Name: Jens Lekman
Progress Report: Lekman chats about his long-awaited new record, I Know What Love Isn’t.
It’s been five long years since Swedish charmer Jens Lekman put out a record, but this fall he finally returns with I Know What Love Isn’t, an aptly-titled breakup record in the classic tradition. On his excellent Smalltalk blog, Lekman has been remarkably frank about the heartache that inspired his new collection of songs. A couple of weeks after I spoke with him, he posted the following:
The last couple of weeks have been filled with interviews. One thing most journalists ask me is, since the album is a break up album, if making an album like this helps you be done with the heartache. To which I reply no, if there is any conclusion on this album it would be that a broken heart is something you carry with you, for better or for worse.
But when we sit there talking, and the preview copy of the album lies on the table inbetween us next to our cups of coffee, I find myself looking at it and thinking “That’s that … All that time and all those feelings are on that CD. And I’m done with it now”. And like a tombstone is for the living, and not for the dead, I can leave it there and move on. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Jens Lekman is the best. Also, his new record is great. Read it and weep.
STEREOGUM: I guess I didn’t realize how long it had been since you made the last record. Five years is kind of a long time. I mean obviously you were busy during that time with the business of living and doing other things, but were you constantly having that “I really need to be making a record” sort of feeling?
LEKMAN: I think after the last record I just toured myself to death. I think after every record I’ve made I’ve said “That’s it, I’m gonna quit music now and do something completely different” and then after the last record I realized that that’s just a natural reaction to the whole thing. So I took some time off. I didn’t feel so much pressure, it was mostly just confusing because I wasn’t sure where the album was heading. For a long time it just didn’t work, and it took a while before I realized that the album was actually turning into an album rather than what it’s been before, which is just a collection of recordings that have been thrown together. I think this time the dramaturgy — the flow of the album — was just not working. But then when I put out the EP last year it started to make sense. Once I got rid of those songs and placed them on one disc and I looked at what songs I had left, it started making sense.
STEREOGUM: That’s always so interesting to me. I know everybody has a different way of working, but the process by which an album reveals itself to you is such a fascinating thing to me. This sounds as if it was a very quintessential “heartbreak” record, but that wasn’t the way it evolved?
LEKMAN: Not when it started, because I didn’t want to make that record from the start and I felt like I was trying to get around that somehow and I was trying to write differently. I was trying to start writing without thinking where I was heading, sort of like how Joan Didion says about how she writes entirely to find out what she is thinking. I was heading that direction too. I just started drawing these images basically … and then of course all the imagery eventually just led me back to the breakup, so I had to accept my fate.
STEREOGUM: When you finally have that realization is that a good thing or is it like “Oh fuck, now I have to confront this?”
LEKMAN: A little bit of column A, a little bit of column B, I guess I would have loved to have just made a record that had nothing to do with love stories whatsoever. Something like that is also a challenge that I want to do at some point. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Smalltalk blog that I have, but I get a lot of emails about people’s stories — about their broken hearts, their relationships and stuff — to a point where I eventually made this thing called the Topic of The Month, every month. And I came to a point where a few years ago I decided to make the topic “No Love Stories” and just make that an exclusion. And it was interesting to see how people struggled with that, to try to write about something that had nothing to do with love stories.
STEREOGUM: The only thing I can compare it to is that I used to work at a university, teaching an Intro to Poetry class. I learned the hard way right away that I would try to make a list of things that people could not write about. Like you couldn’t write a poem and just title it “Love.” It was a test. I’d say, please don’t write poems about your children or about Jesus. Try not to write about these things because you’re not going to create the definitive spin on this topic in your introduction to poetry work. But it was amazing to me that even with those obstacles that people would find a way to make whatever they were writing be about those topics anyway.
LEKMAN: But it must have made the poems better, right?
STEREOGUM: It did. Sort of.
LEKMAN: Because I think that when you start with an idea, it will never be good, it will never be sexy, it will never be a good story. But when you start out on the other end, which is telling a story, it will be much better.
STEREOGUM: So, you have this very personal breakup experience, then you make an album of songs about that experience … doesn’t it make it extra weird when you have to go out and talk about these songs and then perform them over and over? Is it a way of just prolonging this feeling and prolonging this experience in some way?
LEKMAN: I think in a way. I was really worried when the album was close to finishing that I would have to go out and do interviews and perform this stuff. But I think when the album eventually finished, it was more essentially human rather than something that is very personal to me. It had turned into something people could maybe relate to — which was something that I was very worried about at one point. I feel much better about that now, actually.
