplay?
No. I think when it comes to all these things, sometimes during the last years—I really love stand up comedy for example—and sometimes people ask me “would you ever do a stand up set?” and I thought about it and realized no, definitely not. I like telling stories but then I like being able to fall back on the fact that I have a guitar and that I can sing. I think that goes for movie scripts too, the whole thing about storytelling is so I can fall back on the music.
You mentioned somewhere that because of the intimate nature of its songs, when listening to I Know What Love Isn’t you feel like someone else made the album. This made me curious in the first place what made you write such personal songs? Why did you think people would want to listen about your quotidian life or did you even care for that matter?
That was the question I was asking myself for a very long time. I was really worried that I was basically just singing my diary and who’d be interested in listening to this. I think it wasn’t until the very end when I started putting the songs together and building a track list, I realized these songs had reached something more, not a conclusion, but something that was essentially human, something that people could relate to. It was kind of interesting because during the last years when I haven’t been putting out records, I’ve had a lot of offers to write songs for other artists and I’ve tried that. Then I’ve realized “OK, I have to go from a more neutral perspective, I have to write more general or generic” and those songs were terrible. I couldn’t write those songs cause they weren’t from my own experiences or my own perspective. I realized that’s just a wrong way to start.
When you’re writing, how do you establish or define the boundaries between what you want to put in songs and what you want to keep to yourself? What topics are off limits in your songs?
Sex. [laughs] No, I’m kidding. I think there are definitely a lot of subjects I don’t share with people, but I’m not sure where that border is.
Your music has always been fascinating because you have an astonishing knowledge of how to combine different instruments. The arrangements in this album are so lush and gorgeous. “Erica America” for example, reminded me of George Michael, Fleetwood Mac and classic Spanish guitarists and then we have this dreamy pop in “She Just Don’t Want to Be With You Anymore” suddenly turn into romantic trip hop. How do you come up with these arrangements? Do you try many different things before settling on the one that sounds perfect?
In the past I used to rely on the randomness of working with samples which was a good way because it threw you in a completely different direction. You just thought “what if I take this samba drum and combined it with an 80s synth line or something from this record”. That was like a little random machine, something that just threw you in a different direction. On the last record I didn’t work like that, I decided not to use the samples from the beginning because I wanted to set it up as a challenge for me. I guess these things are just in my head now, all these different sounds and different directions. It’s something that I’ve learned over the years, like I’ll have one sound and think “what does this suit?” and I’ll pick up a sound from somewhere else. It comes more natural to me now. I felt like I could hear the songs before they existed.
“The World Moves On” has this bit I love with the flute, where it sounds like Paul McCartney’s “Silly Love Songs”; was this done on purpose?
That must’ve been where I got it from ... someone pointed it out to me a month ago when I was doing an interview, so I had no idea when I was writing it. But yeah I was probably just accessing that part of my brain where that “Silly Love Songs” song was in. I was thinking “I need something light and innocent and sweet here. OK, song bank in my brain, what do we have here ... hmm oh yeah, that’s a good melody, let’s put that in there!” It’s probably like my old sample archive that I used to have in a vinyl bin and on my computer, probably has been transferred to my brain by now and that’s how it works.
In this song you sing “the world just shrugs and keeps going”. This can be seen as something either extremely depressing or actually very uplifting. How do you want people to see it?
Depends, I felt like to me it’s hopeful. I found comfort in the fact that there was a world out there that didn’t give a shit about my problems. Because it sort of makes you understand how small your problems are and that gives you perspective. But we all have that feeling when these things happen to us. The other day I heard Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World”, have you heard that song?
No, not really.
It’s the one that goes [sings] “Why does the sun go on rising? Why do the waves rush to shore?” I feel like that’s the song I was trying to write but it took me like 20 verses to achieve what she does in 2 verses. It’s about that feeling when you’re standing outside and you’re wondering why aren’t the stars falling from the sky. At the same time you ask me how I want listeners to react to this line and I think for some people I want this record to be comforting, something that they can relate to, but I also think sometimes the best ways records give you hope is by patting you on your back and saying “You know what? Things are really shit right now and it’s probably gonna get even worse, but we’re in this together, so you know it’s OK.” I just hate records where they say everything is going to be OK, it’s just bullshit.
