“I had no idea I could fly a plane. But it was wonderful and quite easy actually.”
Jens Lekman is one of those musicians who turns everything in his life into a song. From girls named Julie and his hairdresser Shirin to encounters with a lesbian’s father in Berlin, nothing is off limits in his occasionally heartbroken everyday tales. Frequently compared to other musical storytellers like Jonathan Richman and Stephen Merritt, his deadpan delivery and witty lyrics have earned him a legion of like-minded fans over the past few years with the release of a string of well received EPs and LPs on Secretly Canadian.
Recorded at Lekman’s flat in Kortedala (a suburb of his native Gothenburg) Night Falls Over Kortedala, his latest LP (review), once again finds the lovelorn 26-year-old Swede crafting tales of loves lost with a sound that embraces everything from orchestral pop to a hint of vintage Eurodisco. DiS recently rang up a rather ill Lekman at an incredibly impolite hour on a Monday night to discuss his music, his life and just why he was compelled to watch 230 episodes of M*A*S*H last year.
Where are you right now Jens?
I’m in my empty apartment in Kortedala.
And you’ve been sick all day?
Yeah, it’s been a little too much lately.
Your new record recently hit the top of the charts in Sweden.
Yeah, it did for a week
How does that feel?
It feels great. Nothing but great.
You’ve said in the past that you would like it if your music had nothing to do with money. Are you afraid that having a chart-topping success might push your music into more commercial, moneymaking avenues and put pressure on your creative work?
Although that was quite a naïve comment, still I think there is something to it. But I think the whole moneymaking process doesn’t happen until you start dealing with commercials and American teenage drama shows. That’s when the cash starts rolling in. It’s really as simple as that. I don’t really make any money at this point.
If someone did come along and offered you the opportunity to soundtrack a teenage drama show, would you?
It totally depends on what kind of drama show it was. The thing with my songs, and I’ve been offered so many soundtrack possibilities and commercials and all that, is that they are just a little too lyrically dedicated to a person. I don’t see how they could fit in to that kind of situation. I do understand, for example, how José González’s songs fit into the most personal in your own life as well as a TV commercial. I can definitely see that. But my songs? You know every time I’m approached by these producers it’s always like, “Can we use your songs? And if we can, would you please change the lyrics so it’s not dedicated to a certain person here and there?” Or they ask if I can remove these lines, maybe, and then sing some meaningless shit about flowers or whatever. So it’s basically a question about that.
It’s a question of whether you’re willing to compromise?
Yeah, I would never change the lyrics to a song. I think if it was a show I liked and I thought the song fit in, I would be okay with it.
Your new LP has been getting decent reviews that keep calling it your most consistent work from start to finish. Would you agree with that?
Oh yeah. I mean, that was the product of having my friends put it together for me because that is something I would never be able to do myself.
How did you get your friends to help you put it together?
Well, they had something almost like a Eurovision song contest. I gave them 30 songs and they would call me up and go like, “Song number eight, 10 points”, and so on. And in the end we had a record.
Any plans on releasing the other songs in the future?
Some of them. Some of them almost made it on the record. But I’m not sure in what shape they’ll be released.
From what I understand, the story behind the album is that it’s you, at home in Kortedala, writing these songs at night over the span of three years. Is that correct?
They’re written here and there, but this (Kortedala) is where they were recorded.
Would you say that the songs represent what goes on inside your head when you’re at home?
Um… no. I think most of the songs, if not all of the songs, happened at different locations. But yeah, the reconstructing of what actually happened probably all happened here in my home.
Well, the stories you tell in your songs are often about people and places and feature strong narratives. How true are the actual stories?
They’re actually very true. I do have doubts sometimes as to how true they are and how true my memories are. There have been occasions when I have been very, very sure of a certain memory and someone has told me that it’s not how it actually happened. I might have a certain way of reconstructing things pretty fast as soon as they happened. Unless I have good documentation - if I don’t have it on film or some kind of written diary note of it - then my mind will reconstruct it somehow.
Have you ever had someone you’ve written about come back to you and say they’re not happy that you’ve put them in a song?
No, never actually.
You’ve described Kortedela as a depressing suburban hellhole that you planned on leaving after the record was finished. Yet you haven’t left yet have you?
Well, I’ve cleaned out the apartment so there is just my bed now and my laptop and some records. So yeah, I’m planning on being homeless for a little while, while I play shows and all that.
Are you planning on staying homeless in one area or are you just going to be travelling the world?
Yeah, I’m planning on doing a very long tour or separate tours. But there are almost no breaks at all. I just can’t say no to anything for some reason. And when it’s all done I’m moving to Melbourne, Australia.
I don’t know really. I’m not 100 per cent sure as to why. I’m not that fond of the Australian culture or the sun or anything like that. But at the same time I have more friends in Melbourne than I do in Gothenburg. I do like the idea of living in a place that has palm trees. It’s just for one year. You can get one of those working one-year visas. That being said, it will be a nice way to get away from… well, because I’ve never left this place and most of my friends spent a year or two abroad, most of them in London actually. I never did that and I really have to do that.
