"I hate being in a studio" - DiS meets Jens Lekman
Gothenburg native Jens Lekman has long been a shape shifter; be it an unexpected performance at a delighted fan’s house or playing with a full eleven-piece band consisting of women dressed in white. His music is well known for its reverence of whimsy and love explored through deliciously ordinary metaphors and occasions (taxi journeys, hair).
His musical output is both prolific and not; his 2004 debut release When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog was a collection of songs released between 2000-2004, followed by a compilation in 2005, Oh You’re So Silent Jens. For all the limited edition EPs, split singles and CDr releases Jens built his reputation on, purists might say his 2007 Night Falls Over Kortadela really has been the only album in his sprawling collection of fan friendly tidbits.
September will see I Know What Love Isn’t released on Secretly Canadian. It’s another journey through Jens’s heart; a series of encounters, rejections and ponderings. Jens hasn’t tired of singing about love, and whilst the album is his fullest sounding record to date (the orchestrations are lush and graceful), the music rings with clarity. Listening to the album, walking past the shopping centre beast of Westfield to get to his hotel, the album colours the shoppers and traffic. Sitting in a quite corner of his hotel lobby, Jens is polite and slightly tired, having arrived from a performance in New York the previous night. His appearance has changed since 2007; his quiff shorn and adorned with a baseball cap, highlighting the time that has passed since his last album - a time during which he has travelled through the East to reside in Melbourne. So, after the initial polite introductions we settle to talk travel and what sent him to Melbourne. Was it a personal journey of discovery?
Yes, I think that I thought I could find something there. You know, you have this idea I guess that if you go to this one place, you will find all your answers. You find, when you get there, there’s nothing to be done, really. But I loved living in Melbourne. That was great.
Where do you live now?
I mostly live out of a suitcase and Gothenburg, Sweden. I went to Gothenburg mostly to be able to finish the record because I couldn’t rent a workspace in Melbourne, because of the visa issues and all that.
You’re well known for your varied performances. YouTube has entire shows of you performing in someone’s front room. Is it the visas that force your line-ups or are these less conventional performances something you choose to do.
I remember those yard shows, they were great. I chose to do them of course. They were more something that I had been doing, for a long time. In the old days, it would be a little bonus I would do after shows if I felt like doing some more and someone had a back yard where I could play, I would show up. But then it was also kinda’ random. Some shows would be amazing, some would be just a bunch of drunk people. But these were more like real shows and they felt so special because people had signed up to the newsletter and something really happens when you don’t have a bouncer and a sound guys and bar tender and someone taking coats, charging you a lot of money for it and you don’t have to stand in line. It was just so much more relaxed and people were so much more happy about it. I like that way of doing it.
On the other hand, I’ve seen you perform in a conventional band format, with a choir and also in a band of women dressed in white gowns. Do you have a line up that you’re most comfortable in?
I wouldn’t say that there is one way, I like both of them I really do. I think every time I play with the band people go ‘I kinda’ liked it when it was more personal and more stripped down’ then I will play solo and people will say ‘you know, why didn’t you bring a band?’ so there’s both sides to it.
But… it just depends on what kind of venues as well. Like now when I played in New York it felt weird to be playing in front of a couple of thousand people on my own, because I couldn’t bring a band.
So, how do you hold up when it’s you and no one else? Do like being solo in front of audiences, especially large ones in venues?
Not really, but it turned out great because I think the crowd really reacts when they are presented with a problem they are facing together with the artist, they are becoming one with the artist and they face that obstacle, and beat it.
One of my favourite shows is when there’s a seated crowd and you tell the crowd ‘you don’t have to stand up, or dance, but if you feel like it’, and then at some point people defy the laws of chairs and they start up and they start dancing, and you feel like you’ve beaten this obstacle together, and I love that.
The new album feels like a very personal record. Is that fair, or are these abstractions or stories? Also, there are several mentions of America and of course Australia. Is this album a travel diary as well?
Yes, it’s very personal, but I wouldn’t say it’s a travel diary. I had some hesitations a few months ago when I was finishing up the album as to whether it would be too personal for people to relate to or not. But then, just in the last moments of putting it together I started feeling like this is actually quite essentially human and something people can relate to.
But I wouldn’t really call it a travel diary. I think the travelling part would come from me having been in a lot of different places in the last five years. Which is just what my life has been like, and the place references are so vague, in a way, except for the Melbourne reference, which is because I lived there. There is a reference to Las Vegas in ‘Erika America’ and there’s Washington DC.
Erika America has the wonderful line, “I wished I’d never tasted wine from lips that weren’t mine.” Is this a metaphor for your feelings on America, enticing but ultimately a place that will bring regret?
No, the song isn’t about America, really. There may be some imagery that has to do with Las Vegas being the essence of all the bad stuff in America put together in one place, but no, the song is just a love song and I think, the way I wrote it I just started writing down the ideas of the imagery and then I wasn’t really sure where I was heading with it, but then realised what it was about.
As regards the recording process of the album, how do you go about it? In Sweden there is a strong community within musicians, as there are across all countries I’m sure, and they play across each other’s records. Do you play with peers and have them perform with you?
