Jens Lekman Will See Himself Now : The Record For the singer, introspection became a lens that nearly ended his career. Focusing on the lives of others changed that. "In a world of mouths," Lekman sings on his new album, "I want to be an ear."
NPR logo Jens Lekman Will See Himself Now

Jens Lekman Will See Himself Now

Before Jens Lekman recorded his fourth album, Life Will See You Now, he went through a period of disconnection from his music. "I think I was kind of trying to ruin things for myself," Lekman says. Ellika Henrikson/Courtesy of Secretly Canadian hide caption

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Ellika Henrikson/Courtesy of Secretly Canadian

Before Jens Lekman recorded his fourth album, Life Will See You Now, he went through a period of disconnection from his music. "I think I was kind of trying to ruin things for myself," Lekman says.

Ellika Henrikson/Courtesy of Secretly Canadian

Jens Lekman is history. In his native Gothenburg's Stadsmuseum, he appears in the hasty conclusion to an otherwise thoughtful exhibition of pop music's past in Sweden's second city. (Consider Gothenburg the Manchester — working class and gritty — to Stockholm's cosmopolitan London, with a matching inferiority/superiority complex depending on the occasion.) For some reason, his small info panel sits among Gothenburg's political reggae acts, rather than with his fellow 2000s electro-pop peers Studio, The Tough Alliance, Air France and The Embassy, and offers little context. But wandering the gallery in mid-February gives the tall, skinny, 36-year-old Lekman a good look at himself, and a chance to tell his story in a way that makes much more sense.

Wearing double denim and a permanently lodged baseball cap, he pulls at threads between his music and his Gothenburg pop predecessors: At the outset of his career, local promoters confused his Rocky Dennis persona for a revival of 1950s rockabilly, where artists prefixed their names with Rock or Boogie. Then there's the late-'70s political prog rockers who toured rural Swedish towns with a history of the Swedish working class movement, which inspired Lekman's own 2015 "Livingroom Tour." In the '90s section, his actual peers start to emerge: The hip-hop crew Hammer Hill Click were named for Lekman's working class home suburb, Hammarkullen, and were a big deal in his teens until two of its members — one of whom was Lekman's kindergarten best friend — were killed in a discotheque fire.

Laleh, one of Sweden's bigger domestic acts, also hailed from the neighborhood. In 1996, a 15-year-old Lekman played guitar in her first backing band. "I remember playing my songs for her, and she went, 'Oh, that's really beautiful,'" he says. "That meant a lot to me — that was the first time I'd actually opened up to another musician. After that I started writing a lot." He soon found his niche as a storyteller. In his songs, Lekman made his friends — Nina, Julie, Lisa — into recurring characters and celebrated every mundane corner of his hometown. (When I was 19, I went on holiday to Gothenburg solely on the strength of his evangelism.) He delighted in precise anecdotes, wasn't afraid to be self-referential, and matched his boundless belief in love with rapturous samples plucked from every genre. It put him at odds with a different Swedish pop school, which universalizes and buffs to a radio-ready sheen. Lekman once attempted to write a song for another artist, but they turned it down "because it was too specific," he says.

Somehow, Lekman's natural comedic talents made habits that would have been unconscionably cheesy in anyone else's hands (air xylophone, extreme manic-pixie-dream-boy-ing) incredibly charming. He cemented that archetype with 2007's swooning Night Falls Over Kortedala, but returned heartbroken and diminished on 2012's I Know What Love Isn't, a markedly sadder piece about his attempt to find perspective after an earth-shattering breakup. ("The end of the world is bigger than love," he concluded.) By the time it came to write his new album, he felt completely disconnected from the lovelorn version of Jens Lekman that sauntered through his early work, and did his utmost to kill him off. What emerged as Life Will See You Now feels like Lekman tentatively turning the color back up on the world, having found a new way to feature in his own story.

***

"I think I was kind of trying to ruin things for myself," Lekman admits later that evening over a beer in Gothenburg's sleek Skybar, a location he picked so that we can gaze upon his beloved hometown and its famous harborside cranes. After spells in Melbourne and New York, he moved back permanently in 2011.

