We spoke to the Swedish troubadour ahead of the release of “I Know What Love Isn’t”, the hotly anticipated follow-up to the celebrated “Night Falls Over Kortedela”, about books, dads… and frozen peas.
“I love short stories”, Jens Lekman tells me halfway through the interview, “they are like pop-songs”. Similarly, Lekman’s pop-songs play out like short stories: an engaging proposition, the interrogation of an idea, a pointed revelation. Unlike a work of fiction, however, Lekman’s words are rooted in reality. Here Lekman begins with a memory, picking at it to ascertain the reason for its prominence, before revealing the significance at its core; scratching at his recollections, like scabs over half-forgotten wounds. On one track at the heart of “I Know What Love Isn’t” ( Secretly Canadian, 2012; released next week), for example, the memory of lying on the floor, cradling a bag of peas is traced back (via bush-fires and birthdays) to the conclusion that “you don’t get over a broken heart / you just learn to carry it gracefully”.
The investigative nature of Jens Lekman becomes increasingly apparent as our conversation progresses; and at one point, a passing comment from me proves a curiosity to be dissected. Our roles are skilfully reversed and I find myself in the unusual position of answering the interviewee. Happily, the table’s turn is momentary and we quickly fall back to topic: the workings of a Swedish troubadour.
It’s been five years since you released your last album, “Night Falls Over Kortedela”. Was it a conscious decision to leave such a gap?
I think so in a way. I didn’t plan on leaving five years – that just sort of happened – but I did plan on not releasing anything until it was good enough to release. This album took a really long time because in the past I have always just written songs and put them together, but this record was telling me that it wanted to be an album. To begin with I was kind of working against that. But when I started working with it, it started working.
Did you feel any added pressure from the critical acclaim afforded to “Night Falls”?
Yes I did, but at the same time I have always felt like I am living in my own little world. I am always surprised when someone recognises me on the street and stuff like that.
Does that happen a lot?
No, it never happens in Sweden. It happened a little bit when I was living in Melbourne for some reason. Actually, I only feel like I am a pop-star in places like Indonesia; where they actually treat you like a pop-star.
"I love short stories. I really love the concept of short stories; they are like pop songs"
I noticed that you have been referring to “I Know What Love Isn’t” as your debut, why?
Well that’s the thing. When I think about it, the first records that I put out, they were almost like compilations of whatever I had been doing over the last couple of years. The last record, “Night Falls”, was put together by my friends in a kind of miniature Eurovision Song Concert sort of way. They would call me up and say “OK, song number one: eight points. Song number two: three points” and so on. They even started putting together the tracklist for me. I couldn’t see the connections between the songs at all. On this record I realised it was something I would have to do myself.
So, do you see this record as having a narrative through line?
Yeah, but maybe not so much. I mean, I didn’t understand the narrative thread when I was making it until the very last days of when I was putting it together.
You were talking earlier about living in Australia and I understand you have also spent a lot of time in the US. Did you find the change of scene had a significant effect on your musical output?
Only from a very practical, logistical perspective. It wasn’t a very good situation for me living in Melbourne for writing and recording; I had to take opportunities to record. For example, I had a friend who had a big house and sometimes he and his boyfriend would be away on long trips so I could use the house. It was in the outer suburbs, I would sit by myself and I could compose and record. That’s why I moved back to Sweden eventually, because I needed the workspace so I could actually do the work.
Taking of Sweden, the concept of “home” occurs a number of times on the album. Is that something you think of in terms of geography?
I think over the last weeks – while I have been doing these interviews and people have been asking me about it – I have started realising that I still live in a suitcase. I have for the last ten years almost. I almost feel like that suitcase is my home. The only thing I miss, the only thing I am happy to have right now, is a bookshelf. I just love the idea of having this shelf of books and then once in a while, when you are thinking of something really smart that you read once in a book, you can go up to the bookshelf and take out that book and find that thing and you go “ah, yes!”, you know? So I missed the concept of a bookshelf – a real, physical bookshelf – when I was away.
Are books something you draw an inspiration from?
Yes, more so than music I would say. Books, the news, the movies … anything that’s not music. I feel like the concept of being inspired by music when you are making music is kind of weird: If you start making music about music, or for music. I love short stories. I really love the concept of short stories; they are like pop songs.
I was going to ask you later to choose three records you would take with you to a desert island, but perhaps it would be more appropriate if I asked you to choose three books.
