The Swedish singer tells EW about the writing exercise that restored his creativity
Across four studio albums, Jens Lekman has proved himself to be Sweden’s finest storyteller. On “A Postcard to Nina” from 2007’s indie-pop masterpiece Night Falls Over Kortedala, he sang of posing as a lesbian friend’s boyfriend to appease her disapproving parents in a way that was both hilarious and heartfelt. On his latest record, Life Will See You Now, which received a rare A grade from EW, his vignettes are just as colorful—”Evening Prayer” tells the story about a friend who creates a model of his tumor using a 3-D printer, then gives it to a waitress—only this time his sounds and samples are brighter and richer: The upbeat album opener “What’s Your Mission” channels (no joke) classic Mariah Carey, while “What’s That Perfume That You Wear?” explodes over a steel-drum disco beat. That sense of fun and freedom didn’t come easy. Lekman had finished a version of the album a few years ago that he says “sounded like I had given up.” Below, Lekman tells EW about the writing exercise restored his creativity, why he tried to stop writing about women, and the other rules he set out (and failed) to follow during the making of the album.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I listened to the record a lot over the holidays, and songs like “To Know Your Mission” reminded me of Christmas music.
JENS LEKMAN: You may be right about that. Christmas music is usually more concentrated pop music in a way. It’s meant to make us feel good and it’s meant to make us like we belong somewhere. I think that song was built around one of my all time favorite songs, “All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Mariah Carey. At some point when I was working on it, it took this turn into a 6/8 tempo time signature, and part of me was thinking, “Oh yeah, I’m making my own ‘All I Want for Christmas’ right now.”
The production on this record has more bells and whistles than usual. Was that always the goal?
Yeah, I wanted it to be a pop record. I didn’t want it to be as much of an explosion in a paint factory like Night Falls was. I think after that record, because I used every color in the universe on that record, I became more interested in narrowing it down a bit. The last record, I Know What Love Isn’t, was almost an extreme narrowing of the palette I was using. But for this one I wanted it to be more colorful. I wanted there to be more instruments. I was learning about drum machines and electronic instruments when I was making this.
How did the Postcards project, in which you wrote and released songs every week in 2015, influence this record?
I had a record done in 2014, or it was almost done, but it sounded like I had given up. It wasn’t a very inspired record. So I’m really glad I took a break and did Postcards. I was really stuck. Postcards was just a way of slapping myself in the face and saying, “You can do anything! Just go for it!” There was no pressure like when you make a record. I could do whatever I wanted. I think a lot of unexpected things came out of that—a lot of sounds and ideas I wouldn’t have tried otherwise because I would have been too focused on how people might receive it.
Was there a song that felt particularly liberated with?
I’d say every song. Every song felt like, “This is crazy, what am I doing? But I’m just going to have fun with it.” Every song came out of this very brief moment of just the pure joy of making music again. Every song started like a joke with myself—”I’m just going to do this stupid thing”—that turned into something great.
In 2015 you also unveiled Ghostwriting, a project in which you crowd-sourced people’s stories and turned them into songs. Did that process rub off at all on this record?
I realize that Postcards was like input and Ghostwriting was output. I had all these frustrations and feelings before I did those two projects. Postcards was something that brought new life and creative inspiration into the record, while Ghostwriting was relieving myself. I wanted to write songs about other people because I was sick of myself, basically. I didn’t like myself very much. Ghostwriting became an outlet for that. And then I could get back to get Jens Lekman again.
Do you find it easier to write about strangers?
I really love listening to stories from people. That was the idea of the record [originally], to make a record I wasn’t on. I had this idea that I would be a side character in the first and last songs, but the other songs would be about other people. But I realized that if you remove yourself completely from these songs, they lose something emotionally. They don’t connect with the listener in the same way. There are still a lot of other people in there, but it’s very much about my relationship with these characters. So I think that was important realization.
Did you find yourself writing about anything you hadn’t addressed on previous albums?
There was a lot of stuff that came with age. I’m at a point in my life now where I’m starting to see the consequences of choices I made earlier in my life. When I started the record I was writing a lot about male characters because up until this record I had written a lot about female characters. I was writing a lot of love songs and writing a lot about my friends, most of whom are women.
I had this rule in the beginning that I was only going to write about men. I started writing about masculinity and the way men interact with each other. Not many songs from that period made it to the record, but there was one song called “How Can I Tell Him,” which is a very sad song that I think came with age. It’s about men’s inability to be vulnerable with each other. A lot of male friends were disappearing or I was noticing how our friendship was very superficial in a way. I didn’t feel like I could talk to them about some stuff, it was just kind of shallow in a way. And that was a very genuine sadness in my mind at the time. It still is.
So you basically broke all the rules you set out to follow with this record.
Rules are meant to be broken! I use rules to get somewhere, just to get started more or less.