Pop Existentialist Jens Lekman Writes Himself Out of the Picture

Swedish artist Jens Lekman's new album is a refreshingly transparent, clear-headed statement of reenergized purpose.

Jens Lekman
Jens Lekman. Ellika Henrickson

So much music is fed through channels of prescribed, preordained narratives. The context surrounding the creation of a new record can easily sound like it’s been manufactured by a marketing team or publicity firm.

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That’s why it’s so refreshing reading Swedish artist Jens Lekman’s self-penned liner notes for his new LP, Life Will See You Now. Lekman’s introduction reads as a transparent, clear and unordained explanation of what he’s been up to since his last official LP, 2012’s I Know What Love Isn’t.

“That album, I Know What Love Isn’t came out sept 2012,” writes Lekman. “I went on tour and it was tough because that album was delicate and sad and understandably not as popular as [second album] Night Falls Over Kortedala. So going on tour and playing that album live was tough. A lot of shows were half-full and some nights it just felt like everyone was waiting to hear the old songs. I thought it didn’t affect me much but I became sick over and over on those tours. And it continued when I came home, just feeling sick and worrying about being sick. Hypochondria and anxiety. But I started writing and felt inspired at first. I decided to not write about myself anymore, I was sick of Jens Lekman, I wanted to write myself out my songs.”

He summed up this feeling more succinctly in a recent interview, admitting that “I was turning into a Michael Cera character.”

“I mean, even though doing interviews can be so draining, it’s also the point where I get to see my own reflection and learn what it is I’ve done.”—Jens Lekman

Defeated by the reality that his most fully-realized, honest and vulnerable work wasn’t connecting as strongly with fans, Lekman got back to writing. He came close to finishing a new record in 2014, but after it was met with lukewarm reception from those close to him he released a mixtape, WWJD, instead (the new LP’s first single, “What’s That Perfume That You Wear,” first appeared here), and got back to investigating how he could get outside of himself.

Lekman found the answer with two ambitious projects. Postcards challenged him to write a new song every week in 2015. “It was like signing a contract with the world to keep me accountable to keep writing,” he wrote. Buzz around that project soon led to a new project, Ghostwriting, in conjunction with the Goethenburg Biennial, one of the biggest art events in the Nordic region that happened to be hosted in his hometown.

Learning to write songs around other people’s stories allowed Lekman to lose himself in other people’s lives, to “take a vacation from Jens for a while,” as he told me. And part in parcel with Postcards, Ghostwriting also helped Lekman renew himself as a profound pop existentialist.

“I think that’s a responsibility I have, to not leave the listener with complete dread or depressing, dark thoughts, but to leave a little door open so that you can dance your way out if you want to.”

Taking in the energies of other people has long been a fascination of Lekman’s—before a video of him playing an Australian wedding made the rounds three years ago, he had already outlined his rationale for moonlighting as a wedding singer in “If You Ever Need A Stranger (To Sing At Your Wedding).” On Life Will See You Now, he elevates these intentions to buoyant, jubilant heights while still maintaining a strong reflection.

Life works on a body level and a mind level. It’s easy to enjoy these songs ephemerally, as poppy nuggets of disco and AM sunshine, but you can just as easily sit with the lyrics and hear some absurd, romantic and sometimes heavy vignettes borne from the lucidity of Lekman’s mind. Opener “To Know Your Mission” recounts his chance crossing with a Mormon missionary when he was 16, ending with the admission that “I know what I’m here for, I know who I’m serving, I’m serving you.” In that moment, God is other people, and the thesis for Life is pinned to an open door.

Lekman and I caught up a couple of weeks ago to talk about the random windows into the human condition that being a wedding singer provides, the humor in Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and the beauty that comes from losing yourself in the lives of strangers.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3L8KEIMDRE]

How are you, what’s going on?

I’m good! I’m in my little bunker where I work, my little workspace. It’s dark and I’m drinking coffee, so all is good.

Me too, cheers for coffee solidarity. How refreshing was it to be able to say to people, “I’m still in the process of trying to figure out what it is I’ve done”? If this record was a conscious attempt to remove yourself from your work, how has this current round of publicity been affecting that process? And what have other people been telling you about the album?

One of the first things I found out about the record [is] that it’s too happy. [Laughs] Which I found fascinating, but it dawned upon me quite directly that it is quite a colorful, upbeat record—there’s a lot of rhythms and colorful melodies. It has an energy to it that I don’t think was on the last record.

