Interviews: 2012 (below) / 2017
There’s something about Jens Lekman — the colourful humour, the sage-like wisdom and the eloquent take on vulnerability — that draws people into his world of whimsy. To his fans, the Swede’s biographical slivers — working in a bingo hall, accidentally ending up on a wine-tasting holiday for seniors — match the idiosyncratic narratives of his pop songs, where weaknesses become strengths and misfortune yields character.
Listeners may recognise some of Jonathan Richman’s razor-sharp wit, a touch of The Avalanches’ piecemeal sampling aesthetic and the expansive love songs of Harry Nilsson, but ultimately there’s a certain charm that is Lekman’s own. Its appeal is bolstered by the fact that the 31-year-old cultivates a personal connection with fans via his website, through which he announces last-minute intimate concerts and fields email correspondence (on a set topic) to lessen his own loneliness.
Though there have been numerous EPs since he began releasing limited-edition CD-Rs in 2003, there have only been three albums: 2004’s When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog, 2007’s Night Falls Over Kortedala and new release I Know What Love Isn’t. The first was essentially a compilation, the second a wry pop extravaganza (for which the track-listing was selected by friends), and the latter is the first record that Lekman considers a genuine album — and one he feared was too personal to release.
It’s a comparatively stripped-down and serious affair, narrowing the listener’s focus on the album’s backbone: the process of falling out of love, which, Lekman believes, never really leaves us.
When people contact you through your website, what kind of answers are they usually seeking?
I don’t think people are looking for answers, really. I think they’re just looking to put their everyday lives and secrets into a little treasure box somewhere, a little diary. I think there’s something about sharing your thoughts with a stranger. It’s a lot easier than sharing it with people you know, in a way.
Do you think there’s any reason they turn to you for that?
Maybe because they feel like they have something in common with me; I’m not really sure. But I do that sometimes too, you know. I meet a stranger somewhere on the other side of the world and I feel like I have a chance to release all my secrets and all my stories that I would never tell anyone else. So there’s something about strangers.
When they do ask for advice, is it hard to respond? Or do you end up saying the same things?
I usually try to be a bit vague when it comes to advice. It depends on what it is, I guess. If it’s about love, I don’t want to be too specific. I don’t want to be like a magazine columnist — that’s not my role. I think people just need to tell someone their story to get a perspective.
Do you think that’s because there are no right answers when it comes to love?
In a way, but I think that the answers need to come from yourself. If you don’t know the person, it shouldn’t really be about advice — unless it’s something very, very obvious. I think sometimes people are just looking for someone else to tell them, “You need to break up with this person.” I can do that.
I like this idea of carrying a broken heart gracefully, which you’ve based the new album on. Something that nobody seems to ever talk about is that when you love somebody or you when miss them, it can actually be the idea of them in your head that you’re in love with more than the reality, which can be dangerous. Do you know what I mean?
Oh yeah. Oh yeah, for sure. All too well.
You have this new song about how the end of the world is bigger than love, which is an interesting sentiment. Everybody we know has probably broken up with everybody they’ve ever been with before now. And yet when it happens to you, it feels so alienating, like there’s nothing more important.
Yeah. You realise all of a sudden that you’re actually alone. Ha. A very… horrible feeling. It can be quite a comfortable feeling once you’re… once you’re back on your feet.
But that can take so long, it can take years. Some things you never really get over.
Yeah, of course. I think that’s what the song is about: it seems like everybody’s looking for this idea of closure these days. I don’t really believe in closure. Once you’ve had your heart broken, you just have to keep on carrying it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to be bitter and sad all your life, but you won’t really get over it and forget about it. You just move on.
Do you think that’s the fear: that when you break up with someone, your instant reaction is to want a quick solution, a way of getting out of this feeling, and there isn’t one. No one wants to think they have a long road ahead of them, this painful recovery.
Yeah, for sure. And I think it’s in our popular culture. You see it in movies all the time: people talking about how they eventually got over someone. I think that’s a dangerous way to look at it.
