Q&A: Lykke Li On Finding Inspiration In Heartbreak
The first time I interviewed Lykke Li was in 2008. I flew to Stockholm to spend a week following her around for a feature story that was to be published just as her debut album, Youth Novels, was seeing release here in the States. What struck me most about Lykke at the time was her absolute seriousness in regards to her music, coupled with her ambivalence about being considered a pop star (which is essentially what everyone wanted her to be). In the years since, even though much has changed in her life — her sophomore album, 2011’s Wounded Rhymes, made her something of a bonafide indie-pop celebrity — her attitude toward making music remains seemingly unchanged. As far as her career goes, Lykke still leads with her heart, which meant eschewing almost all traditionally “pop” notions when it came to the making her forthcoming third album. A breakup album in the classic “rip out your heart and throw it on the ground” vein, I Never Learn is both epic and incredibly intimate. It also speaks closely to the relative terrors of being in your late twenties and what it means (or doesn’t mean) to be emotionally adult. I had to the chance to sit down with Lykke a few weeks ago and discuss the making of the record and how she feels about entering this new phase of her career.
STEREOGUM: I heard about half of the new songs a few days ago, but is the record now totally done?
LYKKE LI: It is. I’m still tweaking but I know this is the record and this is how it sounds and what’s it about. It’s pretty dark, I guess.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, it’s really heavy. Beautiful, but heavy.
LYKKE LI: I had all this drama because I was touring a lot for my last record. I was in a relationship, I suppose, and that ended while I was on my final leg of the tour. I had already felt caught up in touring for a long time. I was thinking, I really don’t know how much more I can take of this. I do it so fully. It was hard getting anything back. I mean, I get something back from the audience, yes, but the lifestyle is so hard. So I had to go through that whole breakup on my tour bus in a little bunk and then I had to be on stage every night. It was really the hardest thing ever. So I didn’t have anywhere to live and the tour was going to end. It ended in New Orleans. After that I was like, “Cool. I have no more touring. I don’t have a relationship. I don’t have a home. Whoa.” So I thought, I guess I’ll just go to LA. So I came to LA and I was there for two weeks and it was storming and all the electricity was out and I was on a couch at my friend’s, just really at the bottom. I started to think that maybe I’m just too sensitive for this lifestyle. I can’t be a solo artist. It’s just too hard for me. The older I become the less interested I am in blowing up. I’m not at all interested in the spotlight or becoming big. For me I just create because I have to, and then everything around it — all the other stuff you are expected to do — I find kind of painful. When I was younger I had a bit more of an attitude. I was like, “I don’t care,” but now I’m super shy. I was like, “Maybe I’m not going to write. Fuck this.” But then of course you’re in LA suffering from post-traumatic stress from the tour and the breakup and then… well, I just started writing because that’s the only thing I knew how to do. But I told myself, I don’t have to do an album if I don’t want to. This is just for me. And then the whole album just came. I just wrote deeper than ever. It was such a core, deep, deep sorrow. I’m 27 now. A lot of people talk about how getting older makes them sadder and that this age is often something intense.
STEREOGUM: It’s a real thing. Twenty-eight was the worst year in my life, probably. It’s the mid-mid-life crisis.
LYKKE LI: Yeah. You deal with not only the things that have been happening but I think your wounds from childhood are also blossoming up. Everything is just intense.
STEREOGUM: It’s a time when you can’t really blame everything on youth anymore.
LYKKE LI: Or your parents.
STEREOGUM: It’s that time when you’re out of school and into whatever your career is supposed to be and it’s the first time for a lot of people where it’s like, “Is this it? Is this what it is?” It’s a real existential crisis time for a lot people when they realize that thing they’ve been looking to try to do, they’re doing it, and they’re asking if this is what “happy” is supposed to be like.
LYKKE LI: I have that. But I’m so lucky in so many ways. Compared to so many of my friends, I get to live my dream. I get to travel the world and all that, but there is still a broken heart or solitude or loneliness. I also noticed that I’m kind of an introvert. How come I chose this path for myself to be on stage? Then I realized that I did that because I’m trying to lick wounds or whatever. Then you end up in a position where it’s just spinning out of control and there’s nothing normal. I’ve never had a normal, young 20-something existence where I can just chill and hang out. It’s been really hard but it’s also been so wonderful to write about it, I guess. That’s been great.
STEREOGUM: Once the songs started happening and the record started presenting itself, did it feel like a catharsis of some kind?
LYKKE LI: It’s been the hardest thing too because I felt like I wanted to do everything differently and I felt like I hated my old stuff and it felt so stiff. I really like my music better live because it has life and spontaneity. It’s been hard getting that on record, especially because I couldn’t really sing before on my first record. I didn’t have a voice, you know? The second was a bit better. Finally I feel like because of all this touring, I really figured out how to best use my voice. I’ve probably put a lot of this on myself. I’ve suffered a lot in love. I feel like I know every angle of heartbreak now. But of course it’s probably self-inflicted.