I Know What Love Isn't wasn't as commercially successful as its predecessor, but Lekman toured it hard, playing to ambitiously large, half-empty venues, and went home feeling demoralized. In 2013, he started slogging away at a half-hearted follow-up, focusing on relationships with his male friends and refusing to write himself into his songs. He knew they were no good, but persevered until his label, Secretly Canadian, rejected it.

"There was this part of me that was just feeling like, 'Screw it! Let's just bury this career,'" he says. "I was trying to prove to myself that I was terribly worthless." For a brief moment, Lekman was determined to burn all his bridges. "Erase everything that has been, give away everything that I have, get rid of all my friends and start from scratch because I'm not happy with where I am." He started perceiving his life as a movie script that didn't make sense, and realized he was heavily depressed. He started therapy, which he likens to honing that script. "This is one of the reasons I'm so interested in stories," he says. "Because everyone has a story in their life, and when their story doesn't make sense, that's when we get depressed, I think. I feel like the few times in my life when I really felt like I love my own story is when I've been the happiest."

To complement therapy, Lekman embarked on two projects in 2015. For Postcards, he wrote and released one song a week to stop himself being precious about songwriting. In Ghostwriting, in association with the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and the Gothenburg Biennial, he interviewed members of the public about their own life stories, which he then wrote into songs. Investigating what it was like to be someone else proved a healthier way to veer from autobiographical material, and one that influenced his approach on Life Will See You Now. "To Know Your Mission," the opening track, is set in 1997, and starts by following a missionary who encounters a teenaged Lekman. He initially appears to be a secondary character, but then takes over the song, making self-aware observations about the art of songwriting as storytelling. "In a world of mouths, I want to be an ear," he croons.

Lekman's music has often been labeled 'twee', a genre that's always felt too cloying to contain the scope of his work. Still, he says with some disgust, he felt dogged by this "Michael Cera character" that he initially invented to enjoy life, he says. "I find it quite hard to connect with the songs where I portray myself as this clumsy, adorable, love-struck man-child." In person, Lekman is less buoyant than a listener might once have imagined: guarded about his private life, more given to a wry smile than a belly laugh. "You always try different versions of yourself through songwriting," he explains. "It can get a bit annoying to see them walk around and do their thing when you feel like, 'I'm not that person any more.'"

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Reinvigorated by Postcards, Ghostwriting, and a meaningful personal invitation to contribute to the Avalanches' long-awaited second album, he kept writing. A friend pointed out that he kept coming back to existentialist themes: fears, choices, "the kind of questions that you ask yourself when you're our age," he says. The characters on Life Will See You Now are friends facing illness and crisis, brides worried their life is about to end, and finally Lekman, worrying about emotional barriers and crushing fears that he can't articulate. Swirling with empathy and anxiety, they're among his finest character studies in a catalog full of them.

"Jens has such a rare talent in music," says comedian Tig Notaro, who toured the West Coast with Lekman in 2009. "He can truly break your heart and then right when you are lost in utter despair, he tosses in a line so casually, that is so brilliantly clever and hilarious, you can't help but think it was a fluke. Until it happens in another song. And then another."

***

Late one afternoon in Gothenburg, Lekman suggests going to get a semla, a cardamom bun sandwiching a thick ruff of whipped cream and a layer of marzipan paste. These Swedish "calorie bombs," as he calls them, are traditional February fixtures, originally designed to set fasters up for Lent. "At least one king in history has died from eating too many of them," Lekman explains tantalizingly as we walk through the snowy streets. "I think he ate 12 at the same time and his stomach burst." (It was King Adolf Frederick of Sweden, the year was 1771, and he actually ate 14 of them after a meal of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne.)

