The seductive narrative of a prostitute, twinned with the restless woe of the crestfallen. This is the musical schizophrenia of Lykke Li. There’s two entrances and two exits. Welcome in…
I called twice for Lykke, then sat for a few moments contemplating the repercussions should this interview not go ahead. It didn’t bear thinking about. Third time, my luck was in. When she answered, she sounded tired. So did I. I’d been up all night listening repeatedly to an intermittent online stream of her new album, ‘Wounded Rhymes’, hoping that by morning I’d have become so kindred with the music that my questions would flow with the address of good research. Contrastingly, she’s tired because she’s been writing it. And performing it. And recording it. I’m pathetic.
If her two albums were mental states or locations on a tether, then this sophomore was her snap. A pretty face preened for pop has consequently cracked, allowing pain, cynicism and barbed realism to ebb from the release. Lykke admits, in hindsight, her debut (2008’s ‘Youth Novels’) was tepid, but only when compared to the unrelenting, honest emotion of her new creative effusion. For this is an album born of post-tour feelings of a life on pause, born from the rumoured breakdown of a relationship close to her heart, and born of a girl amidst the admission to, and realisation of, fledgling adulthood.
Of course good music spawns from this, because good music spawns from sorrow and/or anger. It comes from the deepest of banks. When you’re happy, you’re disinterested… because you’re happy. Ignorance is bliss. It’s when life stacks up and pain tolls that one truly uncorks. And here we have a girl uncorked, candid and vulnerable, penning her Bell Jar, yet with every swank of youth, still ready to bang the fiery drum. It truly is a split personality of sounds.
Your family were constantly on the move when you were younger. How did that affect your childhood?
Well, it made me grow up real fast. I developed the attitude that I had to take care of myself. I travelled so much, but I rarely actually lived anywhere. I spent half my childhood in Portugal, and half in Sweden, then I’d often spend my winters in India. I now live in New York. I moved there when I was nineteen. As soon as I was old enough to decide where I wanted to be, I moved there.
Your parents were both musicians, and I understand your mother was also a photographer. Both are creative outlets – did this thirst for creativity influence you from an early age?
The thing is, I believe that we’re all creative in some sort of way. To be a human being is to have possibilities and choice. We’re the only species that can choose to do something. We’re not simply followed by our instincts. So I feel everyone is creative. As kids, everybody sings and dances and dreams, so we all have it in us. All I had was two parents that wanted me to do this. They never said no… but if I hadn’t become a musician, I would have to pursue some sort of art.
Is there any trace of your parents’ music in your own?
No. I find it funny that I have to talk so much about my parents to people. In this adult age. When you’re in therapy, people are like, ‘So… your childhood?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes?’ We all had childhoods!
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After your debut album, you were tagged as a ‘pop princess’. Has this route or direction changed for you?
It’s a complicated thing. In this day and age, suddenly pop music has this negative, fake and disgusting image. And that is something I don’t want to be a part of. When people label me pop, I want to puke. Then I think about it. Pop as in popular? That is surely good. And back in the day, the records I listen to, they are pop songs. Neil Young, The Shangri-Las, This Mortal Coil, The Beatles, Rolling Stones. They aren’t pop anymore by today’s standards, but they were. That kind of music influences me.
You’re Swedish, and you’re occasionally pop. The temptation is there to throw you straight into the Swedish pop renaissance category. Is this something you embrace, or distance yourself from?
I’m not a part of this thing. The number one favourite thing to do when people write music articles is to pin someone down. You want to describe something that cannot be described. I don’t want to be a part of all that, but it’s inevitable. Whether I’m a women, whether I’m young, whether I’m white. Whatever.
One can say you spend your whole life, up until its conception, writing your debut album. Then you must draw on all between to write your second. Did you find it much more difficult to write this second album?
No. What was hard was the life that influenced it. What was easy was writing it. I had so much in me, I was itching to write. So much anger and sadness. The first album I did, looking back, I was inexperienced. I felt misunderstood. I don’t feel like I did a great job. This time round I had so much in me, I was writing like a maniac.
I know Björn Yttling of Peter, Björn And John fame produces all your work. What is his input and how did you meet?