STEREOGUM: Why is that? Is it choosing the wrong people? Self-sabotage?
LYKKE LI: Yeah, I do that too. That’s been the biggest thing. I didn’t think that you could hurt this much from being the one that leaves. So that’s been the other side.
STEREOGUM: I know it feels like a cliché at times, but there really isn’t a more universal experience to make art about.
LYKKE LI: Sometimes I’m like, “Hey, I’m 27. What’s going on? Grow up!” I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on it. It’s actually been really wonderful being in LA during such a hard time. I’ve been on my own, alone in this big world, but everyone feels that way. LA can be especially lonely in that way. You have to figure shit out and you’re really driving around, alone, or in a big house alone. So I had to come to terms with my loneliness and I wonder if part of me, the artist in me, is so brave and fearless and really wants to explore everything. I want to go fucking deep. So I think the artist in me pushed me into this situation just to see how it felt, because I’ve never done this. I guess there’s another part of me that doesn’t just want to belong and be safe. So I guess I’m still living out my artist years. This record has been so hard because I wanted to explore musically too. I didn’t want to be safe and go back to the same people. I’ve been working with a lot of different people and I produce everything now, together with them. I’ve always had control but now it’s really intense. (laughs) I won’t let anything go. It’s been hard. I’ve tried working with different people this time where it just didn’t work. So it’s been a nightmare to make this album. I’ve done it maybe four times around — different versions, different people, different bands — because my vision is so strong. So it’s been really hard. I’ve been terrible. It’s been sensitive to my relationships.
STEREOGUM: Like it stresses your working relationships with people?
LYKKE LI: When I have to say I’m going to go and work with someone else, that’s hard. I feel like this record is so important to me and to hopefully the world. I haven’t been able to compromise on anything and that makes me a hard person to work with. I’ve been in LA for about a year and then I went and did a film in Sweden. I’ve just kind of finished the mixes and now I have to figure out everything else. When I get back to LA what I want to feel like [is] that I’ve done something and I finally have a release. But right now I’m still in New York in a suitcase.
STEREOGUM: Was your label cool about it? Did they anxiously want to hear what you were doing?
LYKKE LI: They always want to hear what I’m doing, but I never want to play it for them. So now I have to do the rounds and say, “See, I’m not crazy. Here it is!”
STEREOGUM: The songs I’ve heard are these big, beautiful ballads. Is that pretty indicative of the aesthetic of the record?
LYKKE LI: It is. It is powered by some real, grown-up shit.
STEREOGUM: It’s been very interesting hearing the records over the years and talking to you about music making. In some ways these songs are the most emotionally delicate but also the most intensely powerful. I remember when we first met and we were talking about how the songs were made for Youth Novels. You kept saying you weren’t really a singer and that you were just sort of figuring it out as you went along. But it seems like with these new songs there’s a real control of the voice that maybe wasn’t always there before.
LYKKE LI: Yeah, finally. I’ve been almost surprised sometimes when I hear it. Like, “Whoa, did I do that?” All of the vocals, I feel every word. I lived it. I suffered for it. I know what I’m talking about. All the versions are demo versions, just to get it down so we had the track and then we could work on it. But there’s something about that first take — when I’m still discovering it. It’s almost as if you’re having sex with the music or something. It’s like a dance.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that you’ve been doing movies in Sweden.
LYKKE LI: It’s been really wonderful to be back where I started. I’ve always felt like, I don’t know, I’m not a singer or I’m not an actor. But I’m curious about it. It’s been good to be so scared of something and to be such a beginner. It humbles me so much. And to learn and to have all sorts of possibilities, and to fall flat on your face and make a fool out of yourself… it’s good! So it’s been really hard but super interesting. It’s been really nice to just do something new and not have all my inner problems come up.
STEREOGUM: So is LA home now?
LYKKE LI: I’ve stopped trying to figure out where I should live, asking, “Where’s my home?” It’s been killing me. So now I’ve surrendered to the fact that I’m never probably going to find a permanent home. And even if I do settle down in one spot I’ll still never be there anyway. I’m somewhere else all the time. Still, it’s so important for me to have my own space and to just be at home and do strange things. When I was in LA it was just a rental but it was the first time I had my home. I was just lying in bed and it was major. I was like, “I don’t know. What am I going to do when I have to move?” I cannot get tired of being at home and moping around and just doing strange granola stuff, you know? It’s the best thing I know.
STEREOGUM: Having cycled through the heartbreak experience and writing about it, do you feel better? Is it still a really raw thing?
LYKKE LI: It’s just an uncommon realm. I’ve had to struggle with thoughts like if I’m ever going to love again. Now I just have no idea. I don’t want to hope for anything. I’m just going to let life talk to me for a bit. But I really do hope that things work out in the end.
I Never Learn is out 5/5 on Atlantic.