LYKKE LI

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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.

Pho­to­graphs: Rachael Wright

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.

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