Interview: Jens Lekman

Interview with Jens Lekman

Jens Lekman


Five years on from Night Falls Over Kortedala, Jens Lekman’s back with a brand new album. Here’s what the Swedish singer had to say about his career so far, the heartbreak that inspired I Know What Love Isn’t and his, er, tricky adolescence…

Questions and answers

We hear you’ve had a nomadic existence of late. Where are you today?

I’m in an office in Gothenburg. I’m heading out on a very, very long tour in a few days so I feel like I still live in my suitcase. But it’s alright, it’s a very nice suitcase that I have. It’s about the size of refrigerator.

Good stuff. So what was it that first made you decide to become a musician?

Hmmm... I think it was art school. I didn’t enjoy art school very much because all of a sudden there were all these rules that you had to follow to become an artist. And music was something that I didn’t know the rules for, so I turned to that.

Were there any key artists that inspired you?

Not really. At the time I was mostly just fascinated with my dad’s recording equipment, which was very, very basic; just two tape recorders that I used for this weird, over-dubbing effect. And I was kind of obsessed with my voice breaking. I was really old when my voice broke; for years, my voice sounded like the guy who works in the burger restaurant in The Simpsons. And so when it finally broke it was such a relief.

Has the way you write music changed?

Yeah, but it hasn’t changed much. During those first ten years of the new millennium, I felt like music was very much rediscovering itself. It felt like every year there was a new instrument that everybody was crazy about. First it was the ukulele and then it was the thumb-piano. It felt almost like a pattern after a while, like “What’s gonna come next year? The pan-flute?”

So when I finished Night Falls Over Kortedala, I was thinking about that, and I realised I didn’t want to make a pan-flute record. And because I already had so many instruments and sounds on that last record, I thought about using less of them; just picking the few sombre colours that would fit this record.

You’ve been doing this for over a decade now, but we’ve heard you refer to I Know What Love Isn’t as your debut album. Why?

It’s just a matter of the format of an album, I think. I was always kind of against the idea of making an album because most albums are three good songs and then a lot of crap that the artist puts on to fill up space. And I wanted my records to be like greatest hits compilations, where you just took the best songs. So for the last record, I had my friends do this miniature Eurovision Song Contest where they picked the songs for me.

But with this record, I felt like there was one story as opposed to twelve stories and so, for the first time, I felt like I really had to find a way to connect them; to find a golden thread in the material.

What came first: music or lyrics?

This time, lyrics. In the past I used to start by making these collages of samples, but this time I decided not to, to turn everything upside down. So I started with lyrics, and then melody after lyrics, and then built the arrangements around the memories.

It’s clear from the lyrics that the album was written off the back of a break-up. Did you use this album as a form of therapy?

Well, when I started writing it, I was trying to write about anything but the break-up because I felt like it was really bad song material. I was trying to just write and see where it would take me, hoping it would take me away from break-up. But it just led me back to it in the end. It was like a circle I had to go through.

It’s kind of interesting that you say therapy. Journalists have asked me if this album has helped me, but I didn’t see it like that when I had finished the record. I mean, I think if there’s any conclusion on the record, it’s in the line, “You don’t get over a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully”. But when I started doing interviews, journalists would often bring a preview copy of the album and put it on the table between us, and I would look at this piece of plastic, that contained all those feelings, and it felt like a tombstone. I could just move on.

The fact your lyrics are autobiographical makes it easy for listeners to feel like they know you. Are you comfortable with that?

I have a very strong correspondence and communication with people who listen to my music, through my blog and my email. And the people who listen to my music are great: so polite and respectful and creative and sweet. But I think that through this correspondence, people understand better that they don’t know me. If you leave things quiet and mystical, people build their own mythology of you, and that’s when things get a little bit creepy, I think.

Going by songs like ‘A Postcard to Nina’, you’ve had some unusual experiences in your life. Why do you think you keep finding yourself in these strange situations?

Erm... ‘A Postcard to Nina’ is one of those experiences, for sure. And that’s something that I felt when I was in that situation: I was thinking, “Ok, this song is currently writing itself”. I’ve realised more lately that, apart from ‘A Postcard to Nina’, wacky situations don’t really make good songs. I mean, the thing that makes ‘A Postcard To Nina’ a good story is because it’s about friendship.

And I think the subject of the new album, of going through a break-up is something that most people go through. But yeah, maybe I portray the stories as weirder than they are or something. I did that in the past, at least.

Has anyone ever vetoed you using a story?

No, but I’ve had the opposite. I’ve had people getting very upset with me for not turning stories into songs. I have a lot of friends that are pissed off at me for not writing about them.

We hear you left a duet with Tracey Thorn off the record. Why didn’t it make the cut? And how did the collaboration come about in the first place?

I’ve been a huge fan of Tracy since I was 14: she’s like the one idol of mine that I’ve kept listening to. I met her in 2007, through Geoff Travis at Rough Trade, when I was making a tribute EP to Arthur Russell. We recorded a couple of covers, which she released, and an original song in my hotel room when I was passing through London.

The reason I didn’t release the other song was because its topic kind of lost its meaning to me. And also, I love the idea of keeping the song just for myself, because she’s singing to me on it, kind of in the same way she does on ‘Oh The Divorces’.

Is there anyone else you’d particularly like to collaborate with in the future?

No, I’m really bad at collaborating for some reason. I mean, I would love to but I can’t deal with the fact you end up with all these compromises.

So do you have a favourite track on I Know What Love Isn’t?

I’m rediscovering the tracks when we’re rehearsing them, so it changes from day-to-day. But I think at the moment my favourite track would probably be ‘Become Someone Else’s’. There’s something about the way it goes through this journey. It starts a bit cynical, dealing with the whether you really have to be in a relationship, or be in love all the time, but then it ends with me realising that it’s actually nice to hold someone.

What would you like audiences to take away from the record?

It’s not a record that I think you should listen to if you go through a break-up. I don’t really get why people listen to music when they’re going through break-ups. I think physical activity – doing push-ups or something – is so much more helpful. It releases all those chemicals in your brain which give you comfort and it exhausts you in a very nice way.

But I hope that people will find it hopeful, even though it’s quite sad, and that they relate to and find some comfort in it, maybe in a later part of the process. Personally, I find records and movies and art, more helpful when they’re not saying, “Everything will be ok”, but when they’re saying, “Everything is sh*t right now – and it’s probably going to get even worse – but we’re in it together.”

You’re about to tour the record, so what can we expect from the live show?

Well, I have a beautiful, very talented band backing me up. I was thinking about them today, and they’re definitely the best band I’ve ever had. They show up for every rehearsal and learn new songs that I haven’t even told them to learn. And my gig at Hackney Empire is my 500th show, so audiences can expect a party. I intend to celebrate that night....

What’s been the highlight in your career so far?

Are you familiar with the Japanese band, Maher Shalal Hash Baz? They’re one of my favourite bands and they came through Sweden once and did a cover of ‘Black Cab’. It was like they had poured acid over it and removed everything that you didn’t need in the song. And it was funny because I was standing there listening to it like, “Is this Bob Dylan?!”, before I realised it was me, it was my song. And that was the first time I ever heard my music from the other side, as a listener, y’know?

Finally, what’s been your favourite album of 2012 so far?

I love the new Taken By Trees album. I mean, I know her and we’re touring together this fall so I may be biased, but it’s just great when a friend makes a really good record. It’s so nice to be able to be honest and give them a big hug and say, “Well done, you really nailed it this time.”