Jens Lekman | photo by Ellika Henrikson | courtesy of the artist
Tumors and disco balls: Jens Lekman on growing older, feeling starstruck, “emotional autobiography” and why he wants the Phillies to lose
Jens Lekman, one of our most beloved and singularly charming songwriters, returned last month with his triumphant fourth full-length, Life Will See You Now. It might be the Swede’s most immediately gratifying collection yet, juxtaposing his typically tender and perceptive wit with some of his most exuberant (and danceable) music to date. It’s his first album since 2012’s relatively more subdued and reflective breakup-album-of-sorts, I Know What Love Isn’t, although he hasn’t exactly remained silent during the interim. In 2015 he wrote, recorded and released a new “Postcard” song every week – an effort to shake off writer’s block that paid some handsome dividends – and launched “Ghostwriting,” a project wherein he wrote songs based on other people’s stories. He’s also taken on a sideline as a wedding singer, performing at the nuptials of fans worldwide as way to help keep himself afloat while fulfilling the unwittingly prophetic promise of his 2004 ballad “If You Ever Need a Stranger (to Sing at Your Wedding).”
Each of these various endeavors played a role in the creative evolution of Life, which might be succinctly described as a collection of stories, moments and memories: real, fabricated, and somewhere in between. The album was also shaped by a couple of self-imposed songwriting “rules” that Lekman tried out, and eventually discarded, along the way: to focus exclusively on male characters (instead of the endless stream of sisters, girl-friends and romantic interests that populate a majority of his songs), and to write songs about people other than himself. In the end, some version of Jens does figure in every song on the album (and women turn up in more than half), though always in a manner that draws you in, never navel-gazingly, and sometimes in unexpected ways.
“To Know Your Mission,” the album’s opener and self-evident manifesto, presents us with a teenaged Jens, slipping off his headphones to talk life goals with a Mormon missionary – though only after Lekman firmly establishes that we’re in 1997, the era of “Will Smith, Puff Daddy, Gala, Chumbawumba.” (Definitely not, he assured me, what he himself was listening to at the time. Although the loop-based, collagistic late-‘90s sonic aesthetic those artists share has undoubtedly influenced his distinctive production approach, often featuring samples – most prominently, this time around, Jackie Stoudemire’s 1983 disco-funk nugget “Keep On Dancing“ on cosmic-romantic shaggy-dog stomper “How We Met (The Long Version)” and Ralph MacDonald’s calypso-jazz classic “The Path” on lead single “What’s That Perfume That You Wear.”)
We get a different sort of backwards glance at childhood in “A Wedding In Finisterre,” an Afro-pop-inflected highlight centered around a poignant remark made – allegedly – by the bride at one of Lekman’s wedding gigs: about feeling, upon the precipice of a major life transition, like “a five-year-old watching the ten-year-olds shoplifting / a ten-year-old watching the fifteen-year-olds french kissing…” all the way up to the “twenty-year-old watching the thirty-year-olds vanishing.” (He continues, and concludes, echoing something his idol and collaborator, Tracey Thorn of Everything But The Girl, once sang: “the heart’s still a little kid.”)
But while that’s an arresting and instantly resonant set of images, Life Will See You Now also pushes back firmly against the notion that life’s magic and mystery are the exclusive province of youth – indeed, you could gloss the album’s title as Life Begins at 35 (Lekman’s age when he made it.) Ultimately, taken together, these songs and stories form a patchwork of instructions for life: on how to resist the pull of nostalgia – without denying that it’s there – but rather to be present in the present, face up to your fears, be fully engaged in your friendships and relationships, and make conscious, deliberate choices.
I caught up with Lekman by phone from Texas, the morning after the first night of his US tour, to chat about male vulnerability, aging as an artist, the current state of Swedish music and finding romance in the streets of Gothenburg.
The Key: Was last night your first show with this band?
Jens Lekman: Yeah, I had to put together a new band for this tour. They’re all completely new actually; people I’ve found here and there. I didn’t know any of them half a year ago, so they’re completely new to me. I have this problem with band members falling in love and settling down and having kids and moving away, like my drummer and my bass player from my last band. They started liking each other and now they live in New York.