I got his phone number from a friend and I rang him up. After that, I just had to convince him. It’s helped me to have somebody who also likes to just get the shit done. We both work hard, and I need someone around who won’t fuck around. He pushes me. I trust him.
Your first album was optimistically entitled ‘Youth Novels’, yet the forthcoming follow up is cynically entitled ‘Wounded Rhymes’. Is this immediately telling us something about the personal contribution you have made to this album? More pain, emotion and experience?
Yes, definitely. The emotions are fuller. Life adds up. Time goes by, things happen. Maybe the second heartbreak is much deeper and more serious. As life goes on, there’s more at stake. It’s serious, you know?
After touring your debut, you returned to New York and suffered some serious post-tour depression. Can you give us an insight into what effect the long-term touring had on you?
Yes, I did. You spend almost three years on the road. No rules, nothing. And then suddenly, you stop. You reflect on your life, and you realise you’ve been existing in a bubble. You don’t have a life. You’re on stage, then you’re on a bus, then you’re on stage. You exist in this illusion. When it’s time for real life, you’ve been gone for so long. Your friends, family… they have moved on, created life and got boyfriends. And it’s like, ‘Whoa, where am I? What have I done? What do I actually have?’ It’s a strange feeling to dream about this [touring], then fulfilling it, and it’s just too intense for you. It’s hard to look back on it. You’ve achieved some of your dreams, but you don’t feel how you thought you would. So you end up reflecting even deeper. I got it all, yet I feel nothing.
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I understand that the break-up of a relationship preceded the writing of this album…
[Interrupts] Not really!
Did that have a massive effect on your themes and direction of the album?
It’s not like that. This album isn’t about that relationship. It’s about the loss, and what stays after. This album is an intense love story gone wrong. I feel a bit strange talking about it on a personal level.
There are plenty of other themes on the album, especially in ‘Youth Knows No Pain’. Is this a reflective statement of adulthood? The need to grow up?
Definitely. I remember when I was eighteen/nineteen and feeling that I know it all. I always feel that I know it all. But that song is about realising you don’t, and reflecting, ‘Boy, if I only knew what would follow’.
‘Get Some’ is one of the more ferocious tracks on the album, and it comes straight after one of the album’s most tender tracks, ‘Unrequited Love’. Is this intentional?
Every song is in its right order. It took me a long time to put them all together. It’s a journey, and life is like that. You get thrown back and forth between different emotions, and that’s what the album symbolises.
Tell us more about ‘Unrequited Love’. It’s so stripped back and vulnerable.
I’m very open with my vulnerability and my emotions. If I’m involved with somebody, I’m very open. That song is exactly how I was feeling at the time. We recorded that song in one take, in the studio, just me and the mic. It was an extremely tender moment.
I take it the punchy lead single ‘Get Some’ was the opposite of that?
I just liked the drum beat. I did the drum beat and built the song around it. As for the track itself, it sums up how I am. I’m musically schizophrenic. I’d love to make an album, just me and my guitar, singing my heart out, whilst crying live on track. At the same time, I love the energetic, bad-ass sound. I’m a split personality. Deep down I want to be like Joni Mitchell, but I’m still young and I have the energy, so I might as well bang the drum a few times. Then when I’m older, I’ll have plenty of time to get more depressing.
Your tracks often come accompanied with thoughtful videos. You’ve even released a few short films. Do you see yourself furthering your visual output?
Are you kidding me? I’m the one coming up with all the ideas for the videos! I’d love to do it more, as long as people don’t puke on it. I’m very visual when I think – I have an idea and I go for it. It’s a little like cooking. Often I’ll think of the videos as I’m writing the songs.
You’ve released both of your albums through your own LL Recordings label. Is this just a way to give yourself full creative freedom over your work, or do you genuinely intend to form a fully-fledged releasing label for other artists?
No, it’s just to protect myself. I’m a smart women. Selling records is one of the most non-profitable things you could ever do. I set up LL Recordings just for me to have freedom. It’s not a good business; selling music. There are still plenty of deadlines.
Finally, what’s next for Lykke Li?
I’m on the hustle, I’m on the grind. I’m off to Stockholm tomorrow to cut some videos, and then performing. Then, the big tour in Spring!
‘Wounded Rhymes’ is out now on LL Recordings/Atlantic Records.
Words by Joe Zadeh