Do you think living in a place like Australia, where it’s quite sunny and people seem generally happy, will have an effect on the type of songs you write?
I don’t think there are so many people who are that happy there. I mean Australia, Japan and Sweden have the highest suicide rate from what I understand. But yeah, the environment does have a high impact on my songs for sure. It’s always had a huge impact on my work. Geographical location has always been important in my music I think.
‘And I Remember Every Kiss (Like My First Kiss)’ @ Gteborgfilmfestival 02/02/06
One thing I have noticed about your work is that you use a lot of samples and tell a lot of stories about your own life. If I was to read this on paper it would almost sound like someone was describing hip-hop. Would you say there is a hip-hop influence to what you do?
I did listen to a lot of hip-hop when I was a kid. I wouldn’t say it was the kind of hip-hop you associate with that. I was listening to… what was I listening to… I think it was 2 Live Crew.
On the song ‘Another Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill’ (from Oh You’re So Silent Jens) you mention ‘Regulate’ by Warren G.
Yeah, exactly that. That was a huge hit on Hammer Hill when I grew up there. All the west coast hip-hop and all that. But yeah, there is probably some kind of similarity. I do remember that last fall I was listening to… a friend of mine gave me… what was it called…? The Lupe Fiasco record, Food and Liquor. There was something in there that I linked to in my own music, with the samples and the stories.
Have you ever had legal problems with the samples?
No, I haven’t. I mean, I think there is a certain limit where if you sell so many records you get in trouble. But so far I haven’t sold enough records, I guess. I mean you know I wouldn’t be able to pay the trial. Most of the smaller acts I sample, we always ask for their blessing and everyone has been very, very kind I think.
You’ve been sampled by people online as well.
Yeah, do you know the Rappers Delight Club? (Link.)
No. They sampled… well, I think it’s a guy who works in a kindergarten or something. I’m not sure, but it’s a bunch of kids rapping on top of ‘A Sweet Summer’s Night’ and it’s amazing. It’s so fun. I love that when people sample my samples.
It’s like your giving back in some way.
Yeah, I think it’s fun.
There’s an element of humour to your lyrics and songwriting, enough to occasionally make someone laugh. Is that important to you or would you rather people see you as a serious ‘artist’, who writes profound and deep things?
(Laughs) I do see myself as an entertainer. And it’s something that may have grown in the past few years when I’ve been performing. I love seeing people smile. The thing is that, when I started writing songs and performing, I did see myself as a very serious writer. Though I guess I was comically retarded or something, because when I tried to sing really serious songs people would laugh and when I tried to sing these silly, funny songs people would cry. That was kind of a weird experience for me that I had to figure out. I’ve almost been like studying comedy and humour in some sense since.
Anyone in particular?
No. But I’ve always been a fan of M*A*S*H and I watched every episode of it last year in a couple of weeks. Like 230 episodes, I think.
That’s quite a lot.
Yeah, and since then… well, it didn’t end up too much on record except in songs like ‘A Post Card to Nina’, but I would really love to work more with dialogue and make the characters come alive like you do in a comedy show. Like the interaction between Trapper and Hawkeye in M*A*S*H for example: it doesn’t have too much to do with the story but they have that little thing where they joke with each other.
Yeah, the chemistry. I have a very deep love of the characters in my song and I’ve always been against that thing with pop music where it’s always first-person lyrics.
You’ve written a lot of songs about girls, heartbreak and unrequited love. Do you ever think you’ll get sick of that subject?
No, I just write about things that happen to me… and that keep happening to me. But I think a lot of times it’s a bit misunderstood. I always get that question that there are so many girls’ names in the songs, but then again a lot of those people are not girls I’ve been in love with or anything. It’s more like good friends. I have a couple of songs for Lisa or my hairdresser Shirin. I think a third of those songs are not actually about…
…girls you’re in love with?
Okay, but on that same note do you get tired of being viewed by some as a constantly lovesick romantic?
Maybe I am. I don’t really have a problem with that. They are a reflection of what I am like. I can’t really think of what my life would be like if romantic things weren’t in my life. I guess I would be dead.
Have your romantic ways and music helped you find love of late?
Helped me find love? No, I haven’t had a relationship in years. But I’m working on it. First thing I have to do is find a home I think.
You cancelled your MySpace a while back and wrote on your website, “I felt that it was an insult to everything I love about pop music”. Are you still turned off by how the internet and technology has had an impact on how we consume music?
In one way, yes. I mean, the whole thing about listening to a band for 30 seconds and having an opinion about it or the fast consumption of music has always disgusted me. MySpace in particular felt like an insult, because the communication and the whole thing with it felt so dumb and meaningless. I mean it’s like it was trying to be like that.
So you feel that it’s dumbing down music?
I think it could be a good thing for new bands. No, actually I take that back: I don’t think it’s a good thing at all. It’s just that I’ve always been looking for a specific way of communication and the communication I had with people on there was so dumb. It was never more than two words.