TK: You attract all the romantics…
JL: I don’t know… I create some kind of atmosphere on my tours I guess.
TK: Does it usually happen on the tour?
JL: Yeah I’d say so. I mean, touring seems to change people somehow. It’s always interesting to see how they’re going to change during the ride.
TK: I know you’ve talked about struggling with how you felt like your last album was received – at least in the live setting – and how that kind of set in motion the process that eventually led to this new record. I’m curious, how much are you motivated by what you think other people want out of your work, versus following your own, as you say [in “To Know Your Mission”], GPS in your heart.
JL: I’m definitely influenced by what people think about what I do, and how the music functions; if it does its job or not. Definitely. I don’t think I would be making music if no-one listened. That was a thought that struck me a few years ago, when I thought of how I started making music and how it was just this fun thing I did in my bedroom, when I was a teenager. How it was just my little secret that I had for myself. But my music has changed since then; it’s changed into something that I send out into the world, and I’m very interested in how it’s perceived, at least when it comes to how the listeners receive it and how it functions in their lives.
TK: I have to say, personally, that your last album is the one that’s meant the most to me; it’s definitely my favorite thing you’ve done, along with the EP that came before it [2011’s An Argument With Myself]. What are your feelings about the album, looking back on it now?
JL: I’ve always been proud of that record; I’ve always been happy with it myself. I just felt like it was maybe a tricky record. I felt like when we played it live…I didn’t feel like people liked it very much.
TK: So are you playing stuff from it on this tour or are you steering away from it?
JL: I’m actually looking back on some of those songs and sort of reevaluating them at the moment. Because something happened last year when I went out on tour to try out the new songs: I played two of the old songs from that record and all of a sudden people were singing along, like they knew every word to it. And I felt like I understood all of a sudden that something had happened there, that maybe it was just a very slow record, one that would take some time for people to understand.
TK: And now we’ve had five years to live with it.
JL: Exactly. There’s so many songs on that record that are personal favorites of mine, like “Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder” for example, or “Cowboy Boots” or “The World Moves On.” I’m just looking into how the old songs could be performed on this tour – I haven’t really figured it out yet, but I’m doing “Cowboy Boots” and “I Know What Love Isn’t” at least.
TK: I like this idea that you’ve written about of aging along with your fans, going through life in tandem. I’m turning 35 this year, so I’m right there alongside you. Have you found that people respond differently to your work depending on their age?
JL: I think so, and I love that now I have a body of work that goes from when I was 21 until 35. And so I have young people in their early 20s coming to my show, and they love some of those early songs; [they’re like] “this is totally me.” And then I have some older people coming out saying “I love this stuff you did on your last record and this new record” and then I have some older people in their 40s and 50s coming out too and they’re like “Yeah, that was me when I was 25.” I just always felt like it’s important for me to sing about where I am in my life, and to not get stuck in my youth. I feel like a lot of artists that I’ve loved at some point got stuck in their youth, trying to re-experience their 20s or something over and over, and I just found that tiresome. I’m like “but you’re not that person anymore. I want to know who you are right now, because I want someone to relate to, I want someone to relate to when it comes to the things that you go through later on in life” So for me that’s always been important.
TK: It’s interesting that you start this album with a song that features you as a teenager [“To Know Your Mission”]. And then, in “Wedding at Finisterre,” you bring up this idea that every age contains every age that came before it: inside, you’re still a five year old, a ten year old, and so on…
JL: When I was in Houston this week I went to see Jonathan Richman – I always try to watch a live DVD with him before I go on tour, to remind myself what a tour should be like. Because I have a tendency – like a lot of musicians I think – to get stuck in the technical aspects of a show: “are the songs sounding good? How can I make my guitar sound better?” I always try to watch a show of his before I go on tour just to remind myself that the show should be about the connection with the crowd and having fun. Usually I just get to watch a live DVD but this time I actually got to go see a show with him, and it reminded me of how I feel like he’s always been singing about where he is in life. And it’s still not boring! He still has so much energy and joy in what he’s doing, but the subject matters of his songs, they mature as he grows older, and I love that.
