How a creative reboot saved Jens Lekman's songwriting

How a creative reboot saved Jens Lekman's songwriting

A conquest over self-doubt — After a crisis of confidence, the Swedish pop musician – celebrated for dispensing nuggets of advice to fans – has learned some new life lessons of his own. Here Jens reveals the benefits of being a wedding singer and tackling your fears in a dark political climate.

A few years ago, Jens Lekman grew tired of himself.

The Swedish pop musician – known for his wry humour, uplifting arrangements and sage-like insight – had made a delicate album about falling out of love.

But touring it became a grind. There were half-filled shows and nights where it felt like fans only wanted to hear the old material.

To make matters worse, the singer kept getting sick, leading to an anxiety that lingered long after the tour ended.

Those familiar with Jens Lekman might find this difficult to imagine. His relationship with fans is not your typical artist-fan separation, instead feeling closer to a busy friend you keep in touch with but rarely see in person.

Part of that just comes from his idiosyncratic style of songwriting, but another part of it is the connection he cultivates with listeners – playing intimate gigs at house parties, keeping an online journal and personally responding to emails seeking advice.

(He once gave me some excellent restaurant recommendations in Gothenburg, where he lives, for no good reason other than I asked.)

But as a consequence, people can grow attached to a certain image of him – a caricature, almost – and Jens longed to shake that up a little.

He started writing himself out of songs, focusing on male characters for a change… but that got dark quickly and left him in a shame-filled dead-end.

Exploring a different tact, he came up with a new album of material in 2014… but neither his friends or colleagues really believed in it. And that stung. The creative funk started to feel inescapable.

The solution? He decided to write, record and release a song for every week of 2015. There were no rules: whether it was something he noticed on the street or in the news, the goal was to see how he could capture it in song.

The regimented exercise – titled ‘Postcards’ – reinvigorated his storytelling. And people noticed.

Both the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and The Gothenburg Biennial asked him to come up with a new project, which he titled Ghostwriting: this time he would interview people in person and turn their stories into songs, which he would perform live.

This was the creative break Jens needed to re-discover inspiration. Now, at 35, he’s back with his first album in five years, Life Will See You Now.

The songs are lined with ideas like a 3D-printed tumour, a memorable perfume that can’t quite be described and a Mormon missionary on the day of Princess Diana’s death – all a testament to his creative rediscovery.

You’ve been through a period of questioning yourself, struggling with creative blocks and self-doubt. What keeps you going during those times and how do you get out of it?
This is so weird: I’ve just been answering these same questions from fans [as part of an upcoming video series called ‘Jens Will See You Now’]. Someone just wrote, ‘What should I do when I lost faith in my project?’ And I’m sitting here thinking, ‘…I have no idea.’

For me, there came a point where I realised that what I’m doing is just bigger than myself. Thinking like that makes it almost impossible to quit.

Even if I take a break from it, it will pick me up again and keep rolling by itself, which helps you return with new energy until it finally results in something.

When we spoke five years ago, you talked about Jens Lekman as a sort of character or an idea in people’s head. What kind of expectations come with that?
[long pause] You become rather one-dimensional, I think. When you release music, the songs aren’t yours anymore. They belong to people and they do what they want with them. But it’s a bit tricky when you become this whimsical Michael Cera character. [laughs]

Which can lead to people expecting the same thing from you, over and over…
After entering a period of time when I was questioning myself and who I was, I wanted to confront a lot of these aspects I was unhappy with, figuring out why I felt that way.

I started writing myself out of my songs and while I didn’t realise it at the time, I think it was part of me trying to reboot myself in a sense.

Doing the Postcards project must have meant being okay with producing and releasing work that you know is not your best. Does that force you to be less critical or judgemental of yourself?
Yeah! For a long time, I had longed to put out stuff that wasn’t super polished or as good as my best work – because I had become stuck in a loop of comparing myself.

But people I worked with would say, ‘You shouldn’t release things that aren’t completely worked through because people will think you’ve started to suck.’

It was really scary and frustrating in the beginning. For the first four or five songs, people would compare each release to the one that came before – and then they just stopped listening. [laughs] They were like, ‘I’ll check back in late December instead.’

But I think that year became a liberating experience for me. Doing 52 songs created some room to mess one up here and there.

‘Some of them might suck a little bit, but this is an experiment. This is me doing research: a field study of inspiration.’

The material you shared with friends and your label in 2014 produced a discouraging reaction. But how did you know to trust that feedback? What if the artist’s instinct is the right one?
That’s a tricky thing. I had to make some decisions throughout this long process that were against others’ opinions and will. Some said, ‘This is a really bad idea. Your career will be over.’

But at that specific point, I think I knew there was something unhealthy going on between myself and the songwriting.

When I heard that feedback from my friends and everyone I work with – people I really trust and respect – it was like confirmation of my own suspicion. A receipt.

