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This Is How Jens Lekman Learned to Face His Fears

The Swedish songwriter literally drove copies of his last album to the landfill, but with 'Life Will See You Now' he's back more assured than ever.

Jens Lekman takes his time when crafting albums. After the Swedish singer-songwriter won international acclaim with his sophomore breakthrough, 2007's dazzling Night Falls Over Kortedala, he waited five full years to issue a proper follow-up. And now that it's been nearly another five years since 2012's subtler I Know What Love Isn't, the 35-year-old is returning with his fourth studio album, Life Will See You Now, out February 17 via Secretly Canadian.


Fans of Lekman still had plenty of material to tide them over these past few years. At the start of 2015, the chamber-pop auteur vowed to release one new song a week for a project dubbed "Postcards," and by year's end, Lekman had put out 52 fresh songs for the series. That autumn, he also put on an installation called "Ghostwriting," in which he wrote and performed songs based upon stories that fans shared with him. Both exercises were designed to help him out of a creative rut that he stumbled into after I Know What Love Isn't failed to earn the same hosannas as its predecessor. Self-doubt took hold, and Lekman questioned if he should give up on music entirely. "I've always felt like I should be a little bit ashamed of what I'm doing," he says over the phone from a studio-bunker in Gothenburg, Sweden. "There's a part of me that's like, 'Really? You're 35 now and you're still doing this? Maybe you should get an education and get a real job,' and yadda yadda."

That sort of honesty and vulnerability are part of Lekman's charm and why he's developed a cult of devotees. His songs are infused not just with vintage vinyl rips and lush orchestration but also with real sensitivity and compassion. He's got an eye for detail and a gift for articulating existential worries on an endearingly human level: A simple instance of mishearing a partner—she says they're just "make believe," he registers it as "maple leaves"—speaks to the difficulties of communicating in relationships; elsewhere, heartbreak is recognized as not being the end of the world, because the end of the world is bigger than any one person—and also specifically bigger than the Target department store on Brooklyn's Flatbush Avenue. With his lived-in lyrics and often-radiant music, Lekman makes small moments feel impossibly grand.


Thankfully, he's decided to press on as a songwriter and has gotten better at countering his fears. Refreshed from the "Postcards" and "Ghostwriting" projects, Lekman tapped producer Ewan Pearson to help put his upcoming LP together, and it was the first time in Lekman's decade-plus career that such a collaboration has proved successful. Life Will See You Now plays to its maker's strengths: Colorful samples and rich string arrangements mingle with finely drawn characters, as Lekman sings in his signature croon about spats between lovers, intimacy among friends, and the effects that our life choices have. These are songs designed to, as Lekman puts it, "give you the possibility to dance your way out of the darkness."

Noisey: You've admitted that you have a tendency to tinker with songs endlessly. So when did you finally realize you were done with the new record?
Jens Lekman: There was one point in the end of doing "Postcards," somewhere in the last months of 2015, when I started realizing what the record was going to be about. It was mostly because I was going back to the songs I had written, and I was like, "Ahhh, so that's what's going on in my mind." There were a couple of central themes around why we're here and making choices and seeing the consequences of your choices.

And then it was quite a relaxed process, the rest of it, working with Ewan Pearson, recording everything. Well, I'm not going to say "relaxed" because I was biting my tongue so hard that my mouth was full of blood for a while. I've never been able to fulfill a collaboration with a producer before. I've just been such a control freak, and I knew that I had to let go of my control this time, in order to achieve what I wanted to achieve. So I gave him the songs and I said, "Here you go, now do your thing." And then I had to sit there in the studio and watch him—in my mind at the time—destroy the songs with his stupid, stupid ideas, knowing that it would all be great if I just did not interfere. So I just had to bite my tongue a lot and be like, "That sounds great, keep going."


You've also acknowledged that I Know What Love Isn't wasn't quite as popular as Night Falls Over Kortedala , and you said that was understandable. Why do you feel that way?
It was a very delicate and sad and low-key album. I was aware of that just before I was about to release that record. I was like, "OK, I'm going to release a record with no hits," and I was proud of that because I love the record and I felt like I had made something that really came from the heart. But I don't think I understood what it'd be like to tour that record for half a year.