TK: And what an amazing model as a performer – I definitely see that in what you do as well, for sure. I want to ask you about sampling and your use of samples. First of all, how it figures into your songwriting process, and then – well, I love the way you use samples to create this collage element in your work; it adds so much sonic texture and layers of meaning that wouldn’t be there otherwise – and also, sometimes you’re really just borrowing a whole riff and harmonic structure from another song. I’m wondering how you think about that, and if there’s a boundary that you’re negotiating there, of how much is your own work and how much is a sort of “collaboration” with this other piece of art.
JL: Well, I think of samples – I mean, I don’t use samples that much anymore – but I’ve always loved the element of randomness when it comes to samples. When you take one loop and you put it together with another loop, something completely unexpected comes from that within a matter of a few seconds. I feel like, if I sit down with a guitar to write a song, I will automatically play the same opening chord, every single time, because my hands have learned this routine of writing a song on a guitar, so there’s no element of randomness there. It’s very hard for me to do something unexpected when I sit down with a guitar or a piano, but with samples there’s always that element of what happens if I put together this percussion loop with this string part from an old classical recording…something completely unexpected could come from that. And so I still use it in my composition, I still use it when I write songs, just to get that element of the unexpected.
So in a song like “Postcard 17” for example, that builds on this old Charlie Mingus piano sample, set to a quite heavy beat. I love that sense of the very gentle, mournful chords of that Charlie Mingus song set to this electronic beat – that’s something I wouldn’t have thought of, it just came to me unexpected from trying to put together those two loops. And then I replaced that piano sample but it still has that element; the one thing I discovered through that is still in there. Stuff like that makes me still use samples sometimes.
TK: Do you go out searching for samples to use, or is it music you already are familiar with, or are encountering in other ways?
JL: In the past I used to have this routine of going to the flea market on Saturdays, this one flea market where the records were ten cents each. It was this flea market where they didn’t go through the stuff, they just sold everything quite cheaply, and especially the records. And because it was a church there would be so much Christian music in there. I know everything about Swedish Christian music by now. But anyway, I would just buy a handful of records based on their covers, and then I would go home and put on some tea and sit around and listen to the records, and that was like a ceremony that I had every Saturday, just listening for little tidbits here and there that I could sample. But I don’t do that much anymore. I tend to find samples here and there in the music I listen to, and in YouTube clips, stuff that I record on my phone, just everywhere now, these days. I think it became a bit more important for me to find new sources because I was building my music so much on Swedish Christian music for a while.
TK: I know about the Postcards and the wedding gigs and other different musical projects, but I’m wondering what else you’ve been up to, apart from music, in the last five years. Any new activities or interests?
JL: Not really… It’s hard to explain to anyone who’s not me that the stuff that I’ve been doing has actually taken so much time, it feels like I’ve been working constantly for the last five years. I mean, I had a year in 2013-2014 when I went through some illness, or… I don’t know what it was actually, but I wasn’t working that much. But apart from that, ever since I started doing Postcards it felt like I haven’t slept a second for years; I feel like I’m completely packed with adrenaline from all the working and the stress the last couple of years. But it’s been good, it’s been inspiring. I’ve felt inspired the last couple of years.
TK: I wanted to ask you about Tracey Thorn – I love that you guys have this back and forth on your records. [Thorn addresses Jens by name in the lyrics of her 2010 song “Oh! The Divorces”; Lekman returned the nod in “Become Someone Else’s.” Tracey also duets with Jens on Life Will See You Now’s “Hotwire The Ferris Wheel,” just as he joined her for a Lee Hazlewood cover on her last album.] I know you did that Magnetic Fields cover a while ago; is that how you first met?
