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A Quietus Interview

You Don't Get Over A Broken Heart: Jens Lekman Interviewed
Siobhan Kane , September 6th, 2012 00:21

Siobhán Kane talks to Jens Lekman about the writing process, Tracey Thorn, and his new record I Know What Love Isn't

On Jens Lekman's new record, he explores the complex terrain of romantic love and "the rules and ideas we fill our heads with"; a journey that fans out to include a search for truth, and a way of living that isn't based on half-truths and miscommunication. It is so hard to be truly understood, but Lekman tries harder than most, and though his record is more reserved in tone than previously, it remains graceful in conceit, retaining much of the erudite and playful language that he has become known for.

His first two records When I Said I Wanted to Be Your Dog (2004), and Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007) possessed an irresistible spirit set off by lush instrumentation. That spirit is present on this record, particularly the title song, replete with soaring strings and the kind of fluttering, lilt of a sound that shares space with some of his favourite songs like Chairmen of the Board's 'Give Me Just A Little Time', and Ten City's 'That's the Way Love Goes' - songs he sometimes folds into live performances; and though he continues to pinch the cheek of seriousness (as on the song 'Some Dandruff On Your Shoulder'), the craft with which he approaches songwriting remains both serious and searching.

Presently he seems to have arrived at a place that is perhaps wiser, but no less hopeful, as he sings on 'The World Moves On', “You don’t get over a broken heart, you just learn to carry it gracefully", something he does through melding musical deftness and a sense of the comic, much like one of his friends and inspirations Tracey Thorn, who Lekman has collaborated with various times over the years, to the extent that she sometimes infuses her own work with Lekman's experiences. As she sings on 'Oh, The Divorces', "Oh Jens, oh Jens/ Your songs seem to look through a different lens." This is a lens that throws a beam that is both inclusive and illuminating.

Your second record Night Falls Over Kortedala felt like it was written with broader brushstrokes, yet your new record sounds more reserved, even your sampling and use of instruments is scaled back. Do you feel as if this record almost refuses your past history, and if so, why?

Jens Lekman: Not really, although I thought a lot about how to move on from the last album and didn't find it very interesting to find a new direction. I felt like I had my sounds and my words, and what I really needed to do was just peel off some of the layers and find a direction in what I already had. The sounds are more sombre and the tone of the lyrics is less humorous, I suppose, but this felt necessary because of the subject and how I wanted to communicate it. I wanted it to be closer, and while I love comedy and humour in songwriting, I also think it can create distance.

You collaborated once more with Tracey Thorn around this time, but the song is not on the record - do you think you will ever release it?

JL: I remember we recorded some stuff in my hotel room in London four years ago. We did a cover of [The Magnetic Fields'] 'Yeah Oh Yeah'. She had an omnichord with her, and we just rehearsed it and laid it down there. And then we did another song that I had written. It's not a bad song, it has a really nice melody and I know people who have heard it live have kept requesting it. But the song lost its meaning to me, and Tracey wasn't completely happy with her vocal take on it. Maybe I'll pick it up some other time but for now it's in the archives.

Around that time, Tracey talked about how much she enjoys working with you, and on her liner notes for her last record thanked you for "being some of the lyrics". She said that she perhaps felt your experiences were so raw, and it coincided with her thinking about friends going through divorces, and how sometimes things become even more complicated when children are involved, but that she also learned a lot through some of your experiences, and your ability to write about them.

JL: The interesting thing that happened after I had finished this record, was that I realised how similar my record is to her latest one. Even down to the titles - Love And Its Opposite and I Know What Love Isn't. I think we made the same record in a way but from different points in life. I've always looked up to her, and taken her advice on things. I love that she sang to me in her song as if I was a hopeless romantic, when in fact I got that romanticism from her. I got that from listening to her records since I was a teenager and reading about her relationship with Ben Watt in his book Patient. I mean, that old video to 'On My Mind', that's one of the most romantic things I've ever seen.

You have lived in so many different places, with romance having drawn you there; do you think you have always looked for a kind of "home" in a person? Once you have experienced that, and, for whatever reason, it absents itself, it can be more destructive than bricks and mortar vanishing.

JL: I definitely feel like I don't have a geographical home. I live in a suitcase more or less, a big suitcase I'll have to say, but a suitcase. It's a good measurement for how much stuff you should have, what doesn't fit in it is probably something I don't need. But as much as I might've been looking for a home in a person before, as you said, I really feel more like I'm looking for a home in myself these days. I like lone-wolfing it.

However, a sense of geography does infuse your music, is it very important for you to place a story within a certain landscape? At a talk recently, Joyce Carol Oates said one of the most important things for her as a writer, is to set things up in a geographical space, because eventually it becomes the psychological space - and she finds that she constantly returns to her childhood home of rural upstate New York.

JL: I think if there's one thing geographically that has recurred in my songwriting the last years it's map directions, and movement, and how to get out of a place, like on 'An Argument With Myself', or 'New Directions'. I could go into the psychology of that, but I'm quite sure I would find something I don't want to know.

Because you have the ability to write articulately and openly about searing experiences, do you find that when people write to you on Smalltalk [through Lekman's website], it is about their own romantic sadness, and that you become a big-brother-type for people? If so, how does that feel? It seems it could be both a comfort and fuel for despair.

