Jens Lekman has been sorely missed. Since his last proper record, 2007’s acclaimed Night Falls Over Kortedala, the romantic Swedish crooner has been through town once or twice, and checked in with the fine An Argument With Myself EP late last year. But he’s still been mostly absent from an indie-rock moment that could desperately use his level of gracious wit and graceful intelligence. Which is why his imminent return to Brooklyn, as part of our very own Northside Festival, has filled us with such good cheer.
In anticipation of that McCarren Park show, we talked with Lekman, still at his office in Gothenburg, Sweden (where “dark clouds are coming in to block out the sun”). We touched on his now-shelved feud with New York City, his season-based band-building strategies, the notable specificity in his lyrics, and the new record he just finished. Inevitably, it all comes back to heartbreak.
"You know they say New York is the city for dreamers, and I felt like when that dream ended, it chucked me out on the street and put me on the Q train out to Coney Island."
The L Magazine: A couple years ago, we’d asked about the possibility of you playing the Northside Festival, and your agent told us that you were never going to play New York City again.
Jens Lekman: Oh, yeah.
Then, at the last Brooklyn show you had, you said that it was living in Brooklyn for a couple years that sort of ruined the city for you.
In a way. You know they say New York is the city for dreamers, and I felt like when that dream ended, it chucked me out on the street and put me on the Q train out to Coney Island. I had a bit of a beef with New York for a little bit. I guess it was just the sprit of it, of being there and not being very happy at that moment. But it was also because, you know, as a band you have to go to New York and I liked the idea of boycotting the one place you have to go to.
So have you forgiven us at this point?
Yes, I have forgiven New York. I played there a couple of times since then, and it’s been great. I love it again.
I read in a little blog post on your website, you saying that you were going to rehearse “two or three bands” for your upcoming tours. It seems like you’ve had lineups that have shifted a lot over the years, wildly different lineups from show to show. How do you start thinking about putting a live band together, and deciding what pieces you want with you for a particular performance?
I guess it depends on what season it is. If it’s summer, it’s nice to bring a horn section along. You know, because people want to have a good time and party. And in the fall it’s good to bring strings along, because people have come back from summer and they have been broken up with and are feeling sad. For this time, I’m bringing piano, violin, drums, and bass. It’s kind of a small band, actually. I want to hold it together a bit.
But you will actually be rehearsing other bands once your new record comes out?
I’m constantly rehearsing new bands. I can’t think of one point in the last eight or nine years that I haven’t been rehearsing a new band. Because people have kids and they get married and they have careers. It’s really hard to keep a band together when it’s not actually a band, and it’s just one person with other assorted musicians.
Have you ever wanted to get a core, ongoing band of four or five people, or do you always want the flexibility of having different pieces coming in and out?
If I could, I would definitely have a core band, because it would make things so much easier. But every time you put together a new band, it’s like the songs are all fresh again. I always tell the musicians I play with to add some flavor to it. It’s all like a fresh start, and I like that.
You’ve finished your next record, right?
Yeah, last Friday.
How do you feel when you have a record finished and you have to wait a while to release it? Does it drive you a little crazy, do you just like to sit with it yourself a while?
Because this is the first time I feel like I’ve made an actual album—the last ones were more like collections of recordings or just random songs thrown together—I feel really excited about it. When I finished the last record, I just wanted to get away from it, and do something completely different. I’ve actually been sitting around listening to this album myself, which is rare for me.
Well, you’ve only had it since Friday. It’s pretty fresh.
Yeah, exactly, it’s been four or five days.
Last year’s Argument With Myself EP definitely had some different sounds from your earlier stuff, some tropical touches. I was wondering how you went about finding new sounds, you want to use when writing new songs. What’s your process for deciding on new elements you want to bring in
Well, it’s interesting that you say that, because that EP did have a few new musical directions, but the album is almost the opposite. There’re no new musical directions on it. With the last album, Night Falls Over Kortedala, I created a palette. You know the little wooden boards that you have? I put all these colors on it. Then, instead of adding more colors to it, because there were a lot of colors on that palette, I took half of them and put them on the EP. The other half went on the album. So, the album shows more somber colors.
It’s been four years since Kortedela, so when were these songs written? Are they songs you’ve been working on all along?
I think the first song was written December 2008. The album couldn’t have been finished until last Friday, though, because the last songs I wrote a few months ago, and those were the most important songs for the album. It’s been a long journey, but I’m really happy I didn’t put it out then. It would have been a crappy album.
What instruments are the main thrust of the new material?
The piano is very central.
Did you write on piano, mainly?
I didn’t write on it because I can’t play piano. I play piano like E.T., I only use two fingers. In the end, when I was decorating the songs, I added a lot of piano. It’s really my favorite instrument. You know, the upright piano, not the grand piano. The shitty pianos that people throw out. They have such a nice kind of broken, wooden tone that I like. It’s not the big, full sound of the grand piano. It’s something a lot more…it’s almost like the sound of an old vinyl record.
“I had a bit of a beef with New York for a little bit.”
The new songs that you’ve been writing, would you say that they are about any kind of specific theme, lyrically? Now that you’re listening to the whole thing, have certain themes emerged for you that maybe you weren’t aware of at the time?
I mean all of them are basically about heartbreak. They’re all heartbreak songs. But, I feel like when I wrote them, I wrote them in a more sleeping way than before. I think before I had a very clear idea from the very beginning what the song would be about. This time, like Joan Didion said, “I write to find out what I’m thinking.” It was very much like that, I just started with an image and then I wrote. In the end all the songs ended up about heartbreak. That’s just what I was thinking about.
So your heart was actually broken?
It came out of a real breakup, yeah.
It seems like you prefer to write about things in a very specific way, with a lot of detail, as opposed to grand, sweeping, universal pop song statements. Is that strategic in any way, putting a song in a specific context, rather than talking about the universal nature of heartbreak?
I mean, on the new record I think there is a more universal aspect to it, but you always have to start somewhere. You really have to start where you left yourself. I guess that’s why I’m more specific about the locations and the events.
Was the decision to go broader for new songs something you set out to do? Was it you trying to write in a different way, or just a natural evolution of your usual songwriting?
I think that in a way it came from all of the correspondence I do with the people who listen to my music on “Small Talk,” my website. The thing that people write to me most about is heartbreak and love stories. So, writing the album, in the end, I was trying to make it more universal so that people can relate to it. I thought that was important, I felt like those people would have wanted that.
When I’m listening to your songs, I sometimes feel like the detail can make it universal, somehow. Rather than something vague and abstract… even if you can’t match the exact situation, the little things are recognizably human at least.
Yeah, and it takes your brain on a ride, it takes you into situations. It almost tricks you into going there. I can’t remember who said this… a writer that I like said something about… a concept is never sexy. It’s much better to just start the story. And I think that’s how I usually start. I start with an image and then I start telling the story. As is the case with “Waiting for Kirsten” for example. It’s not really about me following Kirsten Dunst around while she makes a movie, it’s more about my hometown.
Because “Waiting for Kirsten,” was written about it filming in your hometown, I was wondering if you ever ended up seeing Melancholia?
I did, yes.
Did you like it?
You know, what I liked about it was that it was a movie about the end of the world where you Americans didn’t get to save the world at the end. I love apocalyptic moves, but with every one of them, in the end the Americans save the day. I really loved that the world actually ends. •