Interview: Jens Lekman

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 09.04.12 in Interviews

[In honor of his new album, I Know What Love Isn't, we asked Jens Lekman to take over eMusic. All this week, you'll be reading both Jens-assigned Reviews of the Day and interviews commissioned, at his request, with some of his favorite bands.]

Jens Lekman is not the man he used to be. After three albums of charming, sample-happy semi-pop, culminating in 2007′s brilliantly overstuffed Night Falls Over Kortedela, the Swedish singer-songwriter-producer decamped to Australia, where he proceeded to fall in love. On heartbroken 2010 mini-masterpiece Love and Its Opposite, former Marine Girls/Everything But the Girl singer Tracey Thorn addressed him directly, warning, “Oh Jens…love ends just as easy as it’s begun.”

Unbeknownst to Thorn, a harsh breakup was already teaching Lekman this lesson for himself. That’s the main theme of his richly expressive new album I Know What Love Isn’t, which turns Lekman’s keen storyteller’s eye and casual urbanity toward a more minimal instrumental arsenal, in a form of musical process of elimination. Chatting from his hometown of Gothenburg, after running around to pick up equipment for a backyard show with California electro-R&B singer Nite Jewel, Lekman remains as friendly, witty and observant as ever: a romantic still, hoping against hopelessness.

How long have you been back in Gothenburg, and what’s your view on what’s happening there musically these days? A few years ago there was you, the Knife, the Tough Alliance, Air France, the Embassy…

I’ve been back since New Year’s Eve 2010. It’s great. I just came back because I couldn’t really finish the record in Australia. Things just got really complicated with the visa issue. I left just to finish the record, basically. It’s nice here. I like being able to know that I don’t have to call my friends when I’m going out, I can just go to the local bar or café and they’ll be there.

I’m not sure about the music scene anymore. It doesn’t feel like there’s anything that exciting happening right now…I mean, I worry sometimes, is it just me getting older and nostalgic for what’s happened in the past? There’s a lot of young bands, but it feels like they’re playing in a tradition, rather than creating something of their own tradition.

They’re taking heroes instead of taking inspiration.

Exactly, yes! Which is not necessarily a bad thing. I think music scenes need to go up and down a little bit.

You mentioned getting older. Did you feel pressure being a few years older, and perhaps not being able to access the same “lens” that Tracey mentioned?

The transition was something that I didn’t notice myself, and it was something that created a bit of a problem. And that was interesting, too, with Tracey singing to me. It felt kind of weird at first, because I was going through those transitions at the time and she was singing to a past me, someone who I used to be. And I wasn’t really sure how to relate to that. I’m really glad I took five years to finish this album because otherwise — it just had to take five years, basically. I had to get a little bit older to be able to do the record.

Were there any follow-up records you looked to that other artists had done at similar points in their careers?

The two records that came to mind — they’re records that I’ve always loved — were, first, Behaviour by Pet Shop Boys, when they went from this very hit-based, fun pop music to a more serious thing. I’ve always loved how that record just feels like a real album. And also for some reason I was thinking about Simple Pleasure by Tindersticks. Just the way they went from this very lush, orchestral music to something that was more stripped down and more jazzy and soulful somehow.

How did you come up with the idea of changing to a more stripped-down instrumental palette?

I had a conversation with Joel [Karlsson] from Air France, some time ago. We had both worked with so many different sounds, and at some point we started thinking, “Are we supposed to make a pan flute album now? Is that the next thing?” Because in the first 10 years of the new millennium, all these old instruments started coming back. There was ukulele, and then there was the thumb piano, double drummer, and it just kept going like that. It felt like a pattern after a while. We looked at each other and we were just going, “No, we don’t want to make a pan flute album. We’ll find another way.” For me the most natural way to evolve was to subtract rather than to add, and just to work with what I had, basically. But less.

The whole world is in a phase of cutting back in the past few years. Is that something you had in mind, or was it just more personal?

It was just more personal, but I’m sure the whole world was feeling a hangover from the massive flood of different sounds and instruments that those first 10 years spat out. A reason why the music was so colorful and full of so many sounds back then was because all of the sudden everyone had access to the whole music history at the same time, and everyone just went bananas. The Avalanches’ record Since I Left You was what started it, basically.

I should talk to you about some of the songs a little bit, too. One that I really like is “The World Moves On.” In a weird way, it reminds me of Kortedala‘s “Your Arms Around Me,” with these funny little details, but instead of an avocado there are frozen peas — and then it goes off in a whole different direction.

Well, that’s a good example of the way I wrote the songs for the new record. That song started as an attempt to move away from the breakup story and to write in a new way. And I just felt, “Write down the first image that comes to mind.” And the first image was me, lying on the floor, hugging a bag of frozen peas. And I thought, “That’s a great image. Why am I hugging a bag of frozen peas?” That was because it was during the heatwave in February 2009 when it was like 50 degrees Celsius [122 degrees Fahrenheit]. And then that image led to me the Black Saturday bushfires, and my birthday happening at the same time, and all these images just started flooding in. And I was writing like Joan Didion said, just to write to find out what I’m thinking about, and eventually it started leading me back to the breakup. And that’s how basically every song on the record happened.

So let’s talk about the records you picked from the eMusic archives. You gave us four…

The Twerps, Twerps

I must have seen like a hundred shows with the Twerps. They just grew to be one of those bands that really was the soundtrack for the time I lived in Melbourne.

Peter Gordon & the Love of Life Orchestra, The Love of Life Orchestra

I just got that the other week from someone. He played with Arthur Russell. It has that disco feeling, but it’s still kind of abstract and jazzy in a way.

Ace of Base, Happy Nation

I remember being in fourth grade and someone had that record on tape, and we played it in class while we were working on some project. It was a girl who played it, and I remember all the guys went, “Ugh, why do we have to listen to this? Why can’t we put on some hip-hop or some heavy metal?” And I remember my best friend turning to me and going, “Actually, isn’t this the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard? Her voice, isn’t that the most beautiful voice ever?” And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, it is, but don’t tell anyone.”

Marine Girls, Lazy Ways/Beach Party

I love the Marine Girls. The one thing that was funniest with Tracey Thorn singing that song for me was that she sang to me as if, you know, me being a young foolish romantic. And I got that from her! I got that from listening to Marine Girls back when I was a teenager. So I just thought I’d pick that as a little link to my teenage years, I guess.

I love Tracey’s recent solo albums, especially the one that she mentions you on. The sound of it reminded me of your new album, too.

I feel like we almost made the same record. This didn’t hit me until I finished the record, but it feels like we did the same record but from different points in life. Even the title is very similar [Love and Its Opposite vs. I Know What Love Isn't]. I didn’t think of that either, but It’s kind of fascinating. I’m hoping that we get to continue this correspondence through songs. I don’t think she will reply to me on her next album.

But they’re both really depressing albums, Jens. How are you doing? Are you doing OK?

Yeah, I’m doing great.

OK, good. I listen to these and I just go — is it “The World Moves On,” where she’s saying you’re a friend, and you’re like, how could you say you’re a friend, “…but I never said any of that”? And it’s just, like, ugh. Every time, it’s just crushing. I’ve got a little baby now, so I’ll be playing it, and I’ll be like, “Should I really expose my child to this kind of melancholy? Is this going to be a bad influence on him?”

Not yet, not yet. When the kid gets older, maybe.