Yeah! What have I read recently? I read a book called “I Remember” by Joe Brainard. That was one of the best books I have read in years. I love that book so much. And, I would probably bring the collected work of Amy Hempel because I love her short stories. I love a lot of short stories about bitter middle age women for some reason! What else would I bring? I kind of need my bookshelf to remember what I have read. You forget what you have read, so I have started making these lists of what I’ve read and what I’ve watched. I would probably bring something by Grace Paley as well. I love her short stories too. So there you have it! There are my three.
Going back to “I Know What Love Isn’t”; although the subject matter seems to be focused on heart break, its delivery often feels quite uplifting, was that a conscious decision?
I am glad you say that. Some people think it is cynical or really sad. I think it was intentionally hopeful. I think there should be some kind of hopeful conclusion at the end of it. That is something I worked on with the tracklisting too. I realised that I wanted it to sort of build up to something hopeful. But now I talk about it I remember that it ends with sort of a sad song, so maybe that was a failure. But I kind of see that song as a book end, along with the first, on a bookshelf. I am talking about bookshelves all the time! Those songs are kind of like … the important thing is what’s between those songs.
"If you get to know me and you know what I do, then you should be aware that there is a risk that you might end up in a song"
I guess in that way it can kind of be equated to a relationship. The important bit is the bit in the middle; even if it ended badly it doesn’t mean it has no worth any more.
That’s the best thing I’ve heard in weeks! Can I quote you on that? This is the interesting thing: I used to hate doing interviews, but now I understand what it is I have done through talking about it. So yeah, good point.
Are your lyrics mainly auto-biographical?
Yeah, but the characters are often put together from several friends of mine or people I have met. They are often combinations and fragments, as are the settings and the events I think.
Do you ever feel the need to distance the lyrics from reality, for example changing names?
Yes, I always do that. Well, not always, but I change a lot of names. I always check with people that they would be ok with being in a song. Even though I do think that if you get to know me and you know what I do, then you should be aware that there is a risk – or a chance depending on how you look at it – that you might end up in a song. I have a lot of friends who are really pissed off at me for not ending up in a song; more so than the other way around. I don’t have anyone who is pissed off about being in a song, since I asked them politely. But yeah, I have a lot of friends who are mad at me for not being in a song.
Why do you sing in English?
Probably because I feel like languages have flavours to them. To me, Swedish tastes a lot like apples for some reason. I have tried singing in Swedish a few times and I can feel the Swedish song tradition grabbing me and pulling me in a direction when I am doing that. It wants me to sing about the short Swedish summer and the cold Swedish winter and the streets and all these things that are Swedish somehow. I guess singing in English is a way of neutralising the taste for me .
"It was kind of hard to find a “new sound”. I didn’t want to re-invent myself or anything like that because I felt like I had everything I wanted to use"
That distance also seems to allow you to really use the sounds of words, as well as the meaning.
Yeah, I think so. I mean I love the way that words sound. And also the way they are printed “Erica America” for example. I love the way that sounds and the way it looks when you put it on paper.
You talk quite a lot in terms of images; Sweden earlier and just now the image of the printed word. Within the storytelling quality, your lyrics often focus on images. Can you tell me a bit about your process for writing lyrics?
Yeah, it’s different from my process before. I used to write more with an idea of where things were headed or where the song would end. Basically I had the story before I started writing it. On this record I think I intentionally had the idea to start writing with images and just to see where that would take me. I actually intentionally tried not to write about heartbreak. I just tried to write down these images, but of course these images led me back to the break-up anyway. When I made the last record in 2007 – “Night Falls Over Kortedala” – I listened a lot to “Graceland”, by Paul Simon. I loved the way each opening line is just so. I went to the 25th Anniversary concert last week. I took my Dad, because it was his Birthday and I realised that in one of the songs he sings the opening lines: “Fat Charlie, the Archangel, looms into the room”. I just turned to my Dad and said “that’s the best opening lyric I have ever heard!” He turned to me and said “who is Fat Charlie?” and I said “exactly! That is what you should be asking! That’s what you are wondering. Who is Fat Charlie? You know…?”
It’s quite a literary approach to lyrics.
Yeah, I would say so and I think on the new record there are a lot of songs that started with an image. Like the image of me hugging a bag of peas whilst lying on the floor. And just wondering, why was I doing that? “Oh yeah, because there was a heat wave running through Melbourne at the time… oh yeah that was actually around the time of the bush fires, the Black Saturday bush fires… oh yeah, it was my Birthday” and I just kept going, you know?
