Jens Lekman is a Swedish songwriter known for his smooth croon and witty lyrics, which are heavily influenced by Jonathan Richman, Stephin Merritt, Morrissey, and Arthur Russell. Lekman first arrived with 2004's When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog, a debut so charming it was amongst the decade's best albums. Amidst a run of EPs and singles (including a split with his friend El Perro del Mar), Lekman returned with 2007 standout Night Falls Over Kortedala. After moving from his hometown of Gothenburg to Melbourne in 2008, the once-prolific Lekman laid uncharacteristically low until 2011's An Argument with Myself EP, a song set against the streets of his adopted home. He finally followed it with his third full-length, I Know What Love Isn't, in 2012.
Interview: 21 August 2012
So, I hear you just lost your voice?
"[Huskily] Yeah, I can only speak about this loud, no more. It usually happens around release dates. My laptop crashed today, too; it's a very common thing around the release of records. My laptop crashed and I lost my voice. These things wait for the worst possible times."
Does that mirror how you feel when an album is coming out? Like the end-of-the-world is brewing?
"I think it's just that there's a lot of work, so you end up not sleeping too much. It's not much more mysterious than that. I don't feel bad about the album coming out, I feel good. Because [Secretly Canadian] released the album like a month early, like they gave everyone who preordered the album a chance to download it. So in a way it already feels like it's out. But not really."
You'll obviously get asked this question a lot, but: why so long? Why five years between albums?
"It took a long time because previous albums have been me throwing a bunch of songs together, basically. This one seemed to require some sort of dramaturgy, some sort of flow to it. It was not until I put out the EP last year, An Argument with Myself, that things started to fall into place. Once I got rid of those songs, I started getting more of an idea where it was going. Then I wrote the last two songs in February this year. It couldn't have taken less time than it did. I had to take some time away from it, I needed that sense of perspective about it."
Did you think it was going to take a long time?
"I definitely expected it to go faster. Because the thing was, back when I started recording it in Melbourne, in 2009, I was writing songs like crazy; I wrote like 40 or 50 songs for this album. The problem was not the songwriting. The problem was that, for so long, I couldn't get the songs to line up. When I recorded those last two songs, 'I Know What Love Isn't' and 'The World Moves On', they really seemed to sum up the album, somehow, both of them. To me, they are the key songs."
Is I Know What Love Isn't the first album you've made that has a central theme?
"It's the first album where I was aware of it, the first album where I felt it was important to me. If I listen back to my previous albums, I can see golden threads running through them that I couldn't see at the time. Night Falls Over Kortedala was a record about friendship. And my first record was a very typical mélange of all those things that occupy a blue-eyed 23-year-old's thoughts and worries."
Do you associate the album with your time spent living in Australia?
"I do. Locations are always just scenery to me. My songs don't deal with locations that specifically, even if there are very specific references to them in there. They're sort of just where stories happen, not the stories themselves. My old songs used to take place in Gothenberg, mostly, then when I lived in Melbourne the songs just naturally took place more in Melbourne. But I don't think of them as being about Melbourne."
What was your Melbourne experience like? Was it a dream come true? The dream that turned sour?
"I'd say so. It was something that I dreamed of for a very long time. I really loved living there, I really did. I feel sad now that you bring it up. This is my first Australian interview in a long time; I've been referencing Australia as this place in the background, somehow, but now that I'm actually talking about it with someone in Melbourne, I suddenly feel really sad."
What about when you perform the songs? Aren't those reminders enough?
"I supposed it takes me back, a bit. I think that when I perform songs, they're not about me and my memories, they take on this essentially human feeling. It's like the stories aren't really mine anymore. I'm thinking of the way that the people in the crowd react to them way more than I'm thinking about my feelings towards them. Once I release a song to the world, the song becomes not just about me or the people that I write about, it's more a story that you share; this thing that people can communicate with."
Is that how it feels releasing an album? Like you're handing over this thing that was once yours, and it is now other people's?
"That's exactly how it feels. So, in this moment right before the record comes out, it's a bit scary, to be honest. Because it's so much about letting go. But that's the way it's been with every album, I think."
What was it like to get swine flu?
"Did you have it?"
No, I never had it. I never knew anyone else who had it. All I knew was the fleeting global hysteria. So, I wondering, because of that, how did the world treat you? Were you made to feel like a social pariah? Were you scared?
"When I got it, it wasn't such a big deal to me. I called my friends in Melbourne, and they'd all had it. They were like 'we all had it weeks ago.' So I was just 'oh, okay, I'm the last one to get it.' So, I just made a little blog entry about it, and all of a sudden everyone picked up on it. I remember riding buses in Gothenburg and people moving away from me. I was annoyed that the first time I ever got any real exposure in the mass media, it was about getting swine flu."
How did you feel moving back to Gothenburg, coming back home again?
"It was fine. I just moved there to finish the album, basically. I found myself unable to work in Melbourne for a while; when you don't have a visa it can get really hard to find a space to work in, to rent a place. So I felt like I had to go back. I'm only renting an 8 qm room in Gothenburg. I'm only living out of my suitcase. I have a pretty big suitcase; it's the size of a refrigerator. But, I feel like it's a very good limit to how much stuff you should. I feel like what doesn't fit in my suitcase is something that I should not have. I felt so relieved when I got rid of all the junk I was storing when I lived here before. I've really loved living out of my suitcase, actually. Which is perfect for touring. Because of it, I'm looking forward to touring for the first time ever. I feel like it's going to be really good. The band I put together is such a good band. It's a bunch of really young people, between the ages of 21 and 23, and they're really hungry to play. Every time they show up they've learnt five new songs that I haven't told them to learn."
What's the strangest circumstance you've ever played a show in?
"I'd probably say Sitka, Alaska. I was invited by a man who wrote crime novels, to come to this small town in Alaska, this very, very beautiful place with mountains and bears and bald eagles, all that stuff. And, I went and played in this auditorium in front of, I don't know, 100 people maybe. And afterwards, people came up to me and they all said 'thank you for music'. Not like thank you for you specifically, you Jens Lekman, musician; just thank you for playing music. That was the first time I'd ever been the ambassador for a whole form of expression. I don't think they were not into culture, I just think that modern music, pop music, was not something that ever took place in this town."
How big a role in your life does playing music take on? Is that the centre of your life? Is it how you define yourself, as human?
"I don't have a driver's license. I don't have an education. If I stopped making music, I couldn't get a job, basically. So, for very practical reasons, it's something that I'm really stuck to. But I've never really been able to complain about it. I've always had a good time."
Are you thinking of your future in music? Do you have immediate plans?
"The one thing that I have in mind, that I came up with recently, is: I have a lot of communication with the people who listen to my music, through my blog, through the smalltalk emails that I do a lot of correspondence to. I've replied to over 25,000 emails, and obviously received even more, and, there's so many good stories in there. I'd really love to make a record of someone else's story. Because I'm kind of sick of my own stories by now. I have a few people who are writing daily to me. A few people who could probably fill several albums with stories. They just don't really have the ability to turn them into music."
How do you feel being that kind of figure to people?
"I love it. I think something that I'm really good at, something that I love doing, is just listening. In a world of mouths, I want to be an ear. In fact, that's probably what the album should be called."