Published July 27, 2007
The soft-spoken musings of Swedish Jens Lekman are carving him a spot in music history as one of Europe’s best-loved troubadours. Bashful, sweet, and disarmingly earnest, Lekman sings about life and love in their purest forms. Grapevine caught up with 26-year-old Jens over the phone, and a nice cup of tea, from his home in Gothenburg, Sweden, to talk about life on the eve of his third record.
You’re playing the Nordic Horn Festival in late August, how do you feel about being back?
I’m really looking forward to it. I had a little too short a visit the last time. The flights were a bit poorly booked; I spent over twenty hours at Copenhagen’s airport, and very little time in Reykjavík.
That was for Iceland Airwaves; you were filling in for Jenny Wilson at the National Theater Basement. It was one of the best shows I saw that weekend, there was such a great atmosphere. But you said later that you had been surprised at the reception because you thought that no one knew you here.
Do you think you often underestimate your success?
I do, yes of course, especially in countries where I haven’t been before. I went to Brazil later on that year, I thought no one knew me there, and I played for a thousand people. Yeah, I’m always surprised. Sometimes I show up and I play for two people and a dog. That happens sometimes too.
Can you think of a couple of recent songs that you most enjoyed writing?
Well, there are the songs that I write to make myself do something, like Julie for example. I wrote that song because I didn’t know Julie and I hadn’t done any of that stuff that I sang about in the song. I wrote it so as to push myself to actually walk up to her and say Hi and say do you want to go down to the harbour and eat some fries, and to actually get to know her. I do that with a lot of songs, I write the story before it happens and then I have to act it out because otherwise I would be too embarrassed to play it.
How much of your writing is non-fictional?
I think everything, or 99%, is non-fictional. It’s like with my own storytelling. In real life, I make up a lot of lies, I make up a lot of stories but they’re always about insignificant shit, like stuff I’ve seen on the tram or stuff that doesn’t really matter at all. I would never make up anything that mattered I think.
In your songs?
Or in real life.
Because it seems like my own imagination doesn’t really match what goes on in real life. Life imitates art in a much better way than art imitates life.
Which is why you write the songs before they happen?
In many of your songs I see a sort of wistful or nostalgic longing for the past, especially, perhaps, for youth. Do you think that fits?
Sure. Especially on the last single that I put out this summer on the B-side. I was listening to the singles that just arrived from the factory and both those songs are extremely nostalgic for a time in my life, and for some sort of innocence I guess.
Do you enjoy talking about your music?
At this very moment, surprisingly, yes.
You seem to like working with fresh methods or these sort of untainted resources like people who aren’t classically trained in music or unusual instruments and sounds. You’ve often sung in languages that you don’t actually speak, like Icelandic for example.
I think it gives your music a sort of fresh or genui
The thing was, I gave up on music about two years ago. I grew tired in one way; I needed some kind of new inspiration. And what drew me back was definitely hearing Majer Shalal Hash Baz, this Japanese band. They consist of this guy called Tori Kudo. He’s an excellent composer but he works only with people who can’t really play. They came to Gothenburg and I played with them and they played a cover of Black Cab, and for the first time in my life I heard my music from outside. They played this song, and you could tell that it was Black Cab but it sounded so innocent and beautiful. For a very long time I hated myself and I hated my band because I thought that we played too good. I kept yelling at my musicians saying, ‘You have to learn how to play worse!’” After a while I realised that you can’t do that; you can’t teach a dog not to sit. So that’s why I approached languages instead I think.
Do you see yourself as seeking something intrinsically Swedish, or do you view your music as transcending any specific place?
I’m not sure actually what I’m doing. For the latest record I wanted my music to meet the world and I wanted to meet new people, but instead I just stayed home and wrote everything within the thirty square feet of my apartment.
Did you sample a lot on this record like you’ve done on some of your earlier songs?
Don’t you think that by incorporating these songs from other countries and from artists with different cultural backgrounds, you’re in a way travelling beyond the thirty-some square feet of your apartment?
Yeah. I would like to see myself as an explorer or something like that.
How has your life changed since you gained some notoriety and consequently how has the process of writing been affected?
I don’t think my process of writing has changed very much. I found some way of writing just a few years before I started releasing records that I’ve been very happy with, including writing the songs before they happen. Lyrically, I think I’ve been more aware of the comedy in the songs. In the past my songs were sometimes interpreted as ironic or sarcastic, which they were absolutely not, and now I just want to avoid that so I’ve tried to capture the humour in the songs but made it warmer and more poetic in a way. I don’t avoid the fact that I’m a musician, a recording artist in any way. I just came to a point when I thought that it would be dishonest to not include any mentioning of that in my writing. It’s like I can’t pretend that I’m just…
The same old Jens?
(Laughs) Yeah, exactly.