Sweden’s queen of sad-pop is beautifully broody on her fourth — and best — studio album, but there’s a glint of sonic glitter in her tears (plus a fresh hip-hop groove in her sorrowful step) on So Sad So Sexy (out now) thanks to genre-defying production from Skrillex, DJ Dahi, and Ali Payami. It’s a little bit folk, a little bit pulsing urban afterparty, but a mountain of satisfaction nonetheless. Still, it took the 32-year-old nearly three years to get herself out of a creative rut filled with personal tragedies and professional setbacks (she canceled a 2015 tour due to exhaustion; she lost her mother to cancer a little over a year ago). Thankfully, the peace she’s found on the other side of the mountain amounts to her most daring output to date. Her tears are still salty, but at least they’re falling to the sounds of sweet sonic bliss. Read on for EW’s full preview with Li.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This album is incredible, and my first thought after hearing it is: “Miss Lykke, the gays are going to die when they hear this.”
LYKKE LI: [Laughs] Aw, thank you! That’s the ultimate goal in life: to make people “die.”
The album title reminds me of a line from “Let It Fall” all the way back on your first album that I think carries through your career: “I like the way tears fit my cheek… I love the way tears suit my face.” Is this album title embracing that again, that you feel comfortable or beautiful in a state of sadness?
I guess there’s a theme I’ve been dancing around forever. It’s more [prominent], especially at this point in my life where I’ve had a lot of personal problems going on… but I feel like I’ve come out the other side… it’s almost like watching an old Italian movie where [the character] is crying because she’s so beautiful. At the same time I guess I find beauty in sadness.
You’re now several albums into that process, so did it take you a while to get to that place of comfort in accepting that?
Yes, I’m in a very different place in my life. I’m 10 years older, so that does a lot to you. I feel as if this is the first time I feel like I’m a woman… [through] heartbreaks and all of that, I feel strong!
What are you trying to communicate with this album since it came so genuinely from your soul?
I think it’s exactly like the title… living in L.A., finally becoming a woman, and [expressing] the complexity of living at a time like this and also being a woman in a time like this. For example, on “Bad Woman,” it’s so common in movies or books and music [to] come from a man’s perspective of how [a woman] f—s [something] up… but I’m kind of trying to say it from the perspective of being a modern woman. Yeah, I’m a bad woman.
So you feel like this is a more genuine approach than what we see from other perspectives?
Yeah, but I hope when I’m making the music it feels very cinematic. I want you to see and feel where it took place, sort of like a modern, living story.
A lot of the collaborators on this album are going to surprise people. You have Skrillex, Ali Payami, DJ Dahi…. Was it a conscious choice to seek out people who maybe don’t fit in with the style of music you’re known for and shift to a new sound?
I used to live in Sweden and I worked with people that I have access to there, now I’ve kind of built a new life here and I’m starting over and working where I’m at. I was in L.A. and there’s a really modern way of working where you collaborate and… I’d never done that before. It was conscious, but also about experimenting with where I was at. I didn’t feel like going back to Sweden and making the same record I’d done before.
Was there something about the tone of the lyrics that begged to be produced in a different way?
Not only that, but for the first time since I’ve been alive, I actually genuinely like modern music. Before, I only listened to old music, and now I think [modern music] is the most wonderful thing. Hip-hop is so big. I love listening to the radio here, and it blows my mind in a way. I’m like, wow, the pocket [in other pop music] is so structured with so many rules. With hip-hop it’s like a subconscious, free-flowing thing.
This is also your first time working with more than a tiny group of producers. Why did you feel that at this point in your career, this was the right time to branch out in such a big way?
I tapped into every extreme you have as a human being. It’s a unique experience, and something unique comes out of that exchange. I threw myself out there and I wouldn’t have done any of what I did if I hadn’t met certain people who were like, “Hey, try this or try that,” and I was like, “Hey, what do you think about this?” It was really interesting and I just made more moves.
It’s fascinating that Skrillex on “Two Nights” and Ali Payami on “Last Piece,” who are known for pop and dance tracks, are doing much subtler work here. Was it challenging to marry your style with theirs and retain the core of what you do? Because Ali just came off working with Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Ariana Grande.
If you talk to him he’d probably say it was maybe a difficult experience working with me because I’d take back the files and change the song. This is not necessarily how he wanted it to sound. This is how I made it sound. The thing with Skrillex, there was a version [of “Two Nights”] with drops and all kinds of things, and I took away quite a lot and just kept things I thought were interesting. Both of them probably feel like… I destroyed the track!
So, at first, there were instances where they were trying to apply their style to yours?
In the collaboration they do what they do and I do what I do, and then it’s all about how I can bring that into my world. And that was for the whole record. I’d done bits and pieces with a lot of different people, but then I, in the end, pulled back and sat with [executive producer] Malay, with a mixer, and took a way things, added things, kind of like how I do always on my records. I’m very hands-on and I sit in the room like, “Tweak this, tune this, let’s take away this…” I start with a big collage and I edit it all together in the end.
Were there any specific songs that surprised you in terms of how they came out in the end?
I have a different pocket on “Sex Money Feelings Die” in terms of the way I’m singing… “Hard Rain,” too… I was kind of in an improvised state of mind and I was on the mic and just [doing] little vocal pieces… it doesn’t really have a traditional form. I’m kind of half talking… that’s something that I’ve never done before. Even now when I try to do it live I’m like, “What did I do?” I don’t even know… it’s beyond a beat. That one was really special to me because that one was tapping into something completely new but it felt so right. And that was the first time [I knew] I was on the right path, sonically.
My favorite song on the album is “Jaguars in the Air” — it’s such an optimistic and upbeat song that strikes me as opposite of what you did on I Never Learn. What inspired that song and its lyrics?
That one is something new! I think weirdly enough where I was in my life as an artist [when I made that song], I felt very much in the same place as I did when I started out when I made my first album. I canceled my tour, I was fully burnt out… [I just wanted] to lay in bed for months. I kind of lost everything. I didn’t want to do it any more. I didn’t have a label deal, I didn’t have a manager, I had a baby, which gives you something but as an artist it kind of breaks you down and takes away all your confidence. I was surrounded by super successful people in L.A. and I felt very much like a nobody… so I started working in private. I didn’t tell anyone. I wanted to get my fire back… to overcome the situation I was in. I think it gives you that underdog mentality, like I have to get out of here. I can be someone, too. So I’m a little bit back in my [element], I have a little ambition, I’m strong here [now, because] a lot of people thought “Cool, she put out a super depressing album, she had a baby, bye, we’ll never see her again.”
So you were so beaten down by that process that you considered not working again?
Yeah, for a long time. When I started working again, I wrote a lot of songs that were mediocre… But when I did “Hard Rain,” I started seeing images and movies… I was like, okay, there’s a world there and I want to go in there and I’m going to follow it until it’s done. I had no options but to continue to finish this piece that I was working on. And here I am.
“Hard Rain” was the first song for the project overall?
Yeah. It was a while ago because my mom unfortunately, just before I had the baby, got diagnosed with cancer, so I had a lot of personal tragedy. I had to go back to Sweden to be with her and she passed away… that was probably a year and a half ago. It took a bit… because life kind of happened at the same time that I was trying to finish this album.
Do you think this work would have been possible if you didn’t go through those hardships?
Probably not, because this became my lifeboat. Because a lot of these things were really hard… I was like, I have to finish this album. It kept me going.