By Philip Runco.
Jens Lekman used to make music in a beautiful studio. It was spacious. It was conveniently located in the center of Gothenburg. It boasted a panoramic view of a stadium built for Sweden’s World Cup in 1958.
Now, he makes music in a bunker. It has just one tiny, tiny, little window, and that tiny, tiny, little window overlooks an industrial area of the Swedish city. But that’s OK.
“I’ve always enjoyed bunkers,” he tells me on afternoon in late January. “The old studio just became very, very expensive when the other band moved out, so now I do my work in a bunker. It’s good. I’m enjoying it.”
Fittingly, the singer-songwriter’s latest record Life Will See You Now is often about people remaining upbeat when they’ve been dealt a bad hand – or, perhaps, just one they hadn’t anticipated. On the zigzagging “Wedding in Finistere”, Lekman calms a fretting bride-to-be, advising her that there’s no right or wrong choice when it comes to marriage. At the end of “To Know Your Mission”, he makes sense of his aimlessness in life with the realization that he’s been put on Earth to hear and tell others’ stories. A song later, he’s describing a friend deciding to put an agonizing fight with cancer in his rear view mirror.
These three songs and the seven more on Life Will See You Now followed a prolonged but frustrating period of writing for Lekman. In 2014, he felt he had finished a record, but the 36-year-old ended up scrapping almost all of it when some friends and his record label balked at the tunes. So, he spent 2015 recording and releasing a song every week as part of his Postcards project. Soon, he had also taken on another project called Ghostwriting with the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, where he only told strangers’ stories.
By the end of 2015, he had a collection of songs worth recording in London and Berlin with producer Ewan Pearson. The record they made is Lekman’s most adventurous and complete to date. It ends with a song called “Dandelion Seed”, where he grapples with his – or his former self’s – pessimistic approach to life.
“I couldn’t really see how I built a bomb shelter under every dream,” he admits.
Not that there’s anything wrong with bomb shelters, either.
With all of the songwriting you did in 2014 and 2015, how did you choose what belonged on this collection?
Well, after a long process of trying to figure out what I was doing, a friend alerted me to a couple of underlying themes in the songs that I felt were interesting and fascinating and tied the songs together in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I think those themes were about doubts and fears and existentialism and aging, and a lot of things that were connected to them. Once I had those themes in mind, I could see what songs fit on the record and which didn’t.
Apart from that, there were ten songs that sounded that really good. The eleventh and twelfth songs that were contenders for the album were not even half as good as those ten songs. [Laughs] It was kind of an easy choice in that sense. I had written a lot of songs, but I think these ten songs were clearly the best.
That said, there were a few good songs that didn’t make it on the record. One of them I’m giving away to this project called Our First 100 Days. It’s a sort of ant-Trump project that my label started.
What can you say about that song?
It’s as far away from a protest song or a political song as one can be. It’s literally a love song. It’s called “Your Laugh Says I Love You”.
I had reservations about that, and I talked to the label about it. I said, “Can I actually donate a love song to an anti-Trump project?” But they thought it was perfect. And as I thought about it, I realized that there’s something quite beautiful in making a song that doesn’t comment its context at all – it’s just a love song. I like that that. I like that it’s not commenting, because in many ways, I don’t think I would be able to write a song right now that would be able to comment on the whole situation we’re in. It would just feel feeble
So, I just thought it was much stronger to give them a love song instead.
You’ve discussed how these songs are about a particular group of people. There’s an implied distance when you say “these people,” which is interesting because a number of these songs are about you – or, at least, a past version of you.
They’re definitely about other people. In the very beginning of the record, I was trying to shift the focus away from myself as much as possible. And there were reasons for that, which I haven’t really fully understood yet. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I didn’t like myself a lot at the time. But I was also kind of fascinated with the idea of stepping into other people’s shoes. That’s something that eventually became Ghostwriting, the project I did two years ago.
But, of course, I view myself in the past in third person all the time. I think of myself as a copy of a copy of a copy, and I’m trying to become a better copy each time. That also feels like a topic on the record: trying to better yourself through the choices that we’re making.
I guess it’s inevitable when you’re a public person that you start to view yourself differently. I still remember when the last record came out, I was walking around town on the release day, and I was trying to focus on something else. I didn’t want to be distracted by the fact that I had a record coming out. At one point, I stepped on this page from a newspaper, and it was stuck to my shoe, and I walked around with it for a bit. Eventually, it became annoying, and I took it off, and then I realized it was a picture of my face in the newspaper. I had been walking around stepping on my face for ten minutes, which of course adds to the sensation of not being that person.
On “Wedding in Finistere”, you sing about playing someone’s wedding. What’s it like taking your songs, which are often so personal, and playing them in that kind of setting?
Oh, it’s great. That’s one of the main reason why I do weddings. I mean, I only do weddings if at least one of the people getting married have some sort of relationship with my music. It is so extremely valuable to me to actually see in that context what my music has meant to someone’s life and to someone’s relationship so directly.
I’ve said that I do weddings for the money, because that’s how I get by as a musician – which is true, that’s how I keep afloat – but it’s also something that’s so dear to me. To actually be able to stand there by the altar or on a hill or in a field or a church or a barn and sing this song and look at the person who this song actually means something to – it just reminds me why I do music.
There’s a real contrast of sounds on the record. You’ll often have refined piano and orchestration rubbing against synthetic percussion and almost chintzy dance elements. Where was that coming from?
I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and I wish I had a really interesting answer. One thing that I remember is that, in the back of my mind, I was constantly looking back to songs that I liked as a kid. I would have these children’s songs stuck in my head. It was just about that joy of music that I heard in my head as a kid – everything from twee funk, like Jackson 5 and all of that stuff, where it’s funky, and it’s filled with percussion and rhythms, but it’s also the simplest and most joyful and direct melodies. That’s the combination I was looking for.
It made me think a lot about the music from my childhood. There were a lot of really great musicians in Sweden in the ’70s and ’80s that were making very creative and interesting music for adults, and then they would be hired to make a children’s record. And they would make these very direct and simple melodies put to strange time signatures – signatures that wouldn’t sound strange at all when you were a kid. As a kid, you were like, “OK, so it goes like that? I can like that.” That was something that I was going for: I wanted to work with rhythms and time signatures but I wanted it to be effortless. I wanted to turn you into a child in that sense. I wanted you to listen to this record and you wouldn’t think, “Oh, this is weird. This 5/4 time. This is 13/7 time.” Instead, you’d just be thinking, “What a great melody.” Or, “What happened there? I don’t know, but I liked it.” It would seamless. It would be effortless.
I can tell you a bunch of records that directly inspired me. I listened a lot to that Ralph MacDonald record that I sampled on “What’s That Perfume?” I listened to the Charles Mingus record Mingus Plays Piano, where I got some chords for “Postcard #17”. Blood Orange also sampled that on “By Ourselves”, which kind of blew my mind for a while. I really loved the record by S.E. Rogie, this musician from Liberia or something who pioneered a type of music called palm-wine guitar music in the ’60s. A lot of the guitar figures on the record came from trying to play like he did.
I feel like I’ve talked for too long.