ON FIRE Lykke Li

It was a long cold lonely winter
for the maverick Swedish pop chanteuse but things have definitely been heating
up this summer.

 

BY A.D.
AMOROSI

 

Right before
I interviewed Lykke Li – Sweden’s
sumptuous nü-queen of tortured Spartan lovelorn pop – a video clip for a song
of hers, “Untitled” spooled onto the internet. With nearly no musical
accompaniment and done up in beautiful silvery halide black-and-white, the
whole thing appeared like a Warhol screen test with Li as a high-cheekbone Nico
type staring into some undefined distance. That is, until she started stabbing
the ground with feline distain.

 

This
woman and I would get along just fine.

 

To find
that the track doesn’t appear on her latest album Wounded Rhymes seemed odder for a woman who has made no bones (at
least sonically, from her 2008 debut Youth
Novels
) that she’s shied from pop promotion. That first CD, though laced
with young heartbreak and toothy poetry and buzzing keyboards all contained by
shaded-sun-dappled melody, was airtight-cold Swedish pop with the aid of Björn Yttling,
of Peter Björn and John, at its boards. Whether Lykke Li was or wasn’t grasping
for a brass ring with the obvious lot of hit songs such as “I’m Good, I’m
Gone,” “Hanging High” and “Dance Dance Dance” isn’t
the point. That ring dangles. You take it or don’t. Besides, who doesn’t align
themselves with the Twilight film
empire with her own take on vampy pop (“Possibility,” New Moon soundtrack) unless you’re going for the gold, ghoulish or
otherwise.

 

Which
brings us to that odd, out-of-nowhere video and Wounded Rhymes. Is moving away from the obvious so to toy with our
emotions, her promotion and more? Seems like it.

 

Recorded
again with Yttling at studio spaces between Sweden (which she hates because it’s
cold) and California (near the desert, which she loves because it’s hot), the
record is another tale of another relationship gone sour, with but a greater
sense of discord in its melodies, some primal heft in its rhythms, a darker
ambient sway to its arrangements, and a cocksure ache in her broken singing
sensibility. That’s not to say all of the bust-ups on the record are singularly
isolated to the poison pen, love-lettered or girl-group style. Li sings about
losing innocence, spirit, self, hope, power and dignity throughout the
un-pretty yet catchy proceedings. Hell, she may even have lost a car and a watch
on Wounded Rhymes‘ deepest crevices.

 

But
really, it’s all about boy or girl trouble on “Ladies Love” and “Unrequited
Love” and such.

When I joke with her that perhaps maybe she shouldn’t date after this for a bit
she laughs one of those laughs that in reality is the exasperated chuckle of a
subject that’s ready to punch her interviewer right in the schnozz.

 

Then
again, the connection from Sweden
where she’s hanging at present isn’t so great. Neither is the weather.

 

“It must
be my circulation because I’m always freezing,” say Li with a brrrr somewhere in the great mountain
hall that is her home. “I’m so fucking cold in this country. I don’t like tight
enclosed spaces either.” She doesn’t “arg” out loud. It is implied.

 

Implied,
too, is the noir desert vibe captured for posterity through the saunter and
sway of Wounded Rhymes – itself a
heated sultry benefit of having recorded in Echo Park CA
(at least some of the CD) and hanging in the deserts immediately outside the
county line.

 

“The
desert and nature is so overwhelming – in a good way.” She perks up in reaction
to the sunless grey of Sweden
versus the warm green and gold of America’s left coast. It’s hard for
her to make a musical commodity out of the heat and the swelter, other than how
it suited her frame; warm bones, warm beats, who knows?

 

“It was
just so fucking hot it was great and radically different than my usual
experience. It wasn’t so much sensual than it was magical.”

 

Before
you get magic, sun or busted-up new blues such as “I Know Places” and “Silent
My Song,” you got to figure out how she got so wounded. Especially when,
anytime you see a slip written about her, the gal sounds so chuffed and
unhappy.

 

“I guess
I’m happier in the beginning of a project than the end,” she says, this time
with near-perk. “It’s only then that you have all these possibilities in front of
you.” She sounds emboldened and excited and not so much the glass-half-empty
Lady Li that I expected.

 

“When you
can dream and everything is ahead of you, that’s really something. I like being
done as well. There’s mystery that lies ahead in that next step. It’s just that
middle time, when things are the most painful, where I go over the edge.”

 

Let’s
move away from the edge. Question shift.

 

 

Q: I know your dad’s a musician
and can gather what you may have gleaned from him. But your mum was a
photographer. What did you learn there?

A: I got the ability of being photogenic
from her as she took a lot of photos of me. That’s not about the vanity of
looking good. I don’t think that I am. It’s just that I don’t want to die when
I see the photos snapped of me.

 

 

Li’s
beauty is undeniable. But funnily enough, my Nico comparison stems from the
notion that Li, like she, hides in plain sight and obscures her wan features in
shadow. That’s perhaps why she dreamt of being a movie star or a footballer.
Anything but a pop star.

