What happens when all your artistic dreams come true? Turns out it’s a bit of nightmare, according to the Swedish alt-pop superstar. We lend a sympathetic ear out in LA.
Swedish sad-pop superstar Lykke Li has everything: a gilded career, homes in the Hollywood Hills, an adorable son, a sideline in mescal and two vintage sports cars in the driveway. And yet, she’s deeply anxious and paranoid. Eve Barlow meets her at home to find out the prognosis.
Up in the Hollywood Hills, Swedish alt-pop star Lykke Li is playing at Tinseltown domesticity. The outside looks perfect. White walls, big windows, a driveway with a view of the Hollywood Sign and two vintage Mercedes; his and hers for Li and producer/songwriter boyfriend Jeff Bhasker. Inside, there’s an air of vacancy. The rooms are sparse, save for a table of books – EE Cummings poetry and Juergen Teller photography. A pooch called Donny darts past. In the front room, a child’s teepee contains the tools of a budding musician: mini piano, drums and guitar. “I’m living the American dream,” says the 32- year-old, drily. In a designer dressing gown with a newly blonde bob, she asserts that this is not her ideal manor, but temporary. Li owns various properties, all with open-door policies for friends. This one is the “female empowerment house”. In the kitchen, two women who run her mescal company YOLA with her are buried in laptops. YOLA is sold in LA’s swankiest hotspots, and has an ethical agenda: it’s the first company to employ and pay women in Oaxaca, Mexico, directly. “We give them economic independence,” explains Li. “They’re sending their daughters to college.”
“My instinct is that everything’s gonna fall apart. I create scary scenarios. I see things and they happen.”
There remains a Scandi seriousness to Li, but she’s not humourless. Maybe it’s the hair change, or the addition of two-year-old son Dion, but there’s a directness to her that’s almost comedic. While she sounds fractious on paper, up close she’s a riot. “I feel like Larry David all the time,” she says. Curb Your Enthusiasm used to go over her head. Now she understands its nuances. “I’m a total outsider. Like Larry, I do crazy stupid shit: I say the wrong things, I lose my temper, I drive into stuff. He’s a passionate guy.” Li too runs on an intense spirit. Since first single Little Bit in 2007, she’s documented trouble in romance via danceable rhythms and bittersweet melodies. Three albums in, she’s called her forthcoming fourth record So Sad So Sexy. The title is tongue-in-cheek and came out of her mouth in the studio as she described one of the tracks. While it’s a sonic departure, preying on her hip-hop and R&B obsessions, the lyrics remain part of her “case study on love”. First single Hard Rain – a collaboration with Rostam Batmanglij, formerly of Vampire Weekend – documents a storm brewing between lovers. “Us is holding us hostage,” she sings, again painting love as a trap bound for failure. “That’s my life!” she howls. “My instinct is that everything’s gonna fall apart. I create scary scenarios. I see things and they happen.” Sometimes they’re good; she had a vision of Dion before he was born. Other times they’re bad. “I’m scared of only one thing…” she trails off, terrified of uttering it. Li describes herself as having “crazy brain”. She doesn’t do transcendental meditation any more, but instead tries to fit meditation sessions into her Uber journeys. “It’s a problem for my passenger] rating. I have a 4.4 cos I’m like, ‘Can you shut the music off and not talk? I have to meditate.’” Recently she tried hypnotherapy for paranoia. As the hypnotist induced her she spiralled. “I couldn’t go under. I thought he was gonna take me to ‘the sunken place’,” she says, referencing the movie Get Out. The hypnotist gave up. “You’re way worse than I thought,” he said. “You have severe control issues.”
Li was raised third-generation bohemian, and is just beginning to consider LA a “home”. Her birthplace – Ystad, Sweden – was a stopgap. Her father toured in ’ 80s punk band Dag Vag, but it was her photographer mother who encouraged a nomad’s existence. Together with her brother and sister, she lived in tiny Swedish towns, on a Portugal mountaintop and spent winters in India. She doesn’t remember it fondly. “We drove the car to a shithole. Then we lived in another shithole,” she says, tirelessly. Li was an introvert: middle-child syndrome. “I didn’t necessarily want to go to rave parties when I was 10. I’d be sitting on a speaker in Goa, miserable.” One lonely trek to Swedish suburbia sticks out. “We drove from Portugal in the dead of winter. No insulation. I was sitting in the fucking middle seat, listening to Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection thinking, ‘One day I’m gonna get out of this place.’” Finding friends was a struggle. “I was such a freak. Our Volkswagen bus had incense and dogs falling out, scarves flying. I wore tie-dye. I had a dreadlock you could never comb out.” As a teen, she had an “awakening” when Michael Jackson’s Black Or White video burst out of the family’s TV. Li wanted to be him, so she turned to dance. She rode buses and trains for an hour every day to ballet classes, soundtracked by Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo. But at 15, with Royal Ballet School on the horizon, she felt hamstrung by the discipline. “I wanted to be free. I wanted to create things, not fit into things,” she says. She quit to sing. “My teacher told me I was… What’s it called? No ear.” Tone deaf ? “Yes!” She thinks. “You know, maybe I was.” Chancing her arm, 19- year-old Li escaped to New York and lived in a Bushwick “shithole” in the mid- 2000s. Performing at open-mic nights, she mostly got laughed off. At legendary venue SOB’s she was egged on to give a performance before a Musiq Soulchild gig. With a full house ready for soul, she attempted This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush. The crowd reacted. “Boo!” goes Li, mimicking it. “I had a shockwave in my body. I went back to Bushwick, zipped up the puffer jacket I slept in, and said, ‘OK, this is the end.’” Back in Stockholm, Li worked in an old people’s home while developing her songwriting. She realised that what she lacked in vocal chops she’d make up for in devastating storytelling. “When you listen to Nina Simone you don’t think, ‘Oh, what a beautiful voice!’” she says, pointing her hand to her chest. “Nina has nothing between her heart and what comes out. That’s what I needed to do.”
Youth Novels – Li’s debut album – came out a decade ago. “Yeah, you can see that in my face,” she jokes, backing her Mercedes out the driveway. It was followed by 2011’ s Wounded Rhymes and 2014’ s I Never Learn. As her hand guides the wheel, a tattoo of three lines on her wrist reveals itself. According to fans it marks her intentions for a trilogy of LPs. “That’s not true,” she says. “I woke up in New York stoned and thought, ‘I need a tattoo.’ When I looked it up later I found out it’s I Ching for the highest form of creativity, so that’s what I mean. Probably.” So Sad So Sexy is the first chapter of her 30s. There was a point at which she wasn’t sure she’d make a fourth record. “In my 20s all I did was tour, make albums, get into relationships that didn’t work. I put the idea of having a normal life on such a pedestal. I said, ‘Fuck all this, I’m done, Bye.’” With that, she cancelled an Australian tour in
Moving on up: Swedish alt-pop superstar Lykke Li sets the world to rights from her base in LA (p50); (inset, above) the Now compilation series approaches 100 not out.
Scandi noir: Lykke Li tries to raise a smile, Echo Park, Los Angeles, 8 May, 2018.
“I’m a mother, I’m a rock star, I’m doing my part”: Lykke Li, Hollywood, May 2018.
The story so far: Li, iTunes Live Festival, London, 2008; ( above) with boyfriend and producer Jeff Bhasker.