Do you think it’s a myth?
I think there are ways to help you get over things. My friend calls it ‘ghost busting’. You go to a place that is haunted by a previous sad love affair and do a lot of good things there to give you good memories, which is good to do eventually. But what happened, happened. It stays with you.
That could be quite difficult, though… especially if you were revisiting somewhere you’d only been in a romantic context.
I think the problem is if you go to a specific place, like a holiday place, that is only connected to this person. That would be torture. I don’t think I’d be able to do that either. But if you go to a place that you have other friends in, somewhere you have a purpose for going, I think that helps.
You’ve done a lot of travelling and lived in different places. Some people like to just start over in a new place thinking all their problems will be left behind. Does it really work that way?
No, not at all. The first thing I realised when I came to Melbourne — because I left this place called Kortedala, which I named my last record after, and I couldn’t wait to get out of that place. I think as soon as I got to Melbourne I realised Kortedala is not a place you live in, but rather a place that lives in you. I think that it’s just important to do what you think you have to do and it’s a bit of a trial and error experience. It might not give you what you’re looking for but at least you know that now.
Often when someone’s ready to move on and start new relationships, subconsciously some impulse won’t let them get close to anybody else — a sort of self-preservation mechanism to avoid going through that pain again. What do you do to get around that?
I don’t know because I feel like I’m at that point right now… I don’t know, actually. [long silence]
Is it just a matter of time?
I’m pretty sure it will take time, but it’s just a process. I think it’s important just to have some fun and not treat it as a problem. I mean, it’s hard when it’s so deep that you can’t even explain it. You just feel it. It’s like magnetism, when the poles are reversed; you’re just being pushed away from people. You’re scared of it.
Do you think the idea of a soulmate is naive?
Yeah, that’s a very harmful thought, but I’m not sure if that many people think like that — at least if I can trust the survey that my Smalltalk email serves. I think that idea is dying out a bit. People have more choice these days.
Do you think charisma can be learned?
…Yes. I feel like [laughs] I’ve learned… because I was extremely shy and extremely awkward socially before. I feel like I’ve had to achieve some sort of charisma for stage personality myself.
So is there a remove between the everyday Jens and the one onstage?
Oh yes, of course. Especially in self-confidence. My self-esteem is not very high when I’m just walking down the street. But as soon as I go on stage, it changes a lot and I become this whole other person, which of course is a projection of who I am but it’s quite remarkable how. You know, I can see clips of myself on YouTube and not understand that it’s me. Like, ‘Who is this person?’ When I go into entertainer mode, it’s a very different person who I don’t feel like I know. On the other hand, I don’t watch my own YouTube clips very often. I would be watching them when I am the normal Jens, when I have low self-esteem. And I don’t want to watch YouTube clips of myself then.
You’ve mentioned the idea of quitting music a few times. What aspects of the process do you get fed up with?
I think it’s a very, very natural reaction to the whole thing of going on tour and doing interviews and meeting people. Your soul just gets so exhausted. At the time I was scared, because I thought it had exhausted my love for music, but it was just a normal reaction to the whole spectacle of releasing records.
You’ve mentioned doing “less” on this album and going for a warm, compassionate sound. Is that because the sentiment behind it requires that? Or because you don’t think previous albums were warm?
Oh no, I love all the previous records too. It was just the way I envisioned this record… and to be comfortable. In the last month of finishing this record, I was quite concerned that it was too private, too personal, that people wouldn’t be able to relate to it. Then as I put together the very last parts of it I got a feeling that this is actually quite human and people will be able to relate to it. So I do want it to be something that is comforting to people who are in that situation: someone who’s just come out of a break-up.
But what people love about your music is the specific detail, the whimsy and the humour. A song like ‘Postcard To Nina’ — practically no one could relate to that scenario, yet your storytelling puts the listener right in there. Sometimes songwriters seem to worry that people won’t be able to connect to the specificity of a song but often that’s its charm.