I’ve just been so preoccupied with the themes of the record, and the stories, that I haven’t thought about what it sounds like if you don’t listen to the lyrics, if you just listen to the music. And I’ve always used my music to counterbalance the lyrics, or open up some sort of door to let some light in. I think that’s a responsibility I have, to not leave the listener with complete dread or depressing, dark thoughts, but to leave a little door open so that you can dance your way out if you want to. [Laughs]

“I’m very at peace with the fact that when I’m done with the songs, they don’t belong to me anymore. They belong to the listeners.”

The pop music makes a space for that existential dread I guess, the feelings of anonymity and worthlessness. You start this record out with the image of a Mormon missionary asking what our mission is, he gets the tragic news on the radio but it’s immediately followed by the Top 10 tunes. Is that the artist bearing his process before the listener a little bit? 

Well no, but it’s very interesting that you bring that up, that contrast between Princess Diana’s death and the Top 10 tunes of Will Smith and Puff Daddy. [Laughs] I think that says a lot about the record, actually. But in that song the Mormon missionary actually bumps into me when I’m 16 years old, that’s something that actually happened to me.

You said that this is the first record you’ve made where you accepted not being in control. Is that still easy to do now that this is out and unleashed, or are you just soaking in all the responses your receiving? How does that work now?

It’s still very difficult for me to let go of control. It’s a bit of an exercise right now. And it was definitely a terribly nerve-racking experience when I was making the record. But right now it’s extremely fascinating to me to get this feedback and talk to people all day long about what it is I’ve done. And to actually see the nuances in it. I mean, even though doing interviews can be so draining, it’s also the point where I get to see my own reflection and learn what it is I’ve done. So thank you.

Thank you! I guess it’s a matter of loving that reflection or being at peace with it once its presented back to you then, huh? Being in a place to receive it?

Hmm. Well I try and take it for what it is, and I’m very at peace with the fact that when I’m done with the songs, they don’t belong to me anymore. They belong to the listeners. I think I wrote in the press release that I was feeling very sad when I toured the last record and people didn’t wanna hear it. And it’s not until when I was doing some shows this fall to warm up for this record, and I was playing some songs from that record, did I realize that those songs had rooted themselves in people and they knew every word all of a sudden. They made those songs their own. That was a really beautiful experience.

Jens Lekman
Jens Lekman. Ellika Henrickson

Is that the point you talk about where people were calling out for your old stuff but not giving the new work the same warm reception? You said, “By the end of the year, I knew I had to make some drastic choices to keep going.” Are those drastic choices when you decided to find some wisdom in Kierkegaard and the transition from aesthetics to ethics that he talked about?

That was probably within the stories. The drastic changes that I’m talking about are more in the projects that I was doing, Postcards and Ghostwriting. It was mostly because I was stuck with the writing—I didn’t know where I was going and I didn’t feel joy. I mostly felt dread. I felt like it was a pain, trying to write. And flipping the coin in a way, doing something completely different like Postcards was letting the light in. It was working as some sort of input.

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What did you learn from losing yourself in other people?

That was Ghostwriting. That was beautiful. That was very liberating for me. One part was seeing what a song could be, because a lot of the people who sent in stories were not songwriters, they were just like, “This thing happened to me once, and it’s an interesting story that I’ve been thinking about a lot.” They sent it in and I’d never heard a song about anything like this before.

I just found it very interesting to see what a story could be, or what kind of story could be turned into a song. A lot of the stories I got were not the conventional pop lyric story, and it was very liberating to be all these people, to slip into their shoes and go on vacation from Jens Lekman for a while.

“A lot of the interesting things that happen in the stories are in the reflection that you catch of yourself when you talk to someone else.”

Well when you started hearing these stories, are you talking about absorbing them from a structural standpoint with regard to your songwriting process? Were you connecting with shared experiences?

When I was writing for the record I had this longing to write about people who aren’t me, to write about characters, friends, anyone really. And in the end it didn’t really work because, as my friends told me, it was hard to get emotionally invested in those songs. I’ve established some sort of character and voice, and sometimes it can be an obstacle to steer away from that voice, but it can also be a strength that you have this voice established already.

And I think in the end, the record is a lot less about me than the last one was, which was just taking place in my tiny, little world in my head. This one’s more about relationships, it’s more about other people, but I’m still in there. A lot of the interesting things that happen in the stories are in the reflection that you catch of yourself when you talk to someone else.

Why did “Postcard 17” and “How We Met (Long Version)” stand out from the Postcards project enough to make it onto this record?