JL: Despair is good. I'm really happy for all my hardships, they build character. When it comes to people writing to me, they do tell me a lot of sad stories but I almost never give advice, I just listen. I think that's what people want, just for someone to listen. I think they think of me as a little treasure chest where they can store their secrets. There's something very comforting about a stranger, because a stranger doesn't judge you like the people close to you would. I have to do something with all these stories I get though, and I like the idea of someday turning them into songs, with peoples permission of course. I just like the idea of singing someone else's stories, it would be nice to step out of these Jens Lekman shoes for a while.

That Joan Didion quote comes to mind - “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear." Is this the case for you, also? Before you ever began to write music, did you simply write?

JL: In the old days I wrote with a clear idea of what I was thinking about. I knew what every song was about before I put the pen to the paper. It wasn't until recently that I started writing without knowing where it would take me. I did it because I realised I write hundreds of emails through the Smalltalk email every month and in those emails I write much better than when I sit down to try to write a song. The writing is more free. So I started looking into the sent folder of my email program, and that folder became my biggest source of inspiration after a while. I can pick up a perfect opening line from there and then just move on from it.

Sometimes it feels like the world is becoming a less literary place, where access to information is more accessible, and immediate, but culture is changing so rapidly, and a certain contemplative quality is getting lost. These changes are nuanced and deep, and I worry about people's ability to reflect, to consider, to read, to listen, to truly understand. Can you identify with this?

JL: I can. That's why I still don't use Facebook or any social media to communicate. The communication there was just so dumb, it was as if it was discouraging people from any deeper conversation. I miss the days when I was bored, because boredom gave me creativity and the lust to track things down and get obsessed with things.

To me, you have always been literary-minded - and I wondered if you can expand on your relationship to literature?

JL: I wasn't so much into literature before, I liked short stories and poetry, but always felt like I didn't know where to start. Once I had finished a book I liked, I didn't know how to find a book like that. It wasn't like with records where you could just go check out what else the record label had put out. But I remember around the last record I was reading about the lyrics from Paul Simon's Graceland. I was obsessed by them because they all seemed to have the perfect opening line, and they seemed to encapsulate a short moment. And somewhere I found someone discussing Paul's lyrics in relationship to literature, and the name Grace Paley was mentioned. So I looked up her books and loved them. And then through interviews and articles I found other writers I liked, like Amy Hempel, for example. But literature is still such an unknown field to me, I feel like I am picking up little things here and there, and I have no idea how they are related to other literature.

That is always the best way, falling down the rabbit hole. Something I have become obsessed with over the last years are writer's letters, you can elicit so much from them, they are almost like social histories of a period, as well as providing great reading and listening lists. Some of the most moving and courageous books of letters have been of writers who are in love with each other - great love can really be an outpouring. I don't think we will get printed books of emails in years to come, it might contain the most tender of thoughts, but doesn't replace the tactile nature of a letter, the handwriting - all that literally, physically remains, there is something very graceful in that.

JL: I think you're on to something here, I guess it's part of what I talked about earlier. I don't really agree about the hand-written letter though, I think an email can have a lot of grace and beauty. I usually spend a lot of time trying to find the perfect subject line, and the perfect way to open and close the email. And I keep it simple usually, no smileys, no pictures.

You have said that when you were going through the devastation that partly inspired the record, you were looking for things in music, art, and literature that could comfort, because those writers, musicians, and artists had perhaps been in a similar situation - yet you couldn't find anything. Do you think it is because you couldn't access joy as you once had? Was there a time when things started comforting you again?

JL: I think it was because in that situation you need something more direct and physical. Music can make you feel better once you have some perspective on things, but when I was in the middle of that hurricane I could only find comfort in physical activities. So I started doing push-ups, which was completely new to me, but I loved how it exhausted me, and released a lot of those sweet chemicals in your body that takes away so much worry and pain. Music came to me much later. I would hear a song somewhere and just be blown away, maybe something I had listened to before but never really appreciated, like I was obsessed with Cowboy Junkies 'Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning' for a while. That's a song you can't really appreciate until a year or two after a break up.

That brings me back to your approach to songwriting; your own grasp on language on this record is very poetic. I am always struck by how gracefully you carry brokenness - like Morrissey does in his songwriting - he has a way of communicating despair, but where the blackness sort of becomes poetic, perhaps because it instantly rings true. Do you think that your approach to songwriting has changed over the last few years?

JL: I could never listen to Morrissey because when I went to high school his music was what the bullies listened to, but he seems like a songwriter who can balance humour and despair. I think the difference is that he seems to do it from a cynical perspective. I may be wrong since I don't know his music well, but that's the feeling I get, that he leaves you with little hope. I feel like if I can't leave the listener with some kind of hope at the end of a song it's not a good song. I have to go around in circles until I've actually found a way to look at the situation with hope. It's hard but it's so cheap to just say everything's fucked.

Since English is your second language, do you find you express yourself quite differently in Swedish? Does English afford a sense of space and clarity that Swedish cannot - because it is too familiar?

JL: I think languages have flavours and if I write songs in Swedish they end up being about something other than if I had written them in English. English is my neutral language, it has a taste but it's the most neutral taste. I feel more free when I write in English.