Do you start with the lyrics and then build around them musically?
I do now. In the past I used to start with samples and I would build these collages and put the words on top of that. But these days I start with the lyrics and then the melodies and then I build stuff around that.
“I Know What Love Isn’t” feels like quite a shift in sound from your previous releases in terms of production and execution. Although the instrumentation is still pretty lush, it seems relatively stripped back; more smooth somehow, with less samples. Was that a conscious decision? Can you tell me a bit about the recording process of most recent album?
Yeah, I didn’t think about that from the very beginning, but I set myself the challenge of using the samples at the end of the process rather than at the start. That really made a difference for me because I had to start with the lyrics and the melody. I think I was listening to that Tindersticks album “Simple Pleasure” and realising how they went from the lush orchestral sounds of “Curtains”, to the extremely stripped down and very soulful mood of “Simple Pleasure”. That’s sort of what I was aiming for, to make that transition somehow. I think that it was kind of hard to find a “new sound”, because I had all the colours that I wanted to use already. I didn’t want to re-invent myself or anything like that because I felt like I had everything I wanted to use. So the easiest, or the most natural way I could find to evolve musically was to cut-back rather than to add.
Moving over slightly, to the physical release of the album, I understand it features deluxe packaging, including a poster and a limited edition 7”. How do you feel about physical releases in a digital age?
I feel they are more important than ever. But I felt that way when I was making CDRs too.
Yes, you made CDRs rather than offering up downloads.
Yeah, that was a time when I think the whole thing was about making the packages; I handmade each of them. I wanted each copy to be as if it was handed over by me directly, so I would make these very elaborate handmade covers. I had one that was like a bug on the front, encapsulated in the wax from a candle. I had another one – the “Leaves” 7 inch – with a real maple leaf in it. I loved doing stuff like that. I still feel the idea of a physical copy is very important to me.
Are you quite involved in the art work then? Is that quite a major feature?
It is and it is always a very, very painful process having to deal with the reality of how you make records! I went to art school when I was younger but I still don’t feel like I have the mind of a designer. I feel more like I have the mind of a – I don’t know – an artist or a painter. I don’t have much of an idea about packaging. But yeah, I am very involved in it.
I know you are off touring soon. What can we expect from the live performances? In the past they’ve been extremely varied: from just you and a guitar or a CD player, to you alongside a choir, a string quartet or an all female backing band.
Just a very good, tight, band. It’s a five piece including me; a bunch of very young, very hungry musicians that I found here in Gothenburg. We have been rehearsing every week over the last couple of weeks. Every week they show up and they have learned five new songs that I have not told them to learn. That’s what I love about them, they are just so eager to go on tour and to play music. It kind of reflects what I was thinking on the album too. In the past I used to have two or three string players, a horn section and everything else. After a while it was becoming ridiculous, I would have these people stand in the background and then they would come in for two songs. I was going bankrupt because I was taking so many people on tour! And then something I realised when I was touring last year – I was touring with just a drummer – was that when you are touring with a full band, it’s kind of like the crowd gets to watch a movie or something. Whereas when you are playing with a more stripped down band, or just a drummer, it is a more direct communication. You can pick up all these things. You don’t have to look at everyone in the band and go “you know I think we should hold out longer on this part of the song” you just turn to the drummer or whatever and just go “yeah”; you just give them that look and they know exactly where it is going. I think every time I go on tour I watch this DVD “Take Me To The Plaza” by Jonathan Richman. Have you seen that one?
Yes, I love Jonathan Richman, my dad is really into him.
Your dad? Wow, your dad has good music taste. He played him to you?
Yes, it’s funny actually. When I was about 17, I had this new boyfriend who liked to smoke. My Dad sat me down and he played me “I’m Straight” and then gave me a Modern Lovers badge and a tape.
Woah, that’s kind of amazing. Did that feel like a good lesson somehow, was that a good approach to it?
Well I think he was joking! I thought it was funny. I thought it was cool and it was a good tape to have, I used to play it a lot.
Yeah, that’s good. So I always watch that DVD because it is kind of the essence of what a live music show should be for me. I always watch that to kind of remind myself of what it should be like.
Lastly, you were talking earlier about direct communication. Your website seems to facilitate a direct line of communication with your fans. How important is that to you?
Well it’s a very selfish decision. I do it for my own sake. If I wake up in the morning and I don’t have any emails I get upset because it feels like – in a sense – my family. It sounds like a cliché but it really does feel like that.