As we dally with decadence in Bageri Brogyllen, Lekman talks about the frugal reality of his past 14 years as an indie musician. His records barely sell, his tour figures are shrinking, and like many artists, he's had to turn to alternate revenue streams. But he's eschewed commercial syncs with one exception ("I really needed the money not to go bankrupt"), and instead embraced an alternate career as a wedding singer. (When he sang "If You Ever Need a Stranger (To Sing at Your Wedding)" on 2004's When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog, he meant it.) The gig has always been a field study. "Every time I play one I ask the people getting married, 'Why? What holds your relationship together? Why do you think you're meant to be together for the rest of your lives?'" Playing weddings, and having a steady girlfriend, has made Lekman a lot less cynical about love than he was five years ago.

It also feels "like one way of making money that feels good to me, rather than selling songs to commercials or getting sponsors," he says. Not that he'd rule either of those things out. "I know the moment I say that, the next day I would be in a situation where I have to do that. I think a lot about who my boss is: Who is paying me, where the money comes from. I grew up in an era where people were still calling people sellouts for doing that stuff, and I have that indie mentality in the back of my mind, though I've been around for that long now that I can put things into perspective a bit more."

Back in 2006, he wrote a prescient post on his long-maintained blog Smalltalk about the commercial value of the independent aesthetic, several years before being earthy, artisan, and small-batch became a mainstream branding opportunity. "In my opinion, being 'indie' these days might be as business-minded as you can be," he wrote. "Just like the best brewers, tailors, plumbers, chocolate factories, restaurants etc know that keeping a low profile and relying on good word of mouth might do a much better job in the long run than screaming in peoples [sic] faces." He wasn't thinking about those things in a political context, he says. "But I think now I am."

Lekman praises his labelmate Anohni's expression of regret over taking Apple's money to make a music video. "I was so relieved to read her thoughts on that, to see someone talking about it for once, because no-one really talks about it — everyone's terrified," he says. "You can't really be indie any more. Everyone knows they will have to sell at least a small part of their ass at some point."

***

Lekman's price, for now, is kitchen duty. He keeps a small basement room in a co-operative hippie workspace in Kviberg, an industrial area to the north east of Gothenburg, in exchange for low rent and cleaning the communal area. It's a former military area; as the tram leaves the city, the snow and graffiti get thicker. On a Saturday morning, he and keyboardist Emelie Odelberg are squeezed between an Expedit shelf and a row of amps, rehearsing for an upcoming U.S. tour. (As if to complement Lekman's alternate career, Odelberg is a funeral organist by day.) She grapples with an Octatrack sampler, and Lekman describes the sound he wants at the end of "To Know Your Mission."

"You remember the first episode of Lost where the plane crashes on the beach and one engine still goes like, fftftftftftfftftftftft?"

"No, but I like that that's what you remember from the first episode of Lost."

After practice, we take another tram to nearby Kortedala, the suburb immortalized in Lekman's opulent 2007 album. "The title was meant to give the impression of magic happening once the sun set over the gray buildings," he explains. The early Swedish evening is setting in, and the desolate plaza overlooking the tram stop is... still just a series of gray buildings: a budget supermarket, a library with a sign welcoming refugees, an Italian takeout that smells like mayonnaise. We settle in for black coffee from a self-serve canteen.

Jens Lekman
Carlos Molina Barriga/Courtesy of Secretly Canadian

Lekman grew up in Hammarkullen, the next suburb up. In the '80s and '90s, most Gothenburgers considered it a no-go zone. "There was trouble," he says. "But I always felt super safe when I was there. It was also very much like a community. Everyone knew everyone, and if you were from Hammer Hill, then no-one would harm you in any way. It was very much like, we're in this together." His first musical foray was playing bass in a teen Nirvana covers band called Genocide. "After The Offspring song," he laughs. "We had no idea what it meant." They found out the hard way, when they played a local church and the priest admonished them in front of the angry congregation.

Like thousands of Nirvana fans, he discovered The Raincoats and Marine Girls in the liner notes to Insesticide, then started forging his own tastes. He met the Lisa who appears in several of his songs in math class when they were both 16. (While she loves being a character in his work, she declines to give her last name.) "In many ways, Jens is the same person I got to know almost 20 years ago," she says. "Even as a teenager he had an air of integrity, of knowing who he was, that's unusual at that age." The concept of DIY took root just as he discovered how to overdub on his dad's tape deck, and got obsessed with making recordings, initially writing "Nirvana-type lyrics" to accompany these productions, scanning his English dictionary for cool words to shoehorn into songs. He became annoyed by bands saying that it's up to the listener to decide what their lyrics meant, and fell in love with Leonard Cohen's precise storytelling.

