Swedish musician Jens Lekman reflects on the five-year hiatus leading up to his new album, existentialism in music and the elusive nature of his work.
Do you find that people are able to relate to your lyrics, even though they present your very personal, subjective experiences?
It’s something that I’ve struggled with. The last record of mine, I Know What Love Isn’t, was very difficult to write. The songs were very personal and I wasn’t sure if anyone would be able to relate to them. I went on tour with it and it was horrible. I felt that the audience was just waiting for me to play the old songs.
I buried that record and moved on, but I felt bad about it. Then I started doing some new shows last fall and I played two or three songs from that last record. People sang along to every single line. I had mistakenly interpreted it as people not liking my music rather than realizing that the record was slow music; it needs time to grow on you.
Seeing as your lyrics are derived from your personal life, do you find that you’re more sensitive toward other people’s opinions?
Definitely. The more you expose yourself and your feelings, the more vulnerable you become.
Do you think the autobiographical nature of your work carries with it a certain responsibility?
It does—both to the songs and the people in them. It’s a matter of balance. I don’t want to be the type of musician who puts his work above the people around him. I’ve had times of not being able to write about something for fear that the subject of the song would become upset with me.
What about neglecting the subjective aspect of your work?
Lately, I’ve started writing myself out of my songs and slipping into other people’s shoes. It mostly stems from a longing to explore other people’s perceptions. I wrote a bunch of songs about other characters, completely omitting myself from the lyrics. My friends listened to them and said: “These are nice songs but we can’t feel anything.” I realized I had to recognize myself as a part of my work to become emotionally invested in it.
To what extent have you been influenced by existentialism?
There is a quote by Søren Kierkegaard on my new album: “Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it.” The choices we make are meaningless to some extent: You’re bound to regret them, regardless. However the quote also bears with it a notion of endless opportunism, that you can do whatever you want. I’ve grown appreciative of hitting the bottom and standing there glaring into the darkness. It’s what allows you to see the light again.
Is the honesty in your lyrics a reflection of your existentialist worldview?
I don’t have time for dishonesty or irony. It’s easier to get somewhere with honesty.
Did you read Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or in your youth?
I did, but just because it seemed like a cool thing to do back then.
Kierkegaard writes that we as humans live in one of two worlds: the aesthetic (in search of pleasure, novelty and romance) and the ethical (a sense of duty to our societal obligations). Do you find yourself drawn to one pole or the other?
The new record is about the transition from the aesthetic to the ethical in search of a sense of duty, joy and responsibility. I think the transitional phase in one’s thirties is about finding that sense of joy in taking responsibility for your life, finding joy in becoming a better person. It has allowed me to question my influence on my surroundings.
Speaking of your surroundings, the city of Gothenburg appears quite often in your lyrics.
I have a dream of making the streets of Gothenburg as romantic and famous outside of Sweden as the streets of New York are across the world. I love listening to an artist like Leonard Cohen, hearing him sing about places in New York.
Then you go there and walk down the street having little revelations. “This is where Leonard Cohen lived when he wrote ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’!” I want to give people that feeling about Gothenburg when they listen to my songs. It’s a small naive dream of mine.