There’s a song [‘Life Will See You Now’] where you consider being a social worker like your dad, but then you say you’ve found a sense of purpose in life by being a musician. Is that really true?
Yeah, I think so. What I’m saying in that song is that it could have gone different ways. I’ve always been interested in stories and listening to people, making sense of them and, in the longer run, making sense of the world – as well as myself.

Sometimes I wonder why I ended up doing what I’m doing. What’s the driving force behind it? What do I love about this? That’s also something I had to go through.

During that Ghostwriting project, it sort of dawned on me that I just love listening to people’s stories, trying to absorb them and turn them into songs.

I loved sitting there for hours and hours, talking to these people. I think there’s a lot of that on this album: less of me and more of other people’s stories, or the relationship between me and someone else’s stories told through conversation.

You’ve said that being in your thirties is like your teenage years, but without all the cool role-models. What do you mean by that? It sounds scary.
[laughs] Yeah, it is! When you’re 11 or 12, you already have a sense of what your teenage years are going to be like. Popular culture is full of it.

You look at your older siblings or friends and you’re like, ‘Oh cool, you just get a crazy haircut and listen to loud music.’ You have fun, then get completely broken for a while; it’s a roller-coaster of emotions.

But there was nothing that really prepared me, pop culture-wise, for the thirties. It’s such a bland and transitional age in how it’s depicted.

I can’t think of anything that captures it accurately. It’s a pretty hard time that you have to navigate. That’s one reason why it is scary.

Do you think there are certain periods in life that are more conducive to creativity? It seems like many artists’ development becomes stagnant after a while. Why?
I think what you forget is how wonderful it is to explore. That’s my favourite thing: when a musician or artist is curious about something like, ‘I have no idea what this is but I’m going to explore it’.

And I think forgetting that is where some people go wrong. I think that’s where I went wrong when I made that first version of the album in 2014; I was just trying to make another album.

That’s what it sounds like to me now. Postcards and Ghostwriting was my way of heading out to explore a little bit.

Photo by Carlos Molina

Photo by Carlos Molina

How do you balance the part of this that is expressing yourself as an artist and trying to make a living from it?
Well, I play weddings. That’s sort of been my job.

It’s not something I make a living from on its own but – together with the few bucks I make from Spotify and performing rights organisations and things like that – it keeps me floating.

It’s something I’ve been doing for about 13 years and I love this parallel career I’ve had, which not many people know about because it hasn’t really been published in the press.

Sometimes stuff leaks. There’s a clip of me playing a wedding in Australia that people keep reminding me about.

There are just so many stories and weird experiences there – I’ve jumped out of cakes! – that I want to write a book about it some day.

It’s helped me become a much better performer because when you play weddings, essentially you just show up and they’re like, ‘You’re going to be standing here at this corner of the bar.’

There’ll be 500 drunk people surrounding you and you don’t have a microphone – but you have to entertain. And every wedding is so completely different from the last one.

In one new song, you mention having to give some last-minute advice at a wedding. What happened there?
It’s based on a few true stories. When you’re at a wedding, usually people are completely done with their decisions and the event just becomes this little ceremony to get on with things.

But there’s been a few occasions where reality has dawned upon one of the people getting married, who’s now thinking of how their life might change. The doors behind them are closing and this is a serious thing. ‘What the hell am I doing?’

In this case, it was just someone having one of those existential freak-outs where you see yourself from above or that feeling that comes when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff and you know you can just take a step and plunge into the abyss.

It’s a choice you have. In this case, things worked out in the end. We all got drunk and I sang a few songs. From what I understand, they’re still happily together.

You’re part of Our First 100 Days, a music project to raise money for those who might suffer under Trump. Do you feel optimistic about the direction the world is going in?
[laughs] No… No, I don’t. But I’m trying to. The whole problem right now is that it feels like no one know really knows where to start with things.

It’s hard to think of solutions right now. I felt this was a nice project because it’s not just pointing out problems, it donates money to organisations that need money as Trump goes into office.

I applaud anyone actually trying to do something right now. I think it’s quite courageous.

I love every record I’ve heard recently that’s been political at a time when it feels kind of hopeless to even talk about these things.

People always contact you looking for advice. Have you noticed a change in tone in the last while? Has there been more despair or frustration?
People are more aware, I think. It could be to do with age too. I feel like I’m ageing with my fans, like we’re staying the same age.

In the old days, the topics used to be more individual whereas now there’s more of a focus towards the bigger picture – society at large – rather than ‘my girlfriend left me’ or issues like that.

Do you have any advice for people who are also struggling to be optimistic at this time?
I think just try to see what you can do and don’t become overwhelmed by the hopelessness.

I was thinking about how releasing an album in these times – one that’s not addressing politics – almost feels wrong right now.

But then again, I’ve made an album that deals a lot with fear and I think tackling that at the moment feels like a political thing in itself. We tend to forget that sometimes.

Even just coming to terms with our own fears is a good thing that will help in the long run.

Life Will See You Now is out 17 February through Secretly Canadian.

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