Lekman singing about his teenage desire to listen to other people's stories on "To Know Your Mission" is retrospective editorializing, he admits — a product of therapy. But he was obsessed with other people's stories then, too, mostly through eavesdropping, though he also had a spell as an innocent hacker. "In the early days of the internet, I had a Tupac email," he laughs guiltily. "The question to unlock your password was usually, 'What's your mother's maiden name?' But, say, john@tupac.com had the question, 'When was Tupac born?' I was like, 'Well I'm on tupac.com...' so I looked it up and wrote it in and I was in his email. I wouldn't ever be the person who would take advantage of that, but the fact that I was in here and I could see everything he'd been writing, the story of john@tupac.com... I got super excited."

***

In 2002, Lekman left his parents' house and got a place in Kortedala. "The worst apartment in all of Gothenburg," he laughs. "The guy who lived there before died in the bathtub." Lekman studied linguistics for half a year, but ditched it to concentrate on music. Having fallen in love with Songs:Ohia, he sent a few demos off to Secretly Canadian in Bloomington, Indiana. "I don't know why I did that — it feels so weird when I think about it now," he says. "But I guess I had one of those moments where I was trying not to be afraid of everything, and I had this crazy idea so I'm gonna do it before I think about it twice."

One day, Secretly co-founder Chris Swanson emailed jens@tupac.com to tell him he loved the demos. Fellow co-founder Ben Swanson remembers Lekman as an early mail-order customer who eventually started bombarding Secretly's warehouse HQ with homemade CDs. "It was fun to watch Jens discover his voice over a relatively short period of time. While they were pretty rough at first, the songs had an immediate and undeniable charm from the very beginning. There were obvious touchstones like Jonathan Richman or maybe a tolerable Morrissey, but Jens had an ear for a good vocal and lyrical hook that was all his own."

On the cusp of signing Lekman, Secretly asked if he had any live recordings to make sure he was the whole package. While he had released a few songs on the Swedish label Service, he'd never played live (other than with Genocide and Laleh). "So I recorded a fake live album. I took the crowd from a show I recorded off radio. It must have sounded like I was a huge star here." It worked: Secretly invited him to join Scout Niblett on few Swedish tour dates, then signed him in 2003 and started reissuing his early EPs. In 2004, songs from those releases appeared on When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog, which was officially billed as his debut and went to Number 6 on the Swedish album charts.

Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images
Jens Lekman performs at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in New York City in November 2016.
Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

International acclaim didn't come until 2005, when Pitchfork gave their coveted Best New Music certification to another EP compilation, Oh You're So Silent Jens. But success was distorting. In Lekman's Smalltalk posts from 2005, he's angry about the media supposedly misquoting him and starting rumors that caused issues with friends and family. Later that year, he's canceling shows and threatening to quit music altogether. "Oh yeah, I've forgotten about all that..." he says now. "I think someone said that they'd heard this hilarious rumor that I'd died in a car crash, and I think I was very sensitive because I started feeling like I couldn't control things. Which I think every artist who has some sort of success goes through, where first things feel really exciting, and then you start to understand the impact that what people write about you can have."

He addresses the idea of ownership over narrative on Life Will See You Now. "Hotwire the Ferris Wheel" is a duet with Tracey Thorn (they collaborated on her 2010 album, Love and Its Opposite) about two friends breaking into a theme park to distract from their dismal lives. "I say, 'If you're gonna write a song about this then please don't make it a sad song," Thorn sings. He responds, "I say, 'Of course if I'm gonna write a song about this, I promise I won't make it a sad song / It will go like this..." Lekman whoops, and angelic strings crest over the shuffling sampled rhythm.