"I love the record and I felt like I had made something that really came from the heart. But I don't think I understood what it'd be like to tour that record for half a year."

It wasn't until the very end of that tour that I figured it out, that the way I was supposed to do it was to perform the entire record, from song one to song ten, and then go offstage, and then come on and do more songs. Because those songs were just so delicate that when you put a song like "Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder" between "The Opposite of Hallelujah" and "Sipping on the Sweet Nectar," it just disappeared. It just vanished. There were several years of feeling like that record was a complete fiasco, and it culminated when I had to go pick up thousands of copies and drive them to a landfill and throw them away.

Are you serious?  
Yeah. Just that feeling of a physical receipt of your failure, when your distributor calls you and says, "Do you want 'em? Or should we throw them out?" And I picked them up and I realized no one is going to buy these records, so I just took them to the landfill. But then I did some shows this fall, and I performed some of those songs, and all of a sudden people started singing along and they knew every word. I realized that it's a slow record; it's a record that takes time. If you put it next to Night Falls, then it disappears. But if you keep it for a while, if you give it a chance, I think it's actually a really, really beautiful record that I'm proud of.


Do you ever worry that you lost some sort of momentum with that album that will be tough to regain?
Yeah, I do. I worried just after that record, "OK, I blew it. I've lost all of my listeners now." And when I started doing "Postcards" and "Ghostwriting," I was quite surprised by the response, the way that so many people wrote and so many people were interested. I think those projects regained my confidence that things were all right.

If you thought we were going to get through this interview without talking about Donald Trump, I apologize. On "The End of the World Is Bigger Than Love," from I Know What Love Isn't , you sing about Obama's election in 2008 and feeling so hopeful about the direction of the world. I was listening to that song recently, and it felt very bittersweet. Have you listened to that track or thought about it since the US election?
No, I haven't thought about it until you brought it up. I can see how that feels bittersweet when you listen to it now—all that hope that you felt in 2008 that "OK, things are going to get better now."

I was talking to my girlfriend the other day about Trump, and she mentioned how they did all those things, they signed all those laws in the first week. My girlfriend said it reminded her of how we had this right-wing government in Sweden that came into power in 2006, and in their first week they implemented all of these radical changes. And one of the ministers from that time wrote in his autobiography how important it was to do that, because then you took all that shit at the same time and then, as you progressed over the years, you could soften them up a little bit, and then people would perceive you as becoming better and better.


They might soften up the Muslim ban, for example, but they might keep half of it, and then four years from now that might be seen as, "Of course, it's normal." I find that very scary.

How do you feel different from the Jens who put out I Know What Love Isn't and the Jens who put out Night Falls Over Kortedala ?
It's hard to tell how I'm different from Night Falls because that was such a long time ago, but I feel like when I was doing I Know What Love Isn't, I was someone who was very guarded in some sense. I was someone who was scared of a lot of things and very unaware of being scared of a lot of things. I feel like the last five years have been a lot about realizing and seeing those fears for what they are. And not overcoming them—I don't necessarily think that that's how it works—but just becoming aware of them and trying to find strategies for them.

Sort of like that line from "The World Moves On": "You don't get over a broken heart / You just learn to carry it gracefully."
Yeah. There's a lot of focus in our culture on getting rid of all of the negative stuff and overcoming things. That line was about how we seemed to be obsessed with closure in the sense that we're not really allowed to grieve. I think when you've been through something painful, you carry it with you for a long time, maybe for the rest of your life. You just learn to carry it in a nice way. And I think it's sort of the same with fears, too. You don't necessarily get over them, but you can identify them, become aware of them. You can then learn to either accept their advice or ignore it.

Photos: Top two by Carlos Molina, bottom by Ellika Henrikson, all courtesy of Jens Lekman

Kyle McGovern is Noisey's correspondent from the Department of Forgotten Songs. Follow him on Twitter.