Hmm…at some point when I was making Postcards, it struck me, what the underlying themes for the record would be. It would be about choices, fears and doubts, and it had an existentialist theme to it. Those two songs seemed to be two different sides of that.

There’s a darker part of it in “Postcard 17,” of sensing your fear, coming face to face with it. But “How We Met (Long Version)” had a very positive aspect to it about making choices, the joy and liberty that comes from that, from realizing you’ve made a choice and being proud of that.

You haven’t just been dragged along by your life, you’ve actually made a choice. You’ve taken life by the horns and actually done something, chosen something. Since a lot of the other songs are a bit sadder in the nature of their stories, I just wanted “How We Met (Long Version)” to balance that out a bit.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgSC6Kh0N5s]

I think there’s a very journalistic aspect to what you’re doing, too, cutting through the aesthetics of what people assume qualifies as happy to present complexities and present things plainly. How do you keep the value you’ve gained from this process intact now that it doesn’t belong to you anymore?

One thing that I got from Postcards and Ghostwriting was that I love stepping into that context. I still love touring rock clubs around the world, and that’s something that’s really a part of me. I love making albums, and I’m a wedding singer on the side, that’s my parallel career. So I love all those aspects of making music.

But one thing I grew to love was the more artsy context for those projects. Not that there was anything difficult with them, but they both had an explorative side to them. That’s definitely something I want to do more, and certainly more with Ghostwriting. When I was doing that I thought, what would it be like if I put together a festival for Ghostwriting, where instead of reading my fans’ stories, a bunch of other artists did the same thing for their fans? Then you could also look at these particular stories belonging to the fans of that artist and look at how they differ or what brings them together. You could do a whole study of that, or just enjoy it for what it is.

“Just standing there, playing one of my songs and realizing what it’s meant to someone’s life and their relationship? It doesn’t get much more real than that, it doesn’t get much more direct than that.”

What’s the strangest or most surreal wedding you’ve ever played?

I’m actually thinking I should write a book about this some day, because it’s a parallel world to me. It’s this career I’ve had alongside the public career, and sometimes people get a sneak peak of it.  And they’re so different, that’s what’s so incredible. One night I’ll be playing an extremely expensive, amazing wedding in the Rocky Mountains at a ranch somewhere for hundreds of people, and the next night I’ll be playing at a local bar in Gothenburg for 40 people when someone’s uncle tries to hit me over the head with a bottle because I don’t play enough Beatles songs. [Laughs] So it’s extremely different.

And another thing I love about it is, it’s really where I get to see what my music means to people. Because I only do weddings where at least one of the people getting married has some sort of relationship to my music. Just standing there, playing one of my songs and realizing what it’s meant to someone’s life and their relationship? That to me is one of the reasons why I make music and why I play weddings. It doesn’t get much more real than that, it doesn’t get much more direct than that.

There’s got to be one song you absolutely loved when you started doing this but have since grown to resent.

It’s actually the other way around. I used to not like “Your Arms Around Me” from Night Falls Over Kortedala because it was never a song that was close to my heart when I wrote that. It was a song that people liked and I said, all right, I’ll put that on the album. But that’s the No. 1 wedding hit, and just from seeing people’s faces when I play that song, it’s taken on a whole new meaning to me. I learned to like my own songs from doing weddings.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jB7LE2hJSBk]

How does this all come back to Kierkegaard’s transition from the aesthetic to the ethical for you? How could you unpack that for someone whose not familiar with his writings?

The aesthetical is the youngster, the snowflake drifting around in the wind, not taking responsibility and just going along, the romantic. And I guess the ethical is the slightly more grown-up version of that or something, the one taking responsibility for their own life, but also the world around him or her. That’s how I remember it.

It’s a really funny book, I remember reading that when I was 17 or 18 just because it looked cool when you were carrying it around. [Laughs] But it’s actually a really funny book, he’s got a really funny sense of humor, Kierkegaard.

I love his quote from that book—“Marry and you will regret it. Don’t marry and you will also regret it. Either you marry or you don’t marry, either way you will regret it.”

Like I sing in that song on the [new] record, “Wedding in Finistère” it sounds so tragic and cynical one way, but you can also look at it as everything is possible. You can create your own destiny, your own life. It’s as happy and beautiful and joyful as it is tragic, cynical and horrible.

Jens Lekman plays The Bowery Ballroom on Saturday, March 18

Pop Existentialist Jens Lekman Writes Himself Out of the Picture