***

This July, Night Falls Over Kortedala will turn 10 years old. "It's always been tricky with that record because it made some sort of impact that made it hard for me to move on from it," he says. That's why I Know What Love Isn't was so muted; he agrees that the vibrancy in the new record corresponds with him being less scared of his most popular album. He's currently fielding offers to play it in full for anniversary shows. "It almost made me angry, like, 'I'm putting out a new record now, don't you wanna hear this instead?'" he says in mock indignation. If Life Will See You Now is a huge success, maybe he'll do a Night Falls tour, though he's not keen on the concept. "I don't like how music sometimes feels like it's becoming more and more of a museum, like things are being repackaged," he says. "It's tied in with that feeling that people are really obsessed with nostalgia, and dreaming back to the good old days when things were fine. But at the same time, I don't hate my past or anything."

But beyond the return of samples and vibrancy to his music, the most startling thing about Life Will See You Now is its pervasive sense of regret. After all, this is the man who sang that he "would never kiss anyone who doesn't burn me like the sun"; the man whose blog documents fairly frequent trips (more frequent than most, anyway) around the world to meet girls on a whim.

That's what he used to think it was to live without regret, he explains: "Taking chances that were based on kicks." Lekman recently read Bruce Springsteen's autobiography, and found a kindred spirit in The River era, when Springsteen's friends were starting families but he couldn't hold a relationship together. "And every time someone tried to pin him down he would start running away," says Lekman. "I could definitely relate to some of that. I started feeling like, 'What will happen if I just stick around, what will happen if I have patience?' I feel like this about a lot of areas in my life, and almost definitely in relationships. I came to the point when I felt a lot like I wanted something real — real friendships, real relationships. I was asking myself, why I felt I didn't have that, what it was about me that was incompatible with that?"

Braver than bridge-burning, Life Will See You Now confronts uncertainty. On "How Can I Tell Him?" Lekman addresses the internalized homophobia that prevented him from getting close to his male friends: "He's my best friend and we can talk about anything / As long as it's about nothing / As long as it don't cut deeper than the skin," he laments. When his early-30s crisis hit, he realized he didn't want to just have a bunch of male friends to drink beer and talk sh*t with. "I wanted to be able to share experiences with them and ask them for real advice." He aimed to write a song that went beyond the, "Hey, look at how silly it is when men try to get close to each other!" bromance trope. The last lines of "How Can I Tell Him?" are tender and tentative: "Before he's gone, he shouts, 'Later dude!' / I think, 'Yeah, I love you too.'"

His efforts are paying off. "Maybe it's because we've known each other for a longer time now, but I have noticed that Jens is more open about how he feels about things nowadays, which has deepened our friendship in many ways," says Joel Karlsson, whose former band Air France came up alongside Lekman in the mid-2000s. "I have learned myself to be more open and transparent with my feelings through my conversations with Jens. But I know I have to practice more often, because Jens is better at taking the initiative to do it."

On I Know What Love Isn't, Lekman wanted to leave the listener with a sense of hope: "You don't get over a broken heart / You just learn to carry it gracefully," he sang. The optimism of Life Will See You Know is less overt; more in the bright, cheerful music and rhythms than the words themselves. It closes with "Dandelion Seed," a song about preparing for a storm. He sings to his old friend Lisa, praising her fearlessness, and ruing, "How I built a bomb shelter under every dream / And how I slowly came to be a dandelion seed / Blaming the wind for where it carried me." It's hard to find hope there, but Lekman insists it's in the last verse, where he gives up on waiting for the bus, and walks directly towards the storm thrashing the harbor. "I sit there and listen / To the wind and how it's playing / Through the cranes over at Hisingen / The wind is like a string section," he observes.

"That song is a perfect example of how I started writing something that felt very dark and hopeless in a way," says Lekman. "And I felt a responsibility not to leave the listener with all that darkness. I realized there needed to be a glimpse of hope and beauty in there because that was how I was feeling about my own life too. That I'm struggling with things right now, but I'm not giving up on this, you know? I want there to be a light at the end of this tunnel."