It’s a chilly February afternoon at Oslo’s riverside, and Norway’s by:Larm festival is in full flow. Last night DiS stood on as Swedish chanteuse Lykke Li played a barnstorming set in a nearby warehouse, and after emerging bleary-eyed from hotel room this morning is now “helping out” (read: hijacking) a photo-shoot that currently finds her adorned in handmade paper snowflakes, precariously balancing on a tree branch above him. There are worse ways to spend the day, it must be said.
Just before 2007 drew to a close I witnessed Li play the second of her first clutch of UK shows. Each set in the interim has been plagued by industry scouts and A&R-heads yet has retained that rare sense of something truly special unfolding – no surprise really, given the youthful talent (she recently turned 22) and captivating live presence she has in spades, a confidence that has grown immeasurably since I first encountered her in Camden Town. Immaculate, seductive, none-more-catchy pop music is her stock in trade, first exhibited on these shores via Moshi Moshi-released single ‘Little Bit’ (see review).
Cut to present, and this scribe is flailing around London’s drizzle in the gradually fading hope of catching Li’s in-store appearance at Rough Trade East, part of a flurry of UK-based activity that sees her return to the capital for the Camden Crawl. I arrive palm-on-forehead just after she finishes, though we’ve soon taken temporary residence upstairs while the ‘Record Store Day’ celebrations continue unchecked around us.
Li is delightful company as ever: poised, articulate, and without a trace of pretence (upon our first meeting it was her graciously introducing herself to me rather than vice-versa, despite two hours’ sleep and a relentless press schedule). On the agenda is a set of questions I began to ask when we grabbed a few minutes following that photo-shoot in Norway (notebook: lost). Lykke Li, then, DiScovered:
Hi Lykke! So, since by:Larm you’ve been all over the place…
Yeah, I’ve been in America, and then I did another tour of Sweden, and now here I am…
How do you find the touring lifestyle? You seem to have been on the road fairly constantly for the last few months.
It’s been a long time, yeah! It’s okay, though I’ve never done such long tours before, so it’s hard on my throat. I can’t really party anymore – I have to go home and sleep. It’s really bad!
I think the last time I saw you was straight after your set at the industry show in that high-rise in Oslo…
Yeah, I remember… that was quite a wild night. They gave us so much champagne – I think I just passed out in some weird room there later on. It was fun…
And now you’re back in the UK… how do you find it over here? I remember you played a show in (infamous ‘celeb hangout’) Mahiki’s that wasn’t ideal.
I like it here, though it’s hard ‘cause there’s always so many good bands over. That show there was a table right in front of me that just wouldn’t stop talking, so I went over and sang right in this guy’s ear. It didn’t work! They just kept on talking.
I’d say you seem very natural onstage – an innate performer, if you will. Would you agree with that statement?
I think so, yeah. I like performing and never feel bad when I’m onstage.
The album’s called Youth Novels, and deals with some fairly dark subject matter – there’s a definite sense of sadness there. I was wondering where you draw inspiration from with your lyrics, and how relationships – good or bad – come into it…
You’re right about that… but I also think that many of the songs people may think are about love are not about love, or relationships at all. For example ‘Tonight’ – a lot of people think that’s a love song, but it’s not. The album is partly about that part of my life, but also about me – sometimes I’m so fragile and weak, but other times not at all. It’s almost as if I have this much stronger spirit inside that I can’t imagine ever failing me – ‘cause if it did, I can’t even begin to imagine how I’d live. So I’d say it’s more about my own different personalities and that struggle.
It does seem that while some of the songs paint you as very strong and decisive, there is that vulnerability there also…
Yeah – and that’s what I am. I am strong… but I’m really sensitive at the same time.
Given the album’s title, was any literature important in its gestation?
Well, The Catcher In The Rye is one of my favourite novels, and On The Road – you know, I love those books. I read a lot of books and listen to music, so I suppose it’s inspired by everything surrounding me and everything I’ve done before, but nothing specific. The album is my own book.
You recorded the album with Björn Ytlling (of Peter, Björn and John). How did that collaboration come about?
