The last few years haven’t been easy on Jens Lekman. Despite having built an enviably devout fanbase over the course of the last decade or so, Lekman was plagued by doubts. These misgivings, born of the comparatively lukewarm reception to his 2012 LP, I Know What Love Isn’t, threw Lekman into something of a tailspin. His reaction? To radically rehaul his approach to writing, to try something entirely new.
So, the Postcards and Ghostwriting projects were born. For Postcards, Lekman made a promise to release a brand new song once a week for the duration of 2015. With Ghostwriting, he pushed his famous devotion to his fans even further as he penned a series of songs adapted from stories submitted by the public. Between the two projects, Lekman released 68 new songs over the course of 2015, all of which are available on his website free of charge. Life Will See You Now, Lekman’s latest LP, is plainly the sound of an artist revitalised, a testament to the restorative quality of these experiments. We gave Jens a bell for a chat about the benefits of these various exercises and the difference between Jens Lekman and “Jens Lekman”.
It seems the prevailing narrative surrounding this record is that you were experiencing a lot of uncertainty coming off the back of the last record. Could you give me a little insight into that time and how the Postcards project came into play?
Well, I did a tour after the last record and it was kind of difficult because I’d made a very delicate and tender record. I knew it wasn’t a very immediate album, that it didn’t have many hits on it. I didn’t know what the reaction would be like and I didn’t know how I would react to that reaction. I think, in hindsight, what I should have done was more of an acoustic tour in theatres. But I went out and I played in clubs and in a lot of places people didn’t seem to be caring much for the new songs I was playing. What I started doing was playing the new album in its entirety. I’d go out on stage and say “We’re going to perform the new record from song 1 to song 10. Then, we’re going to go off stage and if you want to hear more songs we’ll come back and play them for you.” That worked so well because then people were like “Alright!, let’s see what this record is about then”.
I left that experience feeling like it was a complete fiasco or something. It threw me into, I don’t know, some sort of blackhole and it took a long time for me to regain confidence in my writing. I think around late 2014, I knew I had to do something very drastic. That’s when I came up with the idea for Postcards. Just to sign a contract with the world that I’d keep writing.
Was the fact it was public quite important to you?
Of course. It’s like a new year’s resolution. You do that with your friends, If you do it in your head then it doesn’t last long. Somebody had to hold me accountable and the whole world would be that person.
You seem like something of a people pleaser by your nature. Was it hard for you, playing new material that you suspected people weren’t engaging with? Did you find it difficult not to compromise in order to appease an audience since that’s an instinct you would have anyway?
Yeah, of course. I’m an entertainer. The audience aren’t there to just carry my dread out of the theatre. I am there for them more than they are there for me. It was tricky, for sure, I think once I finally decided to do the record in its entirety, that’s when it finally fell into place. It didn’t work when those songs were next to the old songs. When I did a song like Some Dandruff on your Shoulder or The World Moves On and then followed that with Waiting for Kirsten or Postcard to Nina, the contrast became too big and it was hard for people to focus that way, I think.
You have always put so much of yourself in your work, and that’s something people really enjoy. Knowing that people kind of expect a certain persona from you, do you worry about veering into the realm of caricature?
I think so. There’s always the one side of you that really wants to challenge or even provoke. To be like, “oh, you thought I was that person, well actually I’m this person” and I’ve seen other artists do that and take it way too far. Just being super uncomfortable once somebody tries to pigeonhole them and being like “OK, this is who you think I am, I’m going to be the complete opposite”. I think, to some extent, I feel like that too. What I was actually uncomfortable with was that I constantly felt like I was turning into this Micheal Cera character. You know, this sort of clumsy, naive, manchild just stumbling through the world and falling in love. That was something that I was kind of going against on the last record.
Do you think, looking back on it, that you were you just concerned about presenting yourself that way or, looking at your own life through the lens of your songs, did you recognise those impulses as something you wanted to change in your character independent of your work?
Yeah, I mean, I definitely use my music in that way. I write my songs and then I look back and them and say “oh crap! I was that person”. It [songwriting] definitely can be a very good reflection of who you are, even though it’s acting in many ways. It’s still a reflection of who you wanted to be at that time.
I think that I do that a lot of times. I go back and look at my songs and think about who that person is and whether I like that person or not. There’s been a few cases where I thought “Oh god, I was that person”. You know, it’s kind of a problem, when you’re a public person, that part of you carries on living. People will remind you of that person, they’ll come out and shout for that person at your show. They are really saying “Be that person!” when they call out for songs and you’re like “No, I’m not happy with that Jens”
The decision you made to be so open with your fans, from responding to emails to answering questions via video and even the way projects like Postcards and Ghostwriting were conversational in a sense. Is that something you do for yourself or was there a point when you decided that would be part of “Jens Lekman” the musical project?