JL: No, we connected when I was doing an Arthur Russell tribute EP, called Four Songs by Arthur Russell. I’d been a fan of hers since I was 15 or something, and I knew that she had done an Arthur Russell cover on her record, so I just reached out to her through, I think it was Geoff Travis at Rough Trade, and asked if there was any chance she wanted to be on it. She replied and said “sorry, I don’t have time for that right now, but actually I really like your music.” And that really blew my mind – I did not anticipate that she had ever heard of me. And then we started writing to each other, and we met up a few times. And then she wrote that song where she mentions me in a few lines. We’ve been emailing back and forth over the years… she’s just a really sweet person. I’m trying to get over this starstruck-ness that I have when I meet up with her. It’s kinda tricky to have any sort of neutral normal friendship with someone you’re so starstruck by, but I just admire her so much, and her music has meant so much to me over the years.
TK: Yeah, I’d been wondering, what is the 16-year-old Jens listening to on his headphones, in “To Know Your Mission”? If he’s not listening to Chumbawumba and Will Smith…
JL: No, by that age I was the kind of person who was a little bit too snobby for any kind of radio music. What was I listening to… I was probably listening to Stina Nordenstam, the Swedish songwriter – I don’t know if you know her. She was a huge inspiration for me for a while, especially when she got into her sound collage/lo-fi experimental period on her third and fourth record, that was very inspirational for me.
TK: Are there Swedish artists these days that you’re excited about? It seems like we’re hearing less about Swedish artists recently, compared to say five or ten years ago
JL: I feel like there’s a bit of a change – there’s not that many mid-sized indie bands breaking through in Sweden these days. There was a period about ten years ago, when you had Peter Bjorn and John and Lykke Li and all that stuff; now it feels like there’s a few acts on a bigger level, like Tove Lo and stuff like that, big pop music, and then there’s this micro-indie scene which is so small, with a lot of rock bands, a lot of bands that are more like the original Gothenburg rock tradition, like Makthaverskan, that sound more like 90s rock or something. I like some of that; it just feels like a lot of those bands have this fuck you attitude, like they don’t care about what’s cool, they just do their thing because they love it. And then there’s a few bands out there doing really weird music…I can’t think of any names right now.
Oh, and there’s been a resurgence for Swedish folk music, but like all these acts that are doing a modern take on Swedish folk music. I’m not talking about Bob Dylan kind of folk music, I’m talking about like traditional Swedish folk music from hundreds of years ago, which is a kind of music that I personally used to hate. I associated it with the hippies that I hung out with when I was a teenager that I didn’t like very much. But now it’s like this new generation that are doing something new with it and it’s actually really exciting. I just heard an artist called Sara Parkman, which is really good, she’s doing some really interesting stuff, and putting it into a feminist perspective as well, so it’s got a political dimension to it.
TK: And young people are into it?
JL: Yeah, they are, they’re loving it. And also I feel like because Swedish folk music has had such a bad rap over the years I feel like the critics are standing around with their mouths wide open not sure what to think of it. It really feels like it came out of nowhere, I feel like that’s what’s exciting about it.
TK: You’ve been back in Gothenburg for a while now, right? Do you feel connected to a scene there?
JL: No, not really. I mean, I don’t hang out that much with people there at all. I have a few friends that I hang out with, and they’re mostly people who don’t make music at all, so…
TK: In “Dandelion Seed” you mention how much the town has changed – about “what’s left of this old town” – I’m curious what sort of things you’re referring to.
JL: Oh yeah, that’s right actually. That was a reference to how there’s still parts of Gothenburg left that are remnants of the old harbor town, coastal town, working class town. Especially, the old cranes by the water are very much a symbol of what Gothenburg used to be. That’s not what the song’s about, but it’s definitely a comment on that.
TK: I was actually in Gothenburg a few years ago, as part of my honeymoon, and it was great just walking around and imagining your songs taking place.
JL: Oh wow, I love that you were doing that.
JL: Yeah, exactly. I love when people do that. You know, people send me emails that they went out to Kortedala [the Gothenburg suburb referenced in the title of Lekman’s most popular album], and I’m like “why did you go to Kortedala?” It’s like the most boring place. I don’t know if they expect something there, to see something magic or something, but it’s just a bunch of grey buildings out there. But I love that they go out there, and they take pictures of themselves like they’re crossing Abbey Road or something.