Stockholm’s a very small city, and after passing around a demo I’d produced and trying about five different people I got his number and called him up, and soon we worked out some ideas, some soundscapes. I had a very strong vision for my songs, and he really helped me find what I was looking for.
And you recorded the album in the US?
I did it in a few different cities, but some in New York as well. I’d been when I was 19 but this time was better… it was like a dream come true, you know? Everything was so different – before I had no money and I didn’t know anybody, so to come back two years later, stay in the East Village and record an album was incredible. I never would have known.
**The album’s coming out this summer on LL Recordings – could you tell us a bit about this?
Well, it’s my own label and it’s all very new to me. I’m a bit of a control freak – in everything I do, really. I have control over everything – all aspects of the album. I’m very inspired also by the conflict within myself as a young, female artist. You know that Bob Dylan movie where he talks about how women can never write poetry? Well I think there’s also that pressure where you’re like – ugh, this is not genius, you know; you could never compare this to Dylan, blah blah blah. So I needed to find my own world, where my own words were fine – and it’s okay for them to be sweet and vulnerable – that’s why I wanted to name the album Youth Novels. It’s the beginning, you know? It’s not Shakespeare. It’s like…you know The Shangri-Las? I love their lyrics – they’re very simple, but I really feel them. And that’s the only thing that matters.
Being that you’re a young, Swedish singer, do you see yourself as part of a scene as such?
Well, there is a Swedish scene I guess – and there’s so much good stuff – but there’s a scene everywhere, you know? People tend to look harder at countries like Sweden… it’s not a big deal, I think.
Moving on to your influences, who would you say has really shaped you as a singer?
I have so many different ones, I have a hard time coping with it! Like… I love A Tribe Called Quest; I love hip-hop and I want to incorporate that. But then I love Lauryn Hill. And then I want to write like Dylan, or be like Madonna…
But that’s great, no?
Yeah, but it’s hard for me!
**Hard to describe in interviews I guess…
It is! I just – I want to include everything. Like right now I love Tom Waits (cue off-track discussion regards the old nighthawk). With Madonna I don’t really look up to her for her music at all – more her drive and her image.
She’s been around for some time…
She’s a very smart woman.
You seem to have had a fairly unusual childhood – moving around a lot with your mother, taking in India and Portugal. How was that, briefly?
It was… I didn’t enjoy it so much at the time. I mean, some of it was fun and I’m really glad I did it know, but I think…I was just rebelling against it. Like when you’re young and you’ll rebel against anything.
What are your plans from this point on?
I’m going to do some festivals in the summer. I think I have one more year just full of touring and promotion, so that’s what I’m going to do; the album’s coming out in the States in August so I’ll be back there. I just need to stay in good health. I’m already building lots of new soundscapes and ideas in my head for the next album too…
Really? I was going to ask about that…
Well, as time goes by, I’m not too happy about the vocals on the record (Youth Novels). That was my first real time with those songs, and I’ve played so much this year and so many times since then – I feel like I’ve got an entirely different voice. So the vocals will be really good on the next one.
Well, they sound pretty good to me! I think that’s pretty much it, apart from asking if there’s any music at the moment that’s really standing out to you?
Bon Iver, I love that album. And Wildbirds & Peacedrums as well… my friend Mapei, is amazing. I’ve heard some new Dizzee Rascal stuff that I like. There’s a lot of good things.
And on that notion it’s time for Li to rejoin her crew for some food before preparing for tonight’s show at the Underworld, leaving me to saunter around the store, birthday money burning a hole in my pocket, vaguely wondering where the Cornelius albums might be stacked. Is there a Japanese section? (Yes, there is.)
I also mull over the answers Li has provided me with, and the palpable enthusiasm she displays when discussing her work. From the passion she holds for music spanning genres and decades through to the unflappable manner in which she’s carving out a name for herself, she is that rare, wonderful thing – a singer to truly get excited about, to fall in love with; to fall in love to.
Video: ‘Little Bit’
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Lykke Li live, soon…
23 Glasgow The Admiral
24 Manchester Roadhouse
25 Birmingham Glee Club
28 London Scala with Sebastian Tellier
B/W photo: Lykke Li
Colour photo: Andreas Öhlund