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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC -

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

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