Also, I’m curious, did you really lie on the floor with the peas?
Yes I did because there was a terrible heat wave in Melbourne at the time. It was the day after the Bushfires of 2009 and I had that image of myself just hugging the bag of frozen peas lying on the floor. That song just started with just that image and then I started remembering from that point.
“The End of the World is Bigger Than Love” reminded me of Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, have you seen it? Are you a big movie guy?
I’m a very big movie fan and I saw that and I know a lot of people hated it but I loved it because it’s one of the few movies about the end of the world where the Americans don’t get to save it in the end. I’m a very big fan of apocalyptic movies and the apocalypse in pop culture and in the last decades all the movies about the end of the world have been about the near-end of the world and then the Americans go and save it and then Aerosmith plays a song and then everything is finished. So it was very liberating to see the world end in a movie for once. Actually when I wrote that song I was watching a movie called Threads by Barry Hines. Have you seen that? It’s a BBC docudrama from 1984 about nuclear war and its aftermath. A nuclear bomb hits Sheffield in the UK and it’s the bleakest, horrible depiction of nuclear war ever made and I watched that with a friend and this was around the time of the breakup and somehow I felt strangely comforted and liberated after it, in the same way that I was mentioning before; realizing that there is a world out there that’s really fragile and can end and doesn’t give a shit about your problems. I emailed my friend afterwards and said “Thank you for showing me that because it cheered me up”, she said “Yeah, exactly, the end of the world is bigger than love”.
After seeing the effect of heartbreak in your work, would you go through it again just to make this album?
No, I’m very very happy for my hardships and misfortunes: they build character and make you a better person. Even if I think it’s something you have to carry with you, it’s definitely something that makes you more empathic towards other people, makes you understand people and relationships so much better.
You mentioned somewhere that running and push ups helped you get over your heartbreak. Do you want your music to be cathartic to listeners in the same way or are you more interested in exorcising these demons out of yourself?
I don’t want the record to be something you listen you when you’re going through a breakup. I don’t think it works that well, that’s the point where I would recommend doing pushups instead. It’s because doing something physical like that releases so many sweet chemicals in your brain that it just cheers you up, makes you exhausted and you can go to sleep. Ever since I started doing interviews about this record people have been talking about it as a “breakup record” and I’m not familiar with that concept really. I don’t know [Bob Dylan’s] Blood on the Tracks, or [Fleetwood Mac’s] Rumors or any of those records. I mostly like the records that deal with the time afterwards, when you’re trying to figure out how you should relate to love and relationships and dealing with the day-to-day basis of it.
In the American continent we have a very limited view of Sweden. I know you’ve talked before about how there’s more to Swedish music than ABBA. But in recent years we’ve also started to learn more about how Swedish society can be quite violent too. See Stieg Larsson’s books for example or the statements issued by the Swedish Democratic Party. Is this something new for people in Sweden too?
No, I think it’s been pretty nice in Sweden. I mean the thing is—I haven’t read the Stieg Larsson books first of all, I don’t know what they’re about—but when it comes to the political climate it’s been going in very much of a right wing direction and there’s been a lost of nationalism and racism going on and I think that’s something that’s happening all across Europe right now. That’s the one thing that concerns me about Sweden which is otherwise a very beautiful and lovely country.
I just thought it was curious that we got our first dark Jens Lekman album around the time when the rest of the world started finally realizing Sweden has its dark side too.
It’s kinda funny because every interview I did in the old days was about “Your Swedish music is so sad, is this because of the sunlight?” I don’t even know how to answer that question. But it’s funny that you associate Sweden with the happy, colorful culture and pop music like ABBA.
Yeah, our vision of Sweden can be very distorted.
[laughs] That’s totally OK.