And that’s the whole idea of why I sing about Gothenburg and the streets in Gothenburg. I wouldn’t be doing that if I sang in Swedish, but since I sing in English I really want to make the streets of Gothenburg as romantic and historical as the streets of Paris and New York were made through the songs of their songwriters. I think the first time I walked down Clinton Street in New York I immediately started thinking “Oh wow, this is the street that Leonard Cohen sings about in ‘Famous Blue Raincoat.’” And I love that, and I want people to feel like that when they walk through Gothenburg; I want them to walk down to the harbor, and walking by Domkyrkan, the big church, and just be like “wow, this is like in that song.”
TK: Yeah, I definitely felt that when I was there. And “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel,” in my head – I know you say it’s a fair, but I was imagining the ferris wheel in Liseberg [amusement park in Gothenburg]
JL: Oh yeah, that’s right. I mean, it could be that. It’s a fictional song…actually I think the story took place in Malmö in my head, but it’s a fictional song so it could have been Liseberg for sure.
TK: Are you writing more fictional songs now than you used to?
JL: A little bit. I feel like I’m more emotionally autobiographical than I was before. I would only write about things that I’ve experienced, and I’ve also found this newfound joy in writing fictionally because there’s just something fun in that; there’s a joy in making up stories and using that part of my imagination. I think “Evening Prayer” is a perfect example of that, like I had a lot of friends who were getting ill and going through chemotherapy, and I was feeling all those feelings, like “what’s our relationship like? what’s my role here?” And then I just saw this news piece about a surgeon who was using a 3-D printer to print out the tumors that he was gonna remove, and I thought that’s such a brilliant idea: to handle your own fear, to print it out as a physical three-dimensional object that you can put in your breast pocket. And that’s how that story came along.
So I think there’s a lot of stuff on the record that [isn’t] exactly as it’s happened; I’ve used my imagination, I’ve reached some portion of magical realism or something, but everything is something I’ve experienced, everything is emotionally autobiographical.
TK: I’m curious about what, to me, is probably the most poignant song on the album, “How Can I Tell Him.” Which at first blush seems like it could be an unrequited romantic love song, but it’s actually about male friendship. And so it ties into “Evening Prayer,” and also makes me think about “A Promise” from your EP, which to me is such a beautiful, really, expression of love to your sick friend in that song. I don’t know how much these songs are about real people or how much is embellished. But I’m curious – do you have an answer to that question of “How can I tell him?” – how do we break through the male conditioning not to be vulnerable with each other?
JL: I started asking myself that question about five years ago, because I felt like I wanted real friendships and real relationships in my life, and I felt like my male friendships were suffering from a lot of the stuff that society has taught me about how close you can be to another man. And I felt like just by being aware of that, and not pushing it too hard, just to make sure to reach out and try to be vulnerable when you feel vulnerable and try to work against those fears and those voices in you that tell you you shouldn’t go there, but to actually go there… I feel like that works for me. But it’s not something that you do overnight. I don’t think I’ll ever be completely comfortable…I think it’s something that will be inside of me for the rest of my life, but I think it’s something you can work on. I feel like I’ve become really close with, at least, my best male friend, I feel like we’ve become a lot more close over the last couple of years. So it’s possible.
TK: Do you have any particular memories or associations with Philadelphia? I’ve seen you here a few times over the years…
JL: Well, I spent a little bit of time there. I think it was in 2008, when I had a quite shitty year. I have some friends in that city, like Charlie Hall, who still plays in War on Drugs, I think, and my old sound guy Mickey, and they would take me to see the Phillies play. And I remember things got better and better for the Phillies as things got worse and worse for me.
TK: Yeah, that was a good year for them.
JL: Yeah, exactly, and I think when things were at their worst for me, that was like the night they won the World Series. So, how are things going for the Phillies this year?
TK: Well I don’t really follow them, but I don’t think they’re doing particularly well…
JL: I hope things are going really bad for them, because I think there’s a link between them and my happiness. So I hope things are going bad for them so that they can go better for me.