STEREOGUM: I think that’s absolutely true. It’s more about the universal experience — it’s not like reading someone’s diary — which can have it’s own pleasures I guess but it isn’t what the record seems to be about or what it seems to be doing. Has your way of writing songs changed much over the years?
LEKMAN: I think that for this record for example I eventually had a lot of ideas of how to strip the songs down and work in a different way and challenge myself. It’s funny, in the few interviews I’ve done so far people have pointed out things that are on the album — like the sax solo and the flutes — all they’re seeing are the things that are there, and all I’m seeing is the things that are not there. Because I was really trying to work with a smaller palette, less colors. And I was really trying to work less with samples in the beginning. There are samples there, but not as many as there were before. So I would start in a different way, with just a melody or a drum beat or something. Whereas in the past I would work more with a sample from the beginning.
STEREOGUM: Did you work at one specific studio? Where was the bulk of the record actually made?
LEKMAN: Most of it was made at my friend’s place in Melbourne. My friend was away for a long vacation and I got to borrow their house in the suburbs of Melbourne — a beautiful house with a lot of possums jumping on the tin roof all the time. It was just kind of isolated so I had a lot of time out there to just be by myself and write and record.
STEREOGUM: How long was the process?
LEKMAN: It was really long, but I’ve always written and produced at the same time. I mean when I started writing I started producing. I think I started around early 2009 and finished a few weeks ago.
STEREOGUM: That’s a fair amount of time. Did you bring in people to play things or was it all you?
LEKMAN: No, there were a lot of other people — string instruments, flute, things that I can’t play. Drums.
STEREOGUM: Well now, having been away from the business of touring and press, does it feel good to be doing it again? What will happen next?
LEKMAN: I’m excited to go on tour and all. I’ve never been such a big fan of interviews, I don’t think anyone really is. I’ve been touring a little but through the last couple of years so it’s not like it feels like a completely new thing. I’m just excited to get into the continuous touring so I can actually have a band that follows me along for that whole tour. It’s the only time when I actually have some kind of routine in my life, which I actually like.
STEREOGUM: There’s something to be said for that. A lot of my friends are musicians and a lot of the time the down time is when they have the most problems. Do you have any idea what kind of band you’ll put together or who you’ll play with?
LEKMAN: Yeah, I already have the band put together. I don’t think it’s anyone you know, mostly because I have to put together a new band for every tour because people’s lives change, you know people have new careers and stuff. One of my old musicians is now a rocket scientist. She works at a space station and I can’t really compete with that. It’s such a different thing too — touring is like the opposite of rocket science. But there’s my bass player who’s been with me through the last three years I think, who also plays with the Ladybug Transistor. And then there are a couple of Swedish musicians who I’ve just found in the last couple of months. But it’s very emphasized on the piano this time — I found a very good pianist, which was important to me because I did a lot of work on the piano parts of the record.
STEREOGUM: Well it is a remarkably restrained-sounding record. I guess what you were saying about working from a limited palette. I always appreciate when there’s not a lot there that doesn’t need to be there. Technology makes it so much easier to pile things on or gussy things up when they don’t need to be.
LEKMAN: It’s fascinating what kind of sounds can come out when aren’t a lot of competing sounds. A kick drum can be very big when there’s not fourteen other kick drums on top of it.
STEREOGUM: I love the title of the record too — I Know What Love Isn’t. After you’ve had some time to spend listening to the record, that title really puts all the songs in an interesting light. I have the experience a lot of times of working with people that can tell you what they don’t want but can’t necessarily tell you what they want. I kept thinking about then when I was thinking about the title. I can’t tell you what it is but I can tell you what it’s not.
LEKMAN: It’s the method of exclusion, is that what it’s called?
STEREOGUM: Oh yeah, like a version of the scientific method. It’s interesting, you mentioned there were times when you wanted to be done with this and do something else with your life. Do you have a sense of what you might do if you didn’t make music?
LEKMAN: Um, no. It’s kind of worrying sometimes that I don’t have a backup plan but I really can’t think of anything else. I wouldn’t mind having a very normal and boring daytime job, which I’ve done on and off for the last couple of years when things have been very quiet with my music. Like, working as a cleaner. Just like a normal daytime job, you go to your job and then you come home, that’s something I like.
STEREOGUM: There is something to be said for that. I’ve had those kind of jobs in New York. I like the idea of going somewhere and doing something for a couple of hours and leaving it and not thinking about again.
LEKMAN: Kind of like a vacation for your brain.
STEREOGUM: Yes. Sometimes your brain needs a break … but it doesn’t sound like your brain will get a break anytime soon, at least not after you hit the road.
LEKMAN: I know. I need to enjoy not thinking too much right now while I still have the chance.
I Know What Love Isn’t will be out in September on Secretly Canadian.