For sure. That’s something I still love about my songs or the way I write them. I think that’s why I chose to put those songs in a different folder this time and focus on something different from that. Some of those [type of] songs ended up on the EP and will be on future EPs that I will make.
But the intention to make it more general: is that because you want more people to access your music?
I just wanted to make something that was more consistent. At the end of the process, before I put out the [last] EP, I was talking to some people about it and they were like, “This ‘Waiting For Kirsten’ song is certainly catchy. Why don’t you put that on the album?” Because it’d be weird to have nine songs about heartache and then one song about the political climate of Gothenburg and my celebrity stalking. I just felt like the album was really telling me that it wanted to be one story instead of 10.
You said before that you’re not naturally funny, that humour is something you have to construct carefully in order to put it in songs or bring on-stage. Do people have a certain idea of what they expect Jens Lekman to be like?
Maybe. I do feel like the entertainer I talked about before has grown so much that I can almost be that person when I meet people after a show, for example. It’s not too hard for me to be entertaining or seem naturally funny when I talk. I could never do such a thing as stand-up comedy, for example. That would scare the hell out of me. I would not be funny.
Why? Between songs on stage, you make people laugh. It seems spontaneous.
Yeah, but the whole thing about that is I have a song to play right after the story… otherwise the stories would just fall flat. Sometimes I try completely new stories and they just don’t work. I just panic. But then I have the song to grab onto and I can play that song to save the day.
Inspiration can’t always be controlled, but where do you think those eureka moments come from?
I have no idea. I’m not sure if I want to know either [laughs]… because then maybe I’ll try to go to that source too much and exhaust it. Something people ask me a lot is whether, being Swedish, I’m more creative because of the lack of sunshine. I don’t really understand that. But I still think my best songs start out as jokes… or an idea with a purpose. I remember writing songs in the early years… I realised I had to learn how to play music live for these shows my friend wanted to book for me. I couldn’t play the songs I had; I needed to play something people would like to listen to, so I made more catchy songs and realised they were actually good. It still kinda works like that, either because I write a song just for a friend or for entertaining someone or something I want to keep for myself. Then I realise, ‘This is actually good. I want to share this with the world.’
What’s the most important thing another artist has ever said to you?
I remember Victoria Bergsman from Taken By Trees — actually, I’m not even sure it was her — she said all artists have three songs that they write over and over again. I really like that idea. You dress them up in new clothes and stuff but you usually write three songs in your first years and then you keep writing them. You can interpret it in so many ways but I feel like I’m often starting with this blueprint since I started making music. There really is just a handful of them.
But isn’t that quite a limiting idea? I would try to break the blueprint and prove it wrong.
Yeah, in a way, I guess. But it’s more of a very basic blueprint. It doesn’t mean the song will sound or feel the same at the end. It’s more the way you start with it. ‘This is my sad song, this is my happy song, and this is my angry song…’ or something like that. I’m not sure if it makes sense, but it felt very comforting when she or whoever it was told me that at the time. I love that idea.
Remember when you pretended to have a Skype chat with your 17-year-old self?
What do you know now that you didn’t then? What would you have told him if you really had the chance to speak?
I wouldn’t have told that person anything because I feel that whatever he needed to go through, he needed to go through. I worry about that sometimes. If I had a time machine and went back to tell myself a lot of stuff, would that make me this really terrible person in the end? I guess if there was anything, I wish that I would be a bit more proud of myself… have more self-esteem and believe in myself more.
What difference do you think that would have made?
I don’t know if it would have made that much difference; I just would have felt better.
You would have enjoyed things more?
Yeah, and I think I would have deserved to have felt better.
But your fans are quite affectionate. What would stop you from absorbing that?
Oh no, they did [make me feel better]. But we’re talking about when I was 17. But yeah, these days I feel I’ve gained a lot of self-esteem from the people who write to me and the people who come to me at the shows.