WHY SO SERIOUS? Lykke Li

Lykke Li new

With a somewhat lackluster new Lykke Li album in stores, we opt to present, instead, this 2011 interview from the BLURT archives.

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 Ed. note: Lykke Li has just released her third album, I Never Learn, to decidedly mixed reviews—unlike 2008 debut Youth Novels and 2011 breakthrough Wounded Rhymes, both of which notched commercial and critical acclaim. While the new record is full of the Swedish songbird’s trademarks, among them grand walls of Spectorian sound alongside more intimate girlgroup-tilting flourishes, all powered by Li’s angelic gospel vocals, it is in truth more of a continuation than an evolution. Commentators have also questioned her continued—some say relentless—pursuit of heartbreak-as-thematic-fodder; for while grey-hued inward wanderings have always been part of the musical landscape, as with life, a little sun must occasionally peek through the rainclouds. Here, though, the songtitles tell the story: “I Never Learn,” “No Rest For the Wicked,” “Never Gonna Love Again,” “Sleeping Alone,” “Love Me Like I’m Not Made of Stone,” etc.

       Now let’s be fair here: some of pop’s greatest songs have charted the vicissitudes of the heart (the greatest one of all time being “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”). But every single track on this album seems determined to tell, in excruciatingly vague terms, how somebody done that Swedish gal wrong. To wit: “I’ll die here as your phantom lover/ I never learn” (from the 12-string powered title track); “Can you give me just another/ For that one who got away/ Lone I, I’m so alone now” (the grandiose, Gregorian chant-like “No Rest For the Wicked”); “I’m letting you go/ I’m setting you free/ I no longer love/ Head over heels” (Phil Spectorish girl-group ballad “Just Like a Dream”). Li even poses in a funeral veil in several of her new promotional photos, just in case you didn’t get the point she’s in mourning for… something. One wonders whether or not longtime studio collaborator Bjorn Yttling provided the kind of sage counsel this time around that might’ve lightened Li’s touch, or perhaps it was the mainstream urgings of Greg Kurstin, who’s served up schlock for the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Pink, being voiced too loudly. In any event, with a three-year break between albums you’d expect the artist to demonstrate both stylistic and psychic growth, neither of which is all that apparent on the prophetically titled I Never Learn. Instead, Li seems content occupying a musical comfort zone while spinning out tale after tale of heartache and woe. Here’s hoping next time around Li does learn, or that she at least finds some happiness.

       Still, even though we’re disappointed in the album, we remain fans, so please enjoy our earlier Lykke Li profile, below, conducted by contributing editor A.D. Amorosi around the time of the release of Wounded Rhymes. Pictured above is Lykke Li in 2014; below, how she appeared in promotional photos circa 2011. —Fred Mills

Style: "Portrait B&W"

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.

 

Tour dates at her official website: http://lykkeli.com/tour

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