 

“All I
ever wanted to do was get away,” she says, when asked about starting the
recording process for the new record. She was feeling exhausted from the
never-ending world tour that came before and after Youth Novels dropped. “I’m always… looking… to stay true to the
moment that I’m going through, but I was feeling drained.” Big pause. “You
know, you start off hungry, a young girl, dreaming to get away. I never had
dreams of being a pop star. I just wanted something to change. But then you
wind up changing your whole life and then you want to escape from that too.”

Li lost
me there. Anyone who eschews the feeling of being hunted and busy with money
attached to the carrot on the stick gets no mercy from me. What does serve,
however, as a potent end to her muddled sentiment: when she took that break – the
first one she claims to have had in two years-she says she became a shell. “I
didn’t know what to do. The only thing I love to do-only thing I know now how
to do – is to sing and write. So it was back to work in the immediate.”

 

What was
different this time than last time in regard to her producers was that now, Li
got the Swedes to herself as opposed to the spare moments afforded and accorded
a newbie. “I had to forgo things on the first album as there was never enough
time. Never. That was a very traumatic experience.”

Maybe if the three of those cats had stopped all that whistling they could’ve
given Li an extra minute.

 

This time
out, everyone was on and there for the sole Lykke Li experience. Live musicians
playing mostly live (with a few overdubs) late into the Swedish night so to
capture moments such as “Rich Kids Blues” as hard and as raw as possible.

Immediacy is what she craves. “You lose so much along the way when you overwork
things,” she moans. “I was listening to some of Bob Marley’s demos the other day.
Why did they have to polish those? Why do they slick up some of the very best R&B
songs? After this, I want to make something rawer still; set an immediate mood
and a stark situation and live by it.”

Other than raw power and late nights, the other inspiration for Wounded was all things psychedelic and
hypnotic. Things that draw you in, then suck you up. “The type of sound where
five minutes has passed and you don’t even know what’s hit you or how long
you’ve been hit by it. I like that. I also think a lot of blues inspired me.
The repetitive thing where you don’t need to change a melodic or rhythmic
line.”

 

She likes
that the new songs can stay with one feeling, one grind and one groove – one
nation. Thinking about all things psychedelic, there’s none better for her than
to have taken in the sights and the sounds of fantastic LA. Yet don’t mention
the traditional sources of such psych (the Doors, perhaps) to her; she doesn’t
really go for it. Still, the melodies are brooding. The chords are often minor
and descending. There’s noise and discord, and the whole process is more
downbeat than sunshiny, as the last one was. Less sugar. More salt. Less syrup.
More blood. Heart’s blood at that – it’s darker.

 

 

Q: The first record’s heartbreak
was all yours. How about this one?

A: Yes.

 

 

Oy. Is
she too trusting, or too much the hopeless romantic to keep her heart from her
sleeves? “After this last experience,” she giggles, “I think I learned some
real lessons. Also, I feel as if that the heartbreak on this record isn’t just
limited to a singular relationship.”

You can break your own heart. You can disappoint yourself. You can tear
yourself into a million pieces. With that, Wounded
Rhymes
isn’t just about a lost love and a bruised heart. It is about the
loss of innocence, of youth and of hope. Despair is the rule but the game has
changed. It doesn’t just sit in a chair. On a song like first single “Get Some”
it isn’t about losing oneself to sex. It is about gaining or losing power – over
someone.

 

“It’s
about empowerment and motivation over someone-to avoid more problems.”

Good on that.

 

“It is
also about the power of being an entertainer and being entertained, ‘Get Some’
is. People expect certain things from you.”

 

“Sadness
is a Blessing” has a few angles in dealing with loss. It connects to what
William S. Burroughs called the algebra of need or even what Mel Torme sang of
as glad to be unhappy. “There’s a sadness that falls into place that is as
strong a feeling or scene though the object is gone,” she notes. “You wear it.
You own it. It becomes its own entity. You do not want to lose that sadness. It
becomes the only thing you have left of that past scenario that it replaced.
You look forward to it.”

 

She likes
that sadness, alright.

 

The song “I
Follow Rivers” is about how desire can pull you to certain places and not just
those involving drugs or sex. So that’s sad. And “Rich Kids Blues” is where you
find yourself in certain situations where you should be happy and you are not.

 

“You
start analyzing and analyzing,” says Li, no fan of analyzing herself. Rather,
despite her chain of fools that she suffered but for that moment, she is solid
at analyzing others. She is a good judge of people, outside of the
relationships that sunk – or rather raised-the bar on her two recorded
projects.

 

“I’ve
been through a lot of things. I can analyze myself and know where my
insecurities lie. I think I can do the same with others. I have, since
childhood really, had a tendency to see all people as children. And I can see
the little person in each and every one of us.”

 

The
rhymes may be wounded but her heart and head are in the right place.

 

 

An edited version of this story
appeared in issue 10 of BLURT. Lykke Li’s European tour continues this weekend,
August 20, then moves to Singapore
and Australia
starting on September 21. The next leg of her North American tour kicks off
November 5. Dates can be found at her official website.

 

 

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