Things like “thanks for the add”, for example.
Yeah, exactly. I almost started feeling like a stock trader clicking the add button, how many friends do you have, I have this many friends. But I’m just looking for a way of communication I think and that’s always been the important thing and these things come and go. It feels like MySpace is really dying down and Facebook is now the latest thing.
Vidi: 'Sipping On Sweet Nectar'
I’m going to list off three names now and I want to know if you’re sick of hearing about your music being compared to theirs: Jonathan Richman, Stephen Merritt and Morrissey.
No (laughs). I don’t think about it that much anymore. I was kind of upset… I don’t know if that’s the right word but I was kind of saddened by the whole Morrissey thing in the beginning because of my past. Which I’ve guess you’ve read.
You’ve said that the kids at school who liked Morrissey would beat you up or taunt you?
No, not like that. But they were the traditional bullies. They would be like the guys or girls who would be sneering at you, really cold people who would just be sitting on the steps when you were going into school.
And they were into Morrissey?
Yeah, but they were really popular. They were the ones who always had someone and later on became models and TV producers.
The cool, successful kids.
Yeah, and the whole paradox of that thing always fascinated me in a lot of ways. It almost made me actively look for music that sounded different than that and something that was very colourful I guess.
Well at some point I was looking for things that were almost the opposite of what they listened to. Things they would definitely be repulsed by, like Eurodisco and whatever was kind of considered dumb pop music. I fell in love with that.
Are you still in love with it?
I am. Silly songs and that kind of music has always fascinated me and always meant a lot to me. Even if the song itself is kind of dumb and meaningless, somehow a lot of those songs remind me of some kind of innocence I guess. Like ‘Friday Night at the Drive-in Bingo’, for example.
It does have a silly side to it.
Yeah, I wrote that song as Jens Lekman the entertainer.
You’ve been called a pop genius by some, especially in the US. Are you comfortable with that?
Sure, yeah, that’s okay. I’ve become quite narcissistic over the past couple of months for some reason. Especially, I guess, with things like radio refusing to play ‘Friday Night’, I became extremely self-indulgent and I thought of myself as the greatest genius in the world for a short amount of time. But it’s not something that I’m thinking about when I’m sitting here in my empty apartment.
Why did radio refuse to play ‘Friday Night’?
Over here right now it’s electronic pop duos that are cool. Which is fine, a lot of my favourite bands are electronic pop duos. The saxophone was probably a little too much for them. What did happen was that another radio channel, P4… I guess BBC has like… which is the cool BBC channel that plays cool music for young people?
I guess you could say Radio One.
Well, what happened here was that the radio channel that played music for 40-year-olds loved it. And when I found that out that was kind of flattering.
Your video for ‘Sipping on the Sweet Nectar’ shows you flying a plane. Are you actually flying the plane?
Have you always been a pilot or did you learn for the video?
No, I had no idea I could fly a plane. But it was wonderful and quite easy actually.
Did you land the plane?
And you had never flown before?
No (laughs). Crazy people in Iceland let you do whatever you want.
Are you musically excited by anything at the moment?
I haven’t listened much to music lately actually. I’ve been trying to keep up with what’s happening here in Sweden but I haven’t found anything that is exciting. It feels like - I don’t think that it feels like me being old or something - it feels like, you know, the peak of the Swedish scene has sort of passed. But I don’t know, maybe there is something waiting. I do find it interesting that it feels like the kids are not that interested in revolting against what happened before them. I guess that feeling has almost become a cliché in itself and they’re almost revolting against that idea. Like they’re doing practically what the kids were doing before them and they seem to be fine with that since it seemed to be so provoking to the old people before. I mean, how are you supposed to revolt against that? They just go, “Eh, fuck it. I’ll just do whatever you did”, and they seem to be fine with that. I think that’s kind of funny because there is still a lot of great music and as long as there is great music then I’m fine.
Finally, would you say you’re happy right now Jens?
I’m never happy when I’m sick but yes, in general yes. I’m really happy right now. This whole thing with being homeless is something that feels really nice to me.
You feel free?
Yeah, I’ve always hated paying bills and all that. I have such a good feeling about moving to Australia. It feels like a new start and a new chance somehow. It feels like a good end to everything right now. It feels like there are a whole lot of adventures waiting on the horizon.
Night Falls Over Kortedala is out now on Secretly Canadian. Jens is over in the UK later this month – here’s the itinerary:
27 Manchester Sacred Trinity Church
28 Leeds Holy Trinity Church
29 Sheffield The Plug w/Josh Rouse
30 Manchester Academy 2 w/Josh Rouse
1 Glasgow QMU w/Josh Rouse
3 Gateshead The Sage 2 w/Josh Rouse
4 Nottingham Rescue Rooms w/ Josh Rouse
5 Bristol Academy w/Josh Rouse
7 Oxford Academy w/Josh Rouse
8 Brighton Concorde 2 w/Josh Rouse
9 London Shepherds Bush Empire w/Josh Rouse
11 London The Luminaire
12 Dublin Whelans