Arms around the the world
Singer-songwriter’s Jens Lekman is a bit unsure about his ‘Heartache Kid’ tag, but there’s one thing he knows for certain – love does make the world go round. The happy Swede talks to Lauren Murphy
OFTEN, LATE at night, Jens Lekman opens the laptop that he carries with him around the world, reads an email sent to him by a complete stranger – perhaps one telling him about a problem, or a secret that they need to liberate – and sends a few kind words in reply. He calls it “smalltalk” on his website; “You can always write to me,” the blurb reads. “Only personal matters. I read all and respond to most.” A “Dear Jens” column? The Swedish singer-songwriter seems an unusual agony uncle, but those familiar with his music and confessional lyrical style won’t be surprised to know that he is a songwriter who thrives on human connections and relationships.
“People tend to like having that communication and dialogue with me,” he says. “For very egotistic reasons, I see it as a writing exercise; as a way to force myself to develop my thoughts and realise what it is I’m writing, and why I’m writing it. But also, there’s a feeling that it makes you a little less lonely at the end of the night. I sit down at these hours and log on and reply to a few emails; it makes me happy.
“There’s something about communicating with strangers; it’s so fascinating. I feel that, when people are writing to me, they’re telling me things they would never tell their friends or closest family, because they know they would maybe be judged by them, or it would affect their friendship. There’s an honesty in talking to a stranger, I think.”
The dry-witted, deadpan but eminently likeable Lekman has built his career on the foundations of honesty, becoming somewhat synonymous with songs about love and all of its glorious and not-so-glorious trappings.
Although he claims that “The Heartache Kid” is not a label that he’s completely comfortable with, his latest album, I Know What Love Isn’t, doesn’t really help his cause, especially with song titles such as She Just Don’t Want to Be With You Anymore.
Still, although the album was written in the wake of a failed relationship, he’s says that his third studio record is not necessarily a “breakup” album but more about “the period of time after a break-up”. Does he worry about being perceived as a writer of sad love songs, and nothing else?
“I dunno,” he says after a pause. “I feel like this is the first time I’ve written an album that has some sort of cohesiveness to it; some kind of effort to bind the songs together. Having said that, looking back on my albums now, I’m starting to see these golden threads running through the albums. Looking back on Night Falls Over Kortedala [his previous album], for example – I think of that album as an album about friendship, mainly, with songs like A
“You plant these little seeds, and they start growing, and one thing I really love is that the seeds turned into different kind of trees everywhere in the world”
Postcard to Nina, or singing to my best friend, Lisa. They were all central pieces [to the album], and they were songs about nonromantic friendship. So I don’t really feel like all my songs are about heartbreak. And in any case, 95 per cent of all songs are about heartbreak – so what’s the problem?”
I Know What Love Isn’t is also Lekman’s first release since he turned 30 a year ago. Did entering a new decade bring about any profound changes in his life?
“No, because I think I felt like I was this age since I was about 17,” he laughs.
“I’ve always felt a little bit older than I am, and I think now is the time that I feel the most comfortable with my age. I feel like I don’t have to make up excuses when people ask me why I don’t do drugs. It’s great. I’m not sure what’s going to happen when I get older from here, though; maybe now is the time that I finally start feeling like I’m getting old, or something. Maybe in my 60s, or something, when I’m done with my career and when I’ve retired, maybe I should start doing drugs then. My psychedelic phase . . . ”.
Perhaps it’s a combination of age and experience that has seen Lekman’s trademark “wall of sound” scaled back for the first time in his career, too. Some of the songs on the new album are stark when held up against his earlier material, which was customarily laden with instruments and samples.
“I felt like there was something in those first 10 years of the new millennium, where people were sort of taking the 1900s and using that as a palette – all these sounds and colours – and using everything at once,” he explains.
“With some of the songs on Night Falls Over Kortedala, I feel like I was just trying to push as many sounds into one song as possible – like Sipping on the Sweet Nectar, for example. I remember thinking ‘OK, this is the chorus – I need to have two hundred trumpets and violins on this chorus, otherwise it won’t be a chorus’. And on this record, I realised that you don’t really need it. Add a tambourine, or a harmony, and you can have a chorus; and it would be much lighter, like a feather floating through the air instead of a space rocket plunging through the air. I was looking for something more graceful and light.”
This new, streamlined angle has already turned up results for the songwriter. Although he has enjoyed a certain level of cult success over the past decade – Drew Barrymore is such a big fan that she flew him out to LA to convince him to allow her to use one of his songs on the soundtrack to Whip It; Everything But the Girl’s Tracey Thorn has been vocal in her adoration of his music, even name-dropping him in one of her songs – these days, he’s managing to get by without the help of famous friends.
He recently made his US TV debut on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and is steadily winning over a new legion of fans all over the world with his wry, darkly funny lovelorn songs. He doesn’t seem the type to lust over world domination, but is he happy with his current level of fame?
“I read an interview with the comedian Daniel Kitson, and his philosophy is that he wants a small fan base; basically, he wants to narrow it down to 12 people and call them disciples,” he chuckles.
“It’s sort of the same thing with me. I feel like when I don’t have time to reply to the people who write to me, that’s the point where I feel like things are becoming too big. That’s a pretty good measurement for me.
“When it comes to playing in different parts of the world . . . I dunno. I think it just happened like that because I was offered the opportunity in my early 20s to go to all these places. And when you’re 25, you don’t say no to going to New York, or Sydney, or Dublin. So I went, and all of these things just started happening. You plant these little seeds, and they start growing, and one thing I really love is that the seeds turned into different kind of trees everywhere in the world.
“I feel like I have a different hit song for every part of the world. In America, Black Cab is the biggest hit, whereas in South America, it’s A Postcard to Nina. In Australia, it’s Your Arms Around Me. Ireland? The Dublin crowd is one of my favourite crowds, because I’ve always felt that I can go there and do whatever set I want to, and people will still love it. I think the last time I went there, I played seven or eight new songs, even though I didn’t have a record out, and people still seemed happy.”
With his current tour stretching well into next year, it’ll probably be a while before Lekman returns to the “very, very small room” that he rents in Sweden, or, indeed, before he records some new material. Nonetheless, he seems fairly content with life at the moment, discussing the possibility of an EP or mini-album release next year for the surfeit of material that didn’t make the album cut. In any case, he is cautiously optimistic about whatever comes next in his career.
“I like the album format for once, which is nice – especially after this record,” he says. “In the past, I was just interested in writing songs, and songs were all that mattered to me. Maybe it has to do with the whole Spotify thing, where I feel like any kind of creativity has been lost when people just listen to random stuff.
“Maybe it’s just me being stubborn; I’m not sure anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older. But I think I like the challenge of creating something that actually tells a story over several songs. I’m starting to like challenges, is what I'm trying to say.”
❙❙❙ Jens Lekman plays Whelan’s, Dublin, Thursday, November 22nd. I Know What Love Isn’t is out now