Jens Lekman on Finding Perspective and Audiences Laughing at the Wrong Lines
"You don't get over a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully," is one lesson Swedish indie-pop crooner Jens Lekman took away from a bad break-up. Though the lyric might look a bit clumsy onscreen, it makes perfect sense when Lekman sings it on "The World Moves On," the centerpiece of his new album, I Know What Love Isn't. His first full-length LP in five years, the record includes fewer of the busy arrangements of his 2007 album Night Falls Over Kortedala, while still featuring pop songs grand enough to invite sing-alongs and saxophone-solo imitations.
Lekman performs at the 9:30 Club tonight with his four-piece band, which will help to flesh out the songs he toured with as a duo last year (Lekman plus drummer Addison Rogers). I Know What Love Isn't suggests accepting the unknown, perhaps even finding comfort in it. The album’s key message may not sound cheery, but it’s meant to be encouraging. The way Lekman confronts love’s difficulties on the album makes it his most mature release to date, a development fans have seen in the works since his first singles in the early 2000s. I spoke with him before the start of his U.S. tour, discussing Smalltalk (the online diary/blog section of his website), his misunderstood songs, and the misunderstood songs of his countrymen.
Washington City Paper: How did the tour in Europe go?
Jens Lekman: It went really well. Yeah, it was really fun. Um… Yes. [Laughs] I’m trying to think of something interesting to say about it, but I just basically played the last show, and then got on an airplane, and then I woke up today. So, I haven’t actually processed it yet.
WCP: Are you just hanging out in the U.S. for a bit before the shows start?
JL: Yeah, I usually go to Bloomington, [Ind.,] where my record label is, just to hang out for a few days and relax. It’s a nice little town to just recover for awhile.
WCP: Do you ever go back and read Smalltalk at all?
JL: Yeah, sometimes.
WCP: I’ve noticed that a few lyrics first appeared on Smalltalk, years ago, including lines for “Erica America” and “Become Someone Else’s.” Did you go back and pick those lines up?
JL: Yeah. I mean, sometimes. Yeah, because I write in a different way when I write on Smalltalk. And also, I think, when I communicate with people through the Smalltalk e-mail, there seems to be more of a flow and more of something spontaneous when I write. So, I often go back and check what I've written and then I see a line somewhere and go, "Oh! That could work in a song."
WCP: Despite the small number of official albums, you have a huge catalogue, as documented with the Department of Forgotten Songs website and other demos and live performances. Are you constantly writing, or was that a habit of a younger time?
JL: Yeah. I try to write all the time. I think the whole Smalltalk thing as something like a writing exercise in a way. I think it's sort of like the way writers, authors often have, like, a teaching job or something. Where they just get to write in a different way, but they don't write on their masterpiece, or something like that; which is a very nice way of finding a more relaxed way of writing. But when it comes to songs, yeah, I think for this record, I wrote about 30, 40 songs. And it was a very long process, trying to find the golden thread running through those songs.
WCP: Would you, or have you ever returned to the songs that you first released with the Department of Forgotten Songs?
JL: Would I ever return to them?
WCP: Yeah, like to re-work, or anything like that.
JL: I feel a little bit like most of the songs from those days are kind of impossible for me to relate to in a way. There were a few songs from there that, I think, made it on records later, but most of those songs are songs that I just can't really relate to any more. I still like them in a way, but, like, there's songs from that time that I never really—I couldn't really perform them live or anything like that. I still do "Do Impossible Things" when I perform in Istanbul.
WCP: One of the wonderful aspects about having so many of your demos and earlier works available is the opportunity to hear you change things and grow the songs. "Become Someone Else's" used to be "A Hand Full of Feathers"—how do you so dramatically rewrite a song, lyrically at least?
JL: I have to do that with all songs, usually, because I usually come to a point where I look at the song that I've written and go, "Now, what am I exactly saying here?" or "What is the song about?" ["Become Someone Else's"] went through a lot of phases, until I just looked at it and realized what it was about and then it was fast, just rewriting it.
WCP: You've talked with someone interviewers this album cycle about the intentional hopefulness of the new record, I Know What Love Isn't. Of course, anyone can interpret it in any way. You made a comment a long time ago about how people laugh when you sing something sad and cry when you sing something funny. Do you think that continues to be the case?
JL: I feel like I've become a little bit better at knowing when people are gonna laugh, and sort of playing with that, in a way. I like, for example, how "Every Little Hair Knows Your Name" has this line in one of the verses about "I started working out when we broke up/ I can do one hundred push-ups," which always gets the crowd giggling a little bit. And anticipating it to maybe reach some sort of punch line, or something funny, and I love the feeling of actually playing with that and not reaching a punch line; which, I think, creates another kind of feeling.
WCP: At the shows I saw you play last year, when you did “Waiting For Kirsten” and you sang the line about “health care, apartments, and jobs,” I heard a lot of people laughing, and that surprised me. What do you think about that particular reaction?
JL: I still feel like people are sometimes not getting it and sometimes laughing at the wrong parts. I did a show a few days ago where the crowd was basically laughing at every line I was singing. [Laughs] And I felt horrible after that show. But it's the contract that you sign when you agree to play live, that you're gonna hand out the songs to the world and sometimes the world will not understand it.
