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 really love
the concept of
they are like
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.
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