When I lived in Melbourne I had a lot of people come in and lend their voices or various instruments. I mean the whole record was put together over such a long time… It’s funny when I look at it there is a few names on the record that are artists who have their own careers. It’s also funny as it would never be a song that was ‘featuring’ or anything like that, they’re all just hanging out in the neighbourhood and I would go “well you have a lovely voice, why don’t you do these ‘ooh’ harmonies”, so yeah, there’s a lot of friends just dropping by. A lot of the drums were recorded, and stuff like that was recorded, in other parts of the world, with me not being present a lot of the time.
So you’re not a tyrant that needs to be hands on at every stage of your record?
When it comes to drums I have no idea how you should record them. I’ll programme them or sample them and send them to someone, and we send the parts back and forth together over Skype or something. I hate being in a studio, really hate it.
Is it the absence of natural light?
Yes, and also, I just don’t feel like I understand studios. My own studio is so simple, it’s just a computer and a microphone, basically.
So do you supervise in anyway at all?
I did all the recording and producing myself but I had a guy mix it. That was also a process where we send files back and forth.
So you’re using the Internet to bypass the need to bring people together in one space?
Oh yeah, I mean it’s hard to find people – the thing that is important to me is time to go back and forth with things when you’re recording. So I couldn’t really find someone in Sweden who would be able to do that without being extremely expensive.
But does this have an effect on your ability to put out releases and then, does that effect where you sit in the market effectively? Not that you necessarily care for these things but when Night Falls… came out in 2007 the music industry was a different place as were mainstream tastes. Everything’s synthetic pop now, what’s your tack on the state of play right now?
I mean, I check out what’s going on in the charts and as you say, is very synthetic and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I guess you’re familiar with the Gothenburg scene. I don’t really know what’s going on these days. It feels like there was something very very interesting going on five, six years ago, but now. It’s still going, people are still making good music but it hasn’t evolved, it’s just that synthetic, the sound of the Tough Alliance, The Knife and The Embassy and those bands, they’re just being recycled over and over. At least that’s what it sounds like when I turn on the radio.
It’s as though the Tough Alliance sparked a resurgence that swallowed everything. Are you happy with the direction music is heading in, be it original or not?
I’m really glad that music is moving in this direction, but it’s not something that I’ve felt as affected, or counter-affected by. But I’ve thought about it.
There’s a band called Air France, they’re from Gothenburg. They make this dance-pop music. I remember, I think it was four years ago, a year after my last record came out, and I’d been on this tour and I was trying to restart again and make music again. So I was with a member of Air France, Johan, on the harbour and we sat down, eating an ice cream and we just talked and at one point I said, “where is music heading right now?” and it felt like music is just trying to make unpopular instruments popular again. The ukulele was popular seven or eight years ago, then the kalimba was popular and so on. So were like, ‘do we really want to make a pan-flute record right now, is that where we’re headed?’ and I was like “no, we don’t”.
So I’m glad I didn’t make a pan-flute record. But I feel like what I did on this record - because I’ve noticed that a lot of people have noticed certain instruments or ‘things’ that are on the record – I’ve notice things that are not on the record and how it’s less, or more organic as a result.
So, are you referring to instruments you know you didn’t want on the album?
More things that I have chosen not to include that I actually took out of this album, out of the mixes. It’s just the way things sound because when you have too much, when you fourteen guitars - this is just an example I didn’t actually have fourteen guitars - when you have fourteen guitars on top of each other they will sound fourteen times less.
What’s your take on Stockholm bands; do you perform with them or is there that ever present stereotypical rivalry?
Well I like a lot of stuff that’s coming out of there. I think there is a rivalry in our spirits but that goes with every part of the world, like London and Manchester, Sydney and Melbourne. I’m not really sure what’s going on there so much, there’s a few people I hang out with usually hang with this girl Cissi, aka The Princess she calls herself, she used to be in Those Dancing Days. She has a punk band call Vulkanos. We met up recently and she gave me the record and she said the aim with this record is to have no love songs.
Yeah, and I was like ‘that was my ambition too’, but I completely failed.
Why did you fail?
I think this one was such a… it just wanted to tell me that it was a love album and I didn’t really have a say. All the songs that were not love songs just sort of started bouncing off it and ending up elsewhere. That’s why I put out the EP, so that those songs have a song.
What will be your outfit for touring this album?
I have a really good band, I’m really proud of this band being together. It’s people from Gothenburg, they’re quite young but they’re really into it and excited about it. You can tell that they’re rehearsing a lot on their own and getting into it. Every time they show up for rehearsal they know the songs like that.
Are many of these people that you have played with before?
No I did one show, no actually the bass player has been in my band since 2009, she’s American.
So it’s brand new band.
I always have a brand new band for every tour I do.
People have careers and children and families and have to move on. It’s hard to keep the touring life interesting in the longer perspective for people who don’t get to write the songs themselves I think. It’s a different thing if you’re a band. But I mean, that band you mentioned that I used to have with ten girls in, those people all have amazing careers now, the bass player, Teres, is now a rocket scientist. She also moved to Melbourne and worked at a particle accelerator centre, you know the Doomsday machine, and after that she became a rocket scientist and now works at a space station. I can’t really compete with that.
Whilst Jens’ music is not rocket science, I Know What Love Isn’t is certainly a significant journey for the listener. Its emotional terrain is complex and somehow suits the (mostly) sodden summer of 2012, as we start to look inwards once more as the nights quickly draw in.
I Know What Love Isn’t will be released on September 3rd on Secretly Canadian.