Well, I think ever since I started out I’ve separated myself only slightly. I think of the artist Jens Lekman as being like a copy of myself, some sort of a reflection. I don’t know, my girlfriend has told me a few times, when she’s heard me doing interviews like this, that my voice sort of changes. I apparently don’t talk exactly like this when I’m talking to her or other people I know. And I think that’s true. It’s not like I have a completely different voice in reality but when I picked up the phone just now I immediately went into the pop singer Jens Lekman.
Just thinking about how many other singer-songwriters record under assumed names. Do you ever consider how differently the project would have developed if you took that approach?
Well, I did call myself Rocky Dennis. I changed because I was uncomfortable when I learned there was a real Rocky Dennis. He wasn’t just a fictional character, but a real person who suffered a great deal. I also didn’t want to hide behind anything. That’s what I thought at the time but now I realise that I separate myself into two partitions or two copies anyway. One that I think of as me and one that I think of as the Pop Singer. But I do think that it signals some sort of directness or openness if you perform under your own name. It’s not a big deal but I didn’t want to hide behind any moniker.
It seems like openness like that is important to you. You seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of there being this distance between artists and the people that their work effects.
I do. I’ve always liked music where there is a direct connection between the listener and the singer. It’s something that I’ve struggled with, for sure. Over the years, I’ve found myself in situations where I can’t keep that up. I can’t stay and talk to every single person after the show. I can’t respond to every email I get. I can’t be personal with everyone. I don’t know, I just prefer when there is the feeling that the person singing is actually singing to you and that they care whether you listen or not.
I feel the motif of “Yours truly, Jens Lekman” that appears in your work is kind of the perfect summation of that. It implied a kind of direct correspondence. Between you and the person hearing the songs.
Absolutely, that’s true.
I’m curious about your attitude towards sampling. You’ve done it a lot and it can be quite discreet. How does sampling fit into your writing process? Do you have a some bank of tidbits you’ve taken from songs that you say to yourself might find a home in some of your future work?
Yeah, exactly. I didn’t work with samples too much on this record. But, back when I did, I used to go to flea markets a lot. I’d go home and make some tea, sit down by my record player, listen to the records and just sample tiny little bits here and there and sort them in folders on my computer. I’d have a folder called percussion and then one called drums and one called strings and then I can just go in there later and look for a sound and put it with a different sound.
It’s interesting you say that you don’t do it much anymore. I’ve been listening to the new album and kind of assumed more of music on there was sampled than it actually was. Maybe just because it sounds so inline with the stuff you’ve sampled in the past. Do you feel like you’re reaching a point now where you can more easily achieve the sorts of sounds you want without having to draw directly from those who have done it in the past?
It’s funny, somebody else mentioned that too, that they thought there were way more samples on the record than there actually are. I think I’ve reached a point where I can create the sounds from just my producing skills these days. Sounds that have that feeling to them.
The one thing I do miss about working with samples is the element of randomness, that’s something that I think is so important when you’re making music. I think that’s why a lot of musicians say they have written their best songs when they pick up an instrument they don’t know how to play because they are forced to navigate the unknown. They are just so fascinated when they manage to play something on it that they get inspired and they write something because their minds are free. Sampling kind of works like that. It’s sort of like bringing two completely new musicians into a studio and saying “ok, you guys jam” and seeing what comes out of that.
Something you’ve utilised a lot over the years is the pairing of very sad lyrical content with upbeat sounding music and vice versa. What do you find so satisfying about employing that kind of juxtaposition?
One thing that matters a lot to me is to give the listener a sense of hope, a hand to hold in the darkness or at least a sense of motion. You can achieve that in a lot of ways but one thing that really works, for example, is if you have a sad song to put a steady beat underneath it or some sort of rhythm or a groove that moves it forward. That gives you a sense that these things are difficult and sad but there’s a way out of it. You don’t just dump all your dread on the listener. That’s always been one of the reasons I work with music as opposed to, for example, writing books.
But, I think also, there’s a lot of different dimensions to this. I was just thinking the other day how almost all sexy songs are in minor keys. They mimic passion or a sense of carnal suffering or something. Everything from Thong Song to Sisqo or My Neck My Back by Khia. If you take out all the words on top of it, it’s this very sad melody underneath. You can work with a lot of those things in music.
So, finally. If you could choose any artist to do the Ghostwriting exercise with one of your stories who would it be?
Oh wow, I have no idea. I mean, I would love to have it written by someone who would give it a beautiful arrangement. I’d never even considered it and now you’ve turned it on me. That’s very mean of you…
Well, I’ll put it this way; Would you rather it be someone who’s music is totally removed from yours or would you prefer it to come from someone who’s been a direct influence on you?
I’m not sure if I’d want someone like Jonathan Richman or one of my heroes. Just as little as I’d like to meet those people. I find I get disappointed in those situations. I’ve heard Jonathan is a really nice guy but I don’t think I need to meet my heroes.
Will we just say Sisqo then?
Sure. That sounds fun..
Life Will See You Now is our now on Secretly Canadian
Jens Lekman will play Whelans on March 28.
Words: Danny Wilson
Images: Ellika Henrikson