WCP: I was listening to a recording of your set in Stockholm at Chinateatern from eight years ago and the crowd was going wild with laughter during "Psychogirl," and I was so confused because that song is so devastating to me. And everyone was laughing so hard.
JL: That's the reason why I stopped playing that song.
JL: Yeah, 'cuz, I didn't feel like—I can like the idea of having them choke on their laughter, I like that, sometimes. But that song became a joke in a lot of people's eyes and I decided I couldn't play it anymore because of that.
WCP: In the new song, "I Know What Love Isn't," you talk about having a relationship that doesn't conform to "all the rules and ideas we've filled our heads with," "a relationship that doesn't lie about its intentions," and that's pretty powerful. It suggests an end to traditional and popular ideas surrounding romance and maybe more accurately aims for what true love really is, or could be; feeling unchained by expectations of your friends, family, government, or church. Is that what you were going for in that song?
JL: I think so. It's particularly interesting, in that story because I was looking to maybe marrying someone to get a visa and in the process of that, I realized, first of all that, I really love this person. Not in a romantic way, but it was someone that I could potentially stay with, someone that I could actually live my life with, in a way. And second of all, I realized how narrow our idea of a relationship is, because when you fill in those papers for a visa, a relationship is so barely described: It's between a man and a woman; you live in the same house; you sleep in the same bed; you know the color of the other person's toothbrush. So, yes, I think that's what I was going for.
WCP: In the last part of "I Know What Love Isn't," the song talks about going to concerts, I think told from the perspective of your friend, maybe? And is that just imagery you wanted to explore, or do you feel that way about shows?
JL: Yeah, I used to—I think that line is the kind of cynicism that you feel at a certain point after a break-up or something like that. You know, when you hate couples, basically. It's not necessarily something that I would stand behind today and I feel a little bit awkward [laughs] when I sing that live and I see all these couples spooning at the song. But I think it's funny at the same time because when you've come out of a relationship and you're kind of cynical, that's the worst thing, going to a show and seeing all these spooning couples. It's sort of leading things into that, as well. I remember going to shows and just feeling like that, like, people who are not spooning just because of the pleasure of it, but almost like, "Please don't go away, please don't leave me, please don't go away." I sort of feel like, if they would let go, they would be like a balloon reaching for the sky, just taking off.
WCP: The I Killed A Party Again EP—were you 15 when you made that?
JL: No, I think I was 22, maybe? Or something. I can’t remember.
WCP: I remember you wrote something about it related to when you were 15 because of what you documented with your recorder, is that accurate?
JL: Yeah, the recordings of people talking were made when I was 15, that's true. And the songs were probably written when I was 17, 18, or something like that. And then compiled when I was 22, or something.
WCP: How did you first start making music? Did you have these ideas for this collage style, or you just picked up a guitar and started there?
JL: I started with a guitar and some simple, very, very primitive multitracking, where I had two tape recorders or speakers, and I would record something on one tape recorder and then just play it very loud while I was playing along to it, and recording on the other one. And those recordings didn't sound very good. It's how I discovered the idea of multitracking, at least, which then led me to wanting to produce and work with production techniques.
WCP: When did you first start writing songs? How old were you?
JL: I think I was 15.
WCP: Was the Kullaberg film ever released?
JL: I think I sold a few copies when I was on an Australian tour, off an early rough draft of that DVD, but I felt like I was going through—it was the first time where I felt I was getting stuck in some sort of genre, in a way. I didn't feel like that DVD added another dimension of me. It was sort of defining me as this guy with a ukulele. And at the same time, I wanted to work more with samples and bigger arrangements, so I decided—I didn't feel like that DVD was particularly good and I just decided it was not gonna come out. But there are, still, I think a few copies of it circulating in Australia.
WCP: What's "Hotwire the Ferriswheel"? Did that ever come to anything?
JL: "Hotwire the Ferriswheel"? No, I don’t remember that at all. [Laughs] I think I've reached a point where there are songs that I don't actually remember myself.
WCP: You once wrote that "no one outside of Sweden will ever understand, and I feel really sad for you people" about The Tough Alliance's "Silly Crimes." Why is it that no one outside of Sweden will ever understand?
JL: But they did. I mean, it took, like, another year or something. But then people picked up on it. I think it felt, for a short while, it really felt like I was traveling around the world and being very fascinated by the music that I encountered, but also felt like Sweden and the music from back home was ahead of its time. Where I felt like I saw the same old rock bands playing everywhere in the world, while something interesting was actually happening back home. And I felt that about The Tough Alliance. When I played it for my American friends, for example, no one seemed to understand what it was about. They thought it was a joke, basically.
WCP: So, you just didn't think the world was ready to catch on, yet?
JL: Oh, yeah. And then everyone did, a year later. At that time, Sweden was really ahead. I think a lot of interesting stuff happened then. Now nothing interesting is happening in Sweden anymore. [Laughs]
Jens Lekman performs with Taken By Trees Oct. 12 at 6 p.m. at 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. $30.